Hillary Clinton faced reporters for 20 minutes this afternoon to answer questions about the personal email account she used while serving as Secretary of State.
Secretary Clinton repeatedly came back to the same talking points: She had operated within the rules of the State Department and opted to use a personal account (and her own server) due to the convenience of carrying one phone instead of two.
But a key question continues to hang in the air, and today’s press conference did little to answer it: If Clinton’s team decided which emails to keep and which to delete, how can anyone know whether something work-related but embarrassing was deleted?
Clinton answered that, in part, by saying that State Department rules make it incumbent upon the employee to differentiate between personal and professional emails.
But Clinton also said she wouldn’t allow an independent investigator to review the content on her server—and that it wouldn’t matter anyway, because she recently deleted all of her personal emails on topics such as her daughter’s wedding and mother’s funeral.
That, more than anything, strikes me as odd. Other than preventing other people from ever being able to see them, why delete those emails? Could she not have reached an agreement with a trusted third-party—such as a reporter or respected former government official—to review the personal emails with a guarantee of confidentiality for all emails that truly contained no work-related content?
It’s possible that Clinton’s experienced team considered and rejected that idea, calculating that the potential risk of those emails becoming public was greater than the risk of being perceived as secretive.
Several people pointed out to me that her body language—specifically her lack of eye contact—was telling. I noticed her lack of eye contact too, but due to “Othello’s Error,” am reluctant to speculate on its cause. What seemed obvious, though, is that she didn’t exactly forge a warm connection with her interrogators.
Just like Mitt Romney found out after his refusal to release several years’ worth of tax returns, narratives can be difficult things to reverse. In 2012, I wrote the following for Politico:
“Mitt Romney has already lost the tax debate. By not releasing additional returns, he has allowed his opposition to paint the worst case scenario onto him — that there are years he failed to pay any taxes whatsoever.”
Clinton is fortunate that it’s early in the campaign. This story is unlikely to stop her seemingly inevitable march to the Democratic nomination. But she must know that any future stories appearing to confirm a lack of transparency will take hold—and that her Republican opponents will be doing everything possible to exploit that.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Many people tell me they were instructed by a previous media trainer never to gesture when they speak. A few were even taught—often by grade school teachers—that gesturing is rude.
That’s terrible guidance. Your goal during a media interview is to appear as natural on camera as you are in person, and almost everyone gestures naturally when they speak. Sure, a small percentage of people gesture too much, but that’s a rare problem.
According to body language experts Allan and Barbara Pease, “Using hand gestures grabs attention, increases the impact of communication, and helps individuals retain more of the information they are hearing.”
In other words, gesturing not only helps you look more natural but also enhances the impact of your words.
We see that regularly in our media training sessions. When we encourage trainees to incorporate gestures into their delivery, something amazing happens: their words get better. The physical act of gesturing helps them form clearer thoughts and speak in tighter sentences.
To gesture effectively, keep your hands “unlocked” at all times—no clasped hands, hands behind your back, hands in pockets, or arms crossed in front of you. Those “closed” positions can communicate arrogance or defensiveness, and they lower the audience’s ability to absorb and retain your information.
For seated interviews, keep your hands and arms unlocked and ready to gesture at any moment. When not gesturing, you can:
- Keep your hands on your lap near your knees.
- Nest your hands loosely within one another atop your lap.
Avoid clasping your hands or gripping your thighs, which can make you appear nervous (men should also be careful to steer clear of the defensive “hand covering groin” position).
For standing interviews, you have two good options:
- Loosely nest your hands, one within the other, keeping them at navel level when not gesturing.
- Rest your hands at your side, bringing them up to gesture (it feels strange, but looks fine to the audience).
If you’re having a tough time gesturing naturally, speak about 10—15 percent louder than usual. As parents know all too well, it’s impossible to yell at your kids while your hands and arms are frozen—an increase in volume helps to reanimate motionless hands.
Finally, some people wonder if they should still gesture if the television program on which they’re appearing will only use a tight shot of their face, neck, and shoulders. Absolutely. Viewers can always tell if a spokesperson is gesturing—even if they can’t see the movements—because the spokesperson’s face is more expressive as a result.
