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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Chris Christie’s Marathon Press Conference

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 9, 2014 – 1:00 pm

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie faced reporters today to respond to his administration’s brewing “bridge” scandal.

His press conference was far from perfect. But it was a net positive and a critical first step toward regaining some control of this story.

By delivering a “marathon press conference”—he answered questions for close to two hours—he left an indelible impression of openness and transparency. 

(Click here to catch up on the scandal, in which access to the George Washington Bridge was partially closed as political punishment.)

Chris Christie Bridge Press Conference

Based on his tone—which careened between sad, betrayed, incredulous, exasperated, and bewildered—I believe him. I suspect many others will, as well. When watching a politician respond to a crisis, viewers typically have a gut-level visceral reaction. Christie’s performance will lead to a favorable one for many. 

Beyond his tone, he also took specific action, firing a top aide. Christie made clear that he knew nothing about the bridge incident and has “nothing to hide.”

Still, his press conference was far from perfect. Christie spent far too much time talking about his own grief over the situation (“I’m humiliated by this.” “I am very sad today.”) instead of focusing on the people who were affected by this incident—commuters, parents, school children, and most critically, those who couldn’t receive an emergency response in a timely manner. He spent too much time talking about his own “stages of grief,” and not enough focusing on the New Jersey residents—and others—who his administration let down.

He also used a couple of politically dumb phrases:

  1. Dumb quote one: “I am not a bully.” Statements of denial are a media no-no, as they instantly evoke statements like “I am not a crook” and “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
  2. Dumb quote two: “Mistakes were made.” That passive-language gem has become a cliché for its lack of personal responsibility. In fairness, he took responsibility at several other moments.

He also stood behind a large, triple-sized lectern, putting an unnecessary and unhelpful physical barrier between himself and reporters.

The bottom line is that it’s never an enviable position for a politician to have to stand before reporters and claim that he was clueless about what his top lieutenants were doing. At best, it makes Christie look like a clueless and somewhat feckless manager.

But assuming everything he said in his press conference today was truthful, it was a critical and effective first step that may help Christie keep his 2016 presidential ambitions alive.

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


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July 2013: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 31, 2013 – 12:02 am

More than 40 people were killed earlier this month when a 73-car train filled with oil derailed in Quebec and slammed into downtown Lac-Mégantic.

The accident, Canada’s deadliest in almost 150 years, was horrific—some people sitting in a café, for example, were reportedly burned alive after fleeing, while others jumped from a building’s third floor to escape the inferno.

Edward Burkhardt, the chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways (whose train was responsible for the damage), managed to make matters worse. He waited several days before showing up and giving a press conference—and when he did, he made an even bigger mess of things. 

Lac Megantic Ottawa Citizen

Mr. Burkhardt comes across in this press conference with the analytical nature one might expect from someone in a more technical profession. In so doing, he demonstrates that there is a mile-wide chasm between intelligence and emotional intelligence—and while he might have a lot of the former, it’s clear that he has little of the latter.

This press conference is a good example of what not to do. It’s worth watching in its entirety.

1. It was all about him.

He began the press conference by talking about his own feelings: ”I feel absolutely awful about this. I’m devastated by what’s occurred in this community. I have never been involved in anything remotely approaching this in my whole life.”

That’s not a bad start, but he failed to follow it up with a genuine statement of concern or commitment for the victims and the community. As a result, the inescapable takeaway was that his primary concern was himself, not the victims. (That may or may not be true, but it’s what his communications style reasonably led many people to believe.) The fact that he reportedly hadn’t met with the victims’ families didn’t help. 

2. He showed up too late. 

At the very beginning of the press conference, he perseverated over the question of why he hadn’t shown up sooner. “Frankly, it was easier [remaining in my office] than running around here with a cell phone in my hand and trying to do it from here.”

