Vance McAllister’s Savvy Crisis Communications

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 9, 2014 – 1:04 pm

Married Louisiana Congressman Vance McAllister was caught on surveillance video this week passionately kissing a woman at his local office.

The woman, Melissa Anne Hixon Peacock, was a longtime friend and donor to McAllister’s campaign. Making matters more complicated, the woman’s husband was also a friend and contributor to  McAllister’s campaign; Mr. Peacock told CNN that this incident has “wrecked his life.”  

Even worse, Ms. Peacock was on McAllister’s payroll and was terminated after the video became public.

The Republican freshman has vowed to remain in office, but the messy incident has remained in the news, threatening his young political career.

According to CBS News, McAllister is “reportedly asking for an FBI investigation into the source of the leaked security footage.”

A friend and trusted colleague emailed me today and said, “This seems like a bad idea to me. You cheated on your wife and kids, don’t ask the FBI to find the person who caught you doing it.” 

I understand where he’s coming from, but I disagree on this one. Rep. McAllister is taking a page out of two smart crisis management playbooks: Don Draper’s and David Letterman’s.

Vance McAllister

Don Draper, the fictional MadMen anti-hero, famously said, “If you don’t like what is being said, then change the conversation.” McAllister’s request may help shift at least part of the storyline from his steamy kisses onto the person who leaked the footage.

As for David Letterman, he paid a relatively small public price after news of his affair with a staffer became public. He benefited from having a bad guy in the story who was worse than he was—a blackmailer—and that blackmailer took a much worse media drubbing.

I wish McAllister’s crisis management strategy was to apologize, resign, and retreat from public life. But if his goal is to remain in office, his “find the leaker” strategy may help.

UPDATE, April 9, 2014, 5:40pm

Well, so much for that. According to Politico, Rep. McAllister’s staff said the congressman would no longer pursue an investigation into the leaker. It looks like he will have little to hide behind other than the de rigueur “I have let my family down and will try to do better” line.

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It Looks Like General Motors Failed The SNL Test

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 6, 2014 – 11:12 am

General Motors CEO Mary Barra testified to Congress this week regarding her company’s delay in recalling faulty vehicles that are responsible for at least 13 deaths.

Ms. Barra is new to her position—she became CEO less than three months ago—and she’s trying to usher in a new era of transparency. But as last night’s Saturday Night Live noted, the multiple evasions during her testimony won’t help her in that effort.

SNL often reflects—or sets—national sentiment. To be their target in an opening sketch is not going to help GM’s crisis management efforts at all

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The President Who Urinated In His Pants While Speaking

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 19, 2014 – 4:40 pm

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos urinated in his pants while delivering a speech on Sunday. 

The 62-year-old—a prostate cancer survivor—was launching his re-election campaign when a wet spot began to form in the front of his trousers.   

Incontinence is a common but unfortunate side effect of prostate cancer surgery. According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, “About 5 to 10 percent of all men who undergo prostate surgery experience mild but permanent stress incontinence, in which a small amount of urine passes while coughing, laughing, or exercising.”

Nonetheless, some critics are mocking Mr. Santos for what had to be a mortifying incident.

While such mocking is inappropriate, cruel, and inhumane, the incident did lead to a reasonable question that Mr. Santos would have to address: Is he healthy enough to serve another term?

Juan Manuel Santos Urine

To his credit, President Santos reacted quickly. He delivered a joint press statement alongside his physician and released the same statement in print. 

“Just as soon as this episode occurred, which was obviously quite uncomfortable for me and my family, they started sending the video showing what had happened to me around on the Internet, along with commentaries that were not only offensive but frankly, cruel, following something that could happen to any human being.

But now they are insinuating that I am ill and that therefore I am not prepared to occupy the presidency for four more years.

I want to make it clear, it is not true: I am in perfect health….

For my part, I would like to thank all Colombians who have expressed their understanding and good wishes.

