Late last week, New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick and Quarterback Tom Brady (below) tried to take the air out of accusations that they had intentionally deflated game balls during their AFC Championship Game win.
Unfortunately, it looked as if the Patriots’ PR staff didn’t consider the background those two spokespersons would be standing in front of while denying the charge. As both men spoke, an advertisement for Gillette’s “Flexball” razor served as their backdrop, an unfortunate coincidence noted by thousands of people on social media.
(There are two other possible explanations—one, the Patriots were under a legal obligation to use that background, and two, Gillette willingly took the risk to be associated with this controversy in return for the additional exposure.)
The Patriots are far from alone in using an ill-considered background. In 2010, for example, MSNBC President Phil Griffin announced his network’s new branding strategy in a self-produced video—while CNN played in the background.
Last year, the former U.S. ambassador to Poland, Lee Feinstein, gave an interview to the BBC with what looked to be a sloppy dorm room behind him. I dubbed this “the worst webcam background I’ve ever seen.”
And in one of my all-time favorite clips that readers of this blog have seen before, then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin pardoned a Thanksgiving turkey—while turkeys were being slaughtered behind her.
I gave some advice about choosing the right background in my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need To Know Before Your Next Interview:
“Company representatives might stand on a bustling factory floor to show their business’s vitality. Marine biologists might remove their shoes and deliver an interview from the water’s edge. A health expert discussing the seriousness of diabetes might choose to do an interview from a local hospital’s emergency room.
Your background is even more important during a crisis. As a general rule of thumb, don’t display your logo during a crisis. Why help the audience remember that your brand is associated with bad news? That means you shouldn’t stand in front of any signs, buildings, or awnings that feature your company’s symbol. Also avoid wearing any clothing, caps, or pins that bear your company’s name.”
It’s easy to understand how these things happen: We become so fixated on the messages we want to deliver that we too often forget about the optics. So before your next interview, take a quick glance around you to make sure nothing in the background could conflict with your message.
Immediately following last week’s State of the Union Address, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) responded by recording a video criticizing the President. Unfortunately, his staff uploaded the wrong version, a version in which Cruz stops and asks to start over again.
Bad takes happen all the time when recording straight-to-camera video, and Mr. Cruz reacted the exact right way by stopping, asking to begin again, and recording a clean version. (A cynic might say that this “wrong” video was a wily strategy intended to attract more people to his message; I doubt that’s true, but it had the same effect.)
Unfortunately, not everyone handles bad takes this well. In our video training sessions, people routinely mess up their takes—it’s normal and part of the process—but a few of them become quite frustrated and swear or make silly faces into the camera.
That’s a bad idea for a few reasons. First, the wrong video could accidentally be uploaded instead of your “correct” take. Second, someone could use the tape maliciously against you. Third—and I get this request all the time—your co-workers might want that video for a holiday party “gag reel.” (I don’t comply with those requests, because training should be a safe place to stretch your comfort zone and make mistakes.)
When the camera is on you—even if you aren’t “live” and can redo the take—act as if that’s the tape the world will see.
Perhaps the most infamous example of a behind-the-scenes bad take belongs to current Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, who is still dogged by this piece of tape from his Inside Edition days (this is definitely not suitable for work — but it is terrifyingly hilarious):
And that’s the same lesson a young reporter named A.J. Clemente learned a couple of years ago, when he preceded his first (and last) newscast by swearing before he realized he was on the air.
The next time you have a bad take, realize that the pros have them all the time. Stop, take a breath, and do it again. But whatever you do, don’t pull an O’Reilly and let tape of your worst on-camera moment follow you around for years.
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Russell Westbrook, an All-Star point guard with the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, recently gave an interview that didn’t go so well.
As you’ll see in the clip below, he gave the same defiant answer repeatedly: “Good execution.” He gave that answer even when it didn’t answer the question. And, in a moment of candor that spokespersons occasionally fantasize about, he flat out told one reporter, “I don’t like you.”
Westbrook’s interview seems even stranger in light of the fact that his team won the game—and he had a terrific night.
To see how fans were reacting to Westbrook’s passive-aggressive interviewing approach, I delved into the comments section of several sports websites. It turns out that many fans defended Westbrook. Their argument went as follows: We hate the media, Westbrook gave them a taste of their own medicine, and good for Westbrook for doing so.
I think they’re wrong. Representing your brand well matters whether you’re a corporate vice president, a political candidate, or a professional athlete. And Westbrook made the fundamental error of forgetting that his audience wasn’t the reporter, but the people watching the interview—you know, the fans who pay his salary.
