4 Refreshing Public Relations, Crisis Communication and Media Relations Phrases

police chiefBy Gerard Braud –

In the past three weeks there have been three big public relations crises that have lead to unprecedented crisis communication. In these crises public relations professionals used phrases we should all say more often to the media, to our employees, and to our stakeholders.

They include:

I Was Wrong.

I Made a Mistake.

I Apologize.

We’re Going to Make this Right.

The cases involved the accidental shooting of Eric Harris by reserve officer Robert Bates in Tulsa, the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore Police, and the drone strike that inadvertently killed an American and an Italian hostage being held by terrorists in Pakistan.

In Tulsa, the officer went on the Today Show and in a live interview while surrounded by his family, he confessed to the accidental shooting and apologized to the victim’s family.

In Baltimore, the mayor and police chief stood before the media in a news conference where they said the death should have never happened and that they would fully investigate the matter to make things right in the community.

In Washington, D.C., President Obama stood before the media in the White House briefing room to take responsibility for the deaths caused by the drone strike. He apologized to the families and he said that the U.S. government would pay restitution to the families.

What is amazing is that in each instance, words were used that lawyers never want you to say. Legal advisors consistently warn people in a crisis to never use words that could be used against them by the plaintiff’s lawyers when you get sued.

The fight between lawyers and public relations experts is as old as time. We have competing interests. The lawyer is trained to get paid to fight a case in the legal system, while the expert in public relations is trained to mitigate the damage and make the crisis go away through effective communications.

Theoretically, the lawyer makes more money by letting the crisis continue if they have to see it through trial. That seems like such a conflict of interests, which could lead to flawed decision making. Is the legal expert giving advice that is in the best interest of the client or in the best interest of the law firm?

When I was a television reporter, I interviewed countless people who were suing an offending party. An incredible number of the victims and family members said to me, “If they had only said they were sorry I wouldn’t be suing them. But they never said they were sorry.”

Morally and ethically, I think saying you are sorry and taking responsibility is the right thing to do. There is a huge financial cost and liability to screwing up and causing a crisis. But there is also the possibility of settling out of court and making the crisis go away so that your institution or company can begin restoring its reputation while mitigating the impact on revenue.

Legal spin is spin and spin leads to distrust. Conversely, honesty leads to trust and trust leads to healing. Both have a cost to reputation and revenue.

As a war room veteran in many crises, my advice to clients and executives has always been to take the high road and to do the right thing on behalf of victims. Sometimes I win the argument and sometimes they listen to their lawyers. On numerous occasions, my moral compass has instructed me to terminate my working relationship when the best interest of the client is lost because they want to follow their lawyers. Sure, I make less money, but I feel much richer knowing I’m true to an honest goal and a principle of fairness.

Experience tells me that having these discussions during a crisis, while in the war room, is the worst time to be making such critical decisions. The best time is to talk it out and establish policy on a clear sunny day before your crisis happens.

Consider scheduling a meeting with your executives and leaders to discuss this one day soon. Another option is to test the decision making and arguments in a crisis communications drill. In many of the crisis communication drills I conduct for clients, one of my goals is to force executives and lawyers to hash it out during the simulation, so that we can evaluate the discussion and decision making during the evaluation phase of the drill.

Try saying these words to determine how comfortable you and your organization are with them:

I Was Wrong.

I Made a Mistake.

I Apologize.

We’re Going to Make this Right.




Media Training, Whole Foods, Health Care Reform & Cow Poop

The most fundamental rule of media training that I discuss with every executive is this: “If you could attach a dollar to every word that comes out of your mouth, would you make money or lose money?”

That brings us to Whole Foods and the much publicized letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal, about healthcare reform.

… and in just a bit, we’ll introduce you to new media training concepts for this Austin based company, which include folk-style comparisons to bees, hunting dogs and cow poop.

CEO John Mackey laid out 8 steps that he thinks would help solve the healthcare problems in the U.S. His letter inspired a firestorm of debate, as well as calls for boycotts and a FaceBook page dedicated to the boycott.

On Whole Foods own website there is an active forums section discussing Mackey’s letter, with more than 1,800 discussions on healthcare reform and more than 13,000 posts.

So if we posed the question to Mackey before he wrote the letter; if we posed the question to Mackey after writing the letter; if you posed the question to your CEO, does a letter to the editor like this cause a company to make money or lose money? Is such a letter good or bad for business? Does it cost you sales?