In the last lesson, you learned to begin most of your answers with the lead. But there’s one time you should use a slightly less direct lead: when you’re asked a broad question about your work, such as, “Can you tell me about your company?”
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, spokespersons answer that type of open-ended question with a direct lead by saying something like:
“Well, the Association for the Advancement of Arkansas Education is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with 25 employees working in four statewide offices to improve elementary and secondary education in Arkansas.”
“Smith Toys is one of the leading companies in the United States making high-quality children’s toys in an affordable and sustainable manner.”
I’m guessing neither of those statements grabbed you. They’re not bad, since both conveyed real information, but they’re rather bland and uninspiring.
Worse, neither statement is particularly original. It’s easy to imagine that dozens of American companies manufacturing environmentally friendly toys could have answered the question in exactly the same way.
Those responses failed to get your attention because they answered a “what” question with a “what” answer.
Imagine if the spokespersons had answered the questions just a little differently, beginning with some context that explained why their work mattered. Their answers might have sounded more like these:
“Here in Arkansas, we rank 50th in the United States in high school graduation rates. That means our students are among the least prepared in the nation when entering the workforce and the most likely to live in poverty for the rest of their lives. The Association for the Advancement of Arkansas Education is dedicated to changing that and to making sure our students get the high-quality education they need to successfully compete in the global marketplace.”
“You know how children’s toys always seem to cost too much and break within weeks of opening the box? Well, Smith Toys makes toys that are going to work for years after you open the package—we guarantee it—and we’ve even figured out a way to make high-quality toys that are both affordable and environmentally friendly.”
I’m guessing those versions grabbed your attention more than the first ones. That’s because both spokespersons formatted their responses as a “why + what” instead of just a “what.”
You can use the “why + what” format every time you’re asked an open-ended question such as:
- What does your company do?
- What is your organization’s focus?
- Can you tell me about your product?
By themselves, “whats” just don’t work very well. Most people don’t care if you’re a 501(c)3 charity, how many offices you have in the state, or whether you’re a “leading” toy company. Those “whats” aren’t going to initiate a rush of support to your brand.
So when you’re asked an open-ended question, don’t just tell them what your company does. Tell them why it matters.
My book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need To Know Before Your Next Interview, was published a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve excerpted roughly 20 of the book’s 101 lessons on this blog.
This week, I’m going to run the final batch of lessons, one per day for the next five days.
If you enjoy the excerpts and haven’t already picked up a copy, I hope you’ll consider supporting the blog by purchasing a copy for yourself, your clients, and/or your colleagues.
Thank you for reading the blog. I hope you enjoy this final wave of book excerpts!
Note to International Readers: The book is available as an Amazon Kindle eBook in the following international Amazon stores:
This post was written by Christina Mozaffari, vice president of Phillips Media Relations and a former NBC News producer.
I’ve always bristled at the “blame the media” public relations strategy.
Plenty of politicians and public figures have used the strategy, sometimes with great success (here’s President Obama, Bill Cosby, and Chris Christie). It’s also probably fair to say my dislike for the strategy is largely due to my own bias as a former reporter.
That said, Frank Bruni’s column in The New York Times last weekend addressing the successes and failures in political reporting—including so-called “gotcha” questions—was spot-on. In it, he admitted the media have some significant faults in covering politics, but that politicians still have a lot of responsibility for the coverage they receive. His last line perfectly summed up the issue:
“…when candidates bemoan and disparage the media’s omnipresence and hypervigilance… remember this, too: When they’re harping about our shortcomings, they’re first and foremost trying to cover up their own.”
As an example, Wisconsin governor and potential presidential candidate Scott Walker recently criticized the media after punting on fairly easy and unsurprising questions surrounding his beliefs on evolution and President Obama’s religion. While Walker’s strategy may help him in the primaries with conservatives who distrust the mainstream media, it’s not enough to work in a general election in which you have to win voters in the middle. The actual questions didn’t get Walker into trouble; rather, it was his refusal to answer them in a straightforward manner.
