When I search Twitter for the term “media training,” I frequently come across a tweet that suggests that a celebrity or politician who said something controversial “needs media training.”
In some cases, that’s true. But I’ve often observed that many people reflexively want to send everyone who’s ever uttered a controversial or provocative comment to media training immediately.
Media training isn’t about preventing people from ever expressing an unpopular or controversial view.
I occasionally work with someone who has a deep-seated belief about a controversial topic. We discuss the likely consequences of expressing that belief in the manner the person would like to do so. Sometimes, they’ll modify their approach to make the same point in a way that’s less likely to alienate their audiences. But ultimately, once they understand of the potential consequences, the choice of whether to proceed is theirs.
What’s important, therefore, is that spokespersons understand the potential consequences of saying something unpopular.
From a purely strategic perspective, expressing an unpopular thought isn’t always the wrong decision; in fact, it can be the type of marketing differentiator that allows someone to stand out from their more traditional peers.
Bill Maher, for example, has made a long career out of testing the boundaries of politically correct thought. A comment he made shortly after 9/11 cost him his job on ABC, and recent comments about Muslims prompted a strong backlash. But was the cure for those comments “media training,” or was Maher keenly aware of the potential consequences associated with expressing his views?
That said, as a general rule, celebrities (e.g. Bill Maher, Miley Cyrus) and politicians (e.g. Sarah Palin, Chris Christie) have more license to brand themselves as provocative than spokespersons representing a company or organization (e.g. the CEO of Boeing or Johnson & Johnson).
If you see someone making a controversial comment, think through these five questions before declaring them in need of media training:
- 1. Is the spokesperson or public figure fully familiar with the rules of working with the media?
- 2. Are they aware of the real and perceived landmines that could await their provocative statements?
- 3. Have they fully contemplated the risks of being perceived as a “provocateur” and are they prepared to accept them?
- 4. Could they be more effective in their roles if they chose their words and picked their battles more effectively?
- 5. Will their words not only potentially threaten their own brands, but hurt the people and brands they’re associated with?
The public figure could probably benefit from media training If any of the answers to questions 1-3 are “no” or the answers to questions 4-5 are “yes.” What do you think? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
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During a recent presentation training workshop, I discussed the best practices for PowerPoint design.
As usual, I made the case that words and bullets are ineffective mechanisms through which to transfer knowledge to an audience. Instead, I told the audience, well-designed visuals do more to make your points memorable than bullet points ever could.
To reinforce my point, I showed several examples of my “before and after” slides. (Those slides are proprietary, but these sample slides will give you a good idea of the approach I take.)
After making my impassioned case for cleaner slides, one woman in the audience—a lawyer who lectures about copyright law—raised her hand. She said, “I like what your slides look like, but there’s just no way we can do that here. Our content doesn’t work for those types of visual slides.”
I noticed that she had a rather large printout of her slides in front of her, so I asked her to flip to any random slide in her deck. She turned to a page that looked like this:
“See what I mean?” she said. “There’s not a creative way to do that.”
I asked her to tell me what point she wanted to make while showing that slide. “I want people to realize that those are four different things—and that obtaining legal clearance from only one of those parties may not be sufficient.”
I asked the audience to give me a moment to try to come up with something better. For the first several seconds of silence, I’ll admit that I was stumped—and as the seconds ticked away, I got increasingly nervous that I’d have to concede defeat.
Suddenly, I had an idea. I whipped out my iPhone and did a quick Google search. I got the facts I needed, turned back to the audience, and announced:
“The best slide you could show to make this point is to show no slide at all!”
Then, I pressed play on the song I had queued up on my phone, Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. The audience looked a bit confused as the song’s opening bass line kicked in, but I had their attention. Then, I said:
“Michael Jackson wrote and performed this song. But he didn’t produce it. Quincy Jones was the producer of this track. And Epic Records, a division of Sony, is the record label. If you want to use this song and think that all you’d have to do is clear it with Michael Jackson—or, in this case, his estate—you could set yourself up for serious legal risk.”
