A Perfect Example Of A Great Press Conference

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 2, 2014 – 12:02 am

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.”

 

Omaha Shooting

 

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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August 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 28, 2014 – 6:02 am

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:

Wesley Lowery

 

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:

Ferguson Tweets

 

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.


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July 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 31, 2014 – 6:02 am

A grand jury indicted Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice in March for third-degree aggravated assault. The indictment stems from an incident that took place in February, in which Rice allegedly knocked out his then-fiancée, now wife, Janay Palmer.

The video below, posted by TMZ, appears to show Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator. 

The National Football League announced last week that it would suspend Rice for the first two games of the season—a penalty that many football fans, women, and other humanoids who care about things like not abusing women—found infuriatingly unserious.

For context, the NFL has suspended dozens of players for four games or more for violating the League’s drug policy. Smoke a joint? Miss four games. Knock your soon-to-be-wife out cold? Just two.

Rice’s boss—Baltimore Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh—responded to the controversy last week with a flip tone that only served to inflame the situation:

”There are consequences when you make a mistake like that. I stand behind Ray, he’s a heck of a guy, he’s done everything right since, he makes a mistake, alright? He’s going to have to pay a consequence.”

Calling Rice’s conduct a “mistake” that was committed by a “heck of a guy” was tone-deaf—one wonders if Harbaugh would have given domestic abusers Ike Turner, Charlie Sheen, and Chris Brown the same benefit of the doubt (probably not, unless they could run for a touchdown). But his concluding comment was the reason I named him this month’s worst video media disaster:

”I think it’s good for kids to understand that it works that way, and that’s how it works. That’s how it should be.”

Give us a break, Coach. Don’t try to wrap this incident within a virtue. The only lesson you and the league have taught kids is that you will be welcomed back to the game with open arms by your coaches and teammates—and receive millions of dollars in 2014—as long as you sit out for two weeks.

If there’s any lesson here for kids aspiring to become a member of the NFL, it’s that it would be less consequential to beat your wife than it would be to smoke a joint.

John Harbaugh Ray Rice

Here’s an exercise you can do that shows why his response failed: Press play on the two videos above simultaneously. Does Harbaugh’s response seem even remotely congruent with the video of Rice dragging his lover off the elevator? Or does it come across as blithely dismissive?

What should Harbaugh have said? How’s this:

“Domestic abuse is a serious situation, and our team has absolutely no tolerance for it. Ray needs to pay a price for his actions—and he will not be welcome back onto this team until he does. People may debate the severity of his suspension, but what’s not up for debate is that fact that we agree wholeheartedly that he deserves to be punished.”

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Did A High School Principal Plagiarize A Graduation Speech?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 24, 2014 – 6:02 am

The Roosevelt Union Free School District in Long Island, New York doesn’t mess around when it comes to plagiarism. According to its Code of Conduct, plagiarism is among the worst offenses, punishable by a suspension of up to five days: Roosevelt Plagiarism Policy

That policy, however, was written for students. What happens if a principal is the person guilty of plagiarism?

According to Yahoo News, Roosevelt High School Principal Steven Strachan appeared to plagiarize a graduation message to seniors from a fellow principal in California. After the message was printed, Strachan apparently asked permission to “quote” from the California principal, but that principal refutes some of Strachan’s claims. It’s important to note that the message was far more than a simple quote, and it wasn’t attributed at all.

Even more embarrassingly, Strachan ended his message with an address to the wrong school and mentioned the wrong academic year, writing: “Congratulations to the Albany [California] High School Class of 2013.” For his part, Strachan blames a clerical error, telling Newsday:

“I sincerely apologize to the Roosevelt community and to the class of 2014 for the inadvertent clerical error causing mistakes to be printed in the 2014 yearbook. An unedited draft of my remarks was accidentally published rather than the final version, and I take full responsibility for the oversight.”

That excuse seems to be the new de facto response issued by plagiarizers; an Australian PR executive who appeared to plagiarize from my website earlier this year used the same excuse.

Two things make this story even worse.

Steven Strachan

1. Principal Strachan released the statement above through Zimmerman/Edelson, a PR firm, instead of issuing the statement personally.

As a result, he appears to be hiding behind a PR firm—and as of this writing, he appears not to have commented on this issue personally. The language in the statement is tepid and, to my eyes, unbelievable. A sincere apology doesn’t blame other people (unnamed people who caused the clerical error); use distancing passive language; and label the incident an “inadvertent…oversight.”

2. A member of the school district’s leadership team blamed the media for covering the story.

According to Newsday:

“Alfred T. Taylor, vice president of the Roosevelt school board, told the paper that the incident was an ‘unfortunate mistake that occurred’ and surprisingly said that ‘It’s unfortunate that somebody thought it was newsworthy.’”

