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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I Am Not A Gay Lesbian Crook

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 12, 2014 – 6:02 am

I’ve written before about the dangers of uttering “quotes of denial,” in which the word “not” is placed immediately before a negative noun or adjective.

The problem is that the defensive-sounding negative word or phrase tends to linger longer in the public memory than the word “not.” So when Chris Christie uttered the phrase “I am not a bully” during his marathon press conference on Thursday, I knew it would be used against him.

Sure enough, here’s the cover from this weekend’s USA Today Weekend:

Chris Christie Not a Bully

Christie should have known better, as history has provided us with numerous examples of bad—or downright disastrous—quotes of denial.

Here are eight memorable examples:

Richard Nixon, 1973: “I am not a crook.” President Nixon’s unfortunate phrase, uttered at the height of the Watergate scandal, became the five most famous words he ever spoke.

Bill Clinton, 1998: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” President Clinton stood by his denial for seven months until he finally admitted that he had, in fact, had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.

Kenneth Lay, 2001: “We’re not hiding anything.” The CEO and chairman of Enron knowingly misled the public about his company’s woeful financial condition. The company filed for bankruptcy shortly after his untruthful claim.

Larry Craig, 2007: “I am not gay.” After being arrested for lewd conduct in an airport men’s bathroom, Idaho Senator Larry Craig denied the accusation by telling reporters, “I am not gay. I never have been gay.” (I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with being gay, only that if Craig’s intent was to deny it, he chose the worst way to do it.)

Larry Craig I Am Not Gat

John Edwards, 2008: “I know that it’s not possible that this child could be mine.” The Democratic presidential hopeful denied having a child with his mistress, Rielle Hunter. He later admitted that he is, indeed, the father.

Christine O’Donnell, 2010: “I’m not a witch.” Christine O’Donnell, the Republican Senate candidate from Delaware, had to do crisis control after a tape emerged of her saying a decade earlier that she had, “dabbled into witchcraft.” She took her critics on by releasing an ad that began with the words, “I’m not a witch.” The ad backfired, and she became fodder for the late night comics. She lost.

Oprah Winfrey, 2010: “I’m not a lesbian.” When the talk show host was asked about her relationship with close friend Gayle King, Ms. Winfrey tearfully denied the relationship was sexual. Her quotable quote was splashed across front pages worldwide. (I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with being lesbian, only that if Winfrey’s intent was to deny it, she chose the worst way to do it.)

Chris Christie, 2014: “I am not a bully.” Considering that Christie has made a career of incidents like this and this and this, his denial will only serve to reinforce his bullying nature.

How To Avoid The Language of Denial

In this video, I offer a tip for avoiding these types of “quotes of denial.” 

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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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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.

What Do You Think of Tonight's Interview?

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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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  • 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.

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    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.

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    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.

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