Without much prompting, she agreed that would be a much more effective approach. And it didn’t require a single bullet point.
If she had still wanted to use a slide, she could have shown a full-screen still from the Billie Jean video, an image of the 45 (remember those?), or just a shot of Michael Jackson. She could have embedded the audio into the slide, pressed play, and allowed the audience to wonder what her point was for a few seconds before delivering it.
With enough thought, there is almost always a better way to make your on-message visuals more memorable. And sometimes, you might find that your creative thought eliminates the need for a slide altogether.
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This post is by Christina Mozaffari, vice president for Phillips Media Relations.
Social media is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there’s an expectation that we maximize the amazing tools available to us to interact personally with customers and people we want to influence. However, these personal interactions also create plenty of room to get into trouble, and your tweets, posts, and comments never disappear.
Now, there’s even more reason to be cautious of what you say online. Last week, Politico Playbook mentioned a new opposition research firm called Shield Political Research. Its selling point? They analyze political staffers’ online media presence. From the company’s website:
“Many of the men and women who will staff and lead campaigns this cycle are from a generation in which virtually their entire adult lives —for better or worse —are reflected on social media accounts.
Shield will examine these social media accounts—Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, among other sites—and flag any potential sources of trouble, including questionable photos, comments, tweets, ‘likes’ or followed feeds.
Our methods go beyond simple searching, using triangulation, archived pages and social-web analysis to guarantee we capture a full picture of the staffer’s social media footprint.”
Frankly, I’m surprised it took this long for somebody to advertise the service specifically for political staffs, because staffers’ social media accounts have caused trouble in the past for countless politicians.
Take, for example, when a Facebook photo was discovered of then President-elect Barack Obama’s speechwriter, Jon Favreau, partying with and groping a cardboard cutout of the woman who would be the administration’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. While Favreau wasn’t fired, the photo certainly provided an unwanted distraction for the new administration and gave the impression the soon-to-be president’s inner circle might not be ready for primetime.
Politicians aren’t the only ones bitten by the offensive social media bug. Last month, a part-time Yankees ticket salesman was fired for tweeting vulgar comments about Curt Schilling’s daughter, and earlier this year, a Texas teen was fired before she even started her job for cursing and complaining about the work on Twitter.
What can you learn from this?
1. Your organization needs a social media policy.
If you don’t have one, create one, sooner rather than later. Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, urges companies to be thorough and detailed when it comes to developing the policy. She wrote:
“Be specific about what constitutes racism, sexism or harassment so people know what could get them fired. Get your HR, legal and communications people involved in creating the policy.”
2. Make sure your employees know that nothing in their social media world is private.
That little disclaimer line, “Tweets/posts reflect my personal opinion and not that of my employer” are meaningless.
3. Know your rights as an employer.
Can you fire somebody for inappropriate tweets? The National Labor Relations Board has weighed in on the topic and the law can be tricky. According to legal information site HG.org:
“Workers can vocalize, either in person or via social media, their sentiments and concerns regarding an employer without fear of losing their job… but only if they are discussing these concerns with other workers… If it is just one person vocalizing their own personal frustrations, it is not concerted, it is just complaining, and a firing is legal.”
So while being active on social media can be beneficial, Dietrich sums up what should be your guiding principle smartly, writing, “Don’t ever put something online you wouldn’t want your boss, grandma, kids or customers to see.”
Christina Mozaffari, a former journalist with NBC News, is the vice president for Phillips Media Relations.
Indiana’s new “religious freedom” law is exactly that to its supporters—but it’s an anti-gay discrimination law to its detractors.
Governor Mike Pence, who signed the bill into law last week, has been on the defensive since then, facing both an in-state and out-of-state backlash. Indianapolis-based Angie’s List put a major construction project on hold, and Salesforce.com, the State of Connecticut, and the City of Seattle are all forbidding official travel to the state, among others.
