I’ve received hundreds of calls from potential new clients. Most of them come from executives, directors, or managers—but about once per month, the person who calls for an estimate tells me that he or she is an intern for their company. Their boss has instructed them to call a few media training firms for bids; after receiving them, the boss will presumably screen the proposals and follow up with the companies they’re most interested in.
At first glance, that may seem like an efficient and logical approach. But it’s often counterproductive.
To be clear, I have enormous respect for almost all of the interns I’ve ever worked with. I’ve invested hundreds of hours in providing interns with responsibilities that help them grow in their burgeoning careers.
But in my experience—and through no fault of their own—the intern (or other junior employee) calling me usually doesn’t know some critical details. Sometimes, they lack basic information, such as the number of trainees or the purpose of the training. Other times, they’re unable to answer useful diagnostic questions, such as “What are the communications challenges the people you’re interested in training face?” or “Does your company already have a crisis communications plan in place?”
If the person has only been a part-time intern for a couple of months—or if they’re a full-time employee who’s out of the loop—there’s really no way they could possibly possess the historical background to be able to answer such questions.
But without such basic information, it’s difficult for any firm to write a smart, targeted proposal that truly meets the needs of the client. It’s tough to know how much time we should recommend for a session—or what type of follow-up work we should advise—without knowing their main topics of concern. And it’s impossible to suggest a tailored training strategy without having the context that allows us to develop one.
If we’re asked to provide a proposal while receiving only cryptic information, we’ll usually write one anyway. There’s no reason to rule ourselves out of consideration when an interested company representative—be it an intern or a top executive—contacts us for details about our offerings.
But I’d recommend that executives and managers take the time to place the initial calls themselves. Their description of their training need will determine the quality of the proposals they receive. Many times, I learn something through that initial call that significantly changes the approach I recommend, which will help the potential client make a more informed choice. Sometimes, I’ve even found that the potential client doesn’t fully know what they’re looking for until we speak; our conversation helps to solidify their thinking.
What’s your opinion? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
A couple of our clients recently faced a similar situation. They were both pitching an idea to an important audience (a board of directors and an influential community group) and didn’t know how the audience would react to their recommendations.
In an ideal world, they would have been able to get a sense of their audience’s sentiments prior to speaking, but that wasn’t a reliable option in these cases.
As they practiced their talks, it became clear to us that they’d need to create two versions of their closings—one if their audiences supported their pitch, and another if their audiences were more skeptical.
That “just in case” closing was an important tool for both speakers to have at the ready, and it prevented both speakers from being caught off guard or closing with a discordant ending.
As an example, here’s the “supportive” closing, which would be delivered after the Q&A period:
“For all of the reasons we’ve discussed today, I am confident that this proposal is the best option to help us achieve our core goals. Not only will this vendor’s software keep better track of our donors, but the software’s sophistication has led to increased fundraising—in some cases, dramatically so—for similar not-for-profit groups. As a next step, I will schedule a meeting with the vendor to get some hard numbers, after which I will report back to you with my recommended approach.”
Here’s an example of the “just in case” closing:
“After surveying the options available to our organization, I remain confident that this vendor is the best choice to help us accomplish our core goals. But your questions make clear that we need more information before making any commitments. As a next step, I will schedule a meeting with the vendor to get some of those answers, after which I will report back to you with their responses and my recommended next steps.”
Those two closings aren’t dramatically different—but if you delivered the first one to a group that challenged your recommendation, you would risk looking tone-deaf. Therefore, consider creating a “just in case” closing if you believe there’s a chance that your audience may not be ready to fully embrace your idea.
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By now, you may have heard about the controversial tweets Cee Lo Green—the Grammy Award-winning singer and former host of NBC’s The Voice—sent after pleading no contest late last month to a disturbing charge leveled against him.
According to MTV, Green “entered a plea of no contest for the felony count of furnishing a controlled substance of MDMA/ecstasy to a woman without her awareness during a dinner in 2012.” MTV’s report continues:
“According to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, Green slipped the drug to a 33-year-old woman while the two were at a restaurant…the woman, who hasn’t been named, alleged that she woke up to find herself naked in bed with Green in her hotel room.”
Green would have had enough of a challenge restoring his reputation after pleading no contest to drugging a woman and being accused of rape.
But the tweets he sent last week—particularly the one below that Green quickly deleted but other Twitter users shared—turned a tough crisis management issue into a career-threatening one:
In this tweet captured by BuzzFeed, Green reinforced that view, appearing to suggest that a woman who is drugged cannot, by definition, be raped.
Green later apologized, but in a manner that tried to distance himself from his words (the comments weren’t “attributed” to him—he made them).
