Media Relations in a Disaster
By John Nevola
What could be worse than experiencing a disaster that destroys your business? The answer is recovering successfully from that disaster only to have your customers and competitors have the perception that you are out of business!
This is not as ludicrous as it may appear to be. How and what story you portray immediately after a disaster will determine what the public believes. And since your story will most likely get the widest exposure through the media, it is imperative that your company has a plan to deal with the media immediately after a disaster.
Being armed to “face the press” with effective and sophisticated media relations techniques is the only way to prevent the wrong slant from being reported about your situation. In fact, if properly prepared, one can even gain a positive perspective by effectively communicating the right story immediately following a disaster. In order to achieve this, however, one must understand and appreciate how the news works.
WHAT IS NEWS?
Frank Reuven, the President of NBC News in 1971, postulated a definition that is still widely held today. He stated that news is change, otherwise it would not be news. Something that exists today that did not exist before makes news. It could be a tragedy (like the Oklahoma City bombing) or a heroic deed (such as the rescue of downed airman Scott F. O’Grady) or something that changed some time ago but was recently discovered (like government fraud or waste).
News is change as seen by an outsider; the professional journalist. The journalist may like or dislike what they see but can never be a part of it and must never be seen as liking or disliking it. Objectivity is the essence of professional journalism but in this most reporters are never entirely successful.
News is change as seen by an outsider for other outsiders; the viewers, listeners and readers. For them, the news must be condensed and distilled because it is about as much as outsiders are interested in. Otherwise, nothing could be reported.
News is change that is interesting. Otherwise it would not be watched, listened to or read; it would not be news. Importance does not make news. There were many more important events than the O.J. Simpson trial which received less coverage because they were not as interesting.
One only needs to watch the nightly news attentively to validate Reuven’s definition. Teasers and tag lines, designed to pique our interest, invite us back after a commercial break. Grim and shocking logos (TERROR IN THE HEARTLAND) drape the backdrop to the talking heads as they sensationalize a particularly gruesome story. Story after story is distilled and presented in sound-bites.
One anecdote that satirizes the media imagines how they would have reported the discovery of the Ten Commandments. “Moses has just come down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments,” the reporter says looking profoundly into the TV camera. “Here are the three most important!”
This is the manner in which the news is presented to the public in today’s society.
In the competitive, dog-eat-dog battle for television or radio ratings or newspaper circulation, each news organization is catering to what the MTV generation appears to respond to: short, quippy and interesting vignettes which summarize the essence (hopefully accurately) of some news story. Everybody, it seems, does it this way. This needs to be understood when dealing with the media.
Reporters gather much of their information through the interview. It is easy to be distracted by the anticipation of seeing your name in print or your face on TV or having a quote attributable to you. Many people make this mistake and are not sufficiently thoughtful about what is really going on. An interview is not a public service; but rather an opportunity for you to tell your story to your audience through the pipeline of the media. So rather than becoming star-struck at the prospect of becoming a media icon, one must be focused on this challenge and opportunity. It is also requisite to keep in mind the most important story you have to deliver immediately after a disaster has struck your company is that you are or will shortly be back in business!.
Another important aspect to keep in mind is that media communications is the exact opposite of the business communications style most people are accustomed to. While both styles are intended to win over an audience, media communications must be conducted through an intermediary (the reporter) and therefore has special and different rules.
In business, we present our case, layer upon layer, as we build toward the desired conclusion. Inside jargon is often used and we try to avoid repeating ourselves. Questions are often answered directly, thoroughly and in some detail and we usually save the punch line for the end. This is effective in a corporate culture and most are comfortable with this approach. Unfortunately, the business style will self-destruct in an interview.
In media communications, the whole purpose is to get to our message at the beginning of the answer. Responses to questions should never exceed 30-40 seconds. Inside jargon will very likely be cut out of the final product so it should not be used. While questions should be answered, the interviewee should always be looking for the opportunity to deliver their message; as many times as possible. Unlike business communications, repetition in an interview is necessary since one never knows which clip or quote will be used by the reporter.
