The 5C’s Of Crisis Communications

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

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

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

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

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

Press Conference Microphones

 

1. Competence

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

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

Lac-Mgantic Press Conference

 

2. Credibility

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

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

Tony Hayward

 

3. Commitment

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

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

Carnival Triumph

 

4. Caring

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

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

CYCLING-ARMSTRONG/

 

5. Capability

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

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

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

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The Three Worst Video Media Disasters of 2013

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 2, 2014 – 5:22 am

It’s not easy to be named the worst video media disaster of the year. Someone has to do something spectacularly dumb to receive the honor.

In 2010, the award went to BP CEO Tony Hayward, who told cameras “I’d like my life back” after his company’s massive oil spill killed 11 workers.

In 2011, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) nabbed the award, for obvious reasons.

In 2012, Senate candidate Todd Akin (R-MO) became notorious for his claim that “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Who will join their ranks this year? Read on…

Disaster Strikes

Number Three: Lance Armstrong Rides Into Infamy

After years of denying doping allegations, suing former teammates, and bullying everyone who got in his way, cycling champion Lance Armstrong finally admitted what many people already knew: that he was a dishonest cheat.

Armstrong selected Oprah Winfrey for his on-air confessional, a lengthy interview aired on two consecutive nights. But Armstrong’s carefully parsed and evasive responses did more harm than good, leaving an indelible impression that he was still being untruthful (Oprah even asked whether he was a sociopath). 

For example, Armstrong denied doping after 2005. But evidence presented by the USADA suggests he doped through 2009; if true, he lied during his admission. 

CYCLING-ARMSTRONG/

One of his lowest moments came when discussing a phone call with Betsy Andreu, wife of cyclist Frankie Andreu. When recounting the phone call, Armstrong seemed to find it funny that although he admitted calling her “crazy” and “a bitch,” he didn’t call her “fat.” He grinned at his apparent wit, as if he was a mischievous kid who thought his cruelty was somehow funny.

In another stunning moment, he admitted that he couldn’t remember everyone he had sued because he had sued so many people.

A Survey USA poll taken shortly after the interview found that only 17 percent of respondents thought he was being completely honest. Those are probably the same people who tell pollsters the U.S. Congress is doing a good job.

In the clip below, Armstrong tells Oprah that he “deserves” to be allowed to compete again.

 

Number Two: Paula Deen Cooks Up Trouble

Paula Deen, the Food Network’s southern-cooking celebrity chef, found herself in hot water (or, more appropriate to her style of cooking, a vat of butter and lard) in June after The National Enquirer released details of racist remarks she’s made in the past.

During a legal deposition in a workplace discrimination suit, Deen admitted using the N-word in the past and making racist jokes.

Paula Deen

But the most shocking moment may have come when she admitted that she wanted to emulate a wedding she had recently attended in which the wait staff was made up of  “middle-aged black men.” That wedding, she said, evoked fond feelings for her of a Civil War-era “really southern plantation wedding.”

Deen made the mistake of waiting two days to apologize personally—and when she did, her apology (her first of several) was a mess—one of the worst I’ve ever seen.

A few days later, Ms. Deen sobbed through a bizarre, out-of-control, and uncomfortable interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Show.

With better crisis management, Deen could have come through this crisis less scarred. Yes, she would have paid a price—but I’m convinced that her poor crisis response contributed mightily to the magnitude of her disaster, which included the loss of her Food Network contract and several lucrative endorsement deals.

She may eventually redeem herself enough to make a good living again, but it’s unlikely she’ll ever reclaim her one-time success.

 

Number One: Rob Ford Cracks Up

It’s hard to imagine too many people keeping their jobs after the year Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has had.

In May, the U.S. website Gawker published a report claiming they had seen a video of Ford smoking crack. Ford denied those allegations for months, until finally admitting that he had, in fact, smoked crack.

Rob Ford Pussy Apology Wife

But Ford didn’t simply admit smoking crack. He blamed reporters for his earlier lack of candor by claiming their questions months earlier had been asked using the wrong tense (“Do you smoke crack cocaine?” as opposed to “Have you ever smoked crack cocaine?”)

He also added a new page to the crisis communications playbook by casually blaming his drug use on being in a “drunken stupor.”

But Ford’s lowest moment—and the one I’m naming the worst video media disaster of the year—has to do with his casual mention of the amount of oral sex he receives at home.

During a press scrum, Ford denied charges that he had sexually harassed a former special assistant named Olivia Gondek. But the manner in which he did it was shockingly crass and unnecessarily graphic.

 

Ford capped off that ignominious day with yet another spousal indignity. He called a press conference to apologize for using such graphic language to describe his sex life. As he stood before reporters, his humiliated wife stood on the side of the stage, her eyes cast downward.