That backlash prompted Gov. Pence to appear on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos on Sunday.
First, in fairness, Mr. Pence did a lot right. He was clearly prepared for this interview, knew his talking points, and—even though I disagree with his position—defended it well, at least at moments.
He used an advanced media training technique I’ve written about before called “It’s Not This, It’s That” by arguing that the law he signed isn’t about discrimination, but religious liberty. That was a reasonable technique to use, and it would have been the same one I would have suggested had I trained him.
So why am I naming him the worst video media disaster of the month? Because you can’t refuse to answer a yes-no question six times—about a core question surrounding the law—and also maintain your credibility. His refusal to answer the same question that many times made his unstated answer plainly obvious.
Here are the six “yes-no” questions that Mr. Pence refused to answer:
“This is a yes or no question. Is Advance Indiana right when they say florists in Indiana can refuse to serve a gay couple in Indiana without fear of punishment?
“Yes or no. If a florist in Indiana refuses to serve a gay couple at their wedding, is that legal now in Indiana?”
“One of your supporters who was talking about the bill…said it would protect a Christian florist against any kind of punishment. Is that true or not?”
“Does that mean that Christians who want to refuse service—or people of any other faith—want to refuse service to gays and lesbians, that it’s now legal in the State of Indiana? That’s a simple yes or no question.”
“Final yes or no question, Governor. Do you think it should be legal in the state of Indiana to discriminate against gays and lesbians?”
“Yes or no. Should it be legal to discriminate against gays or lesbians?”
Pence was particularly squirmy during those last two questions. And his refusal to offer a flat “NO!” made it clear that he does believe it should be legal to deny service to gays and lesbians. (If that’s not the case, he could have easily offered a straightforward answer.) And he did offer many declarative answers elsewhere in the interview. On the question of whether it was a mistake to sign the law, for example, Pence offered a direct “Absolutely not.”
After the first one or two “yes or no” questions, Pence needed to offer a direct response. That doesn’t mean he had to use the words “yes” or “no,” but rather that he had address the topic in a more head-on manner. For example, he could have said:
“Let’s talk about that for a moment, George. If a person of faith believes that homosexuality is wrong, should the state force him or her to design a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage? Or a flower arrangement? Or provide a banquet hall? That’s not an easy black-or-white question for many people to answer, and it’s one that people in my state and many other states have struggled with.”
On Tuesday morning, Pence quickly called a press conference to announce that he was working with the state legislature to clarify that no one could be denied service due to their sexual orientation—and, in so doing, finally offered a direct answer to the question he refused to answer six times on Sunday. During that defensive press conference, he admitted that he could have “handled Sunday’s interview better.”
The bottom line? If you have to call a press conference to clean up a bad media interview during the biggest political crisis of your career, you have a self-imposed media disaster on your hands.
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When I’m in the shower
I’m afraid to wash my hair
‘Cause I might open my eyes
And find someone standing there
People say I’m crazy
Just a little touched
But maybe showers remind me of
“Psycho” too much
I always feel like somebody’s watching me
- “Somebody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell (1984)
Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell the difference between paranoia and appropriate caution. I’ve written about the risks of speaking too loudly in public spaces before, and each time I do, I can’t help wondering whether readers will think I’m engaging in unrealistic fear mongering.
So when our firm’s vice president forwarded me a link to a story I missed a while back, I felt a combination of horror and vindication. It seems my paranoia, if anything, has been understated.
Amy Webb, a reporter for Slate, calls herself “The Acela Spy.” Not only does Ms. Webb pay attention to the conversations around her—but she actively looks at the names on passenger tickets and chooses her seat accordingly.
