Last week, an audio technician for the television program Cops was killed by friendly fire while filming a robbery at a Wendy’s in Omaha, Nebraska.
The Omaha police chief, Todd Schmaderer, delivered an almost perfect press conference—one that stands in marked contrast to the shameful media interactions in Ferguson, Missouri—that should be studied by PR professionals as a terrific example of how to communicate in crisis.
PR pro Dave Statter, who writes the excellent STATter911 blog (and wrote about this story first), called this “one of the most effective and timely presentations following a police involved shooting I’ve witnessed.” He’s right.
Chief Schmaderer did many things right in this press conference. Below, you’ll find the five things that stood out to me most.
1. He Struck The Perfect Emotional Tone
Chief Schmaderer spoke in human terms throughout the press conference, saying, “It’s as if we lost one of our own…the tears and the hugs that I got when I got to the hospital, I could feel the pain of the officers.”
When asked whether he regretted his decision to allow Cops to film in Omaha, he gave a genuinely reflective answer, one that indicated that he had spent some time agonizing about that question: “Personally, I’ll have to live with this forever.”
In a particularly classy move, he expressed condolences not only to the Cops production member who was killed, but to the family of the suspect, who was also killed during this incident.
2. He Treated The Media As An Ally
Chief Schmaderer treated the media with complete respect—and in return, the press treated him with complete respect. He also set the rules up front, asking reporters to identify themselves, instructing them to speak loudly enough for the microphones to pick up their questions, and letting them know he intended to begin with local reporters.
When he inadvertently skipped a reporter, he expressed remorse: “I want to make sure the Omaha World-Herald gets a question, I can’t believe I forgot you Maggie, I’m so sorry.”
3. He Was Completely Open
Early in the press conference, the Chief said that, “We are striving for unprecedented transparency in this incident.” He lived up that pledge, giving an extended opening statement filled with specific detail and answering every question directly.
When he was unable to answer a question due to the legal process, he used a technique I call commenting without commenting: “While I can’t show the video—it’s evidence and it’s needed for the Grand Jury—we did provide still photos to show what the officers had encountered to the best of our ability.”
4. He Got In Front Of a Potential Controversy
The suspect who was killed by the officer’s bullet(s) was carrying an Airsoft Gun which, according to Wikipedia, is a replica “designed to be non-lethal.” Chief Schmaderer appeared to be aware that headlines could read something like, “Suspect With Fake Gun Killed By Police,” so he showed photos of that replica gun to make clear that responding officers had no way of knowing whether or not it was real.
5. He Conveyed a Sense of Complete Competence
Chief Schmaderer’s tone-perfect performance gave me—and likely many other people—confidence that he’s the right person to lead this investigation professionally.
That leads to an important point about crisis press conferences: Press conferences often serve as a proxy for how competent a spokesperson is not only as a communicator, but behind the scenes as a leader. Leaders who are great at the behind the scenes portion of their jobs—but who are not great public communicators—may be perceived as lousy leaders. Chief Schmaderer, on the other hand, earned the benefit of the doubt and, as Dave Statter wrote, will “ultimately have a positive impact on the reputation of the Omaha Police Department.”
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Whatever your feelings about Michael Brown’s shooting and the resulting protests in Ferguson, Missouri, you should be concerned about a police department that threatens to murder peaceful bloggers, aims semi-automatic assault rifles at videographers, and arrests journalists without provocation.
The Ferguson police department’s bullying of reporters is not the biggest part of the Ferguson story. But as many people noted, if that’s how the department treats people who have a megaphone to the world, it’s unfathomable to think how they must treat local residents who don’t.
By employing often terrifying tactics, the Ferguson Police Department (and some officers from surrounding jurisdictions) reacted to the protests with some of the most shocking mistreatment of journalists I’ve witnessed in many years on American soil.
Among other incidents, police ordered two journalists from The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, who were working at a nearby McDonalds, to leave—and arrested them when they didn’t move quickly enough.