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The Worst Video Media Disaster Of January 2013

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 31, 2013 – 6:02 am

There’s only one reason Lance Armstrong spoke to Oprah Winfrey this month: To begin the process of rehabilitating his image. Doing so, he hoped, would help pave his way back into competitive sports.

After all, if his goal had been merely to confess to doping, he could have just released a written statement, as he had so many times before.

Therefore, the effectiveness of his Oprah tell-all has to be judged in that context, of whether or not it helped to rehabilitate his image. It didn’t. Worse, it did more damage than good, making his decision to appear with Oprah a disastrous one.

The Anderson Cooper clip below features video of one of Armstrong’s most shockingly awful moments.

A poll from my blog (admittedly unscientific) found that readers thought he did more harm than good in the interview:

Lance Armstrong Poll

A more scientific poll, conducted by Survey USA, mirrored this blog’s results, finding that only 17 percent of respondents thought he was being completely honest.

Among other reasons, Armstrong failed because:

1. He Didn’t Come Across As Contrite: In my original review, I noted that Armstrong seemed genuinely moved by the pain he had caused his family, but not terribly concerned with the pain he caused the many people he had bullied for many years. His attitude made many people, including me, wonder whether he is a sociopath.

2. He Still Looked Like a Bully: He laughed when asked about the wife of one former teammate, telling Oprah that although he had called her “crazy” and “a bitch,” he didn’t call her “fat.” In another stunning moment, he admitted that he couldn’t remember everyone he had sued because he had sued so many people.

Lance Armstrong Credit de Benutzer Hase

3. He May Not Have Come Clean: Although Armstrong denied doping after 2005, there’s strong evidence that he’s still lying. He also denied offering hush money to the anti-doping agency USADA, although officials claim he did

4. He Wasn’t Willing to Sacrifice Anything: As any parent knows, a bad act is usually followed by a commensurate punishment. Armstrong doesn’t seem to get that. He actually uttered this jaw-dropper to Oprah about whether he should be allowed to compete again: “I think I deserve it.”

Editor’s Note: After two-and-a-half years of featuring the five worst video disasters of every month, I’ve decided to make a change and focus on only the worst one of each month. That will allow me to analyze each month’s worst video disaster in greater detail.

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Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, de:Benutzer:Hase


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Is Lance Armstrong A Sociopath?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 20, 2013 – 4:34 pm

In my review of Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, I noted that Armstrong seemed to fit the classic profile of a sociopath.

To my eye, he appeared to be a pathological liar who lacks remorse, is manipulative and superficially charming, and who fails to take responsibility for his actions. But he showed emotion on the second night of the interview, which made me wonder whether my original analysis was correct.

Reader Mary Fletcher Jones, owner of the Virginia-based public relations firm Fletcher Prince, says that I was.

CYCLING-ARMSTRONG/

She writes:

“You hit the nail on the head, Brad. Sociopath. Classic case. The only reason why I know that for sure after watching the interview is because of the books and articles I have read about sociopathy, and the surprisingly consistent way they express themselves and handle challenges like this. It helps them get to the top, but they also have spectacular falls, when there is this collective “oh my god” realization of people realizing the extent of their…illness? Deviance? I have yet to figure out if this is a character defect, a mental imbalance, or a combination of both. At least, it is possible to say: yup, that’s it! That’s helpful to all of us, because we’re bound to encounter a Lance Armstrong in our own lives one day, and at least this interview will help us recognize him or her.

He has a functional inability or significant impairment to experience guilt in the way most of us understand it. Anyone can appear cool and reserved on television but there is a difference. Sociopaths lie, and lie well, and they do not feel shame about it. They do not have the same physiological responses to lying as other people. They have an impaired ability to feel as other people might, empathy. They fail to take responsibility or recognize the consequences of their actions. They don’t show anguish over what they have done. You can see this in taped murder confessions — there is the same detachment.

I think Oprah did us all a service by recording this interview that goes WAY beyond any interest we might have in the integrity of professional bike racing.

Sociopaths can have feelings for their family members and other people. I know that caused you some doubt when Lance talked about his family in the interview. They can express pride and affection, for example. But it’s a different kind of relationship and there are other troubling aspects to it. For example, they typically aren’t good caregivers when family members are ill, becoming distant, detached, seemingly uncaring, or even angry.

One scenario of how a sociopathic father relates to his wife and daughter is explained in The Sociopath Next Door. Anyone who listened or observed this man (I believe he was a university administrator) would feel he loved his family and was just like anyone else, and it wasn’t until an event happened that the daughter realized how sociopathic her father really was.

Sociopaths snow virtually everyone, even family members, because we are wired to think of people thinking and reacting as we do.”