“It’s astonishingly easy to become an Acela spy—even if you don’t really want to be a part of other riders’ business—as I have learned from years of experience. Until very recently, all Amtrak tickets were paper-based, and the tickets looked a lot like airline boarding passes. In addition to the train and destination information, they included the passenger’s full name in the upper left-hand corner. Also until recently, those tickets were wedged between the top of the cushion and the hard back of each seat, with the name showing for anyone who desired to look. (E-tickets on mobile phones are starting to replace paper tickets for some riders.)
It has been my practice to board the train, and then walk up and down the aisle to glance at the names on those tickets…Shortly after we leave the station and I’ve done my rounds, the mobile phones invariably come out. When they do, I take note of who’s talking, what’s being said, and the name I saw on the ticket.”
Those conversations are often rather damning. In one case, had she chosen to, Webb could have publicly identified two male bankers whose conversation would, at the very least, have made their next day at the office awkward.
“Soon, their conversation turned to a female co-worker who’d returned from maternity leave. Sales guy complained aggressively that while she’d been out of the office for so long, the software they used had upgraded. There was no way she’d ever get caught up, he argued. She had the audacity to put in for a promotion, after being gone for three months!
HR guy concurred. Women were a major distraction, holding back productivity and advancement at their bank. It was a shame they couldn’t legally fire a woman for getting—or even wanting to get—pregnant.”
Webb’s conclusion is very similar to the one I’ve offered several times, both on this blog and in The Media Training Bible:
“The problem is that trains—even in first class, where I’ve observed the worst offenders—aren’t private. They’re very public venues, just like Twitter. And just like on Twitter, sometimes we forget that we’re actually on stage as we reveal our own worst private selves to the outside world.”
I agree with Webb’s conclusions that conversations, in public and at normal volume, are ethically reportable. But the ethics of eavesdropping on unwilling participants—someone making an obvious effort to shield their work or whisper, for example—are less clear.
Either way, Webb has helped justify my paranoia. You will probably be well served if you imagine that she’s always seated next to you—at every restaurant, at every party, and on every airplane.
This is a guest post by Ted Flitton, a public relations professional working in the banking industry.
For centuries, the Catholic Church has used the teaching of vice as a guide to help people live a virtuous life.
Today, those ancient lessons have spread throughout much of western society and popular culture. They form the subplots of movies, books, and theater. Smart reporters even use the seven deadly sins to provide a narrative depth to news stories. Media relations practitioners take notice.
Recently, Sun Life Financial found itself subtly cast less-than-favorably in a news story in which a policyholder with dementia took an action that had a near-disastrous financial consequence for his family. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Bruce Gabriel was a policyholder who suffers from Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia:
“…as his mind was slipping, in 2010, he called up his insurance agent — when his wife was away at work — to cancel his two policies.
He had paid more than $17,000 in premiums since 1983 and cashed in for less than $2,000 on policies that would have paid his family $140,000 when he dies.”
Upon discovery, Bruce’s wife Debbie tried to have the situation reversed. After four years of pleas, the company remained steadfast. It then wanted Bruce to undergo extensive tests and still did not reverse course, budging only after media inquired about the standoff. This can be characterized as sloth.
Other characterizations in the story are more damning. The CBC writes that Sun Life “repeatedly refused to undo the damage” to the family’s finances and labeled letters denying coverage as “rejections.” Unable to get other coverage, Debbie said the experience left them feeling “very powerless in the face of big business,” and that she and her family felt “vulnerable … and we had no recourse.” She added the family felt “robbed” of a sense of security and Bruce Gabriel said they felt “stolen from.” Enter the second “sin,” malice.
Sun Life’s own words can be viewed as adding to this narrative. In letters to Debbie, it concludes the tests it ordered “do not provide any new evidence that your husband was incompetent and therefore, incapable of making the decision he made.” Later, when reversing course and reinstating the policy, a spokesperson said, “We are making an exception on compassionate grounds in this unique case,” as though the company was begrudgingly doing the family a favor. The lack of support to the family, combined with sometimes harsh language used by the company and others, underscores a narrative of pride.
