Perhaps I’m jaded, but in my world when people do exactly that for which they criticize others, they’re hypocrites. And Canada’s official leader of the opposition, Tom Mulcair, may be just such a beast.
For the past few years, Mr. Mulcair has constantly criticized Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper for not answering questions. “We’ve asked the prime minister a precise series of questions,” he often says, leaving the impression that it is completely unacceptable for someone to not answer those questions.
Yet in numerous media interviews I’ve observed, Mr. Mulcair does exactly the same thing. He almost never answers a question directly. In fact, sometimes it seems he wouldn’t answer a simple question if his life depended on it.
And it negatively impacts his credibility.
I first became aware of this during a radio interview featuring Mr. Mulcair in November 2013 while I was riding my motorcycle home from a media training session in downtown Toronto. I was listening to CBC radio (it’s a Gold Wing with a premium sound system—and heated grips and seats, thank goodness!). Mr. Mulcair was being interviewed about the expense scandal in Canada’s senate shortly after three senators were suspended.
Mr. Mulcair was waxing eloquently about how the prime minister refused to answer simple, direct questions during question period in the House of Commons. The prime minister was avoiding questions. He was sidestepping questions. He was waffling. He was obfuscating.
Just after Mr. Mulcair made his point that the political party he leads, the New Democrats, believe Canada’s senate should be abolished, the interviewer asked an obvious question: “Don’t you think that suspending these three senators is a good start?”
Folks, it’s a closed question requiring either a “yes” or a “no.” And, based on Mr. Mulcair’s worldview, the answer should probably be “yes.” Was there even a hint of a yes or no in Mr. Mulcair’s answer? No. So the interviewer asked again. And again. And again. Until she finally gave up.
Honestly, he came across as a hypocrite.
This past week, I was watching CTV Newsnet when Mr. Mulcair was interviewed by Sandie Rinaldo. To lead off her interview, Ms. Rinaldo quoted Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who says he supports the capacity of Canadian troops to defend themselves. “Do you agree with that?” she asked Mr. Mulcair.
Is this an open or closed question? Closed. The first thing out of Mr. Mulcair’s mouth should be a yes or no. Instead, he ignores the question and says:
“What I do know is that in September and October I asked the prime minister a whole series of questions—very specific questions about what our troops were doing.”
Huh? Isn’t he criticizing someone for not answering specific questions by not answering a specific question?
But wait, it gets even better. “But it seems our troops had no choice but to defend themselves,” Ms. Rinaldo said. “Isn’t there an allowance for that?”
Again, a closed question. Yes or no would be good to hear, especially from someone who criticizes others for not answering specific, direct questions.
“When you’re involved in a firefight it’s because you’re involved in combat,” Mr. Mulcair answered, in his attempt to bridge to his message and tell us all what’s really important, “which Mr. Harper told Canadians we wouldn’t do, and that’s the problem.”
This doesn’t pass the sniff test on a number of levels. If I was a member of Canada’s armed forces, I’d be miffed. You mean to tell us that we shouldn’t defend ourselves, regardless of what the politicians say in their squabbles with each other?
It also illustrates the absolute foolishness of staying on message. As I’ve said many times during interviews and in my media training program, politicians are the only ones who could possibly get away with this tactic (but why would they, when a better alternative is available?), which I believe is an outdated paradigm in an information-driven, media-savvy world.
Mr. Mulcair has until October 19—the date of Canada’s next federal election—to get it right. His predecessor did, probably because he knew he was fighting his last fight.
Mr. Mulcair should go back and watch Jack Layton’s interviews prior to the last federal election. Jack provided a refreshing perspective on treating audiences with dignity and respect. More often than not, he answered questions clearly and concisely, and communicated effectively.
I believe Jack’s performance is a huge reason why Mr. Mulcair currently resides at Stornaway, the residence of Canada’s official opposition.
If he hopes to stay there (or potentially move up in the world), he should gain insight from Jack’s cogent example, and learn how to answer questions as a means of treating audiences with respect, and ultimately managing interviews to strategic gain—without exhibiting the same behaviour for which he’s criticizing others.
An experience in San Francisco a few years ago opened my eyes an interesting irony that exists in the media relations industry.
In 2009, I had just finished creating and testing my At Ease With the Media online training program. Around that time, I attended the IABC world conference in San Francisco. While in the Bay area, I decided to schedule a few sales calls for my newly-completed online program in a relatively safe environment.
One of those meetings was with the director of media relations for a national professional association. Going to the meeting at Fisherman’s Wharf even became a bit of an adventure; it may be the only time I will ever ride a cable car to a meeting.
