Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. (source: Wikipedia)
I recently worked with a company that is frequently portrayed by the media as a “bad guy.” As a result of receiving some critical media coverage, the company’s executive team ordered a clampdown on external communications.
That means no more interviews. All interactions with the media occur solely through written statements. That way, the company figures, reporters will be unable to twist their quotes. By maintaining a paper trail, they feel safer and better protected.
There’s one problem with that approach: Their defensive posture results in media stories that contrast the company’s cold, lawyerly written statements with their opponents, who speak to the press, appear open, and look more sympathetic.
When working with the company’s representatives, I had an “A ha!” moment. I noticed that all of the spokespersons were smart, funny, and instantly likeable. Unfortunately, the public couldn’t see that for themselves, since their statements contained none of those things. But if they could—if the public could see that this company was made up of thoughtful people who were trying to serve their customers well—it could force them to change their thinking.
Think of it this way: A customer who thinks, “Oh, I hate that company. Their customer service sucks.” would believe that their beliefs were well founded when watching a news report that showed the company communicating solely through uninspired written statements.
But a customer who thinks, “Oh, I hate that company. Their customer service sucks.”— and who then sees a company vice president expressing sincere commitment to improving their service—might experience a bit of cognitive dissonance (“I thought they were jerks. I still don’t love them, but maybe they’re not as bad as I thought.”).
If your company is in a defensive crouch but has charismatic, credible, and thoughtful spokespersons, ask yourself this question: Would our interviews create cognitive dissonance for some members of the audience? And if they would, should we really depend solely on written statements to carry our message?
On October 20, 1999, Elizabeth Dole—a former Reagan and Bush cabinet secretary—ended her bid for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.
I was working at CNN in Washington, D.C. at the time. As I was leaving work late that night and crossing through the building’s quiet front lobby, I noticed Ms. Dole entering for her appearance on Larry King Live.
As I neared Ms. Dole, I watched as she looked past me, gave a huge, broad smile, and offered an unusually enthusiastic wave.
I was confused. I didn’t remember passing anyone else in the lobby, and couldn’t imagine to whom she was waving so excitedly. I turned around to see what I was missing, and there he was: a single, solitary news photographer.
Ms. Dole clearly knew how to play to the cameras. From the perspective of the photographer’s lens, the photo would have suggested that there was a throng of supporters greeting her arrival. No one seeing that photo would have had any reason to believe that she had actually arrived without even the slightest hint of fanfare.
I knew that politicians managed their own photo ops, of course, but I didn’t realize politicians were that calculating. I found the moment deceptive (she purposely sent a false message), impressive (here’s a woman who knew what she was doing), and instructive (be skeptical of photographic “evidence”).
If you’re an occasional Delta Airlines customer, you’re going to find it harder to reach “Medallion” frequent flier status in 2016. If you’re a frequent Delta Airlines customer, you may find it difficult to retain the status you’ve already earned.
Delta Airlines announced big changes to its 2016 frequent flier policy late last week which, in aggregate, reduces benefits to customers. In one article, The St. Cloud Times characterized the changes rather negatively as, “New Delta Policy Further Squeezes Economy Travelers.”
Delta sent an email to customers late last week to announce the change and help control the message. The manner in which they did so caught my eye; here’s the email I received:
Delta had two options: They could have written a letter to customers defending and justifying their new policy (economic realities in the airline industry necessitated the change, blah blah…) or spun it as a positive.
They chose the second option. They wrapped their announcement, which would widely be seen as a negative (it’s tougher for me to accrue points!) and presented it as a positive (our frequent fliers deserve to receive exclusive treatment).
Their email continued:
I saw right through this PR approach immediately, but I’m not sure I disagree with it. They wrapped the changes around a virtue—our best customers deserve the most exclusive service—and I suspect their best customers will appreciate being prioritized even more.
It’s a fine line between spin and straightforward communication, and the lines are often blurry. Some of this blog’s readers might view this PR approach as spin that intentionally buries the lead and ignores the bad news. And I’m not sure I find the memo entirely credible (when they write, “That’s why we’re adjusting the 2016 Medallion Qualification Dollars thresholds,” I’m skeptical—I suspect the changes were simply the result of a strategic business decision).