I have sympathy for Sun Life. The perception of slothful behavior is difficult for many companies to avoid: they must do their utmost to investigate all situations thoroughly to protect policyholders and investors. To make hasty decisions is financially irresponsible, precedent-setting, and could cause harm to others depending on them.
“Sloth” could also be a deliberate strategy. The company could truly view this situation as exceedingly unique and may be making an exception after rigorous investigation. Of course, this strategy is fraught with risk and an accusation of sloth is often the first domino that starts the narrative chain reaction.
Media relations practitioners must decide: Which strategy will you choose—and are you prepared for that plan’s related baggage?
A Better Approach
In an alternative conclusion to this matter, the company could have written:
“As our population ages, we suspect there will be more families who will find themselves in a similar unthinkable situation. Many companies, including ours, need to train front-line personnel to be better prepared to identify and at least try to take preemptive action to avoid them. No company can avoid all of them—but we can work harder to reduce such situations, and we will.”
The CBC article referenced another constructive approach by quoting a representative of the Alzheimer’s Society of Ontario, who argued for contractual cooling off periods for people struggling with dementia. Working with such an organization could generate better protocols and provide a powerful balanced third party, thereby reducing the number of sins—real or perceived—being cast upon Sun Life.
Ted Flitton is a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.
Many university presidents have found themselves in hot water recently for dispensing what they thought of as “common sense” campus safety advice to students. Seemingly innocuous pieces of advice, such as “be careful how much you drink,” are increasingly being perceived as “victim blaming.”
I’m not an expert in this area, so in an effort to learn more, I spoke with Katherine Hull Fliflet, the vice president of communications for RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
First, you’ll find several examples below of university heads who have become embroiled in controversy due to their comments on sexual assault.
George Washington University
“Without making the victims responsible for what happens, one of the groups that have to be trained not to drink in excess are women. They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave.”
He later defended his comments by saying:
“You need to educate the men but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to arm your women with the ability to defend themselves…It doesn’t shift the blame, ultimately, but you have to be wise and street smart.”
The president of Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, Robert Jennings, resigned in November after saying the following, as summarized by The Huffington Post:
“Men treat you, treat women, the way women allow us to treat them. We will use you up if you allow us to use you up,” he said, adding that men will “marry the girl with the long dress on.”
Donald Eastman, president of Florida’s Eckerd College, wrote the following in an open letter to students and faculty in November:
“You know that these incidents are almost always preceded by consumption, often heavy consumption, of alcohol, often by everyone involved in them…No one’s culture or character or understanding is improved by casual sex.”
University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department
In an October crime prevention tip sheet, the UW-Madison police department wrote the following, according to the Wisconsin State Journal:
“If you present yourself as easy prey, then expect to attract some wolves…If you make yourself a hard target, one who is aware of their surroundings, you take away two elements of a crime: desirability and opportunity.”
The department quickly revised the tip sheet after being accused of victim blaming.
What Should University Leaders Say?
First, one thing appears rather obvious in some of the examples above: Any time safety advice is couched in the language of “moral” sexual behavior, it crosses into being broadly perceived as unacceptable victim blaming.
But what about the question of educating students about the potential perils of alcohol abuse as it relates to sexual assault? Wouldn’t it be wise for university presidents to address that issue? “It’s too narrow,” says Ms. Hull Fliflet of RAINN, who argues that putting that much emphasis on a single risk factor diminishes the broader conversation.
“It’s more effective to speak to the student body as a whole about risk reduction for reducing crime on campus in terms of friends having roles to play as opposed to directing the advice to an individual student.”
University leaders can use a RAINN fact sheet called “protecting your friends” to educate students about the need to keep an eye out for their peers in social situations, step in and create a distraction when “a situation doesn’t feel right,” and enlist others as “reinforcements.” As examples, a group of female students can keep an eye on one another, but male students can also look out to make sure their male peers aren’t engaging in potentially risky behavior.