That may be true—but he seems completely oblivious to the fact that being present and exhibiting genuine compassion for victims is a necessary component of modern day crisis communications. In fact, he shockingly told one reporter, “I’m not a communications professional. I’m a manager,” as if competent management doesn’t require competent communications. (Plus, he was the Vice President of Marketing for Chicago and North Western Transportation, where he presumably needed to know something about communications.)

3. He talked business.

Burkhardt talked about insurance. He also talked about bankruptcy, future plans for the railroad, claims, and a key customer. None of that was appropriate. His responses should have maintained a laser-like focus on the victims: “There will be a time and place to discuss the financial impact of this incident on our company. Right now, nothing is more important than putting plans in place to make sure these families and this community are taken care of.”

4. He disrespected the community.

Incredibly, Mr. Burkhardt tried to assume the “victim’s” mantle, telling reporters:

“I thought people would respond to my willingness to come there…I mean, they were screaming about how I took three days to get there…People wanted to throw stones at me. I showed up and they threw stones. But that doesn’t accomplish anything.”

Those comments lead inevitably to point number five…

5. He looked like a jerk.

Mr. Burkhardt was condescending toward the press, even turning sarcastic when he asked one reporter, “Were you here a few minutes ago when I answered that?”

Given his demeanor, I question his decision to give a full press conference. He might have done better in a one-on-one format (particularly with print reporters who wouldn’t have shown video of his non-empathetic tone). He needed to say something, but I wonder whether a more able communicator within his company should have done the longer press conference. That’s not preferable in a crisis of this magnitude, but in this case, it might have been a more sound decision.

The lowest point came when he engaged in a pathetic attempt at wit. When one reporter asked, “How much are you worth?” Burkhardt responded, “A whole lot less than I was on Saturday.” In terms of summing up his self-focused tone, that quip was perhaps his most telling remark of all.

Photo Credit: Ottawa Citizen

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The Right Way To Run A Press Conference (Video)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 9, 2013 – 6:01 am

It’s easy to find an example of a spokesperson getting a press conference all wrong. It’s less common—and worth noting—when someone gets it exactly right. One such example occurred after Saturday’s plane crash in San Francisco.

Deborah Hersman, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), faced cameras shortly after the accident to discuss how her agency would handle its investigation. During the first half of her short briefing, Ms. Hersman delivered the information reporters needed to file their stories; during the second half, she took three questions.

Watch this video. It offers spokespersons everywhere a wonderful example of the right way to run a press conference during a crisis.

The Briefing

I was struck by how slowly and deliberately Ms. Hersman spoke. Her controlled pace not only gave reporters sufficient time to jot down notes, but conveyed a strong impression of a person who possessed the confidence and competence to manage the situation.

Ms. Hersman packed a lot of critical information into just two minutes. Her efficiency as a spokesperson leads me to believe that she’d be equally as efficient when leading an investigation.

One small detail: She should tie her hair back better before future outdoor press conferences. I know that’s superficial, but it was impossible not to notice her wrestling with her hair on the windy day. Many commenters in YouTube’s comments section—rarely a beacon of civil conversation—also noted the distraction.

Deborah Hersman NTSB

The Questions

Ms. Hersman took three questions. For each, she repeated the question back, which ensured that every microphone picked it up. She kept her answers short, which limited the number of quotes reporters could run.

Typically, I recommend that spokespersons announce in advance the number of questions they plan to take or the number of minutes available for the question period. Doing so prevents spokespersons from looking like they’re running away when the questions get tough (since they’ve announced their intention to take a specific number of questions in advance, they’re just following through on what they said they’d do).

Ms. Hersman didn’t do that. But it didn’t matter. After taking two questions, she confidently said, “One more question.” How did she make it work when so many others don’t? Because her tone was one of utter confidence throughout the entire briefing, and no one watching the video could reasonably conclude that she was running away from tough questioning. Even the manner in which she walked away showed a woman in complete control. 

That’s really the key word with this entire press conference: control. She controlled her own tone, controlled her message, and yes, even controlled the assembled press corps. 