The media are far from perfect. There are certainly many mainstream outlets with clear biases on both sides. However, when the coverage goes wrong, more often than not, the blame lies with the public figure.
So, when faced with biased reporters, what should you do? These rules of thumb may not apply to the most aggressive cases, but tend to serve most spokesperson well.
- 1. Know your “enemy.” It’s your responsibility to know, as best you can, the reporter’s work and point of view. All it typically takes is a quick Google search and a few minutes to read the reporter’s previous work. If you know what you’re walking into, you’ll be better equipped to handle it.
- 2. Be the bigger person. It’s your job to stay cool. Let your audience decide on the bias of the reporter, particularly if it’s a live audience and the audience can see the full exchange. If the audience believes you’re being bullied and you manage to handle the reporter’s biased questions with openness and class, you will come off looking better.
- 3. Ask yourself if you really need to do this interview. In general, participating in interviews when you know a story is going to be written about you or your organization is smart. Having your voice in a story, even if it’s an aggressive story, keeps you present in your own coverage and helps to avoid that damaging line, “We reached out to Organization X and they had no comment.” That said, if you truly believe you have no chance at getting fair treatment in an interview, there’s no rule that says you have to do it.
What do you think? Is blaming the media a lame cover-up or smart strategy? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
It’s difficult to think of a high-profile American journalist whose career toppled faster and harder than NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. (Dan Rather’s resignation under fire comes to mind, but he was in third place at the time, not first, and had already weathered several strange incidents.)
Williams, who admitted to “misremembering” being shot down while covering the Iraq war, was quickly challenged about other inaccuracies, including claims of seeing dead bodies and contracting dysentery after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and observing a missile fly directly beneath his helicopter while covering the Israel-Hezbollah war.
The moment I’m calling the worst media disaster of the month is Williams’ insufficient and glib on-air apology, which only added fuel to his reputational crisis (Williams reportedly later admitted to colleagues that he knew his apology was lame.)
Days later, Williams followed that on-air apology with a memo that said he was pulling himself off the air for a few days. That, too, looked self-serving and glib; it was NBC News’ role to remove him from “his” broadcast for the time frame they deemed appropriate, not his.
When the news division did act, their punishment was severe: a six-month suspension without pay. The question of whether Williams will ever return is still officially open—but it’s hard to see how NBC, which has stripped Williams’ name from the broadcast, can welcome him back. Only if the constellations align—the ratings drop precipitously under temporary replacement Lester Holt, Williams embarks on a redemption tour that exceeds expectations, and Nightly News staffers warm to the idea of his return—is he likely to return to his chair.
More likely, Williams will look to resurrect his career elsewhere. Ethical questions aside, he remains an exceptionally gifted anchor with a fast wit and terrific sense of humor. It’s conceivable that CNN, for example—the network that gave disgraced former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer a comeback show—could put him on the air in prime time to host a Larry King-style, personality-driven news show. If his reputation can recover sufficiently, he’d be great at it.
Williams’ exaggerations also prompted other public figures to come under scrutiny this month. Fox News ratings juggernaut Bill O’Reilly appears to have exaggerated or made up several stories. He and Fox aggressively blamed the attack on ideologically motivated news organizations—which may be an effective PR strategy—but facts are facts, and the evidence against him, supported by a cavalcade of former O’Reilly news colleagues who refute his claims, is growing by the day.
President Obama’s new Veteran Affairs Secretary, Robert McDonald, faced similar questions of misrepresenting his experience when he told a homeless vet who had served in the Special Forces that he, too, had served in the Special Forces (he didn’t). Like Fox, the White House stood by its man.
I’ll end this post with an actionable tip. Look at your résumé, LinkedIn profile, and/or other online bios. Make sure everything is accurate (and preferably verifiable). It’s better to have a slightly less impressive but accurate bio than one that sets you up for a fall.
In my book, The Media Training Bible, I offered what I thought was an incontrovertible recommendation regarding social media: “The best advice is also the simplest: before hitting ‘send’ on any post, pause and review it one final time.”