Another suggestion: Hull Fliflet says it’s critical to communicate this advice in a gender-neutral manner since victims aren’t always women. She also wonders why, as in so many of the examples above, authorities focus on “don’t drink” as their key piece of advice instead of “don’t rape.” More broadly, she argues that university presidents must communicate that they take these issues seriously—and bolster their policies to match their rhetoric.
With so many leaders being singed by touching this hot topic in the wrong way, I suspect that many university heads would rather stay away from this issue altogether. Hull Fliflet says that’s the wrong solution. “This is a real opportunity for a college president to make it clear that all reports of sexual assault will be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly,” she says. “They just need to be honest that their school isn’t immune.”
A Few Final Thoughts
University leaders who fail to pay attention to these sensitivities (or go well beyond them, as in some of the examples above) must learn about and remain aware of the potential landmines. My suggestion? Before speaking out on these topics, consult with outside experts, make sure you understand where sensitivities exist, and work collaboratively to develop a set of public safety suggestions that achieve your goals without repelling the very people they’re intended to help.
Please leave your thoughts below. I look forward to learning from you.
h/t Huffington Post
On Thursday, Monica Lewinsky delivered a much-anticipated TED Talk about her experience as “Patient Zero” in the Internet age of public humiliation.
Her story—and President Clinton’s—dominated the headlines in 1998, threw an administration off-topic for a year, and contributed to the impeachment of a sitting U.S. president. I was eager to hear what she had to say, both from the perspective of American history and her personal narrative.
Ms. Lewinsky proceeded to deliver a gripping 20-minute talk full of poise, integrity, humor, vulnerability, and seriousness of purpose. Although she might have been thrust into the headlines for unfortunate reasons, her reemergence onto the public scene stands to make society better.
Lewinsky discussed her own case, during which she was so low at one point that her parents insisted she shower with the bathroom door open to make sure she didn’t commit suicide. She was compelled to reemerge as a public figure, she says, for a related reason—the 2010 suicide of an 18-year-old Rutgers student whose same-sex kiss was taped and shared online without his knowledge.
“Every day online, people—especially young people who are not developmentally equipped to handle this—are so abused and humiliated that they can’t imagine living to the next day. And some, tragically, don’t.”
Although offline bullying, shaming, and humiliation have been around almost as long as humankind itself, Lewinsky points out that the Internet has changed the scale dramatically.
“Online, technologically enhanced shame is amplified, uncontained, and permanently accessible.”
“Millions of people, often anonymously, can stab you with their words, and that’s a lot of pain.”
“There is a very public price to humiliation, and the growth of the Internet has jacked up that price.”
Lewinsky issued a clarion call to action: Don’t be bystanders to online bullying. Speak out against it, offer compassion to those who are being targeted, and refuse to click on links that lead to the for-profit humiliation of others. As she says in her closing remarks, “Public shaming as blood sport has to stop.”
One thing I hope Ms. Lewinsky addresses in future talks is the question of where the line is between tough but responsible analysis and unnecessary humiliation. At times, that line is easy to spot—those who called her a “tramp,” “slut,” or “whore” should be granted no corner in which to hide from their words. But other parts of the story are trickier.
For example, we can argue about whether The Starr Report, which contained sordid details about their relationship, should have been released publicly. But once it was, didn’t news organizations, which were covering the potential impeachment of a U.S. president, have a responsibility to report on its contents? If so, that would inevitably lead to humiliation for those involved. But I’m not sure such a decision, although uncomfortable, is wrong.
Is the difference between acceptable and unacceptable coverage of a newsworthy figure a matter of tone? If the reporter treats the subject in the limelight as a complete human being rather than a one-dimensional figure, does that mark the difference?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. I suspect Ms. Lewinsky has considered them, and hope she will choose to address to some point.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.