I train people on how to answer tough questions in media.
In my book, When the Headline is You (released today), I tell the story of a plant manager who wanted to practice response techniques in the event, heaven forbid, of a fatality at his facility. In our simulation, when I asked the plant manager for his comment on the employee’s death, he responded, “Our facility has a good safety record.”
Excuse me? A worker just died and he’s talking up the plant’s success in keeping safe? Talk about a disconnect! I asked the plant manager why he said that and he told me a previous media trainer told him only to deliver positive messages, even when bad news happens.
Too many media trainers give spokespeople bad advice. They tell them to ignore questions reporters ask and focus instead on the positive “key messages” they want to deliver. There are quite a few reasons why this is wrong.
First, when something bad happens, spokespeople cannot ignore the severity of a situation and gild the lily. Second, their inappropriate positive quote will stick out like a sore thumb when the story is written and the quote is juxtaposed next to those of families, witnesses or survivors. And third, this approach serves only to breed distrust.
For CEOs, this means that communicating in crisis involves much more than delivering positive messages. They, more than others in the company, need to be seen as the Chief Empathy Officer. That’s where BP’s Tony Hayward went wrong. On top of the fact that BP had no clue how to stop the gushing oil, it was represented by a chief executive perceived to be uncaring.
For CEO’s in crisis, the key is to be accessible, responsive and caring.
Jeff Ansell is a media and crisis communications consultant who has created a unique process for Fortune 500 companies to manage high-profile issues, including the Erin Brockovich case. As founder and principal of the consulting firm Jeff Ansell & Associates, Jeff’s journalism experience gives him the ability to instinctively react to his clients’ most difficult situations. Thousands of executives and communications professionals worldwide have been coached in Jeff’s process.