At Ease With the Media

Insights for media relations practitioners and their spokespeople

Why Bridging and Staying on Message are Destined to Fail

There is a single word that explains why constantly bridging and staying on message are doomed as media relations tactics: convergence. That is why At Ease With the Media embodies the modern approach, rather than being message-driven.

At Ease With the Media teaches spokespeople to manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes—assisting the journalist on one side while supporting the organization’s objectives on the other.

Spokespeople understand the value of answering questions clearly and concisely. They learn to strategically influence audiences through the journalist, but are flexible and adaptable to the journalist’s needs along the way.

Of course, they are taught to always protect themselves and their organization at every step.

As the embedded interview illustrates (if the interview isn’t visible at the bottom of this article, click here to go to the TV network site), prior to convergence, a spokesperson could get away with repeating the same thing over and over, especially when answering questions from a print journalist or providing a quote for a newscast.

Today, however, the rules have changed. A single article on a website can contain both the print article, which provides detail into the issue, and the actual unedited interview with the spokesperson. In this format, it becomes obvious that the spokesperson is avoiding all questions by stubbornly repeating the same thing over and over.

There are some lessons to be learned here.

If your media training consultant focuses on constantly bridging or is mired in staying on message, find someone else to work with. Your spokespeople and your organization deserve better.

The results of a modern approach are clear: better relationships with reporters, improved strategic outcomes, and effective risk management.

Finally, if you provide media training that focuses on constantly bridging, please continue to do so. Those of us who have moved beyond that paradigm will be happy to chip away at your customer base.

Crisis Management is NOT Crafting Messages

As a “profession” of communicators and public relations practitioners, it’s time we came to grips with an important reality.

Crisis management (and, by extension, crisis communication) is not about crafting messages. It’s about influencing behaviour—specifically the behaviour of the individuals, executives and/or leaders whose actions or decisions led to the crisis in the first place.

For example, consider the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. When the former radio host was fired from his job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), he immediately took the initiative with his now-infamous Facebook post.

Step one in the standard crisis communication handbook is to get in front of the issue. Check. Step two is to control the message. Check.

(I can’t believe people still use this playbook to attempt to control the message. In my media training program, I’ve been teaching for more than 20 years that the only thing you can control is what you say. That statement was true with newspapers, magazines, radio and TV in the early 1990s; it is doubly true in a world dominated by social media.)

Ghomeshi’s post (now removed from Facebook) portrayed a downtrodden radio host whose sexual habits were at best misunderstood and, at worst, a fascinating form of cultural discrimination.

The post was well-written. It laid out his logic, and managed to tug at the heartstrings of fans. It received thousands of likes in a few short hours. In short, I have no doubt that some consultant somewhere (i.e. at Navigator, Mr. Ghomeshi’s agency at the time) was patting him- or herself on the back for crafting a well-designed message.

But it was a pile of crap. And any senior PR practitioner worth his or her salt would have pointed it out to him.

Mr. Ghomeshi is now facing multiple criminal charges of sexual assault. While it is up to the courts to ultimately decide whether the sexual acts were as consensual as Mr. Ghomeshi claimed in his post, there are a couple of lessons for those of us, as “professionals,” who help organizations steer their way through issues, emergencies and crises.

First, get to the truth

We are not lawyers. We have no obligation to represent individuals (or organizations) when they are lying through their teeth. In fact, we probably shouldn’t represent them because, if we do, there’s a high probability their stink will stick to us.

(As an aside, I have long yearned for the day when the media know to dig deeper because the PR agency has fired the client early in the crisis. When that day arrives, I believe we’ll finally be able to call ourselves a profession.)

The first step in any crisis is to ask tough questions behind closed doors to determine what is true and what isn’t. We need to look executives in the eye and determine whether they are honestly attempting to deal with the issue, or if they are looking for some form of spin to save themselves from the poor decision-making that got them into trouble in the first place.

If they are unwilling to answer our questions, and we’re an outside consultant, we should get up and walk out until they are. If we’re an internal consultant, we should polish our resume and start sending it out. It’s only a matter of time before it’s needed.

Second, help them understand the consequences of the truth

This element of crisis management has two sides: the consequences of not telling the truth to the outside world; and the consequences of telling the truth.

In my three decades of experience, by the time a crisis reaches this point, there is a short-term game and a long-term game.

In the short term, not fully disclosing the truth may mean the issue will fade after a time. After all, the world has a relatively short attention span. But it’s only a matter of time before all those problems hidden under the bed or in the closet are brought into the open again by social or traditional media—or both—and lead to irreparable damage to an individual’s or organization’s reputation.

