How presenters can best influence audiences

Every presenter’s goal is that their information is remembered, used, or applied in some way. But how can presenters change memories? How can they access the long-term memory of their audience?
Silhouette with question marks and lightbulbs inside

An interesting article from the
Harvard Business Review entitled “Getting an Audience to Remember Your Presentation,” by Art Markman of the University of Texas, states that the purpose of presentations is to influence the explicit memory of the audience. Markman argues that, for presentations to have high impact, speakers need to be aware of how information gets into memory.

Markman identifies three factors than can be used to improve what people remember. The first is to follow the right sequence.

Information presented at the beginning and end of a talk is always best remembered, he says. This is why it’s critical to state the call to action up front. The audience should be encouraged to either apply the information or take action on it, and this should be clearly stated at the beginning of every business presentation.

It's important to set the tone for the sequence. According to Markman, “many speakers open their talks with an anecdote that is engaging, but only tangentially relevant to the topic of the presentation. The audience may easily recall this anecdote later, but it won’t help them to learn what they really needed to know.”

Opening with jokes or anecdotes that distract from the main topic is always risky. Do you want the audience to remember your jokes or how to apply or take action on your information?

Markman’s second factor is to draw connections. To make his point, Markman uses a peanut analogy: “If you take peanuts out one at a time, you get three peanuts when you reach into the bowl three times. But, if you pour caramel over the peanuts, then when you pull one out, you get a whole cluster. After you draw from the bowl three times, you may have gotten almost all of the peanuts out.”

He states that memory works the same way and “making connections among the key points in your talk helps pour caramel over the peanuts in memory and increases the amount that people remember from what you present.”

The third factor is to make the audience work. Markman states that presentations must “provide opportunities for audiences to think for themselves.” The more the audience thinks about the ideas in the presentation, the greater the likelihood they will remember those ideas later. It is important to control when the audience thinks and what they think about. As anyone who as attended one of my workshops or presentations know, pausing is essential. Pausing before you speak allows you to formulate the idea in your mind before articulating it. Pausing after each idea allows the audience time to think about and absorb your information, one idea at a time.

One of the most effective ways to influence memory is through conversational delivery. The best presentations emulate good conversations—whether someone is presenting to an audience of one or one thousand.

Think of the best presentations you have attended. What made the presenter memorable? It is the feeling that the presenter is speaking to us individually, even if we are in a room with a thousand other people. It is the feeling that they are having the same conversation with a group of people that they would have one-on-one.

This is how presenters achieve their business and communication outcomes. And, to paraphrase Professor Markman, this is how they change memories.

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Media training consultant Eric Bergman in front of his motorcycle near Lake Ontario with the Toronto skyline in the background
As someone who wrote his first speech for a senior executive more than 30 years ago, Eric Bergman provides presentation skills services to clients from his base in Toronto.

Contact Eric if you’re interested in developing and delivering presentations that are authentic, credible and believable, and that apply the latest in cognitive techniques to the challenge of influencing and motivating audiences.

Crossing your arms is OK

A few years ago, I conducted media training for an organization that was potentially facing a strike. I was asked to provide one day of training for management-level employees who would manage strike sites as representatives of the organization. Prior to the start of my portion of the agenda, the company’s director of human resources spent about 45 minutes talking to the group about the logistics of managing the strike.

Later, when we discussed body language in broadcast interviews, I crossed my arms and asked if this was appropriate body language for someone delivering a presentation or being interviewed on television. Everyone said it was inappropriate; I looked closed.

Business woman standing, smiling, with her arms crossed
I turned to the HR director and asked if she would ever stand in front of a group and present information with her arms crossed. She said she would never do that. I asked the group if she would ever do that, and they all said that she was far too professional to ever do something like that.

However, that was exactly what she did. I had been sitting at the back of the room at the time, with my video camera on a tripod, so I turned on the camera and recorded her after she crossed her arms while talking to the group. When I played back the tape, everyone was surprised that they hadn’t noticed she had committed what is often known as a body language “sin.”

The point I made to this group was that, because the HR director was communicating effectively and being herself, they did not even notice the body language. It was natural for her. Her body language was consistent with who she was and what she was saying.

If you were standing outside her office, she may have her arms crossed, but she would be listening with that special brand of attentiveness reserved for those who are truly in the “people” business.

Every of us is unique. Each of us has our own way of standing, talking and conveying our messages.

We need to “be ourselves” when engaged in a broadcast interview or presentation of any type. This is how we convey our personality, and this builds the trust that makes our message believable.

Simple trick to improve presentations? Turn off the projector

There is one nightmare that nearly every presenter has both experienced and witnessed—one thing of which audience members are terrified when they walk into a presentation.

Boredom.

