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.

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.

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.”

In a Crisis, Secrecy is Your Worst Defence


In a crisis, it is difficult to know whether or not information should be released. With privacy legislation lurking in the background, and lawyers often heavily involved, it can be easier to hide behind a shroud of secrecy than be transparent. But my advice to my clients when they are facing a crisis has always been: “When in doubt, let the information out."

A perfect case in point is a recent article in the Toronto Star that reported Toronto’s student transportation fleet has been in 1,157 collisions with 20 injuries during the past five years. To make matters worse, nearly 80 per cent of those accidents were deemed preventable — which simply means they did not need to occur at all.
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When confronted with these grim statistics, the school boards claimed they were unable to identify how many accidents in which each transportation company has been involved because of privacy legislation.

According to Kevin Hodgkinson, the general manager of the Toronto Student Transportation Group, “They’re not our vehicles, they’re not our drivers, so that’s not our information to provide."

But Ryder Gilliland, a lawyer with Blakes who represents The Star, said the legislation contains a “rarely invoked” clause that allows public bodies to disclose third-party information if it’s in public interest.

But even after being made aware of this clause, Toronto school boards refused to release the accident statistics of the transportation companies serving them. Is it not in the public’s best interest to know what companies are getting in more accidents than others? I’m sure any parent would feel it is, regardless of whether their children are attending an elementary school in Toronto now, have attended school in the past, or will attend in the future.

In this situation, child safety should be the Toronto Student Transportation Board’s top priority. Rather than hiding behind privacy legislation, they should be open and transparent, encourage each school board to evoke the disclosure clause, and release the number of accidents in which each transportation company has been involved.

If they hide behind privacy legislation and one more child is injured — which, statistically, is only a matter of time — the issue may grow beyond manageability.

Releasing the statistics will also have a positive effect on the behaviour of the transportation companies and their drivers. Once accident rates are revealed, these companies will face public scrutiny, ultimately forcing them to change driver behaviour and set higher safety standards.

This is the right thing to do in terms of public interest. Let’s be honest. Eighty per cent preventability is absolutely unacceptable when it comes to child safety.

When dealing with any crisis, transparency is always the best option. By being transparent, companies will prevent bigger problems in the future.

And, as I always say: “When in doubt, let the information out.”

_____________________________


eric
Eric 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.

If You Didn’t Like It Then … Why Do It Now?


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.
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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.

Win-Win Outcomes

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.
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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?

A Crisis is Like a Heart Attack


During the past 30 years, I’ve used a heart attack analogy to explain to management groups why effective crisis communication is less about communication than it is about sound decision-making.
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“Let’s suppose that the pressure of meeting with you today causes me so much stress that I suddenly collapse from a heart attack” I tell them. “I don’t know about you, I’d be tempted to call that a crisis in my life.”

But if we examine that crisis, we’d find that it’s made up of two components.

The first is an emergency. With luck, someone administers CPR. Someone else calls 9-1-1. With their help, I make it to the hospital. There, under the care of professionals, I become well enough to go home.

The second component begins when the emergency ends. This is when the issues begin to emerge.

A Crisis is a Turning Point
The dictionary defines a crisis as a “turning point.” In medicine, a crisis is the point at which a patient takes a turn for the better or the worse.

After my heart attack, the turning point is reached if I get my act together: regular exercise; a better diet; fewer stressful meetings with management groups.

If I don’t change my lifestyle—if I don’t make better decisions—I have not yet reached the crisis. Another emergency is almost certainly just around the corner.

Just as a crisis in medicine can be traced to an illness, an injury or any combination of the two, a crisis in public relations can find its roots in an issue, an emergency, or a combination of the two.

A crisis occurs when issues escalate out of control. Media attention leads to public scrutiny. The organization goes on trial in the court of public opinion.

The crisis point is passed if the resolution of the issues underlying the crisis leads to positive change—a healthier lifestyle for the organization after its analogous heart attack. If there is no positive change, the turning point has not been reached. Another organizational “heart attack” is probably just around the corner.

A Case in Point
Volkswagen is a case in point. The crisis occurred when it was discovered in 2015 that 11 million Volkswagens had diesel engines with altered software that made them appear to emit fewer emissions than they actually did.

At first, Volkswagen appeared to make the right decisions. The president was fired and a replacement named. The company announced that more than two million diesel Audi vehicles had similar issues; it was “coming clean,” so to speak. Volkswagen admitted the problem and said it would fix the software in all the affected vehicles.

But a fascinating New York Times article pointed to two different decision-making issues that may very well lie at the core of Volkswagen’s problems.

The first is what occurs at the boardroom table. The article highlights Volkswagen’s power struggles and boardroom issues, pointing out that a culture of stretching the rules begins at the top.

The second is the attitude of engineers, which the article labeled as “arrogance.” Why should the company meet emission standards, they are reported to have argued, when electric cars in the United States are charged by burning fossil fuels?

If Volkswagen manages to address these two underlying causes of their organizational heart attack, the company has a chance of salvaging its reputation. If not, another emergency is just around the corner. If the company doesn’t address its decision-making issues and embedded arrogance, we could very well be witnessing the death of yet another brand.

One Simple Question
Against this backdrop, effective leaders (and the management groups with whom they work) know that carefully answering one question (and following up with action, not just words) is the key to successfully resolving virtually any crisis and protecting their organization’s reputation.

“What are we going to do to ensure that a similar emergency never, ever happens again?”

Whether you’re having a heart attack as an individual or organization, answering that question is the key to ensuring that issues are resolved and another emergency is not just around the corner.