Wesley Lowery, the arrested Washington Post reporter, claimed that he was assaulted by officers:
Chris Hayes, who hosts a primetime program on MSNBC, was threatened with Mace by a police officer—while he was on the air.
The Huffington Post compiled several tweets from journalists in Ferguson, including these:
An officer pushed CNN’s Don Lemon while he was live on the air—and carrying a CNN microphone that made clear for whom he was reporting.
Then there was this report from the CNN wire:
“Police in Ferguson, Missouri, deliberately fired tear gas and rubber bullets at a television news crew Wednesday night, Al Jazeera America reported.
Photos and videos from the Al Jazeera America camera crew were widely shared in the wake of Wednesday’s incident, which Al Jazeera called an ‘egregious assault on freedom of the press that was clearly intended to have a chilling effect on our ability to cover this important story.’
The images showed a tear gas canister exploding close to the Al Jazeera correspondent Ash-har Quraishi, who tried to shield himself from the smoke.
Was it intentional? Quraishi’s crew members seem to think so.
‘We were clearly set up as press with a full live shot set-up,’” producer Marla Cichowski said in an e-mail. ‘“As soon as (the) first bullet hit the car, we screamed out loud, ‘We are press,’ ‘This is the media.’”
And perhaps most shockingly, there was this video of a police officer from nearby St. Ann who refused to identify himself, aimed a semi-automatic assault rifle at peaceful videographers, and threatened to kill them.
To be clear, this isn’t a post about every police officer in Ferguson; nor is it a larger critique of police officers, who play a critical role in protecting life and property. This is also not a post that presumes that this shooting was unjustified; the police officer is entitled to due process. But if one believes in the importance of law and order, as I do, one must also be concerned when a law enforcement agency seemingly does everything in its power to prevent reporters, through threat of force, from exercising their Constitutional right to cover a story.
The Ferguson PD took a difficult PR challenge (the shooting of Michael Brown) and turned it into a disaster (the perception of a lawless department operating without rules). At the very least, one would have thought that officers would have had the sense not to deepen their department’s perception problem by making homicidal threats on live television.
I expect that crisis communications professionals and media trainers who work with law enforcement will be using Ferguson PD as an example of what not to do for many years.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Editor’s Note: Since August 2010, I’ve written more than 1,000 posts. Some of the most popular posts have gotten buried over time, so I occasionally unbury especially useful older posts to share with readers who missed them the first time. This article was originally published on December 27, 2010.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve seen my regular advice to do almost every media interview you’re offered. But there are times when turning down an interview makes the most sense, and this article will discuss the times when saying “no” is your best move.
Below, you’ll find a list of seven times to turn down an interview.
The original list comes from the IABC (The International Association of Business Communicators). Although it’s a solid list, the tips are overly-generalized, so I’ve added my own commentary to each of the seven suggestions to help make them more complete.
1. Employees Have Not Yet Been Notified About a Specific Issue
As a general piece of advice, this is fine. But if a reporter is about to run a story with or without your input – and if you lack the logistical ability to inform your employees directly before it runs – it might make sense to participate in the story to ensure you provide the necessary context. Plus, what is the “specific issue” at play here? Announcing a new product before all employees have been notified (e.g. the iPad) might be strategically sound, while announcing employee layoffs through the press would not be.
2. Employee, Client or Patient Privacy Is Never Breached For Any Reason
Client confidentiality might be waived, for example, if you’re subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit or before Congress, especially if no confidentiality agreement was signed between the parties.
3. An Emergency Has Occurred; Next-of-Kin Have Not Been Notified
I agree you should not be the first party to announce any deaths before next-of-kin has been notified, but what happens if the media has already announced the names? Do you confirm them then, or continue to wait hours – or days – before next-of-kin has been notified? These cases aren’t always cut and dried, and sometimes confirming the names is the more humane choice.
4. Sensitive Competitive Information Would Be Divulged
In a reputational crisis, there are times you might lose more by NOT divulging a proprietary piece of information. As with any crisis, you have to analyze all possibilities, including divulging competitive information.