But in the end, I’m with the Delta PR team on this one. I support their approach of using exclusivity as the mechanism to announce these changes, and believe they made the most of a tough announcement.
But that’s just my view. What do you think?
Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, made some controversial comments about Muslims during one of his recent programs, during which he had a well-publicized debate with one of his guests, actor Ben Affleck.
A few days later, Maher was scheduled to give an interview to a reporter from Salon about a different topic—his “Flip a District” campaign—but the writer understandably wanted to ask Maher about his “spat” with Affleck. Maher made clear he didn’t want to talk about that; here are three excerpts from the interview:
“Yeah, let’s leave that for a while. I’ve said enough about that.”
“You know, I don’t want to talk about this. You just said we’re not going to talk about this and now we’re talking about it.”
“I’ll tell you something interesting — and then I am going to get off the subject because we’re here to talk about “Flip a District,” was my understanding.”
Maher’s responses made me think about a question we hear a lot during our media training sessions: What should I do if I’m asked a question about a topic I wasn’t originally booked to speak about? Do I have to answer it, or can I insist on speaking only about the topic we agreed to discuss in advance?
In that situation, you have a few options:
1. Answer The Question
This is often the best option, particularly if the question is one that the audience would expect you to be able to answer. Deflecting a straightforward question that deserves a straightforward response often plays like this infamous 2008 interview, in which Sarah Palin refused to name the newspapers she reads.
2. Give a Short Response, Then Transition Away From It
Maher used this approach, reminding the reporter that he had agreed to speak about a specific topic and insisting that they keep to the ground rules. He provided a short answer to the questions about his controversial comments, then moved away from them.
This approach can work for more experienced spokespersons—Maher used it well—but it requires a deft touch to avoid being portrayed as evasive. But there’s one problem with this approach: By giving even a short response about his controversial comments, Maher allowed Salon to run the exact headline he didn’t want: “EXCLUSIVE: Bill Maher on Islam spat with Ben Affleck: ‘We’re liberals! We’re not crazy tea-baggers.’”
3. Confront The Reporter
In a 2012 Republican primary debate, Newt Gingrich was asked about accusations that he had asked his second wife for an open marriage. He deemed the question out of bounds—we’re here to talk about serious issues, and you’re asking me about a personal relationship—and went on the offensive.
Gingrich used this approach brilliantly, but he also deployed it in front of a supportive audience that shared his dislike of the media. Generally speaking, this is a high-wire act that few people pull off well.
4. Refuse to Answer The Question
Here’s where things get really tricky: Let’s say you agreed with a reporter in advance that the interview would be limited to a specific topic. When the interview begins, the journalist breaks his or her promise. Cameras are roiling. Do you refuse to answer it, perhaps reminding the reporter of your agreement, even if doing so risks making you look evasive to the audience?
The answer is “it depends”—on the context, the topic, the format, and the spokesperson. This option is risky, and in my experience, only a small percentage of spokespersons have the media savvy and personal qualities to pull this off well. But assuming you do refuse to accept the question, keep these two things in mind:
First, make sure your tone doesn’t convey even a whiff of defensiveness.
Second, you can refuse to answer the question with a response like one of these:
“I’m not here to discuss that topic today. I want the focus to be squarely on our new product, and I’m aware that if I comment on anything but that, the headlines won’t be about the product. So let’s get back to that…”
“You know, Janet, I’m surprised you would ask me that. Before we began this interview, we agreed that you would ask me only about this project, and now you’ve broken that promise. I’m happy to do this interview with you if we focus it on this project, which is so important to so many people. But if you insist on breaking your commitment, you’ll leave me little choice but to end this interview.”
The second option is similar to “confront the reporter” approach, but with one key difference—whereas Gingrich still proceeded to answer the question, the spokesperson in this example didn’t.
This post focused on what you can do during the interview itself. But you can also help reduce the need for saying “I’m not here to talk about that topic” by negotiating the ground rules before the interview, and you can register a complaint after the interview (and disclose that breach to your audiences through your blog and social media feeds) if the reporter breaks them.
