“Polarization arises because of issues,” I explained during the session. “And the dictionary defines an issue as an unresolved problem with the potential of escalating into a dispute.”
Theoretically, every response to any issue can be mapped along a spectrum that goes from openly hostile on the left side to openly supportive on the right, with no opinion somewhere in the middle.
“When someone takes issue with a perspective, especially during a public meeting, they are making statements or asking questions that feel emotionally charged,” I outlined during the session. “What’s the natural instinct of the person on the receiving end?”
Often, the person answering attempts to change the opinion of the person strongly expressing an opposing opinion. The goal is to bring that person, willingly or unwillingly, to the supportive side of the spectrum.
This can lead to a tug-of-war. When that happens, nothing gets resolved. No opinions are changed.
Whether opposed or supportive (and there are often many more opposed than supportive), everyone walks out of the meeting not having changed their opinion. Worse yet, they may move away from the logical toward the emotional end of the spectrum.
This is polarization.
There are only three opinions about any issue. Positive, negative, and none. And there are only three things you can do with these opinions.
You can reinforce a positive opinion. You can neutralize a negative opinion—not necessarily change it but neutralize it. Or you can form a latent or unformed position.
When issues arise, there is little or no need to form opinions; the issue has taken care of that task because issues formulate opinions. To manage polarization effectively, therefore, two things need to happen. First, the organization’s perspective needs to be reasonable, rational, ethical and supportable. If it is, it’s defensible.
Second, the organization can best defend its perspective by answering questions about it, not reacting to statements or sending even more information to the audience in the hope that somehow they’ll overcome their emotional anxiety and understand what is attempting to be done.
If someone makes a statement that seems to drag the discussion to the left side of the spectrum, the receiver of that statement has two choices. He or she can politely ask the person to ask a question, or he or she can turn the statement into one or more questions, and ask and answer them succinctly.
And when it comes to questions, the more the merrier. This means that the person answering questions should be clear and concise in doing so.
“I actually believe most questions can be answered in ten words or less,” I explained during the session. “Answer the question and stop talking. If there’s even the remotest hint of polarization in the room, you won’t have to wait long for another question.”
Indeed, clear and concise answers to questions actually support the concept of transparency, which is important to any form of public consultation, essential to building trust, and increasingly critical in a wired world where everyone with a smartphone can feed into traditional and social media. By definition, consultation means listening, and I’ve long believed that the best way to demonstrate listening skills is to answer questions clearly and concisely.
“You can’t answer someone’s question effectively if you’re not actually listening,” I explained to participants. “But, more importantly, my working definition of transparency is ‘ask me anything, I have nothing to hide.’
“In a tense environment, answering questions enables the organization to demonstrate transparency, which allows those who have an opposing opinion, but a logical perspective, make their own minds up about what the organization is attempting to achieve.”
If done effectively, this approach can change opinions to the point that those who came in with an opposed but logical perspective may very well change their opinions, if for no other reason than they become disillusioned with those who are opposed and emotional.
The Skill of Answering Questions
Finally, I provided insight into how IAP2 practitioners can guide their organization to answer questions effectively.
I’ve long believed that the skill of answering questions is the least developed skill in human interpersonal communication. To improve that skill, three words are important: pause, answer, stop.
When you are asked a question, pause and think. Not only is it polite, but it enables you to find the best answer for the question, which is almost always the shortest possible answer.
Answer the question that was asked, and only the question that was asked. And, as soon as you’ve answered the question, stop talking and wait for more questions.
If the organization’s logic is reasonable, rational, sustainable and defensible, pause-answer-stop enables the audience to explore that logic and come to their own conclusion.
“This approach leads to opinion change, which I’ve seen and demonstrated hundreds of times during my career,” I concluded during my Denver presentation. “At the very least, it leads to better outcomes than an emotional tug-of-war every single time.”
Contact Eric if your organization needs assistance with managing polarization effectively.
The rule is simple. The person answering a question gets a maximum of ten words for the answer. Any question; ten words. Since question-and-answer sessions are recorded during training sessions, it’s easy to keep track.