Business people need to be aware of these style differences in order to avoid reverting to the comfortable but inappropriate business style with the reporter. In addition to this often committed blunder, there are three cardinal rules that promise to yield a successful interview when heeded; preparation, impression and delivery.
Preparation is essential! It starts with some boilerplate information about your company, some interesting facts and figures and some ready sparklers (more about sparklers later). These could be prepared well in advance and should be part of the public relations or communications section of your disaster recovery plan. (Oh, you don’t have this section in your recovery plan? Well this is your lucky day!).
However, thorough preparation goes beyond just a standard narrative. One must also be aware of, and prepared for, the particular situation, incident or subject of an interview request. Therefore, NEVER accept a cold call from a reporter! Instead, get their name, organization, the general subject of the interview and the reporter’s deadline. And promise to call them back. You may also opt to bring in a communications specialist from your company’s public relations department. Use the intervening time to bone up on the subject, rehearse answers to expected questions, gather and verify facts and generally get comfortable with the topic. Call back when you said you would and conference in the communications specialist (for your own protection in the unlikely event you are misquoted). If you do this regularly and religiously, you will develop a file of information and experience you can draw upon for later interviews.
Impressions, the unspoken indicators of credibility and sincerity, are as important as facts. The audience will react to your body language and either like you or not. They are more likely to believe you if they like you. In all of the media except for print, how you look, behave and conduct yourself is important in winning over the audience. More about making a good impression later.
How you say what you say is also key. The four tenants of good delivery are Brief, Informative, Affable and Sincere; BIAS for short. There are a number of techniques that assure good delivery and will also be discussed in more detail.
Most interviewers would like to control the content and tempo of an interview. They may simply be looking for a specific quote or some information to plug a gap in the story. They may also have a certain slant to the story that they are trying to validate or have a completely different agenda altogether. To allow the reporter uncontested control of the interview may result in something like this:
Reporter: “Mr. Jones, did your company experience a disaster?”
Mr. Jones: “Yes.”
Reporter: “How long will you be out of business?”
Mr. Jones: “A day or two.”
Reporter: “Is this likely to have some level of long term impact to your company?”
Mr. Jones: “Perhaps.”
And the story reads: “Mr. Jones, the President of the ABC Company has confirmed reports that his business is shut down and likely to suffer long term financial loss.”
This is hardly the story that Mr. Jones intended to communicate to the public. By being passive, however, and simply answering the questions, Mr. Jones left too much room for the reporter to interpret the answers and make inferences. This is likely to happen if the reporter is permitted to operate in a simple “question and answer” mode.
In order to gain some control during the interview, rather than the simple “question and answer” mode, the following is preferable; “question, .answer, transition, message, facts/figures, sparkler”. Here are some examples:
Reporter: “Mr. Jones, did your company experience a disaster?”
Mr. Jones: “Yes we have but what our customers really need to know is that the damage was minor and that we will be back in business shortly.”
Reporter: “How long will you be out of business?”
Mr. Jones: “ A day or two at most but the key point I want to make is that we’ve prepared for this contingency and have sufficient business in the pipeline to overcome this short outage.”
Reporter: “Is this likely to have some level of long term impact to your company?”
Mr. Jones: “It is always difficult to predict the long term impact of these events. Perhaps there might be some down the road but let me add that I’d rather believe our customers are loyal and will stick with us through this.”
Mr. Jones answered all of the questions honestly and directly, but by elaborating a bit further changed the tenor and tone of the interview.
Instead of simply answering the questions, he elaborated a bit more, was optimistic, upbeat and positive with his replies and even reached out and appealed to the loyalty of his customers.
This is far better than the first example and would likely result in much more favorable treatment by the reporter when reporting the story to the public. In this second example, Mr. Jones made good use of transition phrases and took control.
Some other transition phrases that can be used are:
On the other hand...
That reminds me...
And don’t forget...
That’s an important point because...
Before I forget...
Let me put that in proper perspective...
If none of these should come to mind and you are dealt a particularly difficult question, remember the “bail-out” emergency transition phrase; “In the final analysis, what people really need to know is...”, and jump directly into your message.