During our discussion, the director revealed that he was a former journalist. A minute or two later, I asked him what his biggest pet peeve was when, as a journalist, he was interviewing someone. He barely hesitated, then replied: “When spokespeople didn’t answer a simple question directly. I couldn’t stand it when all they talked about were things that were important to them—when they kept going back to their messages.”
Later, I let him pick a module from the online program to sample. He chose "Working with Reporters.” This module discusses creating win-win outcomes with journalists—helping the journalist by answering questions clearly and concisely on one side, while seeking strategic opportunities to influence specifically identifiable audiences along the way.
Towards the end of the meeting, I asked: "Can we do some business together?” He replied: “I don’t think so.”
When I asked why, he replied: “Because you are not as message-driven as we are.”
Well, folks, if you pushed me with a feather at that moment, I would have fallen off my chair. I immediately started to wonder how many other former journalists have done exactly the same thing.
I didn’t get the sale because I didn’t know how to overcome the objection without offending him by pointing out the obvious irony. I have since learned to overcome this objection because I have encountered it many, many times.
Call me crazy, but I believe that spokespeople can be taught to answer journalists’ questions clearly and concisely as a means of communicating effectively with them, helping them complete their stories accurately, and enhancing working relationships. (It is, after all, called “media relations.”)
I also believe that gaining a strategic communication advantage is not mutually exclusive to the skill of answering questions. As I’ve witnessed during thousands of media training sessions I’ve delivered over the past 34 years, spokespeople can be taught to seek, identify and capitalize on strategic opportunities during interviews while helping the journalist and protecting themselves along the way.
In fact, the most effective media relations programs are constructed on the concept that it is possible to answer questions clearly and concisely while gaining a strategic communication advantage.
Research shows that win-win outcomes are the foundations on which communications excellence is constructed. And media relations is no exception to this rule.
In an information-driven world, can your media relations program be constructed on excellence if your spokespeople are only taught to talk about what is important to them?
Forgive me for pointing out a potential irony, but couldn’t that be the part that’s mutually exclusive?
Media training has been half of my core business for about 25 years. And, in that time, I can safely say that one aspect of training has had more value than any other—to the organization, to the public relations team, and to participants.
During training, participants may obtain value from theory provided. They may obtain value from watching good and bad examples in others—whether those examples are pulled from the outside world (i.e. BP, Volkswagen, or others) or are examples they witnessed during training when colleagues have gone through practice interviews.
But there is no question that the greatest value they receive is when they themselves are interviewed, recorded, and critiqued.
They know how they felt. They know the decisions they made during the practice interview. They know the things they said. And if they’re given insight into how they can improve the next time they face a real situation, they enhance their chances for success.
With that in mind, and assuming that media training is virtually a commodity (and I know of at least one large, national PR agency that considers it to be such), it makes sense that the program that offers the lowest cost per practice interview is the program that provides the highest value per dollar spent.
For example, let’s suppose you are planning to purchase media training for two executives, who have committed to a three hour session (a half day). You’ve done your due diligence and you’ve narrowed your choice to two potential media training consultants.
In the first consultant’s proposal, which charges a fee of $2,500, each executive will be interviewed twice (four practice interviews in total). In that situation, the cost per practice interview is $625:
$2,500 ÷ 4 = $625
Your second consultant’s proposal also charges $2,500. However, the second consultant commits to eight interviews (four for each executive) during the same three-hour time frame. Each executive has twice as many opportunities to practice their skills is a safe, controlled environment (as opposed to doing their third interview with a real journalist in the real world).
The cost per practice interview is $312.50:
$2,500 ÷ 8 = $312.50
Let’s look at another example.
Suppose you are preparing to organize a full-day session for six people, for which each consultant is planning to charge $3,500. Again, the first consultant plans to interview each person twice, for a cost of $291.67 per practice interview:
$3,500 ÷ 12 = $291.67
The second consultant commits to interviewing each person four times, for a cost of $145.83 per interview (or twice the value):
$3,500 ÷ 24 = $145.83
Certainly there are differences in theory and approach in media training. Some executive teams might work better with one consultant over another.
But when you’ve narrowed the field and you’re seeking quotes, make sure you identify the commitment to a number of practice interviews.
Divide the total number of interviews into the number of dollars the training will cost, and compare the numbers.
If everything else is equal, the consultant with the lowest cost per practice interview provides the highest possible value.
And that consultant should be the one working with your spokespeople.