To get another perspective, I contacted a friend of mine, the communications director for a major sports team who deals with top-level athletes every day. He wrote:
“We grow any of the games we work in through young kids, and for them to see this does not help the game…I want players in my room respecting the media and the media respecting the players and the job they do. It is my job to keep that scale as even as possible throughout the season. Dealing with players, their goal is to make their team and themselves look the best they can, both on and off the field.”
If he had a player interact with a reporter the same way Westbrook did, he would do the following:
“First thing I’m doing is having the conversation with my player as to what set them off to do so. After that talk, I would speak to the writer if I feel it is necessary to make sure they know there is a problem brewing. After that, I judge whether it would be best to bring a writer in to speak to the player one-on-one to talk it out, with everything off the record.”
He also says he wouldn’t have allowed the interview to continue for as long as Westbrook’s:
“I’m cutting it off…immediately, when I see what is going on and not allowing reporters to continue to ask questions. The player wants it to be a spectacle to embarrass the reporter and have people talking about it. The reporter(s) want to keep going because it allows him/her to continue to provoke the same answer which makes the player look ridiculous. So, I’m cutting it off immediately and allowing the reporter to write about me cutting it off if he wants. Then, I’m setting up this meeting between the player and this reporter he supposedly hates to clear this thing before it becomes more and more of a spectacle.”
And in case you’re still not convinced that athletes should take their media interactions more seriously, these final lines should make them think again:
“From the management side, I’ve seen it happen when the attitudes of players prevents teams from ‘investing’ in them. As important as it is to compete on the playing field/ice/gym, when it comes time to sign a free agent or make a trade, all of these things go into an organization’s evaluation process. Is ‘said player’ worth disrupting the current team?”
Each year, the President of the United States stands before a joint session of Congress and delivers a lengthy State of the Union (SOTU) Address.
The speech gets a lot of attention in certain years; major world events, both foreign and domestic, tend to increase ratings. But this isn’t one of those years. The economy looks to be improving, the homeland appears relatively safe, and our military interventions overseas have been scaled back.
Given those facts, President Obama—a lame duck President beginning his seventh year in office—has a real challenge to get people’s attention this year.
Even I, a political junkie who often analyzes these types of speeches, am rather bored with the SOTU’s pomp and circumstance. And it seems I’m not alone. More than 52 million people watched Mr. Obama’s first SOTU in 2009; that number declined to just 33 million people last year.
One reason for the audience decline is that the SOTU is almost always predictable. The President lays out a laundry list of inspirational but often unpassable proposals, points to numerous “real people” in the audience, and elicits cheers from one side of the aisle while receiving stony silence from the other.
Here’s the problem: We humans are wired to notice change but acclimate quickly to sameness. Therefore, these speeches fail to “break the pattern.” But here’s the good news: that may change this year.
Mr. Obama’s inner circle reportedly recognizes this problem, and for the first time in recent memory, appears to be taking steps to break the pattern.
First, they’ve announced that the speech will be shorter (last year’s ran 65 minutes). According to The Wall Street Journal:
“One of the White House’s goals as President Barack Obama puts the final touches on his upcoming State of the Union address is shortening the speech, people familiar with the process say.
The president is well known for his delivery of lengthy speeches and detailed explanations, and his aides have tried – unsuccessfully – to rein him in at times.
Last year, Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address ran for an hour and five minutes. It was one of his longest. The only one that went longer was in 2010: an hour and nine minutes.
Mr. Obama’s addresses are only rivaled by President Bill Clinton, a politician also known for his longwindedness, according to the American Presidency Project.”
Second, instead of unveiling their big legislative initiative during the speech, as is the norm, the Administration has already announced that it will focus the speech on middle class tax cuts (or upper class tax hikes, depending on your perspective). Whether that helps the Administration extend the news cycle and receive more coverage is yet to be seen; the risk is that it could also give people even less of a reason to tune into the speech.
Still. I’d argue that both changes are smart moves, designed to break the pattern and stand a better chance of reaching a restless media and bored electorate.
I suspect the SOTU’s brevity will become a new model to reach today’s attention-challenged audiences. And since the television networks will appreciate turning less of their airtime over to presidential speeches—particularly if administrations make them less newsworthy by releasing the major headlines in advance—I suspect future presidents will find it difficult to get that airtime back.
Melissa Agnes is one of my favorite crisis communications professionals in the business, so I was thrilled to be invited as her guest on her excellent podcast.
