Presentation to the Canadian Public Relations Society by
Sarah K. Jones, APR, FCPRS, LM and Eric Bergman, APR, ABC, MC, FCPRS
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of co-presenting with Sarah K. Jones to the Canadian Public Relations Society on the topic of “Issues, crises and social media tornadoes.” Using Tim Hortons as a case in point, Sarah and I provided insights into how public relations professionals could better prepare their organizations for the issues, crises and social media tornadoes that often lie just beyond the horizon.
Anticipating Stormy Weather
Sarah began by encouraging participants to think of the weather as a metaphor for managing issues. During winter, for example, Canadians assume that the weather will be cold, so they dress appropriately. If they’re planning a road trip during winter, they check the forecast for snow.
“For any communications professional, assuming there’s stormy weather somewhere on the horizon ahead should be a primary job motivator,” Sarah explained. “Preparing for same should be part of every job description.”
She pointed out that it’s critical to constantly ask questions. Where do storms pop up for the organization? Does it happen regularly? Is there a pattern?
How do you monitor what your stakeholders are saying? What are traditional and social media saying about your industry, your competitors, or your company? How do you monitor social media?
As the Tim Hortons case proved, whether or not PR professionals work in a directly regulated environment, it’s critical to pay attention to provincial and federal government activities and events—things like election promises, ministry initiatives, proposed legislation, economic statements and budgets all provide insights. If you don’t monitor the landscape, be prepared to be busy.
“My personal motto throughout my career is that it’s always better to spend five minutes at the front end identifying what needs to happen,” she explained. “It’s always better than spending five weeks at the back end cleaning up the mess.”
Stormy Weather Components
During the middle section, I talked about separating stormy weather into its components, so it can be better prevented and managed. To do this, I briefly explained the differences between issues, emergencies and crises.
“The dictionary defines an issue as an unresolved problem that has the potential of escalating into a dispute,” I said. “But that’s a long definition for someone originally from Alberta. To me, an issue is a fight looking for a place to happen.”
When someone “takes issue” with the organization, they’re mapping out the lines of that dispute. The crisis occurs when issues escalate out of control. Media attention, whether traditional or social, leads to public scrutiny. The organization goes on trial in the court of public opinion.
An emergency is sudden, relatively unexpected event that demands serious attention and prompt action. But an emergency is not necessarily a crisis.
A crisis is a turning point. The crisis point is successfully passed if the resolution of one or more issues leads to positive change—a healthier organization after the resolution of an issue. If the positive turning point is not achieved, however, negative change is most often manifested as a hit on the company’s brand.
“It’s amazing how much crisis management and brand health have become intertwined over past 25 years,” I pointed out. “As Sarah so eloquently stated, if issues are clearly identified and subsequently managed, the odds of them escalating into crisis is drastically reduced.”
Mitigating Stormy Weather
For this section of the presentation, we provided three actions that public relations professionals that can use to help decision-makers do the right thing.
Once you speak their language, it’s important to get their attention. Humans will not change their behaviour without feeling some form of discomfort. The difficult part of this concept is that to get the attention of decision-makers, it’s important to make them feel uncomfortable with the status quo. If not enough discomfort is introduced with the weather report and potential fallout, they will ignore it. Likewise, if too much discomfort is introduced, the weather report will also be ignored. The sweet spot is somewhere in between.
Finally, once you have their attention, it’s important to change their behaviour. We introduced a number of ideas and tools participants could use to help change the behaviour of management groups they advise. It’s never a good idea to bring a problem without a solution, and we introduced a final tool that helps define potential solutions, identifies pluses and minuses of each solution, and the potential outcome of each proposed solution.
If participants learn to effectively manage stormy weather, they’ll spend less time dealing with the aftermath. If they learn to break stormy weather into its component parts—issues, emergencies and crises—they better manage and prevent stormy weather. If participants have a larger tool base, they will better mitigate and manage any storms that arrive.
“We hope we’ve provided a wider range of tools to better prepare your organizations for issues, crises and social media tornadoes,” Sarah concluded. “That way, you’ll better help your clients and yourself prepare for any problems that often lie just beyond the horizon.”
This particular issue is unfolding in the village of Witless Bay, Newfoundland, a community of 1,000 souls on the Avalon Peninsula—located about a half-hour south of St. John’s and east of Butter Pot Provincial Park.
In other words, they are using taxpayer money to investigate whether they can retaliate against those who speak up against them on social media.
Perhaps someone should remind them that they were acclaimed as elected officials, not named supreme leaders because nobody ran against them.
