(And why they’re all wrong!)
In the throes of the BP disaster a few summers ago, I dug through my files searching for one letter in particular. The letter, a gift from a former colleague, was from a high-level communications executive at Exxon and is dated May 15, 1989. That would be just weeks after the Exxon Valdez disaster, arguably the worst PR blunder in modern history. Immediately after the disaster my friend had sent them a letter suggesting media and crisis communication training, since media coverage in Alaska would be intense. Their response to his letter was that they did not need help. As the story unfolded, the CEO of Exxon was not to be found. Now I keep that letter on the wall above my desk as a reminder that even those in the worst trouble will often say they don’t need communications help. And big surprise, the world heard the same thing from BP’s Tony.
So that your organization will not become the “deer in the crisis headlights,” here, for your consideration, are the five most offered reasons that top executives have refused to accept my suggestion that they undergo professional media training
1. “Our legal staff has strongly advised me to say ‘no comment’ to the media.”
I list this first for a reason. It is the single biggest mistake executives make in dealing with the media and an attorney always creates the bad advice. Let me be perfectly clear: There is no time when that phrase is acceptable. You don’t have to answer media questions; you just have to be available and respond in a caring fashion. Examples of this failed legal strategy: Clinton, Enron, Tiger, BP.
2. “My media relations department handles all reporter inquires.”
The execs at the top never like to be around when the news hits the fan. However, this is just the time they need to quickly respond and be open and honest. My favorite example of a leader showing up following trouble occurred following the explosion at a Ford Motor plant near Dearborn a few years ago. William Clay Ford held a news conference at the site shortly after the explosion and this was his first sentence: “This is the worst day of my life.” How refreshing.
3. “I have an MBA from Harvard and I make 5-million dollars a year so no one needs to teach me how to answer questions.”
Well, sir/madam, you are correct. Experienced and aggressive media coaches never teach anyone to answer questions. The session is about how to respond to reporters’ areas of interest while making your point. The training emphasizes how to stay on-message, not how to answer questions. I spend three hours of a six-hour class on this concept alone.
4. “The media are all a bunch of liberals and hate big business.”
This is straight out of Sarah Palin’s playbook and it’s silly. Although surveys show that about 80% of Whitehouse correspondents are registered Democrats, my guess is that a major survey of the political preferences of all reporters in the country would probably come out like voter registration: 25% Democrat, 25% Republican, the rest independent. The smart leader puts her own biases aside, then seeks out media interviews because they are clearly a marketing tool.
5. “No matter what I say they will twist it and screw me.”
In the National Enquirer, maybe! Perhaps the boss is thinking of the editorial page and not the news pages. Perhaps he really doesn’t understand the difference. Perhaps this is a really good reason he needs coaching and advice from a professional media trainer. Here’s the most important point of all. The media are (whether you like it or not) the most powerful force in the world. They will cover your disaster with or without your help. With your help, you have a better chance of saying what YOU want to say. Digest this; understand it.
My list is longer, but this is enough for today’s lesson. I am still shocked every week when I run into an executive who does not understand the issues I have raised.
I hope you cut this out and put it on your boss’s desk. She will either fire you or name you VP-Communications. But not to worry…life, like dealing with the media, will always be a risk. I think history shows (and I can prove) that doing news interviews is a risk worth taking when you know exactly what you are doing and why you are doing it.
Anthony Huey is President of Reputation Management Associates, a crisis communications agency in Columbus, Ohio, specializing in media and crisis training.