Not only do presenters often bore audiences, but in the worst circumstances, presenters bore themselves.
Letters P P T with a red cross through it

An interesting article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “
The #1 Killer of Meetings (And What You Can Do About It),” Peter Bregman describes the journey he took to stop boredom and enhance engagement during his presentations. His conclusion is simple. If you don’t want anyone to be bored during your meetings or presentations, there is one simple thing you can do: turn off the projector.

Bregman’s transformation began after a two-day off-site meeting several years ago as he both watched and delivered slide-based presentations. In each presentation one of two things occurred: the audience tuned out or they poked holes in the presenter’s content.

“People tune out because nothing is required of them,” he explains in the article. “Or they poke holes because, if they don’t tune out, it’s the most interesting thing to do when someone is trying to prove there are no holes.”

After his experience, Bregman was determined to find a better way. “Over time,” he says, “I identified a single factor that makes the biggest difference between a great meeting and a poor one: PowerPoint. The best meetings don’t go near it.

“PowerPoint presentations inevitably end up as monologues,” he continues. “They focus on answers, and everyone faces the screen. But meetings should be conversations. They should focus on questions, not answers, and people should face each other. I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve found that even the hum of the projector discourages dialogue.”

Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh: A tale of two media training approaches

The one good outcome from the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Justice Brett Kavanaugh last week is that I now have an easy way to describe the difference between my approach to media training and that of my competitors.

A composite photo of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Justice Brett Kavanaugh being sworn in durng testimony at the US Senate Judiciary Committee
Dr. Blasey Ford answered every question posed by the committee. She paused and thought, answered the question asked (and only the question asked), and stopped talking as soon as the answer was provided.

Pause-answer-stop is the first skill I teach my clients. As Dr. Blasey Ford demonstrated, it is a wonderful defensive strategy for avoiding being quoted out of context, and it enables the person implementing that basic strategy to communicate effectively and credibly.

And it works. Dr. Blasey Ford was transparent. She was respectful. She communicated clearly. She maintained her credibility and, most of all, her dignity.

Justice Kavanaugh came out swinging. Yes, someone falsely accused of sexual assault would be upset. But once that emotion was expressed in an opening statement, if I had accepted an engagement with Justice Kavanaugh, my advice would have been to pause and think after the question is asked, to answer the question asked and only the question asked, and stop talking.

I wouldn’t have taught him how to bridge to something more important than what was being asked (a common technique taught during traditional media training), nor would I have ever counselled him to be belligerent to the point of attempting to control the interview with a question like: “Have you ever drank to excess, Senator?”

I would have taught Justice Kavanaugh my proprietary defensive strategies, at least one of which Dr. Blasey Ford implemented during her testimony. And we would have dealt with the inevitable question: “Have you ever drank to excess?”

As one of my clients often says: “If you can survive Eric, you can survive anyone.”

While my wife and I were watching his testimony, I turned to her and said that he was in for a long, long week because of his belligerence and his inability to answer the question and stop talking. I told her that he’s going to be quoted out of context by everyone, and that his credibility would be in question. And that prediction has come true. Justice Kavanaugh has been quoted out of context all week, and his reputation is no better off today than it was a week ago.

The next time you’re looking for media training, keep this comparison in mind. Who do you want your spokespeople to emulate?

Do you want them to strive for the credibility and poise of Dr. Blasey Ford? Or do you want them to try to control the interview, tell others what’s important, talk too much, and be constantly quoted out of context?

The choice is yours.

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Media training consultant Eric Bergman in front of his motorcycle near Lake Ontario with the Toronto skyline in the background
As Canada's most experienced, credentialed and effective media training consultant, Eric Bergman provides services to clients globally from his base in Toronto.

Contact Eric if you’re interested in having spokespeople be more like Dr. Blasey Ford than Justice Kavanaugh.



The illogical logic of not answering questions

I was sitting in a client's office, waiting for him to finish a short meeting with a staff member, and was flipping through some back issues of Marketing magazine when I came across an article entitled: “Talking the right talk. Media training helps your brand be the focus in an interview.”

A spokesperson in a media scrum during media training.
The journalist writing the article described how she had sat through a media training session arranged for a young jewelry designer who had won an award for designing a right-hand diamond engagement ring. The designer's employer believed the award would be a good way to generate free publicity. But before unleashing the young designer on unsuspecting reporters, media training was arranged.

In the article, Lazarus listened to a consultant provide the following advice during the media training session: “Get your message out, don't let a reporter interrupt you, try not to speak too quickly and try not to get off track with what you are there to talk about.

“They are going to ask you a question, you are going to answer with your key message, they are going to ask you another question, and you are going to have a second or third key message.”

Maybe it's just me, but I just don't understand this logic.