Green has paid a heavy price since this controversy erupted. His reality show on TBS, The Good Life, was canceled. He was also removed from the lineup at a Louisiana music festival and from another concert sponsored by the U.S. Navy.
All of that gets me back to the headline of this post, which asks this question: Should you “get approval” before tweeting or posting to social media when you’re immersed in a crisis?
By approval, I don’t mean that you have to obtain approval from some central authority, but rather that you form a voluntary agreement between yourself and someone else—a manager, an agent, a spouse, a trusted business partner—that you won’t post anything on social media until you receive and consider their feedback.
Had Green done that, any manager, agent, or partner should have had the sense to tell him to sign off and walk away for a while. Instead, he tweeted in the heat of emotion, when his rational brain didn’t prevent him from compounding his original acts of terrible judgment.
My suggestion for those who find themselves in crisis mode? Don’t post anything to social media without seeking the opinion of a trusted ally first.
Cee Lo doesn’t have to listen to me. It’s just too bad he didn’t listen to his own lyrics from his hit song “Crazy”: “Think twice, that’s my only advice.”
The Islamic militant group ISIS released a video on Tuesday showing the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff.
At about the same moment, a PR team representing the Fox television show Sleepy Hollow sent out a media pitch promoting the impending release of the program’s first season on DVD.
The media pitch, as captured by the excellent media website JimRomenesko.com, is below.
From: JJ Mariani (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Tue, Sep 2, 2014 at 12:49 PM
Subject: Sleepyheads Celebrate Headless Day – eCards Available
Heads will roll as sleepyheads celebrate Headless Day today, September 2. On this National Beheading Day, viewers everywhere can share in the fun as fans prepare for the release of Sleepy Hollow: Season One on Digital HD now and arriving on Blu-ray and DVD September 16.
We hope you like them and are able to share them with your readers! If you share via your social media platforms, please tag them with #HeadlessDay!
Just 90 minutes later—after realizing their bad timing—the PR team sent an apology:
We apologize for the unfortunate timing of our Sleepy Hollow Headless Day announcement. The tragic news of Steven Sotloff’s death hit the web as the email was being sent.
Our deepest sympathies are with him and his family, and we don’t take the news lightly.
Had we have known this information prior, we would have never released the alert and realize it’s in poor taste.
Please accept our sincerest apologies.
Sleepy Hollow Team
Read that apology again. The Sleepy Hollow PR team is blaming the incident on bad timing—how could we have known an American journalist would be slain at about the same moment we clicked the “send” button?
But claiming to be a victim of bad timing is laughably false. Days before Mr. Sotloff’s execution, his mother released a highly publicized anguished plea to spare her son from being beheaded, as ISIS had warned he would be. And just two weeks ago, American journalist James Foley was also beheaded by ISIS, cause enough for this ad campaign to have been jettisoned.
It’s possible that the PR team wasn’t up on the news and wasn’t aware of these beheadings. But even if that’s the case—and I suspect I’m giving them and the executives who approved these ads far too much credit—anyone dealing with such gruesome material should, at the very least, have done a quick Google search before hitting send.
The PR team apologized for the wrong thing. They weren’t victims of bad timing but of their own terrible judgment. And until they acknowledge that, their apology accomplishes nothing.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Last week, an audio technician for the television program Cops was killed by friendly fire while filming a robbery at a Wendy’s in Omaha, Nebraska.
The Omaha police chief, Todd Schmaderer, delivered an almost perfect press conference—one that stands in marked contrast to the shameful media interactions in Ferguson, Missouri—that should be studied by PR professionals as a terrific example of how to communicate in crisis.
PR pro Dave Statter, who writes the excellent STATter911 blog (and wrote about this story first), called this “one of the most effective and timely presentations following a police involved shooting I’ve witnessed.” He’s right.
Chief Schmaderer did many things right in this press conference. Below, you’ll find the five things that stood out to me most.
1. He Struck The Perfect Emotional Tone
Chief Schmaderer spoke in human terms throughout the press conference, saying, “It’s as if we lost one of our own…the tears and the hugs that I got when I got to the hospital, I could feel the pain of the officers.”
When asked whether he regretted his decision to allow Cops to film in Omaha, he gave a genuinely reflective answer, one that indicated that he had spent some time agonizing about that question: “Personally, I’ll have to live with this forever.”
In a particularly classy move, he expressed condolences not only to the Cops production member who was killed, but to the family of the suspect, who was also killed during this incident.
2. He Treated The Media As An Ally
Chief Schmaderer treated the media with complete respect—and in return, the press treated him with complete respect. He also set the rules up front, asking reporters to identify themselves, instructing them to speak loudly enough for the microphones to pick up their questions, and letting them know he intended to begin with local reporters.