In order to effectively tell your story, you must have a message. It is the focal point of the interview from your viewpoint and you must hammer this message every chance you get.
The message can consist of three parts; credibility, problem and solution. After establishing your credibility as an expert or someone in authority (reporters love to get the “scoop” from the insiders) and stating the problem succinctly, focus on the action plans or solutions. Keep in mind that the thrust of the message after a disaster needs to be that you are doing business as usual or as close to that as possible.
Establishing credibility for your message can be accomplished very easily by inserting a few carefully chosen phrases in your response:
“We have had an effective recovery plan for 5 years.”
“We have exercised that plan 10 times and are prepared for this.”
“We anticipated this, planned for it, invested in it, trained for it and are ready for it.”
State the bare facts of the problem. Don’t elaborate on it or embellish it in the slightest. The less spoken about the problem, the less the media can focus on it.
Elaborate and focus on the actions underway and the expected results of those actions. Speak of any actions planned if required. This is the essence of the message so you may want to enhance it with some memorable and quotable sparklers.
Sparklers are also sometimes called gems or nuggets because they are small but precious. They are memorable, catchy or clever phrases and for that reason they are very likely to be used for that reason. Sparklers can be a word picture, startling statistic, quotation, metaphor, simile, comparison or an anecdote. Here are some examples:
“My recovery team responds like a SWAT team.” (Simile)
“New York City schools have nearly 1 million students; more than the entire population of the State of Nevada.” (Startling Statistic and Comparison).
“The buck stops here!” (Quotation - Harry S. Truman)
“We are the Cadillac of the insurance industry.” (Metaphor)
“When you’re sick you go to a hospital. When your life is on the line you go to the Mayo Clinic. My company is the Mayo Clinic of the disaster recovery industry!” (Metaphor)
Sparklers, as you can see, are short, clever and creative phrases that capture the imagination. They can be developed and practiced beforehand so they are at the tip of your tongue and easy to recite during an interview.
Reporters love them and are very likely to use them in their piece. The next time you watch the news or read a newspaper, see how many times you see or hear sparklers in an interview.
Telling Your Story
After sufficient preparation, developing the message, rehearsal, familiarization with transition phrases and memorizing a few sparklers, you are ready for the “moment of truth”; the interview.
There are a number of land mines in delivering your story that one must avoid stepping on in the course of the interview:
Listen to questions carefully.
Don’t anticipate the question but rather allow the reporter to finish asking it. Pause and think carefully before beginning your answer.
Keep focused on your message.
Avoid getting distracted and remember your message.
Transition to your message every chance you get and don’t be afraid to be repetitive.
Don’t wing it.
The audience can tell when you’re faking it so don’t wing it! “I don’t know”, is a good answer if it is true. Offer to get the correct information to the reporter or offer to get the reporter in touch with someone who knows the answer.
The press will absolutely crucify you if you are caught in a lie. There is no reason or justification for ever telling the press a lie. It will more likely harm your cause worse than any perceived benefit.
Avoid negative words and jargon.
Never repeat the negative words in a question. They only tend to reinforce the negative tone of the question and often the answer does not diffuse the allegation. How does this sound?
Reporter: Mr. Jones, is your factory still dumping dirty, slimy, toxic, radioactive pollutants into our rivers?
Mr. Jones: No, we are not dumping dirty, slimy, toxic, radioactive pollutants into the river!”
See what I mean?
Never say “no comment”. This statement is tantamount to taking the fifth amendment; it wreaks of guilt or something to hide. The reporter will use this response to indicate to your audience that you were “non-responsive”. Almost any answer is better than this one even if you have to refer the reporter to someone else in your company.
Never say anything “off the record”. In today’s journalistic ethic, “off the record” is not likely to be honored. Besides, it’s a synonym for “here comes the real ugly truth”. Who can forget what Newt Gingrich’s mother said about Hillary Clinton on national television “just between you and me”?
Repeat, repeat, repeat. This advice cannot be repeated too much. Repeat your message at every opportunity.