 

I don’t profess to have the expertise to diagnose a sociopath, but everything I’ve read confirms that Mary’s conclusion is correct. Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments, Mary!

Finally, I try to stay away from “question mark journalism,” in which I throw out a question (“Is Lance Armstrong a sociopath?”) without having the evidence to answer it conclusively. But in this case, Armstrong was confronted directly with that term by Oprah Winfrey during the interview. He didn’t deny the charge. 

Click here to see my full review of the Lance Armstrong – Oprah Winfrey interview, including video of one key exchange.


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Review: The Lance Armstrong / Oprah Winfrey Interview

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 17, 2013 – 11:12 pm

A sociopath is defined as a pathological liar who lacks remorse, is manipulative and superficially charming, and who fails to take responsibility for his actions.

Watching Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey tonight, you wouldn’t have to work hard to make the case that he fits that classic profile.

Armstrong offered a self-interested and rather obvious admission of guilt, but didn’t look like he really meant it. On some intellectual level, he seemed to understand that he had to make a perfunctory admission—but that’s all he gave, failing to deliver his words with the emotion that would give the public a hint that he “got it.”

A person in crisis who “gets it” doesn’t say that he looked up the definition of the word “cheat” and then reveal that he didn’t think he met that definition. Nor should a person in crisis play games when asked whether it was true that he never failed a drug test (in fact, he said, he didn’t, evading the real point of Oprah’s question).

But one of his lowest moments came when discussing a recent phone call with Betsy Andreu, wife of cyclist Frankie Andreu. When recounting the phone call, Armstrong seemed to find it funny that although he admitted calling her “crazy” and “a bitch,” he didn’t call her “fat.” He grinned at his apparent wit, as if he was a mischievous kid who thought his cruelty was somehow funny.

In describing himself, he told Oprah that he was “a guy who expected to get what he wanted and control every outcome.” Although he used the past tense, the same could be said for his demeanor during the interview tonight. Armstrong was stiff, with clenched hands and crossed arms—but he also couldn’t stop himself from jumping in and talking over Oprah several times.

Armstrong also used distancing third person language, calling himself “Lance Armstrong,” and linguistically trying to separate “that part of my life” from “this part” of my life—as if he wasn’t still denying the juicing charges just a few months ago.

The medium Armstrong chose for his interview was telling—by choosing an interview with Oprah Winfrey instead of, say, Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes, Armstrong made clear that this “confession” was more about image rehabilitation than a sincere attempt to come completely clean (he didn’t; he refused to offer many specifics). To Winfrey’s credit, she came prepared, asking short, to-the-point questions before getting out of Armstrong’s way.

In the end, Armstrong managed to diminish his brand even further tonight. Given his reputation, I would have expected him to train for this interview with the same seriousness he once used to prepare for his cycling events (without the doping, of course). Perhaps he did work in advance with a media trainer. But at some point, even the best media trainer can’t prevent a remorseless bully from getting out of his own way. 

UPDATE: FRIDAY, JANUARY 18, 2013, 10:00pm

The clip above was one of Armstrong’s lowest moments of the entire interview. His comment about whether he should be allowed to compete again, “I think I deserve it,” was one of his most tone-deaf of the two nights.

That moment aside, Armstrong exhibited more emotion tonight than he did in the first part.

What struck me is that the only time during both nights that he seemed truly emotionally connected was when he discussed his family. On the other hand, he showed little of that same emotional connectedness when talking about doping, the people he bullied, or his years of dishonestly.

That contrast showed me something: Armstrong has the capacity to feel and care about other people – so perhaps he’s not a sociopath after all (even though he said he was one during tonight’s interview). But it also shows that he’s not nearly as personally connected to the torment he caused so many people outside of his family.

All in all, tonight was a slightly better night for him. But he still doesn’t seem to fully “get it”; nor has he fully disclosed his infractions or expressed a willingness to give something up (such as his aspirations to be allowed to compete again).  Until he does, he’s going to have a long path to public redemption.

What do you think? Please take our poll and leave your thoughts in the comments section below. And if anything interesting happens during Friday night’s interview, I’ll update this post.

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Lance Armstrong: Oprah’s Pre-Airtime Comments Matter

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 17, 2013 – 6:02 am

I received this email from reader Art Aiello a couple of days ago about Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Lance Armstrong, which airs tonight and tomorrow night:

“I wonder if there isn’t something for us PR professionals to consider in that there is the interview, then the story about the interview. I find it interesting that the interview isn’t supposed to air for a couple of days, but Oprah’s talking about it in advance (likely to stoke buzz). In cases like this, the interviewee has to consider not only what he is saying during the interview and what will be said about him after it, but what the interviewer is saying about him before it.”