For every answer over ten words, the person answering is told at the start of the exchange that he or she will be required to do ten pushups per word at the end of the exchange.
This is an amazing tool; I’ve witnessed its positive impact thousands of times during media training and presentation skills training.
(Only one person has ever actually done the pushups—a particularly fit CEO who was training for a triathlon and took a little break with fifty self-imposed pushups.)
When there is a word limit on answers, the person’s behaviour immediately changes. He or she listens more carefully, which never ceases to amaze me. Think about it. When there’s a limit on the length of the answer, people focus more attention on what’s being asked. Their listening skills improve.
The person answering the question communicates more effectively. He or she has no choice but to exactly and precisely meet the needs of the person asking. This creates a two-way, receiver-driven exchange that adheres to the principle of less is more—all of which are important to helping others understand.
The person answering the question doesn’t have time to anticipate where questions are going. He or she deals with one question at a time. This prevents anticipating where the person asking the questions is ultimately going (which I often tell clients really only works if you are capable of reading minds).
Finally, clear and very concise answers can potentially provide a layer of protection. For example, providing succinct answers during interviews with print journalists—with whom the greatest risk is being misquoted or quoted out of context—limits the context and, in my experience over the past 25 years of media training, significantly reduces the risk.
I have used the ten-pushup rule as a training tool thousands of times. It has never failed to improve someone’s communication skills.
Limiting the length of answers will feel unnatural, certainly, but short answers can be significantly more effective in helping people grasp an idea, sort through technical information, or just generally better understand what you're trying to say.
Try it. During your next work-related conversation in which it seems the other person doesn’t understand, self-evoke the ten-pushup rule whenever they ask a question. Pause, and find a succinct answer to what the person is asking. Match the answer precisely to what’s being asked. (Of course, if you’re unsure of what someone is asking, seek clarification.) Answer the question asked, and only the question asked. Stop talking.
In the vast majority of cases, there is an inverse relationship between understanding and pushups. Whether you’re answering questions from a colleague trying to understand or many people during an important presentation, the fewer the pushups you’re required to do, the better the individual or members of the group will understand what it is you're trying to say.
Contact Eric if you or others in your organization needs assistance with answering questions clearly and concisely in order to communicate effectively.
We all know the organization wants to either protect itself or enhance its brand, or both. It should legitimately be attempting to use the exchange to influence specific audiences.
But we have to recognize that journalists ask questions for a living. It's probably why they became journalists in the first place. (If they like making a little more money than they like asking questions, chances are they're one of my colleagues in PR.)
Therefore, if a spokesperson wants to help the journalist's "win" (not to mention be polite and build a better relationships by communicating more effectively), answering questions clearly and concisely is the secret to success. Doing so enables the journalist to create a story that is relevant to the audience, interesting to read, watch or listen to, and factually correct.
There are three acceptable answers to questions posed by journalists:
- Yes, I have the answer; here it is.
- No, I don’t have the answer; I’ll get it for you (or find someone who can provide it).
- Yes, I do have the answer; I cannot discuss it.
- The case is currently before the courts.
- Union negotiations are under way, and a news blackout has been imposed.
- An emergency has occurred, and next-of-kin have not yet been notified.
- Answering the question would breach securities legislation
- Answering the question would compromise employee, customer, member, client, patient or other confidentiality
- Answering the question would breach another aspect of privacy of information legislation
- Answering the question would divulge sensitive competitive information
- Answering the question would compromise national security
- "I'm sorry. I cannot answer that question. Doing so would divulge sensitive competitive information."
- "I'm sorry, I cannot answer that question, because doing so would breach securities legislation."
If your organization is tempted, it's important to discuss the fact that there are two courts in our social-media-driven land.
In a court of law, the premise is that you're innocent until proven guilty. In the court of public opinion, the premise is reversed; silence can be (and often is) construed as guilt.
Bottom line? Answer whenever you can. When you can't, don't. But say why.
First of all, it offers protection during media interviews and hostile exchanges during all forms of presentations, when being quoted out of context or having words twisted is an issue.