In my work with public speakers, I’ve learned how important it is for me to serve as a receptive audience for them.
Although I usually try to maintain an enthusiastic expression when I watch speakers deliver a practice speech, my less-than-enthusiastic thoughts and feelings occasionally become clear to the presenter—even when I’m trying to mask them.
“You looked like you were getting bored,” the speaker might say. “I’m sorry you saw that,” I’ll reply, “I’m usually better about maintaining a poker face. But you’re right that the presentation started to drag a bit in the middle, so let’s talk about ways to keep the energy up during that section.”
Looking out into a sea of blank expressions, empty stares, or skeptical faces can be devastating for a speaker, particularly one who lacks confidence or experience.
There’s an argument to be made that it’s incumbent upon speakers to grab and maintain the attention of their audiences. That may be true—but audience members who sympathize with the plight of a speaker who’s struggling can improve the experience for the speaker and the rest of the audience. (Plus, it’s just the decent thing to do.)
Many speakers tell me that the first few minutes of a presentation are the most critical for them to feel like they’re succeeding—so having a few friendly faces looking back at them can be all the encouragement they need to hit their stride and deliver a winning presentation.
Here are five ways to be a supportive audience member:
1. Listen. Even if the speaker is delivering his or her content badly, there may be an underlying message worth hearing.
2. Exhibit supportive body language. That means maintaining eye contact, smiling when appropriate, and nodding to indicate understanding.
3. Ask questions. If the speaker asks for participation and no one else is jumping in, try to help them by asking a question. This can be particularly useful for a speaker who is failing to deliver their content in a compelling manner—the right question can draw out a more interesting response (e.g. “You mentioned earlier that the new trucking route would save customers money and time. Can you provide me with an example so I can better picture how that would work?”).
4. Put away your smartphone. Seeing audience members who are clearly checked out is distracting at the least and often downright demoralizing.
5. Offer gentle feedback after the presentation. You can help the speaker improve by offering encouraging feedback, such as: “It really resonated with me when you shared the story about the customer who canceled our service. If you present on this topic again, you might want to spend even more time on that story, because you had my attention during that whole section of your talk.”
What would you add to this list? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
I’ve worked with many people who don’t trust or like the media. But one recent group of trainees from a public entity was more emphatic in their hatred of the press than I’d ever encountered before.
This group constantly felt besieged by a rapacious press corps that couldn’t be satiated, and they believed that reporters were far too busy pursuing their own predetermined agendas to give them a fair shot.
Given the hostility of this group toward the press, I decided to try something different. The result was striking, if not outright shocking.
Instead of playing the role of reporter (as I usually do in media training sessions), I decided to divide the group in half.
The first group played their usual role of serving as corporate spokespersons. I gave them a scenario to work with, asked them to develop their messages and media strategy, and told them to assign a person who would deliver a press conference.
The second group was tasked with playing the role of reporters during a press conference. I told them that their job was to do everything they could to get the facts the spokesperson was reluctant to offer. I instructed them to get past the spin, challenge evasive responses, and do whatever they could to get to the truth.
The second group took their job seriously. When the press conference began, they were unforgiving of anything that remotely bordered spin. They asked tough follow-up questions, used evidence to contradict some of the spokesperson’s claims, and adopted an almost hostile tone. Frankly, they were tougher than most of the reporters I’ve ever seen at press conferences.
The “Aha!” Moment
When the press conference ended, I asked both groups what they were feeling. The group representing the company said they felt exhausted and beaten up. But the group of reporters was pissed. They felt that the company was being evasive, and they resented the company’s lack of candor.
I didn’t have to say anything. My takeaway message seemed to wash over everyone simultaneously: Reporters aren’t always being jerks just to be jerks; sometimes, they just resent that you’re not being straight with them.
That profound realization, which reminded me of the old adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, changed their perspective. Suddenly, they understood how they were complicit in the media’s reaction to their attempts at media management—and they recognized the need to begin doing things differently.