A grateful tip o’ the hat to Dave Statter of the fabulous Statter911 blog.

 

You’ll find more tips about the best way to manage a press conference in my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.


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How To Handle A Media Scrum During A Crisis

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 2, 2013 – 6:02 am

This excellent post was written by Warren Weeks, the principal of Toronto-based Eleven PR

When it comes to media scrums, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that the vast majority of people will make it through their entire careers without finding themselves at the center of one of these stressful, impromptu press conferences.

The bad news is that if you do find yourself suddenly surrounded by a circle of clamoring reporters during a crisis, you will have likely had very little time to prepare. 

Handling a scrum definitely falls under the category of advanced media relations. The person tapped to address the media in this situation should have plenty of media training under their belt, as well as a lot of real-world media relations experience. A scrum isn’t for the faint of heart. But if you find yourself in a situation in which the media is descending upon your location and you’re going to need to face them, here are a few tips to help you get through it.

Press Conference Microphones

1. Being there is half the battle

Depending on the level of confidence you’re able to convey, just being on the scene of the crisis to address the media can score you some important points. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in March of 1989, the company’s chairman, Lawrence G. Rawl, sent a series of lower-ranking executives to Alaska to deal with the situation instead of going there himself and taking the lead on the crisis management front. His was a key absence during a notorious disaster that was the result of human error.

During the Stanley Cup riot in 2011, on the other hand, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson faced the media on-site while the riot was still unfolding. Actions can speak louder than words in some instances. And when the chips are down, the presence of a confident leader can be a key ingredient.

2. Confidence is key

While being there can be half the battle, showing up sans confidence is a recipe for disaster. Letting the media run the show, being visibly nervous, sweating, stammering, etc. are all signs that the situation may be slipping out of the company’s control. When you’re engaging with the circle of reporters, you’ll want to convey confidence, decisiveness and leadership. This is where all that media training and advance preparation come in handy.

3. Frame your story in advance

Even if you only have a few minutes to prepare, jot down the three to five key points you want to convey. Be sure to address the big questions people will want answers to. Were there deaths? Injuries? Is the situation under control? What’s the plan for remediation? Have authorities secured the location? And just as importantly, decide which areas/topics you won’t entertain during the scrum interview and have the appropriate bridging phrases at the ready.

 

Press Conference

 

4. Provide an update

The first question will usually be general in nature (e.g. “Can you give us an update on the situation?”) This is often a good opportunity to provide a quick overview of what you know. For example, “At 4:16 pm, one of our employees smelled smoke in the main building. They called 911 and the emergency services personnel arrived four minutes later. The firefighters are in the process of getting the situation under control. We’re pleased to inform you that all company personnel are safe and accounted for. We continue to cooperate fully with officials and will provide further updates as information becomes available.”

This is vital information that the media will want to know about and this ‘mini statement’ can help you build your confidence at the outset of the interview.

5. Answer the question behind the question

Be careful about answering the reporters’ questions in a literal manner. This isn’t about being evasive. It’s about realizing there’s often a more important question behind their question that needs to be addressed. For example, if you’re asked how many firefighters are on the scene, will providing a specific number actually be useful to anyone? Are there five? 23? 119?

The literal question is about how many personnel are on the scene. The question behind the question is, “Are the right people on the scene and is the situation under control?” Imagine you’re watching the spokesperson on TV and they get asked about the number of firefighters on the scene. Which is the better answer when it comes to putting the response in context and setting minds at ease?

“Um, fourteen.” or…”We have a full public safety complement of more than a dozen professionals on hand, who are actively working to get the fire under control. And we have the capacity to call upon more emergency services personnel in the unlikely event they are needed.”

Microphones Over White Background

 

6. Use it as a public service announcement

If it makes sense and if the situation can benefit from enlisting the help of the public, use the scrum as a public service announcement. In his scrum during the Stanley Cup riot, Mayor Robertson asked hockey fans and other members of the public to save any photos they had on their smartphones and to send them to the police. Many of them did just that and hundreds of charges have been laid as a result.