5. Security Legislation Would Be Breached
Whistleblowers aside, this is probably good advice. I assume this refers to laws already passed, not pending legislation.
6. Union Negotiations are Underway; An Information Blackout is in Effect
If both sides are honoring the agreement, this is good advice. But what about when one party breaks the agreement and is killing you in the press? You should talk to the media – if not to offer specifics, at least to remind the public that you’ve agreed to an information blackout, that you’re not going to talk for that reason, but that there’s more to the story than they’re hearing from the other side.
7. Legal Counsel Has Advised Against Communications
If there’s one thing on this list that makes me bristle, it’s this one. First, even if counsel has advised against “communications,” you can still communicate. You can almost always offer a generic statement such as, “We can’t offer specifics in this case since it’s in litigation, but I would like to remind everyone that there are two sides to this story, and we’re confident that our side will come out in court.”
Second, legal counsel often advises against communications as a kneejerk reaction, even when communicating makes the most sense. Executives would be wise to consult their attorneys and their communications professionals prior to making such decisions. Sometimes the reputational damage caused by your silence is greater than the financial damage of future lawsuits.
Editor’s Note: A grateful hat tip to a good marketing blog called IMC Intuition by Beth Ryan, on which I originally saw this list.
Most speakers I know use the restroom before delivering a presentation. Doing so seems rather obvious—why would anyone want to be uncomfortable during a speech?
British Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly disagrees. Before big speeches, Mr. Cameron occasionally avoids the restroom. He claims that the discomfort of a full bladder gives him energy and keeps him focused.
According to The Guardian:
“Cameron, it is said, used his tried-and-tested “full-bladder technique” to achieve maximum focus and clarity of thought throughout the grueling nine-hour session in Brussels. During the formal dinner and subsequent horse-trading into the early hours, the prime minister remained intentionally ‘desperate for a pee’.
Cameron has reportedly used the technique before, notably during his ‘no notes’ conference speeches during the early years of his party leadership. He heard about it when watching a Michael Cockerell documentary about the late Conservative politician Enoch Powell a decade beforehand. Powell – best known for his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 – remarked that he always performed an important speech on a full bladder: ‘You should do nothing to decrease the tension before making a big speech. If anything, you should seek to increase it.’
Perhaps the technique works for Cameron. But The Guardian points to a study that found that an “extreme urge to void [urinate] is associated with impaired cognition.”
I’m not sure I’ll be adding this technique to my suggested tips for speakers any time soon—but I don’t begrudge Cameron using this tactic if it works for him. In part, that’s because I have an odd—and admittedly outdated and cheesy—ritual of my own. As I’m being introduced before a big presentation, I play the theme song to Rocky in my mind. It pumps me up and allows me to walk to the stage with energy and purpose.
That leads to a question: Have you ever used an odd method of pumping yourself up for a talk? What works for you? Leave your response in the comments section below.
Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Moritz Hager
Once or twice each year, I post 10 of my favorite public speaking and media training quotes of all time. Today’s the day!
In the latest installment, you’ll find quotes from a business tycoon, a philosopher, and a well-known feminist, among many others.
If you don’t see your favorite quote on the list, please leave it in the comments section below.
Public Speaking Quotes
1. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
– Often attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, Italian Renaissance painter (1452-1519)
2. “Oratory is like prostitution. You have to have little tricks.”
– Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando (1860-1952) 1
3. “Years of actually getting up in front of audiences have taught me only three lessons. One: you don’t die. Two: there’s no right way to speak—only your way. Three: it’s worth it.”
– Gloria Steinem
4. “A talk is a voyage with a purpose, and it must be charted. The man who starts nowhere generally gets there.”
– Dale Carnegie
5. “Designing a presentation without defining the audience is like addressing a love letter: “To Whom It May Concern.”
– Attributed to two business executives (see notes) 2
6. “Think as wise men do, but speak as the common people do.”
– Attributed to Aristotle
Media Training Quotes
7. “People trust their ears less than their eyes.”
