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.”
Currently, it's a very relevant question. Toronto Police Service recently applied to march in Toronto's annual Pride parade, only to be asked by organizers and other community groups to withdraw their application. The relationship between the Toronto Police Service and the community has been strained for decades; it's something I've observed since arriving to Toronto 31 years ago. This strained relationship recently came to a head with the arrest of alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur, and investigators are probing for links to potential disappearances of gay men in Toronto as far back as 40 years ago.
Before interviewing deputy chief Barbara McLean, Galloway played a short clip from an interview the previous day with Toronto city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who weighed in on the relationship between Toronto police and the LGBTQ community.
"There is something very wrong with the institution of the police—and policing—with the LGBTQ community," she said.
When he started the interview with the deputy chief, Galloway's first question built on Wong-Tam's quote. "Do you agree with Kristyn Wong-Tam that there is, in her words, something very wrong with the institution of police and policing with the LGBTQ community?"
Folks, this is a closed question. Closed questions generally require a "yes" or "no" as the answer although, as I teach in my media training program, it is possible to also to use "it depends," "potentially" or "under certain circumstances."
However, in this case, the answer is "yes." Everyone knows it. The police service was just asked to withdraw its request to march in the community's annual parade. They weren't asked to withdraw because the relationship is working well.
Does the deputy chief acknowledge this fact? Barely. In a typical, outdated, bridging approach, she then proceeds to talk about what's important to her.
"I'm actually focused on that issue, Matt," she begins, leaving us with some hope that she'll address it directly. But she doesn't. She has obviously been trained to then talk about her message.
"Looking at where I sit on the organizational chart in human resources command, focused on what we're needing to do for our modernization. And when we think about what a modern police service is, it's about relationships. And that's what I'm really focused on in the work that I'm doing."
Galloway cuts her off and asks—heaven forbid—another closed question. "Do you think there's something wrong with the way police are policing the community?"
"I actually always think there's opportunities to listen to the community and take that back and see if there are ways we can do things better …"
Blah. Blah. Blah.
Why would anyone believe the Toronto Police Service listens to the community—any community—when one of the service's top representatives isn't listening to what this interviewer is asking about concerns this specific community is openly asking?
As I've said to thousands of participants in my media training program over the past 25 years, the best way to demonstrate effective listening skills is to answer someone's questions clearly and concisely. The "constantly bridging" approach during media interviews is an outdated paradigm that fools nobody. Don't try to be clever by talking about what's important to you. Answer the question because, if you don't answer the question—especially a critically important question—everybody will assume the worst. You're not fooling anyone except, perhaps, yourself.
A little later, Galloway asks the critically important question for this interview: "Do you believe police treat members of the LGBTQ community differently than they treat other members of the public?"
"I believe our relationship with the LGBTQ community is important," deputy chief McLean waffles forward, "as it is with any community."
Galloway politely cuts her off. "This is a specific and important question," he says. "Do you think the police treat members of the community differently?"
"I think what we want to do is that relationship is very important," she waffles. "The relationship is very important and we're listening to the community …"
"But I'm not sure that answers the question," Galloway says, before attempting a third time. "Can you unequivocally say that people in the LGBTQ community are treated the same as they would be if they are from another community?"
This time, the deputy chief at least admits she can't answer that because she's not at the front lines (which is, in essence, a bit of a copout—pun fully intended). If I were a member of Toronto's LGBTQ community, I would be extremely disappointed by her response. And, if I were an officer on the front lines, I wouldn't be all that motivated to change my behaviour if I am treating someone differently.
As my media training clients know, I believe messages should be directed to specifically identifiable audiences important to the organization's success, with the goal of influencing the attitude, opinions and behaviour or those specific audiences. In this case, there was a clear opportunity to both answer the question and send a message internally and externally.
"I sincerely hope that members of the LGBTQ community are not treated differently," she could have said, particularly as an openly gay individual herself. "And if any issues of being treated differently come to my attention, I can assure members of the community that they will be dealt with immediately."
Judge for yourself. The interview is posted below.
Contact Eric if you or your spokespeople would like to pursue a balanced approach, which is vastly superior to constantly bridging to messages.
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.