And I must say also that it is very sad, very disappointing, that politics would result from this personal and human situation that could have happened to anyone.”

(The full transcript appears in the comments section below)

President Santos made the right choice by delivering an in-person statement. His tone was direct and mature, and he managed to retain his integrity while discussing a humiliating moment. He scored points simply by showing up and addressing the issue—which, in many cases, helps to diminish the shelf life of a media frenzy.

I’m not sure what the media landscape in Colombia looks like. If this had happened to an American politician, I’d add only one additional crisis management technique: humor. For example, I might advise a politician to accept an invitation to The Tonight Show, where he could exhibit his humanity and humor with a simple line delivered with a smile, such as: “Well, I’ve had better days.”

Mr. Santos should consider three additional precautions: wearing absorbent undergarments (if he’s not already), wearing darker-colored pants, and speaking from behind a full lectern.

I’d like to thank Deborah Brody, a bilingual, D.C.-area marketing communications pro, who transcribed Mr. Santos’s quotes into English. I hope you’ll return the favor by checking out her terrific English-language blog.

Thanks, also, to reader @ConsueCorrales for bringing this story to my attention.


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Plagiarism: This Crisis Pro’s Words Look Exactly Like Mine

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 10, 2014 – 9:22 am

Brian West—co-lead of the global crisis communications practice and managing director of reputation management in Asia Pacific for PR giant FleishmanHillard—was quoted as saying the following today in an article on Marketing Interactive:

“When a crisis strikes, many attorneys have the same instinct: to clamp down on corporate communications and make the fewest number of public statements possible (if any at all). That’s because an attorney’s primary job is to minimise future financial payouts and, in cases of criminal wrongdoing, to reduce a company’s culpability in any future legal action,” adds West.”

The problem? West didn’t say that. I did. That quote appears verbatim in my book, The Media Training Bible, and was also quoted verbatim in a recent blog post.

Brian West

A second passage in his comments, although not lifted word-for-word, also seemed heavily inspired by that same post. I sent Mr. West (@westoweather on Twitter) an email asking why he had plagiarized my work. He responded by claiming his innocence and offering one of those lame “if/then” apologies:

Hi Brad

“Did I? I did not intend to and if I did I apologise and I will have the record amended. Which bit are you referring to?”

He then wrote back again, claiming the plagiarism wasn’t his fault:

“While I produced most of the material for the story, it was not all in one go and when I was travelling a member of my staff handled other some follow up questions.”

Here are a few facts:

  • Mr. West receives my email newsletter.
  • This excerpt was sent out in my newsletter on October 17, 2013.
  • Mr. West clicked on that link.
  • No one else from FleishmanHillard is on my email list.

It’s possible that Mr. West is telling the truth, that he is an innocent victim of someone else’s plagiarism. In order for that to be true, of course, it means that he allows other people on his staff to submit on-the-record comments to the press without checking them first. I’ll give Mr. West the benefit of the doubt that that’s possible.

Either way, the regional head of reputation management for a major global PR firm is responsible for the plagiarized content that appeared in his name. At the very least, it would have been nice to have received a genuine apology.

UPDATE: MARCH 10, 2014, 11:20am

I just received this email from Brian West:

“Brad

I take full responsibility for the use of copy from your book, without attribution, that then appeared as a quote from me.  For that I sincerely apologise.  I want to share the reasons with you but it is not for publishing as there is no excuse – it was my mistake and I will have to live with that; the material was supplied subsequent to my original contact with the journalist.  It was researched and supplied by a member of my staff and the staff member did not realise the journalist would take everything supplied as a quote from me.  The second mistake was that it wasn’t correctly attributed.

I am distressed this has happened and on both fronts I acknowledge my error and will ensure it does not happen again.  I am happy to discuss this in person if you would like me to call you.