– Greek historian Herodotus 3
8. “Next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let people know you are doing the right thing.”
— John D. Rockefeller, American business tycoon (1839-1937) 4
9. “A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was.”
– Bishop Joseph Hall (1574-1656) 4
10. “My life is my message.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
Credits and Notes
1. I found the Vittorio Emanuele Orlando quote in Alan M. Perlman’s book “Writing Great Speeches.”
2. The “love letter” quote was attributed to Gene Zelanzy, director of visual communications for McKinsey and Co., by Fletcher Dean in “10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech,” but was attributed to former AT&T presentation research manager Ken Haemer in Nancy Duarte’s “Resonate.”
3. I discovered this quote in Steven Lucas’s book “The Art of Public Speaking.”
4. The Rockefeller and Hall quotes first appeared on Jonathan and Erik Bernstein’s excellent crisis management website.
Four years ago, I learned that my firm, Phillips Media Relations, was about to lose its biggest client.
We had been managing media relations for that client, a nonprofit, for six years, but they never fully recovered from the recession and couldn’t afford our services any longer.
I knew we would suffer a big economic blow without them, and I was nervous (“freaked out” might be a more accurate descriptor). I spent many nights crunching the numbers, trying to figure out how to keep my business growing despite the huge setback of losing a high-value client.
Still, by that point one thing was clear to me: I no longer enjoyed doing media relations. I had been writing press releases and pitching stories for a decade, and I dreaded the days I had to engage in one of those activities. It was also clear to me that the other part of our business—preparing for and leading customized media and presentation training workshops—felt enormously gratifying.
But the numbers weren’t there. Focusing solely on media and presentation training—and refusing future media relations work—would mean a huge drop in revenue. I faced a decision about whether to do the “safe” thing by continuing to market a profitable service I didn’t enjoy, or to do something riskier by pursuing my passion.
I chose the latter. That’s about the time I started this blog, began writing my book, and dropped media relations from our offerings.
It worked. Every year, the business has continued to grow; the risky decision panned out to be the right one. That’s not intended to sound boastful—the past four years have had their fair share of anxiety, stress, and 60-hour workweeks. And the workload too often comes at the high cost of family time, something I’m trying to improve upon.
But I’m happier and more professionally satisfied than ever, and it’s easy to see myself doing this for the rest of my life. All of this reinforces a lesson that I’ve always believed in and only recently relied upon: If you follow your bliss, success—however you define it—will follow.
This article is part of an occasional series about what I’ve learned from running a business. You can read other articles in this series here.
Every public speaking expert I know advises presenters to forge a connection with their audiences by maintaining steady eye contact.
But a highly publicized study published in Psychological Science suggests that eye contact may actually make people “more resistant to persuasion, especially when they already disagree.”
“’There is a lot of cultural lore about the power of eye contact as an influence tool,’ says lead researcher Frances Chen, who conducted the studies at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and is now an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. ‘But our findings show that direct eye contact makes skeptical listeners less likely to change their minds, not more, as previously believed,’ says Chen.
Is she right? And if so, what does it mean for public speakers?
According to the press release about the study, the researchers “…found that the more time participants spent looking at a speaker’s eyes while watching a video, the less persuaded they were by the speaker’s argument.”
Co-lead researcher Julia Minson of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government concluded that, “Whether you’re a politician or a parent, it might be helpful to keep in mind that trying to maintain eye contact may backfire if you’re trying to convince someone who has a different set of beliefs than you,”
But watching a video isn’t the same as being one member of an audience out of many with a live speaker, so I’m not sure the methodology used by the researchers is naturalistic enough to be applied broadly.
In the research, one viewer looked directly into the eyes of one speaker on a screen, presumably maintaining steady eye contact throughout. But what if that one viewer had been one member of a 50-member audience, during which the speaker gave that viewer a proportional amount of eye contact, meaning during just two percent of the presentation? Would that have the same impact on persuasion?