The company has good news to share. They are cranking up the media relations machine to get reporters interested in their story. They're hoping the editors will respond by sending out a reporter, which will then result in “free” publicity for the firm.

When the reporter begins asking questions (which is, after all, what reporters do for a living), the spokesperson is going to ignore their questions and keep driving home key messages.

It sounds like an interesting way to develop relationships with reporters. You get us interested so we'll ask questions. When we ask them, you rudely ignore them and keep parroting key messages that would look better in an advertisement than a feature article. I wonder what will happen the next time the organization (or its agency) sends out a news release. If you were the editor, what would you do? I'd delete it in less time than it takes the average traditional media training consultant to say “key message.”

Presentation lessons from Jack the Ripper's walk

During a trip to London, England with my family, I had the pleasure of participating in what's known as a Jack the Ripper walk. Not only was it fun, it was an excellent reminder of presentation effectiveness.

At a designated spot overlooking the Tower of London, we met our affable Cockney guide, Pete. He was a character, our Pete, and he would have looked out of place in most boardrooms, training rooms and classrooms.

But the communication skills he demonstrated were exceptional, and should be envied and emulated by anyone who has to prepare and deliver presentations to others. We can all learn from “our Pete.”

wall in london separating east from west
Pete used statistics sparingly
After he gathered his flock, he led us to our first stop—the remains of the old Roman wall that has traditionally divided London's east-enders from the rest of the city. "In 1888, half the children born on the east side of this wall didn't survive until their first birthday," Pete told us. "It was said that, for every 100 yards you traveled east, life expectancy dropped by a year."

I’ve often said that statistics should be to presentations as spice is to a meal—used sparingly. Too much ruins the main course, the story.

Pete told stories well
To illustrate his love of history, he told us a story of traveling to Hadrian's Wall as a school boy. (Hadrian's Wall is the roman wall that has traditionally separated England from Scotland.)

It was not a pleasant field trip, Pete informed us. It was raining. It was cold. He was miserable.

He was walking along the wall when he came to some Latin graffiti scratched into its side. He got out a piece of paper and his pencil, and rubbed the inscription so he could bring it to his Latin teacher.

When the Latin teacher read the inscription, he smiled. "You didn't enjoy yourself at Hadrian's Wall, did you," the teacher said. "No, sir," Pete replied.

"Apparently a man named Devinius wasn't enjoying himself either."

Pete clearly stated outcomes up front
Within a minute or two of gathering us together, Pete told us he hoped we would gain two things. First, he wanted us to learn more about life in late 19-century London, the city of his birth. Second, he wanted us to better understand why he’s so proud to call London his home.

We gained both, in spades.

Pete knew that pausing is important for him and us
Pete paused to think before speaking. This enabled him to choose his words carefully so that each word out of his mouth added value.

Pete paused after he spoke. This allowed us to think about what he’d just said. He allowed us to process one thought before giving us another. He didn’t try to overload us with information. The entire presentation was two-way and receiver-driven, while adhering to the principle of “less is more.”

Pete used visuals sparingly, and well
When he brought us to a new location, he would introduce it and give us time to look at it. “This is not where one of the murders happened,” he told us in one case. “But if we went there now, you’d all be disappointed because it’s a parking lot. This is what London would have looked like in Jack’s time.”

He would pause to allow us to look around and let our imaginations work. When we started coming back to him, he continued his presentation.

He showed half a dozen pictures from his smartphone for emphasis. But again, he would tell us what we were going to see, then showed it. When he showed the picture, he moved the phone from person to person around the group, letting us absorb it. During those times, he never said a word.

Pete answered questions clearly and concisely
While he was always polite, he thankfully kept his answers short. This enabled many of us to ask a lot of questions. We learned from each other’s curiosity, which only added to the educational experience for everyone.

Pete demonstrated excellent presentation and communication skills. He provided lessons of value that could be applied to every boardroom, training room, meeting room, conference hall and lecture hall on the planet.

So, if you’re ever in London, look up our Pete and join him on his walk.

For the price of a movie ticket and pop, you’ll gain insight into parts of London that most people don’t see. You’ll begin to share Pete’s love for his city.

And, if you watch Pete at work, you’ll gain insight into communicating effectively with others during all types of presentations from one of the most unlikely but effective of sources.
_________________________

Media training consultant Eric Bergman in front of his motorcycle near Lake Ontario with the Toronto skyline in the background
Eric Bergman has helped his clients shape their presentations strategically and tell their story effectively for more than 30 years. If enhancing presentation success is important to you or your organization, contact Eric to learn more.


Kushner plays peek-a-boo

I must admit I giggled when the story broke that Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was inadvertently locked out while trying to enter a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) trade meeting in Washington, D.C.

I’ll bet it was the longest one minute and forty-seven seconds of his life.