In this case, the answer may be that it is a wash. There is an enormous amount of chatter in the media and on the web about Whole Foods, but the chatter seems equal to the rest of the chatter about the healthcare debate. And while some openly profess that they will not shop at Whole Foods, we can’t quantify how many of them were previous customers, nor can we quantify how many new customers will go to Whole Foods because they agree with the CEO’s point.

But here are 2 things that bother me about this entire issue from a media relations and media training point of view.

1) First, as the media have made inquiries about the letter to Whole Foods, the media relations department has been saying that Mackey wrote his letter as a private citizen and not as the head of Whole Foods. In Texas lingo, where Whole Foods is based, that dog don’t hunt. When you are the co-founder and the CEO of a company, when you use your company’s health care plan as an example in your letter to the editor, when you mention your company by name several times and when your letter discusses the importance of eating healthy food as sold in your stores, there is no separating the man from the business. This was clearly a letter from the CEO of Whole Foods. Meanwhile, the Whole Foods online press room is void of any mention of this national story, although their own online forum is abuzz. Apparently the Whole Foods media relations department is running around like a free range chicken with its head cut off. Trying to separate the writer/CEO from the company he co-founded is pure bull.

2) The second problem is that if you stir up a hornet’s nest ya’ gonna get stung. Mackey makes some strong arguments for his position on healthcare reform. The problem is he stirs the hornet’s nest in his opening paragraphs as he compares the Obama plan to socialism, then he kicks the hornet’s nest one more time for good measure at the end when he gets into a debate of whether “healthcare is an intrinsic right” and whether the rights for “healthcare, food or shelter” are part of the U.S. Constitution.

Had Mackey made his points as, “8 things to consider in the healthcare debate,” there would be little or no firestorm and the 8 points likely would have contained no fuel to ignite calls for boycotts.

I can empathize with Mackey because I can be harsh in what I say and what I write. But you are the CEO and you had to realize there would be consequences. The question is, financially, was it a calculated move and did you even care? We’ll find out as we watch your sales and your stock over the next quarter.

I can empathize with the media relations department because I’ve been put in a fix a time or two by CEO’s who fly off at the mouth. But do you even believe your own B.S.? I don’t think you do? Besides, cow manure is best used as an organic fertilizer and not as a media statement.

Overall, in this case, Whole Foods has stepped in it and the stench will linger on their boots for some time.

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Obama’s 7 Deadly PR Sins & Brew-ha-ha

It is rather timely that the biggest news story of this past week is among one of the most basic lessons of media training … which is, never speculate.

Media darling and President of the United States, Barack Obama, proved that even the best spokespeople are not perfect… and up until now, he has been close to perfect when it comes to speaking to the media.

Every executive and spokesperson in the world can learn from Obama’s gaff, which we would expect from Vice President Joe Biden, but not from Obama himself. When asked about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Gates, Jr. by Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, Obama weighed in to a story that he should have never touched because he didn’t have all of the facts.

Media Training teaches every spokesperson to never speculate. Obama speculated. The correct answer is and always should be, “I don’t have all the facts and it would be wrong for me to speculate on that.”

But Obama committed a triple sin. Sin one was speculating. His second sin was when he used inflammatory language, indicating that he believed the police department acted, “stupidly.” He let his own, personal emotions about race and racism cloud his judgment and his language. It became his achilies heel and caused him tread verbally into the danger zone.

The third sin is that Obama’s inflammatory statement deflected all the headlines away from his primary news conference and messages about health care. All the work; all the preparation for that news conference on healthcare was for naught.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall, behind the scenes in the White House, when the press secretary realized the sins the President was committing.

Lesson learned? When you have an executive who needs to be media trained, but insists that he or she knows how to handle the media, you can show them how even a media pro like Obama screws up. If he can screw up, so can your overconfident spokesperson. Media Training should be a mandatory for everyone from Director and above, with an annual requirement for a refresher course, and of course, full role-playing before every interview.

And by the way, the offer to have the 2 men involved over to have a beer is sin number 4. It is only prolonging the story and keeping it in the news. Sin number 5 will be the fight over which beer the men drink. Sin number 6 will be the flack from people who don’t think the president is setting a good example by having a beer.

I can hardly wait to see the 7th deadly sin in this saga.

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