I absolutely love this YouTube clip. The best way to watch it is to think of two people in a car, each of whom believes they have a steering wheel, a gas pedal and a brake, and each of whom believes they can steer the vehicle to their destination.
The journalist is steering the interview to why Adobe charges Australian users $1,400 more to download the same Creative Suite software than users in the United States. It seems like a reasonable question. After all, if the premise is true, it’s cheaper for Australian users to fly to Los Angeles to purchase a boxed copy than download the software from down under.
The CEO, however, doesn’t want to go there. He keeps trying to take the vehicle over a bridge to the destination that appeals to him—his belief that “the Creative Cloud is the future of creative.”
But the journalist ignores the bridge and keeps steering the vehicle to where he’d like it to go.
Who wins? In this case (and in many, many others I’ve seen), not the spokesperson.
By the end of this YouTube clip, other journalists start asking why Adobe charges more. The story then becomes:
- It is cheaper to fly to US than buy Adobe software in Australia
- Adobe has its head in the clouds over pricing
- Adobe Catching Fire For Gouging Customers Down Under
There is only one steering wheel, one gas pedal and one brake during media interviews. The journalist ultimately controls all three. Some journalists exert more control than others, absolutely. But organizations that want to control destination and direction should buy advertising, not arrange media interviews.
The best interviews are carefully negotiated in advance, with the intent of building to win-win outcomes. With negotiation, Adobe would discover that the journalist is intensely curious about a pricing issue, and the pricing destination will need to be visited before any new destination can be considered.
If the company is unprepared to visit that destination, it should not conduct a news conference to announce a new product offering. The risk is too great. Any credible media training consultant would tell them that.
If, as a result of effective negotiation, the pricing issue is resolved with a positive announcement, the vehicle can then be driven over the new bridge of “the Creative Cloud as the future of creative.”
The journalist wins because the story can answer a question that the journalist clearly states “readers have been asking.”
The company potentially wins twice.
Not only could it have a positive announcement for Australian customers if pricing can be synchronized, it is demonstrating what lies over the bridge with a business partner that actually listens to their concerns.
About the Author
Eric Bergman is Canada’s most experienced and credentialed media training consultant. For more than 25 years, thousands of spokespeople from five continents in the private, public, corporate, professional, entrepreneurial and not-for-profit sectors have benefited from Eric’s approach, coaching and feedback.
Eric holds a bachelor of professional arts in communication studies from Athabasca University and a two-year diploma in advertising and public relations from Grant MacEwan College.
He is an accredited business communicator (ABC), an accredited public relations practitioner (APR), and a master communicator (MC)—which is the highest distinction that can be bestowed upon a Canadian member of the International Association of Business Communicators. In 2014, he was named a member of the College of Fellows of the Canadian Public Relations Society (FCPRS).
Contact Eric if you’re interested in applying his proven approach. Your spokespeople will gain the competence and confidence to manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes, while protecting themselves and their organization every step of the way.
During his presentation to the World Public Relations Forum on May 29, 2016, Eric Bergman stated his view that public relations professionals have an opportunity to carve out a new area of practice globally and become more trusted advisors to clients. To do this, PR professionals need to bridge the gap between truth and transparency, and virtually eliminate the focus on bridging to messages.
Bergman covered three topics during his presentation. First, he defined a number of terms. Second, he provided examples of how it is possible to be truthful, but not transparent. Third, he demonstrated how the skill of answering questions clearly and concisely not only builds better understanding, but brings together truth and transparency.
Bergman began by defining four terms: lying, deception, spin and transparency. Quoting philosopher Sissela Bok, he explained that lying occurs when someone makes a statement that they believe to be untrue at the time they said it, even if that statement ends up being true at a later date. Deception occurs when someone creates an impression from the facts that they themselves do not believe, even if the facts are true.
“The best definition of spin I’ve ever seen was from a paper by John Mearsheimer to the American Political Association,” Bergman said. “He defined spin as arranging facts in way that portrays the individual or organization in the most positive light.”
A resume, for example, is a perfect example of spin. “If the facts are correct and the impression left by the facts is correct,” Bergman explained, “there is nothing wrong with spin.”
Bergman then defined transparency in three words: ask me anything. This means answering as many questions as possible, but clearly and concisely. “If someone stands in front a group and answers 1,000 questions clearly and concisely in two hours, can that person lay claim to transparency?” asks Bergman. “Of course. I have nothing to hide, so ask me anything. But if they barely pay lip service to the question and bridge to what is important to them or their organization, can they lay claim to transparency? Probably not.”
