At Ease With the Media

Insights for media relations practitioners and their spokespeople

Dalhousie's Dumbass Dozen Creates Crisis



It’s not often that we have an event with two distinct crises at its core, but the issue of the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen”—the 13 male dentistry students at Dalhousie University—has provided us with just such a case.

On one side, we have Dalhousie University. When questionable Facebook posts by fourth-year dentistry students were made public, the president chose to instigate a process of restorative justice. It wasn’t until he faced a mini-revolt from faculty members in the new year that he banned the male dentistry students from clinical practice, and scheduled separate classes for them.

From the university’s perspective, this issue isn’t going away any time soon.

On the other side, we have 13 male dentistry students.

These young men are in serious crisis. Somebody needs to explain to them that things won’t get any better by crawling into a cone of silence. News reports are indicating that ALL male dentistry students of Dalhousie’s class of 2014 will need to prove they are of sound ethical judgement (i.e. they were not a member of the infamous Facebook group) to any provincial registry before they can practice their profession.

In other words, no proof, no license.

Silence is not an option for these young men. They need to go public, take responsibility for their actions, discuss the foolishness of their behaviour, apologize to everyone involved, and convince the world that this one lapse in judgement will never be repeated in the future.

I don’t only say that as a crisis consultant. I say it as a parent of two young people who are almost exactly the same age as these fourth-year dentistry students.

As I’ve always explained to my kids, people make mistakes. Young people sometimes make more than their share. Their old man has made more than most.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from all the fence-mending I’ve done in my life, it’s that while the mistake is important, what you do after the mistake is absolutely critical.

In the case of these 13 fourth-year male dentistry students, silence is not an option. If my son was involved, I’d like to think we’d already have our news conference behind us and be moving forward together.

With me standing beside him, supporting him, loving him, and helping him salvage as much dignity as possible from an extremely difficult situation.

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.

Perhaps It’s Time to Embrace "No Comment"


As I was listening to CBC radio while driving to a media training engagement a few weeks ago, a featured story inspired me to consider that perhaps, as an industry, we should start using “no comment” as part of our professional lexicon.

Immediately after having that thought, I was aghast. I have been a member of this industry since June 14, 1982. During the past 33 years, I can never remember a time in which I would not have cringed if I heard any spokesperson say “no comment” when asked a question by a journalist.
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However, I am starting to think I should get over that involuntary reaction. As I sit here three decades later, I must admit that saying “no comment” would potentially have more value than the repetition of meaningless key messages. At least “no comment” is relatively honest and potentially less insulting to the readers, listeners and viewers.

The CBC story that inspired this thought involved a Nigerian priest, an Ontario woman, and the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA).

The woman had accused the priest of raping her while he was visiting the southwestern Ontario church at which she was an administrative employee. In 2004, police issued a Canada-wide warrant for his arrest, but he had already returned to Nigeria. The victim was assured by the CBSA that her rapist would never be allowed back into the country.

However, she later learned that he had returned to Canada in 2013. The victim contacted her local member of parliament and the CBSA to try and discover how and why an accused rapist was allowed back into the country.

After a seven-month wait, she received a brief e-mail from her MP’s assistant a few weeks before Christmas. The letter apologized that the priest had been let into the country, assured her that appropriate action would be taken, and then wished her a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

After being contacted by a CBC journalist, a spokesperson for the CBSA replied via e-mail to say: “The agency won’t comment on specific cases, but the safety and protection of Canadians are its top priorities.”

Well, knock me over with a feather. Isn’t that obvious?

If anyone at the CBSA does not take the safety and protection of Canadians seriously, they should seek alternate employment. Likewise, if they do not have the moral fortitude to say that they take every situation seriously enough to investigate — without admitting whether a breach of protocol occurred in this specific case — to ensure a situation like this never happens again, at least have the courage to be honest and say “no comment.”

In cases like this, please do not insult our intelligence by expectorating meaningless key messages that overstate the patently obvious.

Be honest. In future, just say “no comment.”

Ex-Senators Coach is a Polarization Pro


After a disappointing hockey season for the Ottawa Senators of the National Hockey League head coach Dave Cameron was fired. During his subsequent media exchange with the owner, Cameron proved to be a polarization pro.
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In announcing the firing, Eugene Melnyk, owner of the Senators, made pointed remarks about Cameron's coaching style.

“It was inconsistency and some stupidity,” said Melnyk, pointing to Cameron’s decision to start rookie goalie Matt O’Connor in home opener Oct. 8.

“I go back to the very first game. You put in the second goalie. What was that about? On opening night and the guy gets clobbered. It’s not fair to him, not fair to the fans. Just a lot of little tiny mistakes that all of a sudden escalate and get serious and get in people’s heads.”

A natural reaction to polarization is to meet the opposition head-on. Imagine John Tortorella, head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets and previous head coach of the Vancouver Canucks, reacting to the comment if it was made toward him. He likely would have used colourful language to tell Melnyk that until he learns to skate and shoot a puck his opinion on the matter is irrelevant.

Instead, Cameron took a more effective approach to handling polarization. He remained logical and professional, using Melnyk’s open hostility to pull people to a more reasoned perspective.

“He can evaluate me all he wants, my coaching, he can fire me, I understand all that," Cameron said in a news conference on April 14, 2016.

"There's no reason for being hurtful. We're human beings, at the end of the day.”

About 25 years ago, I developed a “Managing Polarization” model to help my clients navigate their way through issues effectively.

Polarization arises as a result of issues, and the dictionary defines an issue as "an unresolved problem with the potential of escalating into a dispute." When someone "takes issue" with an individual or organization, they are mapping out the boundaries of that dispute.

Theoretically, the opinions toward any issue can be mapped along a spectrum that goes from openly hostile at one end to openly supportive at the other. Those with no opinion can be found somewhere in the middle.

As you move toward the outer edges of this spectrum to openly hostile or openly supportive, you move from a logical perspective to an emotional perspective.

When dealing with a group or individual who is openly hostile in an emotional way, it is essential to remain in the supportive but logical side of the spectrum. Allow others to explore your logic by answering questions and keeping your answers short. The more questions you answer, the more transparent you will be. By being objective, you allow their hostility to push people toward your perspective.

Dave Cameron is a case in point. He faced negative opinions from the organization and fans. It is no secret that the Ottawa Senators did not have a particularly successful season and a lot of the blame ends up with the coach. Even if you agree with Melnyk’s opinion, as a human being it is difficult to take his side when he is on the openly hostile end of the spectrum and belittling another human being.

Cameron implemented the Polarization Model flawlessly. He is truly a polarization pro.