Does your legal counsel tell you to pause-answer-stop because he or she wants you to reduce or eliminate your credibility as a witness? No, the lawyer wants you to protect yourself and protect your credibility.
Does the lawyer want you to pause-answer-stop so that you can put the case or organization at risk, which will then translate into increased billable hours? No. Although that's a bit tougher to answer (especially the part about more billable hours), the lawyer tells you to pause-answer-stop so you can protect the organization.
If pause-answer-stop offers protection in a court of law, wouldn't it offer similar protection in a court of public opinion when someone is answering questions from a print journalist, or when a presenter is answering questions from a hostile community group, a semi-hostile management team, or a board of directors?
It can. And it does. If you wish to reduce the risk of being quoted out of context by print journalists, the simplest solution is to reduce the context. Stop talking.
Communicate More Effectively
But beyond that, pause-answer-stop enables someone to communicate more effectively. By asking more questions, the person or people receiving the information can better educate themselves about the topic in question to create better understanding.
Some years ago, we decided to put ceramic tile in our entranceway and kitchen. We were undecided about whether to do the job ourselves or to hire a contractor.
One evening, I went to my local Home Depot to do some research. I had the good fortune of encountering a very confident young man who had obviously installed a lot of ceramic tile. How did I know he was confident? He did not feel compelled to talk endlessly whenever I asked him a question.
In fact, he simply answered each question and stopped talking, waiting patiently for the next question.
In the 15 or 20 minutes that we chatted, I easily asked more than 100 questions. My son was with me and, as we were walking out of the store he remarked: "Dad, that was amazing. I can't believe how much I learned. I know exactly how to install tiles and what needs to be done. You asked great questions."
Actually, I didn't ask great questions. I was simply given the opportunity to ask a lot of questions -- which I would never have gotten if the person answering did not pause-answer-stop.
We ended up hiring someone to install the tiles, so some could argue that he lost a sale and didn't achieve his organization's objectives. However, that's short-sighted. The reason? Based on that experience, this local Home Depot is my first stop whenever I'm even thinking about any kind of improvement to our home. I don't know who's coaching them, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the ability of a number of their staff to answer questions clearly, concisely and effectively.
The same applies to other situations. Want a reporter to trust you? Want the management team or board of directors to trust that you'll deliver? Want to be more transparent? Teach yourself the same simple tactic.
Pause. Answer the question asked and only the question asked. Stop talking.
We all know that politicians are a category unto themselves when it comes to being terrible at answering questions. But Florida governor Rick Scott, the politician on Anderson Cooper’s RidicuList in this video clip, is in a league of his own.
When I watched this video the first time, I recalled many conversations I’ve had over the years with my PR colleagues who, when I’ve questioned the value of bridging to messages instead of clearly and concisely answering questions, have said to me: “Politicians do it all the time.”
Yes, they do. But as Anderson Cooper aptly points out, ignoring questions “doesn’t really work. It just insults everyone’s intelligence.” And the insult can apply to everyone—a journalist in a scrum, an employee at a town hall, an upset or confused neighbour at a public meeting, or a sales prospect across the desk.
Cooper then asks: “What if people in other professions started doing this?”
For example, if a teacher is asked a question in class, imagine that he or she keeps repeating that “attendance is up … attendance is up.”
Or imagine that, when asked by a patient if he or she is dying, a physician keeps repeating “I’m appreciative of everyone who comes to see me.”
Unlike virtually everyone else, politicians can get away with the non-transparent tactic of talking about “what’s really important” because they live in a gilded world built on the twin pillars of blind loyalty and least objectionable programming. It's time we realized that other industries do not have this luxury.
In all democracies, there are people who are blindly loyal and have voted for one political party their entire lives. They will continue to vote for that party, regardless of whether a convicted felon or a narcissistic blowhard is leading it.
For the vast majority of the rest of us, the choice is not for the most desirable candidate, but the least objectionable. The 2016 US presidential election was a perfect case in point. How many millions of people who are not blindly loyal to a political party actually voted for someone they wanted in the White House? But of all the elections in which I've personally voted since 1976, there have been only one or two candidates for whom I have been rooting. In virtually every other election, I find myself holding my nose and voting for the best of a bad lot.