Our conversation lasted for an hour—but she kept it fast moving, full of useful information and fun. Among other topics, we discussed the following (as summarized on Melissa’s site):
- What makes a good spokesperson for crisis communication
- The real-time news cycle and how it impacts in a crisis
- Tips for making communications “social media friendly”
- Biggest mistakes spokespeople make in crisis – and how you can avoid them
- How to save a client or brand who has already stuck their foot in their mouth
If you’re unable to sit and listen for the full hour, you might consider downloading the podcast and listening to it during your commute. You’ll find a particularly energetic “lightning round” at the end. And while you’re at it, subscribe to Melissa’s podcast—she’s really good, and you’ll learn a lot.
Many speakers are asked to deliver a template presentation provided to them by their corporate office. They might be asked give an employee training workshop, a sales pitch, or a generic “about our company” seminar.
Oftentimes, the presentation is delivered to the speaker in the form of PowerPoint slides. If the company has its act together, the slides will have speaker’s notes filled in to help the speaker know exactly what points they’re expected to make on each slide.
That may sound like an efficient way to deliver a presentation and ensure consistency across an organization. But speakers who deliver those presentations are usually lifeless and uninspired—and that’s not their fault. Since the speakers had no ownership over the creation of the presentation, their personalities and delivery styles are nowhere to be found within it.
What can you do if you’re asked to deliver a presentation that’s already been created?
Think of a template presentation as an off-the-rack pair of pants.
When you buy a new pair of pants, you might need to tailor it by taking in the waist or shortening the cuffs. The same is true with a template presentation—you don’t have to wear it “as is.” Instead, most presentations will benefit if you make a few alterations by injecting your own personality into it while retaining its basic shape.
Let’s say you’re handed this slide:
You can bring it to life by adding a personal anecdote:
“Last year, I went to Jakarta, Indonesia for the first time. It’s a city of 10 million people, and off in the northwest corner of the city, our company opened an office in a nondescript office park. When you enter the building, however, you’re immediately struck by how high tech it is. You walk down a long corridor lined with television monitors and enter an open workspace with more than 200 techs busily working at state-of-the-art work stations. The Jakarta office is just one of 12 new satellite offices we’ve opened in the past two years in cities such as Montreal, Nairobi, Buenos Aires and Glasgow, and that growth has helped our company’s revenue increase by 400 percent since early 2013.”
Here’s another example. Let’s say this slide is in your deck:
In this case, you might highlight one of the trends and infuse it with meaningful context:
“For the past year, we’ve heard a lot of talk about Facebook changing its algorithm. It used to be that a brand published a post, and the brand’s “fans”—people who had liked the page—were able to see the brand’s posts in their feed. Not anymore. Today, Facebook insists that brands buy advertising to reach their own fans. We don’t buy advertising on Facebook, so we expected our traffic to plummet. But something interesting happened. Google is still our number one referral source, but [CLICK TO ABOVE SLIDE] Facebook has remained number two. So much for losing our website visits from them—surprisingly, they’ve actually gone up. And Twitter is closing in fast, just slightly behind at number three.”
The key to bringing a presentation someone else created to life is to look for spots to add more of yourself to it. For more ideas, read this article which offers eight great ways to begin a presentation. You can use these elements anywhere in your talk—not just in your open—and doing so will help you make someone else’s presentation sound exactly like your own.
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This is a guest post by Ted Flitton, a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.
I take no comfort in the escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea stemming from the hack attack on Sony Pictures, which resulted in the unauthorized release of sensitive information, reams of personal emails, and movie scripts. This crime has been described as one of the worst cases of cyber-hacking against an American company ever.
But at least now the story appears to be refocusing on the central issue of cybercrime.
Since late November, much of the media and public chose to focus on a different issue—illegally obtained leaked information—and demonized a Sony executive and a Hollywood bigwig who dished on celebrities and engaged in inappropriate racially-tinged banter. Both eventually issued apologies as people called for their heads.
Why is Sony the bad guy here? Why did so much of the public choose to attack a company which itself was a victim of a crime?
Call it schadenfreude, a “fat cat backlash,” hating the one percenters; there’s no snazzy title. But it’s clear society often shows a warped sense of morality when large organizations face crises. This misplaced outrage makes it hard for issues managers to gain control of the story and preserve corporate reputation.
Take Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. Video from a hotel elevator showed him knocking his then-fiancée unconscious with a single punch. People quibbled over his then-two-game suspension while demanding the commissioner of the National Football League be fired for mishandling the situation. There appeared to be fewer appeals for Rice to lose his job than the Commissioner, although eventually the Ravens did let him go. Clearly, to the sporting public, lax leadership is a sin greater than domestic abuse.
