© 2001 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
"Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers."
T. S. Eliot
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Media Sneak Attack Questions
by Dr. Deborah Lowe
Editor's Note: This is extracted and adapted from a longer article by our now-frequent contributor, Dr. Deborah Lowe. We've had previous articles about managing the media that were probably perceived as more basic -- Dr. Lowe takes things up a notch. I have taken the liberty of adding some comments and suggestions of my own to her piece.
Tough questions during crises can seem like a sneak attack.
Some spokespersons simply do not see the tough questions coming and blurt out answers that they regret. However, most reporters have a question-asking pattern that can be identified. Once the method is identified, a defense can be crafted and taught to spokespersons. The secret is learning to identify the questioning method and then responding with a formula defense. It is like baseball in that if you do not see the ball coming, you cannot hit it out of the park.
A spokesperson cannot get angry, react defensively, or blame the media. The spokesman must remain proactive and open in tone of voice and body language to be effective. Media relations in the new global village requires a knowledge of media methods and defensive moves to counter sneak attack questions during a crisis, including:
- Are you lying?
- Layered (loaded) questions.
- Sniper personal attacks/Picture this/I don't want to ask this question but America wants to know.
Here are some possible responses to sneak attack questions:
Are You Lying?
"I am not saying that what the CEO said is not accurate. What I am saying is that there is more information that will clarify the situation and resolve the discrepancy."
"We may have gotten our wires crossed on this detail, but it is not worth quibbling about whether it was two or three hours. I think that it was closer to (whatever person has the latest most accurate information.)"
"If I said that, I didn't necessarily mean that. What I meant to say was..."
(Bernstein Suggestion: "Y'know, it does sound as if we're saying two different things. That's a little frustrating to you and us! Let's see if we can clarify the situation.")
Layered Questions (five at once, all loaded)
"You have asked me five questions." List them all, then say, "let me start with (pick the one you can answer most effectively)."
"You appear to be asking me...Nothing in this life is perfect, but what I can tell you are the accurate facts that we do know."
"You appear to be asking me...I think we have made real progress and let me give you some examples."
When you finish answering the other reporters will chime in.
If the other reporters don't chime in, answer the next easiest question and then say "I think we will give the other reporters a chance to ask questions."
Sniper Personal Attacks
If the question has painted a picture of your company as irresponsible in the crisis, say "Picture this. We are responsible decent people faced with a tragic situation and are trying our best to assess the damage, find out the cause, protect the employees and the community, and make sure that it never happens again."
If the question was asked in a positive tone, masking an attack, rephrase the question:
"What you appear to be asking me is..."
"You appear to be asking me about...but what the real question appears to be is...
"That question appears to be somewhat incomprehensible. What you appear to be asking is...and let me give you a case where..."
"I disagree with your premise. What I believe is..."
The time to get to know a reporter's style is not at the press conference. It's in advance, as far in advance as possible. It is an eminently achievable prevention step.
For example, I'm currently consulting to a company which MIGHT have to do a regional, or national press conference announcing the settlement of a legal matter. That press conference could take place at any time during the months ahead, or not at all. But we already know the most likely reporters who would cover it for print and broadcast media, which ones are the most likely to be hostile, which most friendly, which we might want to brief in advance, etc. There's a high turnover rate amongst the media, so we have to stay current, but the homework has and will continue to be done until the situation is resolved.
Dr. Deborah Lowe is a Full Professor of Marketing at San Francisco and co-author of an upcoming Prentice Hall textbook, Internet Marketing In A Digital Economy, due out in Fall 2001. She does consulting on Internet Marketing and Product Tampering Crisis Communications. Dr. Lowe can be contacted by email, firstname.lastname@example.org
In keeping with the theme of Dr. Lowe's article, above, what's the sneakiest, trickiest, dirtiest question you've ever heard from a reporter? And, if the response worked well, what was that, too? Please send your experiences to email@example.com.