Politicians may be able to get away with not answering questions, but for the vast majority of the world, for which transparency is a growing issue, answering questions will continue to trump bridging to messages each and every time.
The president, whose focus on the size of anything and everything is unparalleled by any president I've personally witnessed (and I remember the day JFK was assassinated; I couldn't understand why The Friendly Giant was pre-empted), will quickly pick a fight with any media outlet that provides alternatives to his "facts."
It began with the president proudly tweeting that the ratings for the inauguration reached 31 million. Some would think that's a fairly large audience. But the "alternative" fact is that more than 90 per cent of Americans didn't tune in. Two hundred eighty-seven million Americans didn't care, had better things to do, or were organizing protests to watch the inauguration.
Then we get White House press secretary Sean Spicer ripping a strip off the media in his first full introduction to them. His behaviour was later defended by another member of the team, who said he was simply presenting alternative facts.
As a communications professional, my heart goes out to Spicer. He has gotten his hands on one of the world's plums as press secretary, but it's both good news and bad. I hope he finds a balance that meets the needs of the administration but doesn't permanently damage his credibility with those on who he depends for a successful career in media relations.
The good news is that he can always put that job on his resume. The bad news is that nobody may hire him in the future if he destroys relationships with journalists during his tenure at the White House.
I don't know who coined the adage "I try to never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel and newsprint by the ton," but that adage is going to be tested unlike anything I've seen in my 35-year career.
Ironically, the thin skin of the president and his White House may work to our advantage. If that group is so focused on fighting with journalists, maybe they won't have the time to pick fights with the likes of China, Pakistan, India or Russia—or anyone else in possession of bigger sticks than your average White House press corps.
Time will tell. And we can only hope.
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
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. Media training has been his core business for more than 25 years. During that time, 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 (IABC). In 2014, he was named a member of the College of Fellows of the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS).
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.
In my experience, if they do, they should be prepared to accept greater risk. By trying to be conversational with print journalists, rather than focusing on answering questions clearly and concisely, spokespeople dramatically increase the odds of being misquoted or quoted out of context.
With interviews by print journalists, the route to the end audience is always indirect. Even if it’s a solitary blogger writing the story, he or she takes the information gained during the interview and reshapes it to a finished product hours or days after the interview has ended. Conversational spokespeople read the finished articles and often think to themselves: “That’s not quite what I had in mind” or "that's not quite accurate”—even as a result of positive interviews or those for which there is minimal risk.
If it’s a potentially negative story, the impact is magnified. I’ve seen conversations with print journalists lead to weeks of damage control. I once had someone in a media training session tell me about a two-part less-than-complimentary quote in a finished print article. This spokesperson recalls the two parts of the quote being separated by about 15 minutes of "conversation."
The fundamental skill of pausing, answering and stopping is the best skill to apply during print interviews. Messages should be woven in strategically, which generally means sparingly.
Print journalists have to teach themselves about a topic before they can turn around and teach others with an article that, we hope at least, is factually correct. Journalists can improve their accuracy by asking more questions per minute during interviews, which brings us right back to the critical skill of stopping once spokespeople have clearly and concisely answered the question.
Pause-answer-stop provides protection. It facilitates greater accuracy in the finished story. And it is more strategic, because the journalist simply has fewer long answers from which to draw quotes.
Three topics were covered during the presentation. First, a number of terms were defined. Second, the presentation provided examples of how it is possible to be truthful, but not transparent. Third, the presentation demonstrated how the skill of answering questions clearly and concisely builds better understanding and closes any gap between truth and transparency.
The four terms defined during the first portion of the presentation were: lying, deception, spin and transparency. According to philosopher Sissela Bok, author of Lying: Moral choice in public and private life, 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. 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, there is nothing wrong with spin.
The big definition was transparency, which I believe boils down to three words: ask me anything. 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? Of course. They're saying: "I have nothing to hide, so ask me anything." There are some questions that cannot be answered—such as questions that would breach client or patient confidentiality. But if spokespeople pay lip service to questions asked—whether from a journalist, an employee, or a stakeholder at an external meeting or presentation—and use those questions as a premise to talk about what's important to the organization, can they lay claim to transparency? Probably not.
