© 2001 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
Lawsuit, n. A machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a sausage.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Media Training the Untrainable
by Jonathan Bernstein
Most of us are aware of how invaluable media training is for anyone who must "dance the dance" with journalists, particularly with regard to sensitive issues. But what do you do when your primary spokesperson, despite many hours of training and practice under the direction of someone skilled in that specialty, still comes out looking like...Gary Condit?
There are a few variations to this problem:
- The primary spokesperson isn't taking well to training, but there are other potential spokespersons.
- There's truly only one person who should speak about the crisis, he/she does very poorly in training, but he/she is willing to "play to his/her weakness."
- There's truly only one person who should speak about the crisis, but he/she insists that he/she can "handle it."
Multiple Spokespersons Available
I have often trained or participated in the training of corporate executives who are part of a two-four spokesperson team. Not all crises, and not all media, merit involvement of the CEO or president, but he/she is usually one of those trained. Other senior execs who, by logic of their position or knowledge, are also usually trained, to include legal counsel (believe it or not, sometimes we DO want the lawyers to comment, specifically on matters of law). In fact, part of what the training helps determine is "who speaks to what subjects."
Sometimes, the lead spokesperson cannot be trained to an acceptable level of performance in the time available. There are many possible reasons, the most common of which, in my experience, are fear of the media, hatred of the media, and/or passion about the topic that overrides good judgment. In those cases, I'm candid with my client and suggest that an alternate spokesperson take the lead. I know of more than one CEO who, after media training, pulled himself off the spokesperson team because he knew he'd do more harm than good.
Only One Spokesperson, Untrainable, Play to the Weakness
No one else, in all probability, could have spoken for Gary Condit in a manner that could have mitigated at least some of the damage done by his withholding of information and subsequent revelations about his personal life. In many previous articles, here and elsewhere, PR professionals talk about the need to do a mea culpa, be humble, be HUMAN, when you're under fire. Bill Clinton got away with a lot doing just that.
It has been widely reported that Condit hired a public relations consultant who almost certainly must have at least attempted to media train him and knew how he'd come across. At that point, the consultant should have said -- and might, in fact, have said and been ignored -- "Congressman, you are going to cause even more harm to yourself if your real interviews come across like your practice interviews. You have two choices. Don't do an interview, or play to your weakness."
Here, in my opinion, are the first words that Condit should have said to Connie Chung, before he began answering her questions:
"Connie, I know that I come across very woodenly in interviews, that lots of people think I'm insincere and uncaring. The fact is that media interviews scare me to death and I just close down. I hope you, and the American public, understand that, no matter how I look on camera, I know I really screwed up in this situation in many ways and I regret that, deeply."
Only One Spokesperson, Untrainable, Says "Can Handle It"
Pray. And hope that there's a competing crisis and no one's paying attention.
Editor's Note: UK-based PR pros Mike Seymour and Simon Moore have produced an engrossing, case history-centered text on crisis communications that goes beyond the entry-level advice often given in other books. The Brent Spar case history below, taken verbatim from their book, notes that it teaches us lessons "applicable to all companies facing an issue with the potential to become a crisis."
Brent Spar: Learning Effective Communication the Hard Way
from Effective Crisis Management, Continuum Press, 2000
by Mike Seymour and Simon Moore
A famous crisis emerged from the Royal Dutch Shell's decision in 1995 to dump its ageing Brent Spar oil platform in the North Sea. This was a carefully weighed decision taken after four years of studies, thirty of which were independent, and endorsements from academics and other experts, all of whom agreed after thirteen options were reviewed that sinking the platform in 6000 fathoms of water was environmentally safer than land disposal (an option which carried serious hazards), and a quarter of the cost.
This prolonged effort, which included consultations with fishermen and environmentalists, ended with approval and granting of licences by the UK government. Just four months later, the operation lay in ruins. In that time Shell had been thoroughly outwitted by Greenpeace, which knew how to press the buttons that activate the media and key stakeholders in a crisis. Petrol station forecourts in Germany were firebombed, a boycott launched, and the Brent Spar was occupied by protestors who defied Shell's efforts to evict them using high-pressure water jets. These incidents were splashed across newspapers and television. In the end, every EU government but two had turned against the company. At the time of writing the Brent Spar now lies in a Norwegian fjord waiting to be dismantled and disposed of on land, representing a disturbing precedent for the oil industry as a whole, since roughly 70 more ageing rigs in the North Sea will soon need to be decommissioned.
Shell's managers, originally confident that they had taken a thorough approach to a sensitive issue, had not anticipated how dramatically the situation could overheat under the glare of environmental group action. The company later looked back on its Brent Spar experience in an insightful and refreshingly frank corporate publication. The lessons Shell learned are applicable to all companies facing an issue with the potential to become a crisis. Managers at Shell concluded that:
- The Company should have consulted a wider range of stakeholder groups.
- It failed to appreciate the need for genuine two-way dialogue.
- It should have considered people's emotional reactions as well as operational issues.
- It should have realized that the general public would be interested in its activities.
- It needed to adjust its messages for different cultures without sacrificing the truth.
- It needed to educate its key audiences, particularly the media, before the crisis occurred.
Mike Seymour can be contacted by email, email@example.com.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Q: How can a crisis communications professional effectively work in many different industries, inasmuch as crises can happen anywhere?
A: The basic answer is that there are some PR specialties, such as investor relations or crisis communications, that transcend industry lines. The principles and tactics remain the same or very similar. This is true, of course, for some legal specialties, such as litigation, or mergers and acquisitions. That said, I have, as fate would have it, done more work in certain industries than others. That has helped me land yet MORE work from the same industries. Which is one reason why my agency no longer relies on only my experience base -- I have other senior-level talent to call on. Industry-specific experience is sometimes a factor in the selection of a consultant or hiring of a staff member with crisis communications expertise -- if the pending or breaking crisis gives the organization the luxury of time to spend in the selection process.
The PR and Legal Team Approach To Crisis Management
Bernstein Crisis Management is capable of providing a joint PR/legal presentation team to train any organization wanting education on both components of crisis management. If interested, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Jonathan Bernstein is president & CEO of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., a national public relations agency specializing in crisis response, issues management and litigation consulting. Prior to entering the PR world, Bernstein was an investigative reporter, preceded by five years in U.S. Army Military Intelligence. Click Here for information on the firm's services or call (626) 825-3838.
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