But I recently read something that made me wonder whether that advice is sufficient.
That’s because some sites—including Facebook—reportedly have the capacity to know what you typed and deleted, even though you didn’t post your comment.
According to an article in Slate by Jennifer Golbeck, Facebook has the ability to track the comments that you started typing but then decided not to post.
“The code in your browser that powers Facebook still knows what you typed—even if you decide not to publish it. It turns out that the things you explicitly choose not to share aren’t entirely private.”
Facebook says it’s not reading the text of your abandoned messages. For one study the company authorized, researchers tracked “whether you self-censored, not what you typed.” But according to Golbeck, Facebook has the ability to do both:
“The same code Facebook uses to check for self-censorship can tell the company what you typed, so the technology exists to collect that data it wants right now.”
As Golbeck explains, abandoned posts cost Facebook money (“Facebook shows you ads based on what you post”), so they want to understand what types of posts people stop writing in order to decrease such self-censorship.
To be clear, there’s absolutely no evidence that Facebook is actually reading, monitoring, saving, or analyzing your abandoned comments. But that’s not the point of this post.
This risk is admittedly a low one, perhaps bordering on irrational paranoia. But in a world full of metadata, hackers and leakers, I’d rather play it safe.
I should point out that others have taken Golbeck to task for her article. Here’s a piece that calls Golbeck’s article “completely, categorically, profoundly, utterly wrong.” However, the author of this rebuttal piece focuses primarily on the study itself and doesn’t challenge the central premise of Golbeck’s article, that Facebook has the capacity to collect this type of data.
The advice I offered in my book—pause and review your posts before hitting ‘send’—still stands. But I’d add one important step first: Don’t type your draft posts about controversial or delicate topics directly into social media sites or web-based email (Gmail uses the same technology, as do others that use your real-time typing to generate relevant ads, for example). Type your draft offline—in a Word document, perhaps—or if you’re wary of using any electronic devices at all, think it through or scribble it on paper first.
And then destroy the paper.
A grateful tip ‘o the hat to @Marvelle, who sent me the link to this story.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
In the mid-1990s, my cousin invited me to join her for a bar crawl in Washington, DC. At some point during the day, we swung by an apartment in Dupont Circle to pick up one of her friends.
When we entered her friend’s basement apartment, I noticed a flier on a coffee table supporting Joe Biden’s 1996 Senate reelection campaign. Biden, you may remember, dropped out of the presidential race in 1988 after being accused of plagiarizing a speech—so I turned to my cousin and jokingly said, “I wonder if he plagiarized that flier?”
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” she said, a look of horror crossing her face. “This is his son’s apartment!”
It’s been many years, so I don’t know which Biden son lived there (we were there to pick up one of his roommates). I also don’t know if he ever heard the comment—to the best of my memory, I never saw him, so I don’t even know if he was home at the time.
But that moment, which my cousin still needles me about, is etched in my memory and serves as a regular caution for me about the dangers of ad libbing.
Still, I like topical quips—so that moment aside, I remain prone to occasionally making a comment about someone in the news. Last week, for example, I delivered a presentation to a group of 40 communications professionals in Washington. As I was setting up a story, I was on the cusp of saying something along the lines of, “This is a real story, not a Brian Williams one.”
I hit the brakes right before saying it and held myself back. I realized that I had no idea who was in that audience. For all I knew, one of Brian Williams’s relatives, former colleagues, or friends could have been in the audience—and if that was the case, my witty aside could have made that person (and everyone else in the room aware of that relationship) uncomfortable.
Certainly, I could have referenced the Williams case if it was in context and if the analysis served a relevant point. But just for the sake of demonstrating my wit? It wasn’t worth the risk.
I often talk about the need to remain spontaneous and “in the moment” during presentations. But there are a lot of other, less risky ways to exhibit humor. Therefore, unless I know my audience well, I’m going to try hard to leave the irrelevant quips behind.
Note: The Biden story above is true to the best of my and my cousin’s recollection—we both remember that incident similarly. I tried to corroborate it by searching for where the Biden sons lived in 1996, but was unable to find verifying information.
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