The bridge between truth and transparency is the question and answer process. As humans, we instinctively ask questions to protect ourselves from lies, deception and spin. This trend will only accelerate in an interconnected world driven by technology.
In the second section of the presentation, a number of videos shown to demonstrate that it is possible to be truthful but not transparent. An example I often use to explain how truth and transparency can exist in a mutually exclusive universe is of a real estate agent showing a customer a potential home. The customer asks a simple question: “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'll save for your children’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? I believe most people would be left with the impression that the nearest school is 50 miles away.
The presentation concluded with a number of examples that demonstrate the value of answering questions clearly and concisely. Not only does this approach create engagement, understanding and buy-in, it enables the organization to bridge the gap between truth and transparency.
It is saying: Ask me anything. I have nothing to hide.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
On Monday, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) broke the story that a dozen dental students at Dalhousie University, located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, were participating in a Facebook page under the name “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” and using that forum as an opportunity to post sexually explicit comments.
And folks, these were not your everyday sexually explicit posts (to the extent, at least, that we can say there is such a thing). Chloroform was mentioned in a number of them. One provides two names and asks: “Which one would you rather hate f——k?”
Yes, Facebook took the page down last week. And yes, there were only 12 members of the page. But in today’s world, in which many of us were recently introduced to the term “hate f——k” by a former radio star with the same organization that broke the Dalhousie story, one knuckle-dragging neanderthal moron is too many.
Twelve is truly a dumbass dozen.
University president Richard Florizone has said the university “has a responsibility” to ensure it’s free of harassment. As the father of a young woman who graduated from a Canadian university two years ago, I couldn’t agree more. But does the president take that responsibility seriously?
Obviously, he hasn’t read the latest crisis communication handbook. Folks, he wants 48 hours to consider his response. And he almost promises to announce a plan of action by the end of the week.
Huh? Or should I say: duh?
Then we learn that Dr. Florizone first got wind of problems in the school of dentistry last summer. He was approached by the president of the students’ union with allegations about sexual harassment and he referred them to the campus Office of Human Rights, Equity and Harassment Prevention.
The complaint went no further when that office explained that anyone making a complaint must provide their name.
Referring the complaint may be a requirement of his office, but if the president didn’t conduct his own quiet investigation, especially when the Jian Ghomeshi incident broke, does he deserve to still be president? That’s a question the university’s board will need to address when the smoke clears and the dust settles—and the damage to the reputation of a 200-year-old institution is assessed.
As Caroline Sapriel so eloquently wrote in this week’s Communication World Insider, the first step to managing a crisis is anticipating one. The second step is mitigating it.
What has Dalhousie done? The president got wind of problems four months ago. Now that they’ve surfaced, fourth-year dentistry exams have been postponed until January.
Wonderful, rather than taking a relaxing breather during the holidays, those who weren’t involved now have the stress of unfinished exams waiting for them in the new year. Let’s punish everyone who wasn’t involved.
(But don’t be surprised if the university puts a positive spin on it by saying that students will have more time to study.)
While the writing was on the wall for this crisis, those of us who counsel executives know that we (both external and internal consultants) can only lead a leader to the wall. We can’t make him or her read what’s there.
More’s the pity, I say.
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.
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.
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 attempt to control the message. When a trade journalist with a smartphone can generate a YouTube clip that generates nearly 400,000 views, it's time to recognize that controlling the message is now out of the question. At best, we can only influence the exchange.)
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. Mr. Ghomeshi’s agency at the time) was patting him- or herself on the back for crafting a well-designed message.
But it crossed the line between spin and sin. 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. In fact, we probably shouldn’t represent them because, if we do, there’s a high probability any 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 whatever 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 or organizational 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.” The journalist is bridging back to Dalhousie's problems, and because of the way it mishandled 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 takes a hit.
And, in this world, it's only a matter of time before the stink starts sticking to those who engineered the spin in the first place.