 

 

Art raises a great point. The period between the actual interview and the airing of that interview may influence the manner in which the audience perceives it.

In this case, Oprah interviewed Lance Armstrong on Monday, three days before it was scheduled to air. Although the parties agreed not to discuss it until after it aired, Winfrey was free to speak once Armstrong’s confession leaked. During a lengthy interview on CBS on Tuesday, Winfrey said that Armstrong “did not come clean in the manner that I expected.” That comment, which got a lot of ink, may prejudice the way people perceive the interview when it airs. (Her interview with CBS This Morning is below.)

Media trainers often teach people to aim their communications directly at their target audience, using the reporter merely as a conduit through which they can reach it. But in cases in which the interviewer may discuss and characterize the interview before it airs, that may not be the smartest approach. Interviewers who offer a strong opinion about the interview may influence the manner in which the audience ultimately views it — and their characterization will create days of headlines before the audience gets to decide for itself. 

That means that the interview subject has to simultaneously persuade two audiences — the interviewer and the public. That happens much of the time anyway, but spokespeople intent on talking past the interviewer to reach the home audience may be punished in unflattering headlines before the interview ever airs.

The dynamic Art described may not have played out in a dramatic way for this interview, but he raises an important question for PR professionals planning such high-profile interviews. Here are a few solutions to help circumvent this problem:

1. Forge an agreement with the interviewer that neither side will comment on the interview until after it airs. (As we saw in this case, that agreement doesn’t always hold up.)

2. Choose an interviewer with whom you already have a personal relationship or are likely to have some sort of personal connection. 

3. Opt to do a live interview instead of a taped one, eliminating the “post-interview/pre-airtime” period altogether. 

4. Opt to do a taped interview that airs the same day. Also, consider an agreement that requires the interviewer to air the full, unedited interview. 

What do you think? Do interviewees need to change their approach for high-profile interviews that are taped days in advance? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. And tune in later tonight for my review of the Armstrong/Winfrey interview.


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Lance Armstrong Doping Allegations: Deny and Defend?

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on June 14, 2012 – 2:00 pm

Editor’s Note: This article is by Christina Mozaffari, Senior Media Trainer, Phillips Media Relations.

As a media trainer and a former journalist, I tell my clients never to lie to reporters, especially in a crisis. Once the truth comes out—and it usually does—you lose any credibility you may have had and become a completely unreliable source in the future.

Which is why I’m torn thinking about the recent developments in Lance Armstrong’s current battle against doping charges. The Washington Post reports the seven-time Tour de France winner is being accused by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) of a “massive doping conspiracy” from 1998-2007 witnessed by more than 10 cyclists.

Armstrong released a strong statement on his website yesterday denying the allegations, saying:

“I have never doped, and, unlike many of my accusers, I have competed as an endurance athlete for 25 years with no spike in performance, passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one. That USADA ignores this fundamental distinction and charges me instead of the admitted dopers says far more about USADA, its lack of fairness and this vendetta than it does about my guilt or innocence.”

 

This is not the first time Armstrong has faced these charges. The US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles investigated Armstrong for two years before terminating its inquiry in February without charging him. In that case, two of his former teammates testified in public that Armstrong was doping.

Which gets us to the big question: Assuming, for the sake of argument, Armstrong did dope, what should he do? Should he come clean and put this whole mess to rest, relinquish his seven Tour de France titles and jeopardize his fundraising prowess for his Livestrong Foundation? Or, should he continue to deny the allegations and defend himself in the court of public opinion?

Complicating the matter, a confession would not send Armstrong to jail. The USADA cannot prosecute him criminally; it can only strip him of his titles and prevent him from competing in future events. So this really is solely a matter of Armstrong’s reputation.

Mark McGwire's reputation never recovered after he admitted using steroids.

Past athletes who have admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs have not fared well. Take Mark McGwire, for example, who in 2005 pleaded “no comment” when asked during a Congressional hearing whether he had ever taken steroids. The public convicted him of being a cheat, and his reputation has never recovered. He finally confessed the obvious in 2010, and has been on the outside of the Baseball Hall of Fame looking in ever since. 

Former Olympic champion Marion Jones faced a similar fate when she confessed to taking performance-enhancing drugs and lying about them to a grand jury. She was stripped of her five Olympic medals and the promising career and sports endorsements she once had.

Our firm wouldn’t represent a client that we knew was lying. But assuming that Armstrong is guilty, is his best PR move to deny and defend? Is this an exception to the “never lie” rule?

UPDATE: June 29, 2012: According to one of Lance Armstrong’s lawyers, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency voted today to officially charge Armstrong with doping and being part of a doping conspiracy.

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

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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