7. Create your exit

This isn’t a five-year-old’s birthday party and you’re not a piñata. Once you’ve delivered the information that you have and you’ve given the reporters a chance to ask questions, let them know you have time for one or two more questions. Or let them know specifically when they can expect another update. You may need to state, “This is all the information we have at this point in time. We will have another update for you at 10:00 pm”. Then wind up the interview.

No two scrums will be exactly alike. But as with any other media interaction, preparation and practice are key. The following is an excerpt of the scrum interview that Vancouver’s Mayor Robertson did during the Stanley Cup riot. In this clip, which is just about two minutes in length, you can see him using a number of the techniques described in this post.

Warren Weeks is the principal of the Toronto-based public relations firm Eleven PR. This post originally ran on his blog. He tweets at @ElevenPR.

 


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An Introduction To Press Conferences

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 3, 2013 – 6:02 am

This is an excerpt from my new book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview, now available in soft cover and all major e-book formats.

Press conferences aren’t as common as they used to be. Technology has allowed companies to disseminate information to reporters (and the public) without gathering the press in a single place—and that’s a good thing, since reporters have less time than ever to leave their desks to attend a press conference (and many won’t).

Still, press conferences can play an essential role in media communications, particularly for major news announcements, in political campaigns, and during crises.

Press conferences can be tricky, since reporters from competitive news organizations often play a game of one-upmanship to see who can ask the most difficult question. For that reason, press conferences—especially those about controversial or challenging topics—require a deft spokesperson. Ask yourself whether a press conference is truly the best way to release information before scheduling one.

If you decide to proceed with a press conference, here are four rules to remember:

1. Test the logistics: I’ve attended dozens of press conferences in which the spokesperson walks to the lectern, shuffles his papers, pats his finger on the microphone to test the volume, and looks around for a place to rest his water. When I see a press conference begin that way, it’s a sure sign I’m in for a snoozer.

You’d be surprised how many people fail to check the logistics before reporters arrive. Get there early, position the microphone to a comfortable height and test the volume, check the PowerPoint and its remote control, position your papers, and place a glass of room-temperature water within reach.

2. State your name: Begin the press conference by stating (and spelling) your name and giving reporters your preferred title. Identifying yourself at the beginning helps ensure that broadcast journalists get your on-screen ID (known as a chyron) right.

3. Coordinate with your co-presenters: Little is more awkward than watching co-presenters fumble while transitioning to one another. Good co-presenters are like teammates in a relay race; one hands the baton off to the other seamlessly.

Upon finishing the first portion of the press conference, a presenter should conclude with a line that wraps up the section and introduces the next speaker’s part, such as, “Now that you have a better understanding of how our company intends to roll out this product, Joanne Myers, our lead researcher, is going to explain some of the science behind it.”

For the question-and-answer period, coordinate with your co-presenters in advance to determine which types of questions each of you will answer. While you might handle the business questions, for example, Joanne will take the lead on answering the scientific ones.

4. Maintain eye contact: If multiple cameras are present, keep eye contact with the questioner while answering the question. That way, every camera—regardless of its position—will show you delivering your answer with steady eye contact in one direction rather than darting purposelessly from one person to another.

The Media Training Bible is available from Amazon here and for the Kindle here. For other eBook formats and to read free sample lessons, click here.


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Six Times You Should Call A Press Conference

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 15, 2012 – 5:48 am

Press conferences aren’t as common as they used to be. Technology has allowed companies to disseminate information to reporters (and the public) without gathering the press in a single place—and that’s a good thing, since reporters have less time than ever to leave their desks to attend a press conference (and many won’t).

Press conferences can also be tricky, since reporters in packs sometimes play a game of one-upmanship, in which each reporter tries to ask a tougher question than the last. Still, press conferences can play an essential role in media communications.