Bergman concluded the first section by pointing out that the bridge between truth and transparency is the question and answer process. “To protect themselves from lies, deception and spin, people ask questions, and that trend will only accelerate,” he explained. “People want answers. As communications professionals, our objective should be to counsel our clients to provide answers, not ignore questions and talk about what’s important to the organization.”
In the second section of his presentation, Bergman explained how it is possible to be truthful but not transparent. One example he often uses to explain the difference is of a real estate agent showing a customer a potential home. The customer asks: “How far is the nearest school?”
The real estate agent replies by saying: “Talk of school often reminds me of school taxes. Did you know that this is one of the lowest assessed areas in the region? Imagine all the money you will be able to save for your child’s post-secondary education.”
What would the customer’s next question be? Most likely: “How far is the nearest school?”
The real estate agent then replies by saying: “School time is important, but so is after school time with your family. Did you know this property is adjacent to a conservation area? In fact, you will be able to open your back gate and walk right into it. It’s like having all of the beauty and tranquility of the country and convenience of the city.”
Is the real estate agent being truthful? Yes, if the taxes are low and the conservation area is outside the back gate. The agent cannot be faulted for lying or deception. He or she is focusing on perceived benefits of the house to leave the customer with the best possible impression.
But what impression does this leave with the customer? How does not answering a simple question impact the relationship? Bergman believes that most people would be left with the impression that the nearest school is 50 miles away.
Bergman concluded this section by pointing out that the public relations profession would better serve clients if it understood the value of answering questions clearly and concisely. He believes the skill of answering questions can be embodied in three words: pause-answer-stop. Pause and think; answer the question asked and only the question asked; then stop talking.
Bergman concluded his interactive hour by stating: “It’s important to understand the definitions of lies, deception, spin and transparency and that it is possible to be truthful but not transparent. If someone believes ‘ask me anything’ is a reasonable working definition of transparency, then answering questions in clear, concise terms is the bridge that gets us there from the truth.
“As a profession, we would better serve our clients if we helped them bridge the gap between truth and transparency, rather than telling someone asking a question that something else is important. The tactic of bridging to messages has become an outdated paradigm in an information-driven world, and we would better serve our clients if we embraced that fact.”
For more information, Eric Bergman can be reached at 416-410-3273, through his website at www.presentwithease.com, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
Perhaps the one benefit of the sordid Jian Ghomeshi affair is that it provides insight into how and why apologies could and should be made by individuals and organizations facing a crisis.
Sometimes saying sorry is the only option. And when an apology is given, it should be brief, contrite and from the heart.
Jian Ghomeshi was recently acquitted on four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking by an Ontario court judge in March 2016. He then faced a charge of sexual assault against a coworker at CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and was due to appear in court in June, but the charge was dropped when he apologized to his accuser, Kathryn Borel, in court on May 11, 2016.
When the story first broke, Mr. Ghomeshi publicly stated his innocence in a Facebook post. He came out swinging, as the expression goes. He placed the blame on his accusers and stating that he has been “framed” by a jealous ex-girlfriend.
I've written and spoken about that post numerous times over the past couple of years. As someone who has spent about 60 per cent of his life in public relations, I found the Facebook post somewhat repulsive.
It was spin gone bad. From the first paragraph, my personal and professional BS detector was off the scale. As another expression goes, don't BS a BS-er. I've seen it so many times in my career; an individual or organization does something stupid and tries to spin their way out. Then, when they have no other choice, they admit their mistake and issue a half-hearted apology.
Except this case was a bit different. Instead of a half-hearted apology, there were two apologies that seemed whole-hearted and sincere—one from Mr. Ghomeshi and one from the CBC.
Mr. Ghomeshi's, fuelled by an excellent lawyer and one-and-one-half years of therapy, seemed contrite and from the heart. It probably didn't hurt that he has been spending significant time with his mother, who he seems extremely reluctant to disappoint.
The CBC admitted that its behaviour toward Kathryn Borel was deplorable. It publicly apologized through its PR person (an apology from the CEO or chair would have been better, especially on news stories carried by its own network, but we'll take what we can get).
Personally, I believe everyone should be given a second chance. But if either Mr. Ghomeshi or the CBC steps over a similar line again, justice should be swift and brutal, whether delivered in a court of law, the court of public opinion, or both.
However, imagine each had issued their apology earlier. Would that have better salvaged the reputation of each? Perhaps. But the fact that both apologies seemed genuine will likely work in the individual’s and organization’s favour.
When the apologies were finally issued, both Mr. Ghomeshi and the CBC realized that good crisis management can simply mean saying sorry and meaning it. And this case demonstrates how to do so effectively.