Don’t get me wrong. Both the NFL and Sony deserve harsh criticism for their actions (or inactions). Some level of the outrage is warranted when companies allow bad situations to fester. But the issue is balance. Let’s be outraged by criminal acts while we wring our hands over failed leadership or executive arrogance.
More important, let’s use these incidents to spur crucial social change. The Rice incident made the important subject of domestic violence part of a national conversation, but sadly, only for a few days.
Public relations practitioners need to preserve corporate reputations. But we can and must shape important societal conversations where possible. So how can we guard against the fat cat backlash and maintain balance in emerging issues? A few thoughts:
- 1. Be prepared for the inevitable. Technology experts say corporations should expect they will be victimized by cyberthieves. All entities that collect and store the personal information of customers or employees need to do a better job of protecting this information and planning for disasters.
- 2. Take responsibility. The NFL rewards men for tough, physical play. This aggression should cease the moment the whistle blows, yet until recently, the league has been reluctant to admit that some men may have trouble differentiating between the locker room and the bedroom. Players do receive some domestic assault education, but many women say it’s not enough. The league should show leadership and really help families.
- 3. Form thoughtful, pro-active and all-embracing partnerships. The NFL is proud to help women fight breast cancer by partnering with Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The league recently launched an anti-domestic abuse campaign. That’s a positive move, but considering that pro sports leagues are largely built on the selfless contributions of mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and wives, surely, these multi-billion dollar businesses can do more to truly honor all women.
- 4. Conduct company audits and address gaps. Rice’s two-game suspension rankled another player who received a stiffer punishment for off-season marijuana use. Imagine the goodwill generated had the NFL spotted this injustice and quietly worked to rectify it before the Rice incident.
- 5. Empower employees. Build a respectful corporate culture. Colleagues who admonish others for poisonous workplace behavior and blue chatter should be praised.
- 6. Generate goodwill. Thank supporters and engage with detractors. Return reporters’ calls and help them report stories, even if they are negative.
Taken together, these actions can help a company embroiled in full on crisis, but I fear in an age of uberoutrage their help is marginal. I turn this over to you, faithful readers of the Mr. Media Training blog. Have you experienced the fat cat backlash? How have you regained narrative balance during a corporate storm?
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.
New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet decided last week not to run images of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons so many people found to be offensive.
Marc Cooper, a journalist and associate professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, disagreed with Baquet’s decision and took to Facebook to register his complaint.
I’m not going to pretend that the word “asshole” is so shocking to our delicate sensibilities as to require an entire blog post. But I would like to make a few other points about this exchange.
First, Mr. Baquet was right that Mr. Cooper looked self-righteous. I suspect that was abundantly clear to many people, so Baquet didn’t need to be so heavy handed in his response to win this exchange. That’s especially true because he made a solid case for his decision not to publish.
According to Dylan Byers of Politico:
“Reached via email, Baquet told POLITICO: ‘Lots of people have disagreed with my decision. Some of them are in The Times. I get that. Mr Cooper’s comment was nasty and arrogant. So I told him what I thought.’
Baquet’s decision to forego running the cartoons that provoked terrorists to raid the offices of Charlie Hebdo, killing 12, have been heavily scrutinized. On Thursday, Baquet said he made his decision primarily because he did not want to insult the paper’s Muslim readers.
“’We have a standard that is pretty simple. We don’t run things that are designed to gratuitously offend,’ Baquet told POLITICO…[I] don’t expect all to agree. But let’s not forget the Muslim family in Brooklyn who read us and is offended by any depiction of what he sees as his prophet. I don’t give a damn about the head of ISIS but I do care about that family and it is arrogant to ignore them.’”
Why didn’t he simply say that in response to Mr. Cooper instead of lapsing into distracting name-calling?
Whenever a word like “asshole” is used by an executive, it’s almost certain to draw attention. That can be a mixed blessing. If it’s an issue the executive wants to become a big headline but is struggling to find any other way to make newsworthy, name-calling like this can actually be part of a strategic communications plan. I don’t suspect that was the case here.
Mr. Baquet also seemed to forget another cardinal rule: He should have treated his response as an opportunity to speak directly to other readers who shared Cooper’s position instead of treating it like a personal communication with Mr. Cooper.
Finally, I wonder what message this sends to his newsroom. On one hand, it’s easy to imagine that journalists who work for him deeply appreciate a boss who stands up for their editorial decisions. But on the other hand, I wonder if this gives license to reporters to engage with their critics in a similar manner, something I can’t imagine would be productive.
Baquet should expect criticism for these types of decisions. In my view, he should react to them by making his strongest case — which in this case, he had — and leave the swearing for his critics.
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