Brian”

UPDATE: MARCH 10, 2014, 10:40pm

Thank you to Marketing Interactive, which just corrected the attribution of that quote from Mr. West to me. I appreciate their commitment to looking into the facts and correcting the record. 

BEFORE

Brian West Before

AFTER

Brian West After

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


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The 5C’s Of Crisis Communications

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 20, 2014 – 6:02 am

A crisis strikes your company. News helicopters are flying overhead, reporters with camera crews are showing up at your headquarters, and journalists from all over the world begin calling your communications department. 

That scenario might seem dramatic—and admittedly, most corporate crises aren’t quite that sensational—but it happens. When a plane crashes, a factory has a major explosion, or a university has a school shooting, all of those things happen, and more. 

It’s common for executives to deliver a press conference in those situations—and how well they come across during their early press conferences and media interviews is critical to establishing a strong public perception. 

The 5C’s of crisis communications detail the five critical traits all executives and spokespersons must convey during their press conferences and interviews.   

Press Conference Microphones

 

1. Competence

Early in a crisis—before the facts are known and when company officials are as blindsided as everyone else by the news—it’s easy for an executive to appear flustered, unsure, and tentative. As an example, watch this example of the flustered chairman of a rail company responding to a derailment that killed more than 40 people in Quebec.

The public can’t see how well you perform handling the details of the crisis itself. They can’t watch you delegate roles, see your private meetings, or hear your phone calls. So fairly or not, they will judge your competence based on how well you perform during your time in the media spotlight. Handle a tough press conference with dexterity? You’re deemed competent. Look uneasy before cameras? You’re not.

Lac-Mgantic Press Conference

 

2. Credibility

There’s one question that drives the public’s perception of an executive or spokesperson more than any other: “Does he or she get it?” Anything that undercuts an executive’s credibility threatens their public image for the rest of the crisis, and possibly forever. In some cases, the best way to gain credibility is to concede, rather than defend, an obvious point.

When BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward declared during the worst oil spill in U.S. history that “the amount of volume of oil…we are putting into [the Gulf of Mexico] is tiny in relation to the total water volume,” the public concluded that he didn’t get it. He should have conceded that it was an environmental disaster and stopped there.

Tony Hayward

 

3. Commitment

To set the right tone, executives and spokespersons generally need to express (in words or actions) a deep commitment to communicating with any affected stakeholders, the media, and the general public. Doing so ensures that reporters use you as the primary source and helps communicate your commitment to solving the problem (or at least mitigating its effects).

When Carnival Cruises had a PR challenge in February 2013 after an on board fire knocked out water and power, the company’s CEO got credit for showing up when the ship docked and going on board to  apologize to passengers personally. But the company’s commitment to communicating to the passengers themselves was less effective; many complained that the crew didn’t keep them fully informed about the situation.

Carnival Triumph

 

4. Caring

Little makes the public turn on an executive or public figure in crisis more than someone who’s cavalier toward any victims. As an example, when Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, he took the opportunity to “jokingly” label a former teammate’s wife—who Armstrong had falsely called a liar for years—a “crazy bitch.”

Few executives label victims that way, but they might communicate their indifference through self-focus. If an executive talks about the way he or she has suffered more than the way the actual victims suffered (see Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back,”) they will be held in low regard or become outright pariahs.

CYCLING-ARMSTRONG/

 

5. Capability

Finally, the public must perceive that the executive is capable of solving the problem. BP’s Tony Hayward failed that test. So did Susan G. Komen Foundation CEO Nancy Brinker. So did Paula Deen. So did Lululemon founder Chip Wilson.

But Jet Blue’s David Neeleman got it exactly right. When Jet Blue faced a media crisis after canceling hundreds of flights and leaving passengers stuck on grounded planes without food or water for many hours in 2007, CEO David Neeleman responded by releasing a  “Passenger Bill of Rights.” That Bill of Rights offered passengers increasing levels of compensation based on the length of their flight delays.