There appears to be a lot of conflicting data on this point. According to Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction:
”Research shows that listeners judge speakers who gaze more as more persuasive, informed, truthful, sincere, and credible, and even pictured faces appear more trustworthy when the eyes are showing a direct versus an averted gaze (Wyland & Forgas, 2010). Also, compliance with a request can be enhanced if the requester engages in more gazing within an appropriate range (Gueguen & Jacob, 2002).”
I wouldn’t dismiss the research conducted by Chen and Minson. Perhaps it applies more to one-on-one communication than public speaking. But even then, it’s safe to assume that other factors they didn’t control for—age, gender, and height differences among live speakers, as well as each party’s role in the interaction (e.g. boss/employee, salesperson/prospective customer, two peers)—would also impact the effectiveness of any persuasion attempt.
This study is interesting, and it’s worth noting. But I wouldn’t advise speakers to change their approach in live presentations based on this research alone.
Note: I asked Dr. Chen to respond to this article, and she kindly sent the following response:
“Our findings are in fact in line with prior research — in the case where the listener was sympathetic to the speaker’s view (i.e., when the listener expressed agreement with the speaker’s position on a sociopolitical issue before watching the video of the speaker). In those cases, we found that more eye contact was associated with more receptiveness. This direction of effect is consistent with the other research you mentioned.
Our research specifically showed that eye contact could backfire (i.e. lead to less persuasion) in cases where the speaker and listener start out disagreeing about an issue. It’s in this case that we believe that too much eye contact may be perceived as threatening, or as an attempt to dominate.
I do agree with you that the effects of steady one-on-one gaze from a video may not be the same as more “diffuse” gaze from a live speaker to a large audience. We’re currently planning some follow-up studies to address exactly these questions!”
Want to learn more about public speaking? Check out our recommended reading list!
Imagine you’re on a first date.
You ask your date what he or she does for a living, and your date responds by speaking for the next three minutes with a perfect monologue that was clearly rehearsed and memorized.
You’d think that’s a little weird, right?
That leads to a follow-up question: Why is that weird? In part, it’s because the memorization robs any spontaneity from the moment, which creates a feeling that your date is being inauthentic. At the very least, it’s clear that your date isn’t truly experiencing the date in the moment with you.
That leads to a third and final question: When people memorize their presentations word-for-word, is that any less strange?
Before answering that question, let me offer a narrow disclaimer. A small number of people are able to both memorize a presentation and deliver it with an authentic audience connection. But that’s a rare gift that few people can pull off well. (And yes, stage actors memorize their lines, but the exchange between actor and audience is different than the exchange between speaker and audience.)
Why Do People Memorize?
People often memorize their presentations because they think doing so conveys a sense of polish to the audience. In some cases, that’s true. Seasoned speakers who deliver the same presentation day after day can often deliver it without notes. But seasoned speakers know that in most situations, it’s far better to internalize content (allowing the specific words to come to them in the moment, which more closely resembles real-life conversation) than it is to memorize content (which is reminiscent of a stage play, in which the audience has no speaking role).
In other cases, they think it gives them a sense of control. But audiences generally don’t respond well to tightly wound speakers—they prefer speakers who show a piece of themselves, something comic Billy Crystal calls “leaving a tip.”
The Problem With Memorization
I can almost always tell when one of our trainees has memorized their presentation. So can the audience. It’s easy to spot that they’re searching for their next words—and they’re so busy wracking their brains for the next line that they’re no longer present with the people in the room.
Plus, for the vast majority of speakers, the cost-benefit ratio of memorizing their script is all wrong. Whereas the audience won’t deduct points from speakers who occasionally glance at their notes, they will deduct points from speakers who seem overly rehearsed—or who forget their next line and go blank.
There’s nothing wrong with using notes. Ideally, you’ll reduce them to just a few bullets that serve as memory triggers. When you need to look at one, all you need to do is pause, look down, see your next bullet, look back up, and begin speaking again.
Save memorization for Broadway actors and speaking circuit pros. For the vast majority of the presentations you’ll ever deliver, no one will mind if you glance at notes once in a while.