It appears to me that Mr. Taylor should consult his own school district’s policy toward plagiarism and explain, specifically, why this principal should be dealt with less severely than a student who committed the same action.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. 

A grateful tip o’ the hat to reader Art Aiello; Steven Strachan photo via Yahoo News

 


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Dear Monica Wehby: Sorry, But You Can’t Polish This Turd

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 12, 2014 – 6:02 am

Dr. Monica Wehby is Oregon’s Republican nominee for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

According to Politico, she was accused “by her ex-boyfriend last year of ‘stalking’ him, entering his home without his permission and ‘harassing’ his employees, according to a Portland, Oregon police report.”

A Los Angeles Times report found that her behavior wasn’t confined to a single incident: “Wehby’s ex-husband and former boyfriend both [called] police and [accused] her of harassment in three separate episodes over roughly six years.”

These are difficult charges for any political candidate to contend with, and Dr. Wehby has struggled to put these incidents behind her. But her latest attempt at damage control was rather brazen.

Monica Wehby

According to The Associated Press, Wehby said:

“‘I think that the thing to learn from that is that I am a person who will stand up for what I believe in,’ Wehby said of the police reports. ‘I’m a person who doesn’t easily back down. I will fight for Oregonians with very strong conviction. I’m a very committed, determined person.’”

Did Dr. Wehby just try to sell her alleged stalking as a virtue by suggesting that the same traits that led two former partners to call the police would be useful in her role as a U.S. Senator?

Her blatant attempt to spin those police reports brought two rather crass phrases to mind: She’s trying to “polish a turd” and “put lipstick on a pig.” (To be clear, the “pig” in that analogy is not Dr. Wehby, but the stalking allegations themselves.)

Talk about a double standard. Could you imagine if a male candidate had used a similar approach? It would doom his race, similar to how Todd Akin’s infamous comments about “legitimate rape” led to national ridicule. 

Wehby’s technique of trying to turn a negative quality into a virtue can work in some instances. Ralph Nader turned his curmudgeon-like personality into a more positive image as a “crusader,” and John McCain turned his occasional lack of party loyalty into a more appealing image of being a “maverick.”

But turning stalking allegations into a positive? That’s one step too far—and completely unnecessary, considering that her ex-husband and ex-boyfriend are both reportedly supporting her campaign.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Is “I Didn’t Mean That Thing I Said” A Credible Excuse?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 5, 2014 – 5:02 am

Comedian Jonah Hill was caught on video last weekend telling a photographer who was following him, “Suck my dick, you faggot.”

I have big issues with paparazzi (and the outlets that buy their photos) who make a living violating the personal space and privacy of celebrities for profit; that stars snap occasionally in such situations seems like an understandable human response.

But what caught my attention was Jonah Hill’s first apology, in which he said: “In that moment, I said a disgusting word that does not at all reflect how I feel about any group of people.”

Hill’s response seems to fit into the de rigueur crisis response in such situations, which goes something like this: “Although I said what I said, it doesn’t represent who I am or what I believe.” (Hill’s apology on Tuesday’s The Tonight Show seemed sincere, and I doubt he’ll incur much reputational damage.)

Alec Baldwin used a similar approach after unleashing gay slurs last year: “As someone who fights against homophobia, I apologize.” Catch that? Although he said what he said, his words don’t represent his views.

After Mel Gibson made anti-Semitic remarks, he apologized by saying: “Please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite.”

Even (former) disgraced L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling tried a similar statement: “25 percent of my home game are black people and I love them.”

Here’s my question: Does the “What I said doesn’t represent what I feel” approach work? Is it credible?

Alec Baldwin Tweet

In Jonah Hill’s case, it might. He seemed genuinely aggrieved by his choice of words and their impact. And yet…if there wasn’t a place somewhere in him that viewed gay people differently, would he have chosen to lash out by calling someone a faggot? If Mel Gibson didn’t view Jews at least somewhat negatively, would he have used anti-Semitic slurs? Isn’t the language we choose representative of the thoughts we think?

Personally, I’m finding this type of response less and less credible. Michael Richards (Kramer on Seinfeld), who destroyed his career after a particularly ugly rant against African Americans (he repeatedly screamed the n-word at black audience members in a comedy club), may have gotten his response right: “I’ll get to the force field of this hostility, why it’s there,” he said.

That seems to be a more credible approach. I’d rather see a similar type of response in these instances: “Clearly, my choice of words tells me that I have some work to do on myself. Those words are ugly, hurtful, and even dangerous–and I will do everything in my power to understand the source of my prejudices and do the work it takes to extinguish them. In the meantime, I apologize for perpetuating the hurt so many people have endured.”