There are a few other things worth noting. First, one of the councillors, developer Fraser Paul, was recently taken to court by local resident Lorna Yard. Mr. Paul was elected in a by-election in 2016. However, Ms. Yard made the case that he faked his residency in the town prior to the election and did not meet the six-month residency requirement required in municipal election rules, which require candidates to be residents in a local area 30 days before being nominated.
The Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador agreed. Mr. Paul was forced to step down before establishing a permanent residence in the community prior to the 2017 election, when he become one of the acclaimed members of council.
Second, there is a long-standing dispute over Ragged Beach, an area for whale- and puffin-watchers that someone (perhaps a developer who’s now on council?) would like to see developed. There’s a big hint here. Whenever someone develops a “Friends of …” presence, whether on or off social media—such as “Friends of Ragged Beach”—it’s a strong hint that it’s time to stop talking, sit down and listen. In my experience “Friends of …” movements do not go quietly into the dark night.
You have the same choice I've seen while advising clients on issues across the country. Either listen to what they say or enter into a dispute in which they try to ram their words down your throat—some more gently than others.
Third, one of the first acts of this new council was to revoke the town’s existing policy manual that provides direction on a number of issues, including transparency. To be fair, the manual was only enacted by the previous council. However, transparency is much easier to evoke than revoke because, when it’s revoked, everyone’s first thought becomes “what are they hiding?”
I have some free advice for this council. First, although my understanding of libel and slander is rudimentary, I do know that I can say or write anything about someone as long as: a. It’s true and b. I can prove it’s true.
For example, it’s quite easy to say that Mr. Paul cheated in 2016. Ergo, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call him a cheater. Obviously, that’s not what the Supreme Court would have said, but the inference can be made when he was asked (forced?) to step down for stretching the rules. The people posting on social media for which this council decided to seek legal help to quash opinions have been nicer than I was in this paragraph.
Second, if you think that eliminating a policy for transparency or changing meeting times for council in an effort to make it difficult for others to attend is all you need to do to get your way, you are truly being witless. These people aren’t going away. Threatening them is nothing short of bullying and all you’re doing is bringing a global social media microscope to everything you do. If you thought it was tough to get your way before, welcome to the 21st century.
Third, if you can’t sit down, listen and negotiate, no amount of criminal lawyer assistance will help you. This issue has extended well beyond Witless Bay (I can’t wait to see how you plan to financially punish me from my office here in Toronto for criticizing your actions).
Gather your wits, swallow your pride, listen carefully and talk prudently, and represent your constituents effectively.
And be thankful you don’t live in a place called Transparency Bay.
How many of us have attended meetings in which someone in the management group says, “I really hope reporters don’t get ahold of this”? If such a comment is ever made at a meeting, the organization should never be ambushed. It needs no other warning because it has, quite frankly, warned itself.
Realistically, any organization has 20 to 30 minutes to get its ducks in a row before facing journalists, even if a CNN news team is waiting at reception. I sat as a member of IABC’s international accreditation committee for 12 years. As part of the examination process, candidates were removed one at a time from the four-hour written exam, taken to a separate room and given a disaster of the day that always had a media relations component.
In every one of these cases, whether an e-coli outbreak or an environmental spill, candidates knew they had at least 30 minutes to prepare themselves and their spokespeople after the television news crew arrived. They needed to ensure the news crew wasn’t wandering the halls, but then could take some time to prepare themselves and/or their spokespeople.
Of course, if the organization is trying to hide from journalists and the outside world because its actions are indefensible, there is no need for media training in the first place. No amount of ambushing during training will persuade them to take responsibility for their actions or change their decision-making to make their actions more defensible in the future.
If you speak to people who have been ambushed in media training (and I have) and ask them about the experience, you’ll find that this tactic does not build confidence. More often than not, it has exactly the reverse effect. It has a negative impact on the person ambushed, and a similar impact on others in the training session. It works against the creation of a relatively safe environment that many adult educators believe is conducive to effective learning.
Research clearly shows that “adults learn best in an environment in which they feel safe and supported.” The use of ambush interviews creates neither a safe nor a supported learning environment.
During media training, it is often important to impress upon executives that speaking to journalists is not like speaking to anyone else. As famous Canadian journalist Allan Fotheringham once put it: “The only friend a journalist has is another journalist.” I believe there are better ways to demonstrate the dangers and pitfalls of being a spokesperson without belittling or potentially humiliating training participants.
Spokespeople need to be confident if they’re going to effectively represent (and subsequently protect) themselves and their organizations. Every aspect of training should be focused on demonstrating the potential challenges of dealing with journalists, while constantly building spokesperson confidence.
I believe ambush interviews build fear, not confidence. And that’s why I don’t use them in the media training program I offer, At Ease With the Media.
Contact Eric if your spokespeople need assistance.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.