When he inadvertently skipped a reporter, he expressed remorse: “I want to make sure the Omaha World-Herald gets a question, I can’t believe I forgot you Maggie, I’m so sorry.”
3. He Was Completely Open
Early in the press conference, the Chief said that, “We are striving for unprecedented transparency in this incident.” He lived up that pledge, giving an extended opening statement filled with specific detail and answering every question directly.
When he was unable to answer a question due to the legal process, he used a technique I call commenting without commenting: “While I can’t show the video—it’s evidence and it’s needed for the Grand Jury—we did provide still photos to show what the officers had encountered to the best of our ability.”
4. He Got In Front Of a Potential Controversy
The suspect who was killed by the officer’s bullet(s) was carrying an Airsoft Gun which, according to Wikipedia, is a replica “designed to be non-lethal.” Chief Schmaderer appeared to be aware that headlines could read something like, “Suspect With Fake Gun Killed By Police,” so he showed photos of that replica gun to make clear that responding officers had no way of knowing whether or not it was real.
5. He Conveyed a Sense of Complete Competence
Chief Schmaderer’s tone-perfect performance gave me—and likely many other people—confidence that he’s the right person to lead this investigation professionally.
That leads to an important point about crisis press conferences: Press conferences often serve as a proxy for how competent a spokesperson is not only as a communicator, but behind the scenes as a leader. Leaders who are great at the behind the scenes portion of their jobs—but who are not great public communicators—may be perceived as lousy leaders. Chief Schmaderer, on the other hand, earned the benefit of the doubt and, as Dave Statter wrote, will “ultimately have a positive impact on the reputation of the Omaha Police Department.”
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Whatever your feelings about Michael Brown’s shooting and the resulting protests in Ferguson, Missouri, you should be concerned about a police department that threatens to murder peaceful bloggers, aims semi-automatic assault rifles at videographers, and arrests journalists without provocation.
The Ferguson police department’s bullying of reporters is not the biggest part of the Ferguson story. But as many people noted, if that’s how the department treats people who have a megaphone to the world, it’s unfathomable to think how they must treat local residents who don’t.
By employing often terrifying tactics, the Ferguson Police Department (and some officers from surrounding jurisdictions) reacted to the protests with some of the most shocking mistreatment of journalists I’ve witnessed in many years on American soil.
Among other incidents, police ordered two journalists from The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, who were working at a nearby McDonalds, to leave—and arrested them when they didn’t move quickly enough.
Wesley Lowery, the arrested Washington Post reporter, claimed that he was assaulted by officers:
Chris Hayes, who hosts a primetime program on MSNBC, was threatened with Mace by a police officer—while he was on the air.
The Huffington Post compiled several tweets from journalists in Ferguson, including these:
An officer pushed CNN’s Don Lemon while he was live on the air—and carrying a CNN microphone that made clear for whom he was reporting.
Then there was this report from the CNN wire:
“Police in Ferguson, Missouri, deliberately fired tear gas and rubber bullets at a television news crew Wednesday night, Al Jazeera America reported.
Photos and videos from the Al Jazeera America camera crew were widely shared in the wake of Wednesday’s incident, which Al Jazeera called an ‘egregious assault on freedom of the press that was clearly intended to have a chilling effect on our ability to cover this important story.’
The images showed a tear gas canister exploding close to the Al Jazeera correspondent Ash-har Quraishi, who tried to shield himself from the smoke.
Was it intentional? Quraishi’s crew members seem to think so.
‘We were clearly set up as press with a full live shot set-up,’” producer Marla Cichowski said in an e-mail. ‘“As soon as (the) first bullet hit the car, we screamed out loud, ‘We are press,’ ‘This is the media.’”
And perhaps most shockingly, there was this video of a police officer from nearby St. Ann who refused to identify himself, aimed a semi-automatic assault rifle at peaceful videographers, and threatened to kill them.
To be clear, this isn’t a post about every police officer in Ferguson; nor is it a larger critique of police officers, who play a critical role in protecting life and property. This is also not a post that presumes that this shooting was unjustified; the police officer is entitled to due process. But if one believes in the importance of law and order, as I do, one must also be concerned when a law enforcement agency seemingly does everything in its power to prevent reporters, through threat of force, from exercising their Constitutional right to cover a story.
The Ferguson PD took a difficult PR challenge (the shooting of Michael Brown) and turned it into a disaster (the perception of a lawless department operating without rules). At the very least, one would have thought that officers would have had the sense not to deepen their department’s perception problem by making homicidal threats on live television.