Does The "I Didn't Mean What I Said Approach" Work?

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What PR Pros Can Learn From Justin Bieber’s Apology

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 3, 2014 – 6:02 am

Earlier this week, video surfaced from five years ago of a then 15-year-old Justin Bieber telling a racist joke. If you have the stomach for such things, the video is below:

15-Year-Old Justin Bieber Tells Racist Joke – Watch More Celebrity Videos or Subscribe

 

(For those who can’t access the video, Bieber’s “joke” asked, “Why are black people afraid of chain saws?” The punchline, delivered in the cadence of a chainsaw, was, “Run, nigger, nigger, nigger.”)

According to the gossip site TMZ, Bieber knew “his own photog was in the room and rolling.” More surprisingly, TMZ exercised some editorial restraint in this case:

“TMZ got this video 4 years ago but we decided not to post it … in large part because he was 15 and immediately told his friends what he did was stupid.  People connected with Bieber say one African American was present at the time he told the joke.” 

I respect TMZ’s restraint. Racism is too often an insidious force in our country, but I’m not sure targeting teenagers for international condemnation is the best cure. Even TMZ decided to handle this case, in which a minor was involved, differently than it would the public racism of adult stars Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, and Donald Sterling, among others. But whether or not this should be news is irrelevant—it did make news, and Bieber’s team knew it had to respond.

Justin Bieber TMZ

Here’s the statement Bieber released to TMZ:

“As a kid, I didn’t understand the power of certain words and how they can hurt. I thought it was ok to repeat hurtful words and jokes, but didn’t realize at the time that it wasn’t funny and that in fact my actions were continuing the ignorance.

Thanks to friends and family I learned from my mistakes and grew up and apologized for those wrongs. Now that these mistakes from the past have become public I need to apologize again to all those I have offended. I’m very sorry. I take my friendships with people of all cultures very seriously and I apologize for offending or hurting anyone with my childish and inexcusable mistake. I was a kid then and I am a man now who knows my responsibility to the world and to not make that mistake again.

Ignorance has no place in our society and I hope the sharing of my faults can prevent others from making the same mistake in the future. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say but telling the truth is always what’s right. Five years ago I made a reckless and immature mistake and I’m grateful to those close to me who helped me learn those lessons as a young man. Once again….I’m sorry.”

As PR apologies go, that’s about as good as it gets. Bieber made no excuses, took full responsibility for his actions, apologized, and promised to do better. His apology offers a good template to corporate executives, politicians, and other public figures who find themselves in trouble.

There’s only one part of this apology that’s tough to accept: Bieber’s assertion that “I was a kid then and I am a man now who knows my responsibility to the world.” That line would have more credibility if not for his recent arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence while drag racing (among several other unrelated infractions).

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Turkish Prime Minister’s Cold Response to Mining Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 19, 2014 – 12:02 am

301 workers were killed last week after a massive mining accident in western Turkey. The tragedy is Turkey’s worst mining disaster ever, and it appears to be the deadliest mining accident worldwide in more than 50 years.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Instanbul to protest the government, which many people say is to blame for allowing the poor mining safety conditions that led to the accident. 

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan did a few things right in his response. He visited the site, comforted victims, and, according to The Telegraph, he “promised the tragedy would be investigated to its ‘smallest detail’ and that ‘no negligence will be ignored.’”

But then he violated a basic rule of crisis communications that must be adhered to when fatalities are involved.

Turkey Prime Minister

Erdogan (pictured above) sought to place the tragedy in a larger context, dismissing mining accidents as “ordinary things.” He became “defensive when asked whether sufficient precautions had been in place at the mine,” according to The Telegraph

“’Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It’s not like these don’t happen elsewhere in the world,’ he said, reeling off a list of global mining accidents since 1862.”

As reader Robert Durand wrote when sending me this story, parties involved in these incidents should “never attempt to put a tragedy in perspective, especially as events are still unfolding.”

He’s right. Context is not what’s needed during moments of crisis. What’s required is understanding, sympathy, and most importantly, a commitment to reducing the likelihood of similar problems in the future. (Erdogan and his aides also made several other mistakes.)

I offered a template to spokespersons confronting these types of situations in an earlier post titled “One is One Too Many.” In this case, Erdogan is unable to promise that mining accidents won’t happen in Turkey again; the dangerous nature of the work almost guarantees they will. But he would have been better served with a straightforward statement without any defensiveness:

“One mining death is excruciating; hundreds are unbearable. We may never be able to eliminate mining accidents altogether, but I will do everything in my power to reduce the likelihood of this type of mining accident from ever occurring again.”

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

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