Most reporters will be straight forward and courteous. They will not present a serious problem in your interview if you have followed the advice given thus far. There are some, however, that exhibit certain styles that you must be able to recognize and react to accordingly. Otherwise, you may find yourself on the defensive, confused and flustered.
The Paraphraser will try to interpret or distill what you are saying while you are answering the questions. Don’t accept their language or it will become your quote. Restate your answer in your own words.
The Needler asks negative or biased questions. They often express cynicism and disbelief at your last answer. Stay calm and be firm. Take exception to the question, if necessary and get on to your message. Do not repeat negative words or phrases.
The Shotgun will try to get you off balance by asking a series of questions before you have given an answer. Pick out the question you can answer best and answer only that one. If the reporter wants any of the other questions answered, they will ask them again.
This style of reporter asks hypothetical or “what if” kinds of questions which are intended to generate some controversy from the answers. Don’t speculate, especially in areas outside of your expertise.
This profile of interviewer cuts off your answers before you complete them and asks another question. Take care to remain composed and polite, acknowledge the interrupting question but resume your original answer.
The reporter purposely or mistakenly misrepresents facts as part of the question.
Never allow an error to stand. Correct it as you provide the answer.
Understanding the various styles of play of different reporters will help you to achieve a successful interview.
But styles of reporters are only part of the challenge. The other major part of the problem is to understand and be ready to confront the unique difficulties of the various types of interviews you may be exposed to.
THE FIVE TYPES OF INTERVIEW
All interviews can be broken down to five major categories. There may be some combinations and minor variations but mastering the techniques of these five major interview types will serve to accommodate a wide variety of interview combinations.
The Television Interview
In the visual medium of television, you are the message. You can successfully tell your story if the audience buys the total package. This type of interview is almost never spontaneous so there is usually time to prepare.
Watch the program so that you will be able to understand the format and the interviewer styles. Arrive early and speak to the producer and interviewer before you go on.
Always assume you are “on camera” from the moment you enter the studio to the moment you leave it. Don’t be distracted by the television paraphernalia and the churn of activity that is usually present behind the scene.
Avoid alcohol, stimulants, milk, chocolate, carbonated beverages and hot or very cold drinks. A case of hiccups would relegate this television appearance to the blooper reel.
Look your best. Dress in dark, conservative clothes which convey confidence and authority. Avoid eye-catching accessories like gaudy jewelry or sunglasses.
They draw the attention of the viewer and detract from what you are saying. If the studio offers make-up, take it.
Relax yourself just prior to getting on by stretching, yawning or taking deep breaths. Once on the air, do not look at the cameras or monitors. Lean slightly forward with your heels on the floor and your hands in your lap.
Look at the interviewer and interact in a natural conversational manner with good eye contact, natural gestures and a lively and interested demeanor. Pause and think between questions. Smile and use the interviewer’s first name.
Avoid nervous gestures like mopping your brow or loosening your tie. Those movements make you look crafty and disingenuous. At the conclusion of the show, stay seated and wait for the “all clear” signal from the director.
The Telephone Interview
Never accept a cold call interview. Get the reporters name, organization, subject and deadline and promise to call back. Contact your company’s media relations specialist and ask them to participate in the interview. Prepare your message, facts, figures and sparklers and write them down.
Return the reporter’s call in a timely fashion from a location you are comfortable with, such as your office. Stand up while conducting the interview as this provides a more confident and more in control voice. Remember to be friendly, brief, affable and smile. (The smile comes through in voice inflection even if the reporter cannot see it).
Concentrate on your message and drive it home at every opportunity. Remember to be careful of the “harmless” chatter that sometimes occurs just before concluding the phone call because anything you say is fair game. The interview is not over until you hang up.
The Radio Interview
This type of interview is usually live and has some unique techniques. Since sound is the only stimulus, you must try to create visual images for the listeners.
This can be accomplished by describing scenes using the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Anecdotes, examples, metaphors and similes along with lively and colorfully descriptive language make for an interesting radio discussion.
These items deserve special consideration and extra time when preparing.
The other special consideration is to avoid dead air. There should be a maximum of 4 seconds between question and reply. Stammering is particularly noticeable on the radio so avoid “ugh” and “um” and “ya know”. Use pause and think phrases (“in a manner of speaking”, “on that point” and “to clear that up”) to avoid dead air.