A New Crisis for College Campuses
by Rene A. Henry, Fellow PRSA
Editor's Note: Some situations are less manageable than others, particularly when they involve heated emotions and an environment that seems to almost condone violence. Rene Henry reports on how a variety of campuses responded to recent violence -- and what needs to happen for the situation to become more manageable in the long run.
"March Madness" is giving colleges and universities a new crisis to worry about.
But this "March Madness" has none of the sports clichés of the NCAA basketball tournament. Violence, destruction, vandalism, rioting, and drunkenness have replaced "Big Dance," "Sweet Sixteen" and "Final Four."
When Arizona, Maryland and Penn State lost in this year's basketball tournament, students and fans went on destructive rampages. Violence even erupted at Purdue when its women's team lost to Notre Dame. Alcohol played a large part in all of the riots.
The presidents of each of the four universities called the violence unacceptable, a disgrace to their institutions and denounced the rioters as thugs and vandals. All are working closely with officials in their local communities and taking appropriate action to fully punish the offenders and prevent repeat occurrences.
Now is the time for the NCAA to take some of the $6 billion (yes, billion) it is getting from CBS for the television rights to find ways and prepare materials to help its colleges and universities prevent future violence. The NCAA should use some of this money to reimburse local merchants and communities where damage results from the "March Madness" madness. Promotional television spots given by CBS should be used to encourage civility by the students and fans, win or lose. The NCAA leadership needs to step forward, be accountable, and accept responsibility.
Maryland President Makes International Comparison
"What happened in College Park unfortunately reflects an international culture of violence associated with major sports events," said C. D. Mote, Jr., president of the University of Maryland. "Overseas soccer fans and U.S. fans are renowned for celebrating victories in Super Bowls, World Series and basketball games by rioting in the streets, setting fires and destroying millions of dollars worth of property.
"The university regrets deeply and apologizes for the lawless conduct of a few of our fans. We are committed to promoting good relations between all members of the university community and our neighbors in College Park," Mote added. "Committing acts of violence and setting fires doesn't 'support' our team; they undermine it. They are intolerable. They embarrass the vast majority of students studying here, the faculty and staff and our alumni who wish to share with pride their affiliation with the university."
Maryland had extensive advance planning and coordination between its campus police and other university departments with the city, the county police and fire departments, the state police and other agencies. The student government president and campus newspaper and many members of the university community urged students to celebrate in ways that would inspire pride, not regret and embarrassment. Cole Field House was opened so thousands of Maryland students could watch the live telecast of the Duke game.
The university is continuing an investigation to identify the destructive students. All who are identified and within the university's jurisdiction will be subject to penalties including dismissal, a permanent notation on the transcript and even criminal prosecution.
A Repeat at Penn State
After two previous riots in downtown State College during arts festivals in 1998 and 2000, Penn State charged 38 students with violating the Student Code of Conduct. All but two were expelled or suspended or left voluntarily rather than face charges. For 18 who did not go through the disciplinary process, the university put a hold on transcripts until the students return for disciplinary hearings. A hold is considered a red flag for other colleges and universities and federal agencies and the military.
As the Penn State-Temple basketball game came to a close on national television, 4,000 students in State College converged onto Beaver Avenue, blocked traffic and turned the situation into an hour-long riot. Most of the 20 people arrested were students. More arrests are likely as police continue to review videotapes and photographs. Property damage was estimated at $8,000.
"The Penn State alma mater contains the words 'may no act of ours bring shame.' Such behaviors are not acceptable in a civil society," said Graham Spanier, president. "I have no tolerance for such disturbances. Penn State's reputation is negatively influenced by such actions, and we can't allow a small portion of our community to engage in behaviors that reflect so poorly on this great university. We are absolutely united in our determination to prevent this from recurring."
Arizona Took Preventive Action
As soon as Arizona knew it was going to be playing in the Final Four, anticipating the possibility of violence, President Peter Likins teamed with Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup to produce a public service television announcement urging people to celebrate responsibly. The school distributed safety tips to area business owners and fliers to all campus residence halls and to Tucson businesses encouraging moderate behavior and urging respect for property and the rights of others.