Today’s post will help you identify six times to call a press conference.

1. When There Is High News Interest

Since many reporters are reluctant to attend press conferences, your news story must rise to a certain level of newsworthiness before it makes sense to arrange one. If you’re an attorney in a high-profile case, for example, odds are good that the assembled reporters will appreciate your on-camera statement. Doing a press conference may also help prevent you from spending hours doing dozens of one-on-one interviews (which, in some cases, might be a better option).

2. When Reporters Are All In The Same Place

If reporters are already gathered in one place or locale, it might make sense to hold a press conference. As examples: a few dozen reporters are attending your scientific conference; you’re a New York financial firm making a major announcement to the financial press; or you’re a sports coach debriefing with the press following a game.

3. During Political Campaigns

National and many state political campaigns come with a trailing pack of reporters. If you’re running a competitive Senate race in California, for example, odds are that your candidate will have several reporters nearby at any given time.

4. When Public Safety Is Involved

The media are rarely a greater ally than when you need to disseminate critical safety information to local communities quickly. As an example, imagine you’re the public safety officer for a municipality when a gas line erupts, jeopardizing local lives. It’s probably a good idea to hold a press conference (outside the “danger zone,” of course).

5. In a Crisis

You won’t call a press conference in every crisis, but if it meets some of the criteria listed above, you might consider doing so. A press conference in a crisis not only satisfies many of the reporters’ questions, but sends a strong message that you’re in control, willing to talk, and not in “duck and cover” mode. For some scandals, a press conference can help shrink the news cycle, as it did in this case.

6. When Announcing a Loss of Life

In many cases, it’s a good idea to put a human face on tragic news. If you’ve lost a colleague in an explosion at your plant or you’re a public safety officer who knows how many students died in a bus crash, you might consider telling the press in person and on camera. Be careful to notify immediate family members before releasing names through the press.

What have I missed? During what other circumstances would you recommend a press conference? Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.


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Why The First Press Conference In A Crisis Is Critical

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 6, 2012 – 6:04 am

I recently trained a group of 100 senior executives on the best way to deliver an effective crisis press conference.

Jerry Gonzalez, the head of the crew we hired for the training (and a veteran ABC News and CBS cameraman), pulled me aside and offered a view of press conferences I hadn’t heard before. Jerry knows what he’s talking about, since he’s covered hundreds of press conferences through the years.

In his view, the first press conference in a crisis is the most difficult, because the spokesperson often has to face wild speculation from the press corps.

One of the most important jobs you have during the first press conference in a crisis, he argues, is to  “narrow the focus” and “wrangle the information.”

“You’re funneling information early in the story,” he says. Spokespersons who successfully narrow the focus early on help reduce misinformation and inaccurate reporting later in the crisis. But those who fail to successfully narrow the focus by articulating a clear and credible message and dismissing rumors early on will find that their future news coverage (and subsequent press conferences) will suffer.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. For example, companies or agencies that hide information from the press in earlier press conferences will face an antagonistic press corps in later ones. And the press may occasionally give the benefit of the doubt to spokespersons in the early stages of a crisis, but pursue more aggressive lines of questioning once the spokespersons begin to appear incompetent, unforthcoming, or hypocritical.

Last week, Jerry attended a press conference at the San Antonio Airport after the airport was closed down for “credible bomb threats.” Here’s what he observed:

“It was amazing that all agencies were very coordinated in their message – public safety first and diverted away from talking specifics about the “threats” and the three vehicles bomb sniffing dogs hit on. To my surprise, the radio station did not ask any questions or challenge any of the information given, instead the radio host asked that the PIO call back when they had an update. Interesting? Or perhaps the media easily surrenders when the information comes often and repeats the narrative?”


I like Jerry’s idea a lot, and will begin asking a new question when preparing clients for a crisis press conference: “What’s the best way to narrow the focus of the media narrative?”

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    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.

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