The In-Person Print Interview
This type of interview has much in common with the TV interview, there are a few subtle differences. This is not a real-time situation. The reporter takes notes back and develops the story. However, since the reporter can see you during the interview, your demeanor, confidence and gestures can color the story and describe the quotes (“Mr. Jones denied the problem while pulling nervously on his crucifix”). Don’t look at your watch, chew gum or any other gestures that make you look disinterested, distracted or uncomfortable. You don’t want to turn this into a visual lie-detector test.
Stand tall with your feet planted firmly apart a little wider than normal. Do not fold your arms, keep your hands in your pockets, lock them behind or in front of you. Let your hands rest loosely at your waist and gesture. Maintain eye contact and be brief, affable, sincere and smile.
The Press Conference
If you ever find yourself in this situation, there is clearly something big going on. You are the star in this scenario, so perform. The visual message begins immediately.
Stride purposefully to the podium with presence, confidence and poise. Deliver the opening lines from memory. Use natural gestures and look at individuals in the audience; don’t pan or scan the audience. Use the microphone so you don’t have to raise or strain your voice.
When you complete your remarks and open for questions, ask the first question yourself; “On my way here I was asked a question whose answer I felt would be of great interest to everyone.” Use this first question to tell your story and deliver your message. Then field questions from the media. Apply all of the tips and techniques previously discussed. Stay calm and use humor, especially if you encounter a heckler.
When you are ready to leave, announce that you have time for one or two more questions. If you are satisfied with your answer, end the press conference at that point. If you are not satisfied, ask for another question. Memorize a brief summary and exit confidently. It is important to end on a positive note.
THE INTERVIEWEE BILL OF RIGHTS
As an interviewee, there are certain courtesies and rights you should expect in an interview situation.
These are not exactly carved in stone like the Ten Commandments but they are generally accepted as “rules of the road” for interviews. They are:
To know the general subject beforehand and be given time to prepare.
To identify the interviewer and know who they work for.
To have agreement on groundrules (subject, time limit, other guests, etc.).
To be treated with courtesy and politely.
To have another representative of your organization present.
To make sure no recordings are made unless you are aware.
To be given time to complete your answers and get your points across.
It is always better to discuss these “rights” beforehand rather than after the fact. Even a well-meaning reporter cannot change the ground rules after the story is published.
If the reporter cannot agree to these terms, you should consider refusing to conduct the interview. However, most reporters respect these principles and are willing to work within them.
To summarize, all successful interviews begin with preparation. A thorough corporate crisis communications plan should exist that can provide a vision and guidance on acceptable company messages. Know the reason for the interview so you can prepare your facts and message for your audience.
Study your interviewer and their favored styles and anticipate questions and rehearse answers.
Be sure to make a good impression. Look your best by dressing in dark colored, conservative clothes. Avoid diverting viewers from your message with distracting clothes or accessories.
Watch your gestures and body language so you always look confident, poised and in control. Never lose your temper or respond angrily. Maintain eye contact and gesture naturally.
While conducting an interview, concentrate on the techniques for a good delivery.
Listen to questions carefully and pause and think before answering. Acknowledge and answer the question and then bridge (transition) to your message using facts and sparklers wherever you can. Never lie or fake an answer.
Avoid jargon, negative words in your reply, saying no comment and off the record. Never gesture nervously or get angry and lose your composure. Remember to be brief, informative, affable and sincere (BIAS) and repeat, repeat and repeat your message.
Let’s hope your company never experiences a disaster. If one should occur, let’s then assume that you can achieve a quick and successful recovery.
But the job is not finished with the recovery. It’s successfully completed when your customers, employees and competitors know that you have recovered and are back in business.
Following the techniques discussed here will help assure a successful recovery by getting fair and positive treatment by the media.
John Nevola is site manager for Business Recovery Services Center for Integrated Systems Solutions Corporation. He is also a member of DRJ’s Editorial Advisory Board.
This article adapted from Vol. 9#2.
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