This interview from The Today Show demonstrated his competence, credibility, commitment, caring, and capability.

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This Press Conference Is Over! (Or Maybe It Isn’t?)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 13, 2014 – 9:49 pm

By now, you’ve probably heard about the West Virginia chemical leak that contaminated water for 300,000 local residents.

Gary Southern, the president of Freedom Industries (the company responsible for the leak) gave an epically bad initial press conference late last week. Although much of it was a mess, most of the subsequent media coverage focused on his unfortunate habit of sipping bottled water throughout the presser—a strange message to send considering that hundreds of thousands were without water.

Blogger Dave Statter summarized the company’s inept initial response thusly:

“Before the press conference Freedom Industries issued a brief statement (here) that, much like the press conference, was completely inadequate for this situation.  The statement is more the kind of information you would expect via social media and a company website in the initial stages of this incident…not a day and a half later.”

Since this story has already received so much coverage, I’m going to focus on a smaller—but remarkable—moment that hasn’t gotten as much notice.

Gary Southern Water

Five minutes into his nationally televised press conference, Mr. Southern decided he had enough. He announced that the press conference was over and started to walk away.

But then a reporter informed him that he couldn’t leave yet—it could be said that she scolded him into staying—and Southern sheepishly returned to the microphones.

Fast forward to the 5:00 mark to see this extraordinary exchange.

CEO Gary Southern: “At this moment in time, I think that’s all that we have time for, so thanks for coming, thanks for your questions.” (walks away)

WCHS-TV Reporter Kallie Cart: “We have more questions. Hey, hey, hey, hey. We’re not done.”

Southern: “You’re not done?” (returns to microphones)

Cart: “We’re not done. Does anyone else have any other questions?”

The moment I love the most in that exchange is that Cart wasn’t even keeping the CEO there for herself—she was insisting he stay to answer questions from other reporters. Upon listening to the audio, there’s no question who was in charge at that moment. It wasn’t Gary Southern. 

Kallie Cart

Where did Southern go wrong?

He ignored this advice about running a press conference, as originally published in my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview:

“When you finish your introductory statement (but before you open the floor to questions), tell reporters that you have a specific amount of time available to answer questions. In the early stages of a crisis, you might only allot five to ten minutes for questions…By announcing the time available at the outset, you won’t look like you’re abruptly ending the gathering when you call for the last question. That’s especially helpful if you’re being barraged by hostile questions—because you already announced your intention to end the question period after an allotted time, you can’t be accused of leaving in haste.

Count down the remaining time once or twice during the press conference. You might say, ‘I see we have five minutes left. Let’s see if we can get in two more questions.’”

I’d add one additional point. When announcing that you have limited time for questions, you should wrap that announcement inside a virtue. For example, Southern could have said:

“I am overseeing our company’s operational response, and my priority is to help people get safe drinking water back as quickly as possible. I’ll answer your questions for the next five minutes or so, but then I have to get back to leading that effort.”  

A grateful h/t to reader Deborah Brody (@DBMC), who pointed that moment out to me.

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I Am Not A Gay Lesbian Crook

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

I’ve written before about the dangers of uttering “quotes of denial,” in which the word “not” is placed immediately before a negative noun or adjective.

The problem is that the defensive-sounding negative word or phrase tends to linger longer in the public memory than the word “not.” So when Chris Christie uttered the phrase “I am not a bully” during his marathon press conference on Thursday, I knew it would be used against him.

Sure enough, here’s the cover from this weekend’s USA Today Weekend:

Chris Christie Not a Bully

Christie should have known better, as history has provided us with numerous examples of bad—or downright disastrous—quotes of denial.

Here are eight memorable examples:

Richard Nixon, 1973: “I am not a crook.” President Nixon’s unfortunate phrase, uttered at the height of the Watergate scandal, became the five most famous words he ever spoke.

Bill Clinton, 1998: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” President Clinton stood by his denial for seven months until he finally admitted that he had, in fact, had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.