Think I’m kidding? The following statement was found in a recent article about Dalhousie University that had nothing to do with the recent debacle at the university’s school of dentistry:

“Dalhousie also recently began inquiries into the behaviour of 13 male dentistry students after they were linked to a Facebook page containing sexually violent content about women.”

Because of the way it bungled bringing out the truth, Dalhousie can expect reporters to “bridge” to that problem for years, if not decades.

Over the long-term, disclosing the truth is generally the only option that enables the organization to protect its reputation. We need to help our clients understand this concept before we can help them communicate.

Third, help the world understand the truth

This is the communication part of crisis management. The organization must come clean, apologize for its actions if necessary, make reparations where possible, and help the world understand what it’s doing to ensure a similar problem never emerges again.

There you have it; three guiding principles that can help solve any crisis.

Two-thirds of this solution has nothing to do with communication. In fact, if you attempt to communicate without identifying the truth and its consequences, you’re attempting to spin your way out of a problem. If that happens, don’t be surprised if the crisis lingers and the organization’s reputation ends up in tatters.

And the stink sticks to those who engineered the spin in the first place.

Defining the Line Between Spin & Sin



For spokespeople to be effective, it’s vital that they understand the nuances between lies, deception and spin.

In her book LYING: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, philosopher Sissela Bok defines deception as that which occurs when “we communicate messages meant to mislead … meant to make them believe what we ourselves do not believe.” To her, lying is “any intentionally deceptive message which is stated.”
lying cover

In other words, to lie, you must make some form of statement; you cannot lie by simply omitting facts. If you omit facts to create a false impression, you are practicing a form of deception.

During my 33-year career, I have seen very few media training consultants or public relations practitioners counsel clients to lie or intentionally deceive the world when they face stakeholder groups or reporters. However, I have witnessed many situations in which the client (as spokesperson) has spun an issue or not been forthcoming with the truth. (Ignoring the question and talking about “what’s really important” is a perfect case in point.)

Defining Spin

In a presentation to the American Political Association a few years ago, political scientist John J. Mearsheimer provided a definition of spin that I have used many times because it clearly delineates spin from both lying and deception. According to Mr. Mearsheimer, spin occurs when someone links together facts in a way that attempts to portray an individual or organization in the best possible light.

Chances are, if you’ve ever sent out a résumé, you have practiced a form of spin. Spin involves downplaying or ignoring certain facts that would create a negative perception, and emphasizing those that create a positive perception. The emphasis is on making the individual or organization look as good as possible by focusing attention on the positives.

The thin line between spin and sin lies somewhere between the creation of a true impression and a false impression, resulting from which decisions or facts are included, which facts are omitted, and how the facts are structured.

In other words, if the facts are true and the impression left by those facts is true, the overall approach is ethical.

However, if the facts are true but the impression left by the selection or organization of those facts is false or misleading, the precise location of the ethical line needs to be discussed or reviewed by all those involved. If we leave this impression, are we opening ourselves to criticism?

If the facts are untrue, and people in the organization know them to be untrue, the organization is lying.

Spin is not necessarily a form of deception, provided that the story created by the facts is not intended to mislead and the facts underlying the story are true. But the line between spin and sin is definitely crossed when there is no conscious effort to portray an accurate or truthful version of the story.

Asking Questions—the Only Protection

The only protection someone has against deception, lies or spin is asking questions. By definition, this makes the skill of answering questions extremely important if an organization’s spokespeople hope to maintain high moral ground during situations of real or perceived hostility.

By asking questions, stakeholders and journalists can determine which facts are highlighted and which are ignored, and whether the person answering questions is engaging in some form of deception, lie or spin. This is why interviews, not just résumés, are important to the hiring process.

From a formal perspective, this is what happens when prosecutors and defense attorneys (or plaintiffs and defendants) square off against each other in a court of law. This is also what happens in the court of public opinion when reporters ask spokespeople about the actions, activities, opinions and behaviours of the organizations they represent.

And, in an information-driven world, this makes the skill of answering questions clearly and concisely absolutely critical, and pause-answer-stop the foundation on which the line between spin and sin can be constructed and maintained.

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ericEric Bergman, BPA, ABC, APR, MC, FCPRS, is arguably the world’s most credentialed and experienced media training consultant. He has helped organizations manage issues and crises, and coached spokespeople, for more than 30 years.

To learn more about his media training program, At Ease With the Media, please click here.