Students planned a campus-wide event so that 3,000 students and community members could watch the title game in an alcohol-free environment. There were no significant incidents on campus after Arizona's loss to Duke in the championship game, but there was extensive destruction in town, fires were set, and cars and a motor home were destroyed.
Likins personally contributed a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the rioters. He also established a charitable account where members of the campus and Tucson communities could contribute to either the reward or to the Joe G. Martinez family, whose car and motor home were destroyed by fire. "If you, like me, feel frustrated, this is a way to turn a negative into a positive," he wrote in a memo to the campus community.
"I was deeply impressed by the way our coaches and team handled their loss to Duke with grace and dignity," said Likins. "But when I got back to my hotel room and saw on national television, Fourth Avenue burning, I was devastated and angry at the jerks who trashed our town. These were not fans. They were thugs.
"They burned cars, put people's lives in danger and had no interest in the outcome of this game; they were prepared to seize the opportunity for mindless violence no matter who won in Minneapolis," he added. "We are determined to identify and hold accountable any students engaged in acts of violence and will do everything within our power to do so."
Purdue Names Names
Purdue went so far as to include in a news release the names and hometowns of six students who were arrested in the wake of the team's 68-66 loss to Notre Dame in the women's championship game. While 1,000 students were outside during the disturbance, only a few dozen were believed to be involved in the vandalism. The rioters caused more than $50,000 in damage to cars, trash bins, windows, a sports shed and trees on campus. Estimates are not yet available from the West Lafayette area near campus. About 200 police from Purdue and surrounding departments dealt with the disturbances, which began about 10 p.m. and lasted until 1 a.m. University administrators and police will review videotapes to identify violators and take disciplinary action against students involved.
President Martin C. Jischke vowed to take disciplinary action against any students known to have been involved in acts of vandalism. "I am very disappointed that the conduct of some of our students did not match the tremendous maturity and character demonstrated by our women athletes," he said. "The property damage in and around our campus is absolutely unacceptable. This is not what Purdue is all about. Students need to be part of the solution to help curb this nationwide trend of random violence following high-stakes athletic competition."
The presidents should not be alone in condemning the violence. The athletic directors, the coaches and even the players need to get into the community and speak out at meetings of chambers of commerce and civic organizations. They too need to apologize for the actions of the students and fans. As in Europe, those identified offenders should be barred from university athletic events for life.
Rene A. Henry, Fellow PRSA, is one of the nation's leading consultants on crisis. He is the author of six books, including "You'd Better Have a Hose If You Want to Put Out the Fire - the complete guide to crisis and risk communications. Contact: Henry.Rene@epamail.epa.gov.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Editor's Note: A participant in the PPCONLINE email discussion list recently posed a question about how to respond when a company in another country has taken a domain name almost exactly like yours and then put out information -- some of it highly contrary to your own image (including porn) -- that could mislead visitors who thought they were visiting YOUR site. I responded to the list with this message.
The Internet has "internationalized" all news, negative or positive. Country boundaries matter little. One of the most difficult adjustments for some of my clients has been to the reality that they can no longer geographically "contain" a crisis situation, big or small.
There are many possibilities for the scenario you describe:
- Taking steps to ensure that your site shows up higher on Internet searches related to your industry and/or the topic.
- Assessing whether the "bad site" is, in fact, heavily visited or if it just "looks bad." The damage may not be as widespread as you fear.
- Find some ways to make it clearer who you are, to include statements that you are not related to the other site. Make sure that information is readily accessible to your average visitor, but that it does NOT include the other site's URL.
- Have "audience sensitive" responses ready to plug into your answers to any email from those who may have visited the other site without hearing from you first.
- If you have a good relationship with your existing important audiences, humor can be a useful tool. A wry letter from your CEO saying "hey, it seems that someone likes our name and site so much that they want to steal it and use it to sell porn" could go a long way towards diffusing the perceived importance of the other site's activities. If you MAKE it a bigger deal, it will BE a bigger deal.
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These sites have proven valuable to my business and may do the same for yours.
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