Kenneth Lay, 2001: “We’re not hiding anything.” The CEO and chairman of Enron knowingly misled the public about his company’s woeful financial condition. The company filed for bankruptcy shortly after his untruthful claim.

Larry Craig, 2007: “I am not gay.” After being arrested for lewd conduct in an airport men’s bathroom, Idaho Senator Larry Craig denied the accusation by telling reporters, “I am not gay. I never have been gay.” (I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with being gay, only that if Craig’s intent was to deny it, he chose the worst way to do it.)

Larry Craig I Am Not Gat

John Edwards, 2008: “I know that it’s not possible that this child could be mine.” The Democratic presidential hopeful denied having a child with his mistress, Rielle Hunter. He later admitted that he is, indeed, the father.

Christine O’Donnell, 2010: “I’m not a witch.” Christine O’Donnell, the Republican Senate candidate from Delaware, had to do crisis control after a tape emerged of her saying a decade earlier that she had, “dabbled into witchcraft.” She took her critics on by releasing an ad that began with the words, “I’m not a witch.” The ad backfired, and she became fodder for the late night comics. She lost.

Oprah Winfrey, 2010: “I’m not a lesbian.” When the talk show host was asked about her relationship with close friend Gayle King, Ms. Winfrey tearfully denied the relationship was sexual. Her quotable quote was splashed across front pages worldwide. (I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with being lesbian, only that if Winfrey’s intent was to deny it, she chose the worst way to do it.)

Chris Christie, 2014: “I am not a bully.” Considering that Christie has made a career of incidents like this and this and this, his denial will only serve to reinforce his bullying nature.

How To Avoid The Language of Denial

In this video, I offer a tip for avoiding these types of “quotes of denial.” 

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Chris Christie’s Marathon Press Conference

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 9, 2014 – 1:00 pm

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie faced reporters today to respond to his administration’s brewing “bridge” scandal.

His press conference was far from perfect. But it was a net positive and a critical first step toward regaining some control of this story.

By delivering a “marathon press conference”—he answered questions for close to two hours—he left an indelible impression of openness and transparency. 

(Click here to catch up on the scandal, in which access to the George Washington Bridge was partially closed as political punishment.)

Chris Christie Bridge Press Conference

Based on his tone—which careened between sad, betrayed, incredulous, exasperated, and bewildered—I believe him. I suspect many others will, as well. When watching a politician respond to a crisis, viewers typically have a gut-level visceral reaction. Christie’s performance will lead to a favorable one for many. 

Beyond his tone, he also took specific action, firing a top aide. Christie made clear that he knew nothing about the bridge incident and has “nothing to hide.”

Still, his press conference was far from perfect. Christie spent far too much time talking about his own grief over the situation (“I’m humiliated by this.” “I am very sad today.”) instead of focusing on the people who were affected by this incident—commuters, parents, school children, and most critically, those who couldn’t receive an emergency response in a timely manner. He spent too much time talking about his own “stages of grief,” and not enough focusing on the New Jersey residents—and others—who his administration let down.

He also used a couple of politically dumb phrases:

  1. Dumb quote one: “I am not a bully.” Statements of denial are a media no-no, as they instantly evoke statements like “I am not a crook” and “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
  2. Dumb quote two: “Mistakes were made.” That passive-language gem has become a cliché for its lack of personal responsibility. In fairness, he took responsibility at several other moments.

He also stood behind a large, triple-sized lectern, putting an unnecessary and unhelpful physical barrier between himself and reporters.

The bottom line is that it’s never an enviable position for a politician to have to stand before reporters and claim that he was clueless about what his top lieutenants were doing. At best, it makes Christie look like a clueless and somewhat feckless manager.

But assuming everything he said in his press conference today was truthful, it was a critical and effective first step that may help Christie keep his 2016 presidential ambitions alive.

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

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    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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