I expect that crisis communications professionals and media trainers who work with law enforcement will be using Ferguson PD as an example of what not to do for many years.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Editor’s Note: Since August 2010, I’ve written more than 1,000 posts. Some of the most popular posts have gotten buried over time, so I occasionally unbury especially useful older posts to share with readers who missed them the first time. This article was originally published on December 27, 2010.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve seen my regular advice to do almost every media interview you’re offered. But there are times when turning down an interview makes the most sense, and this article will discuss the times when saying “no” is your best move.
Below, you’ll find a list of seven times to turn down an interview.
The original list comes from the IABC (The International Association of Business Communicators). Although it’s a solid list, the tips are overly-generalized, so I’ve added my own commentary to each of the seven suggestions to help make them more complete.
1. Employees Have Not Yet Been Notified About a Specific Issue
As a general piece of advice, this is fine. But if a reporter is about to run a story with or without your input – and if you lack the logistical ability to inform your employees directly before it runs – it might make sense to participate in the story to ensure you provide the necessary context. Plus, what is the “specific issue” at play here? Announcing a new product before all employees have been notified (e.g. the iPad) might be strategically sound, while announcing employee layoffs through the press would not be.
2. Employee, Client or Patient Privacy Is Never Breached For Any Reason
Client confidentiality might be waived, for example, if you’re subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit or before Congress, especially if no confidentiality agreement was signed between the parties.
3. An Emergency Has Occurred; Next-of-Kin Have Not Been Notified
I agree you should not be the first party to announce any deaths before next-of-kin has been notified, but what happens if the media has already announced the names? Do you confirm them then, or continue to wait hours – or days – before next-of-kin has been notified? These cases aren’t always cut and dried, and sometimes confirming the names is the more humane choice.
4. Sensitive Competitive Information Would Be Divulged
In a reputational crisis, there are times you might lose more by NOT divulging a proprietary piece of information. As with any crisis, you have to analyze all possibilities, including divulging competitive information.
5. Security Legislation Would Be Breached
Whistleblowers aside, this is probably good advice. I assume this refers to laws already passed, not pending legislation.
6. Union Negotiations are Underway; An Information Blackout is in Effect
If both sides are honoring the agreement, this is good advice. But what about when one party breaks the agreement and is killing you in the press? You should talk to the media – if not to offer specifics, at least to remind the public that you’ve agreed to an information blackout, that you’re not going to talk for that reason, but that there’s more to the story than they’re hearing from the other side.
7. Legal Counsel Has Advised Against Communications
If there’s one thing on this list that makes me bristle, it’s this one. First, even if counsel has advised against “communications,” you can still communicate. You can almost always offer a generic statement such as, “We can’t offer specifics in this case since it’s in litigation, but I would like to remind everyone that there are two sides to this story, and we’re confident that our side will come out in court.”
Second, legal counsel often advises against communications as a kneejerk reaction, even when communicating makes the most sense. Executives would be wise to consult their attorneys and their communications professionals prior to making such decisions. Sometimes the reputational damage caused by your silence is greater than the financial damage of future lawsuits.
Editor’s Note: A grateful hat tip to a good marketing blog called IMC Intuition by Beth Ryan, on which I originally saw this list.
Most speakers I know use the restroom before delivering a presentation. Doing so seems rather obvious—why would anyone want to be uncomfortable during a speech?
British Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly disagrees. Before big speeches, Mr. Cameron occasionally avoids the restroom. He claims that the discomfort of a full bladder gives him energy and keeps him focused.
According to The Guardian:
“Cameron, it is said, used his tried-and-tested “full-bladder technique” to achieve maximum focus and clarity of thought throughout the grueling nine-hour session in Brussels. During the formal dinner and subsequent horse-trading into the early hours, the prime minister remained intentionally ‘desperate for a pee’.
Cameron has reportedly used the technique before, notably during his ‘no notes’ conference speeches during the early years of his party leadership. He heard about it when watching a Michael Cockerell documentary about the late Conservative politician Enoch Powell a decade beforehand. Powell – best known for his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 – remarked that he always performed an important speech on a full bladder: ‘You should do nothing to decrease the tension before making a big speech. If anything, you should seek to increase it.’
Perhaps the technique works for Cameron. But The Guardian points to a study that found that an “extreme urge to void [urinate] is associated with impaired cognition.”
I’m not sure I’ll be adding this technique to my suggested tips for speakers any time soon—but I don’t begrudge Cameron using this tactic if it works for him. In part, that’s because I have an odd—and admittedly outdated and cheesy—ritual of my own. As I’m being introduced before a big presentation, I play the theme song to Rocky in my mind. It pumps me up and allows me to walk to the stage with energy and purpose.
That leads to a question: Have you ever used an odd method of pumping yourself up for a talk? What works for you? Leave your response in the comments section below.
Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Moritz Hager