Dear Ms. Sacco:
Along with many thousands of other people, I followed your story late last year after you sent an incendiary tweet that spread around the globe within a few hours.
As far as I can tell, you haven’t discussed the incident publicly since that time (with the exception of issuing an apology through a South African newspaper). Reports suggest that after volunteering in Ethiopia for a month, you’ve gotten another PR position with the website “Hot or Not.”
I’d like to offer you a forum for your first interview since the incident. I’m sure you’ve already been approached by dozens of news organizations, bloggers, and websites, but my interest in speaking to you is at least somewhat different from theirs.
Many of this blog’s readers are PR practitioners, and they’re interested in applying the lessons learned from your case to other clients. We’ve all observed the media dynamic that occurs after a major sex scandal (e.g. Monica Lewinsky, Fawn Hall), a racist tirade (e.g. Mel Gibson, Michael Richards), or unusual public behavior (e.g. Anthony Weiner, Rob Ford). Those cases are all different from yours, of course, but the same questions remain: What should you do now? How can you move on from such an incident? And most importantly, what have you learned from this experience that other people can benefit from?
I’m not offering a softball interview—I’d ask the questions that should be asked in any credible encounter that conforms to news standards. But I would promise you fairness. None of my questions would be gratuitous, I wouldn’t distort any of your quotes to make the story more salacious, and I won’t create a snarky title to generate more clicks. My post would be direct, honest, and fair to the story.
If you’d prefer, I’d also be willing to record and post the entire interview—which we could conduct in person (I’m in the New York area), via Skype, or by phone—so that viewers or listeners could judge your words in their full context, not through my edited version of our interview.
If you’d like to speak off the record to discuss the possibility of an on-the-record interview, you can contact me at Brad@PhillipsMediaRelations.com.
There were many media disasters from which to choose this month.
I could have chosen NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s press conference, which failed to satisfy anyone. I could have selected President Obama, who gave his critics easy ammunition by saying, “We don’t have a strategy” to deal with ISIS. Finally, I could have named this Toronto school board trustee for delivering an illogical interview.
Despite good arguments for all of those media moments, I kept coming back to an interview Mike Tyson conducted with a Canadian news anchor earlier this month (this monthly feature was always intended to highlight the serious, the sublimely ridiculous, and everything in between).
According to Mashable, Tyson was “in Canada to promote his one-man show,” during which time he met with and endorsed Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (who subsequently dropped out of the race due to serious health issues). But when Tyson sat down with Nathan Downer on Toronto’s CP24, one of the host’s questions upset him—and he looked like he might take a chunk out of Downer’s ear.
Warning: This video contains numerous obscenities and one scary-looking tattoo.
The question that sparked Tyson’s expletive-laden tirade was this:
“Some of your critics would say, ‘This is a race for mayor, we know you’re a convicted rapist, this could hurt his campaign.’ How would you respond to that?”
Those “some say” questions—which can be journalistically dubious—are ripe for rebuttals that challenge the premise. Tyson did exactly that, beginning his answer reasonably:
“I don’t know who said that. You’re the only one I know who said that.”
But then Tyson lost it, calling the anchor a “piece of shit,” saying “fuck you” on live television twice, and threatening the host when reminded he was on live TV (“What are you going to do about it?”).
Tyson should expect to face questions about that conviction, which can be easily deflected (“I paid my debt to society, have been out of prison for almost 20 years, and am here to talk about my one-man show.”).
Instead, interviews like this one show that he still has the same volatile temper he’s always had—the same one that led to charges of domestic abuse in his marriage to Robin Givens, a rape conviction, and being disqualified from a heavyweight title fight for biting off a piece of his opponent’s ear.
Despite all of those incidents, Tyson has enjoyed an improbable comeback in recent years, including an HBO airing of his one-man show and a scene-stealing cameo in The Hangover (below).
I’ve always had reservations about the wisdom of Mike Tyson receiving a full Hollywood comeback; my uneasiness aside, “Brand Tyson” has been doing quite well in recent years. But this interview might—hopefully, in my view—slow his public return to favor just a little.
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