Child playing peek-a-boo as a metaphor for Jared Kushner's exchange with the media
Mr. Kushner is seen walking up the street to the office of the US trade representative. He and his companion (which could have been an assistant or a Secret Service agent) walked up to the door leading to NAFTA negotiations, attempted to open it, and discovered it was locked.

´┐╝Reporters started shouting questions as Mr. Kushner stood with his nose nearly pressed to the door in a bizarre adult version of peek-a-boo. You know the game. I can’t see you, therefore you can’t see me.

And the game became the story.



As anyone who knows me knows, I am not big a big fan of obfuscation. But I have always believed that spokespeople should protect themselves first and their organizations second—even spokespeople whose worldview is something to which I do not fundamentally agree or subscribe. In this case, obfuscation would have been vastly superior to the alternative of having your nose bizarrely pressed against the door.

What a seasoned unelected representative of the people would have done is switched places with the other person and quietly asked that person to continue gently knocking on the door. He or she could have then asked journalists for a quick second to call or text someone inside, and done one or the other. Then, a seasoned representative would have turned to face reporters who were asking relatively simple questions:

  • Will there be a deal tonight on NAFTA?
  • Are you concerned about the op-ed (in the New York Times)?
  • How are things going on NAFTA? Is it ok?
  • How is it going with Canada? Is there progress tonight?
  • Any words on the mood of the room?
  • Is Canada making any compromises?
Sidestepping these relatively benign questions would be easy. Anyone can teach that skill, and the result would have been a lot better than what we saw. For example, Mr. Kushner could have responded with:

Will there be a deal tonight on NAFTA?
“The negotiations are continuing on an agreement with Canada and I can’t say when a deal will be finalized. However, I can assure you that both sides are putting forward their perspective and we will have to let the process unfold.”

Are you concerned about the op-ed (in the New York Times)?
Yes, I am very concerned about it, and I can assure you that the president is very concerned about it as all. Particularly since the person who wrote it has chosen to remain anonymous. The president is extremely disappointed that someone within the White House has chosen to step outside of the privilege of their office to undermine this administration.”

Yes, I know. If he did this he would say blah, blah, blah. But in this specific situation, impersonating one of my favourite cartoon characters would have trumped peek-a-boo every single time.

Tank, Bucket and Trough:
Secrets to presentation success

To improve your ability to present your ideas effectively—to inform and/or persuade any audience—it’s important to understand two ideas.

The first is that the true value of any presentation can only be found in what comes out of the presenter’s mouth. The second is that the only thing that matters is how information goes out of the presenter’s mouth into the long-term memory of individuals attending the presentation.

Believe it or not, tapping into how people listen is the secret to presentation success.

How listening works

Listening involves both working memory (sometimes incorrectly called short-term memory) and long-term memory. When we listen to someone with the
Water pouring from a tap as a metaphor for presentation success
intent of understanding and retaining what they’ve said, we take small amounts of information into working memory. From there, we move each snippet of information to long-term memory—to find or create a place for that information in our existing cognitive framework so we can retain it and use it later.

When working memory is engaged with long-term memory, listening stops. As humans, we can either listen to what someone is currently saying, or we can process what the person has just said. We cannot do both; we cannot listen and think at the same time.

Any information not moved from working memory to long-term memory will be lost. It will not be retained, regardless of the best intentions of the person attempting to communicate, or how important that information is to the person or people attempting to listen.

If you’ve ever attended a fantastic presentation that you felt provided incredible value while you were there, but shortly after the presentation can’t remember a darn thing the presenter said, you’re familiar with what happens when working memory is overloaded. Nothing is retained; even the value you thought you were receiving cannot be later recalled.

The hitch to this process is that working memory is overloaded, which can happen very quickly, nothing is retained. Information spills out, never to be retrieved.

One Bucket at a Time

The best way to understand how this works is to think of the sender of information (the presenter) as someone with a tank full of water that he or she would like to get across to a series of troughs, which represent the long-term memories of individual audience members. The only thing that has a chance of being remembered by the audience is water that makes it from the sender’s tank to the receiver’s trough.

The water has to be transported from tank to trough one bucket at a time. This represents how working memory takes small amounts of information to long-term memory, where it can be recalled later.

The audience fills their small bucket with information from the presenter. When the bucket has reached its limit, the bucket is taken to the appropriate trough and emptied.

Any water spilled while the bucket is on its way to or from the trough is lost forever. The process is repeated until the tank is empty or time runs out.

There are a couple of twists to this analogy. First, each bucket can only be filled at a conversational speed. If information comes too quickly, a spring releases at the bottom of the bucket and everything spills out, never to be retained. Working memory is overloaded.

Second, the spring gets sprung if the information is filled past a specific line on the bucket. Again, working memory is overloaded.

Either of these—the information coming too fast or too much information—overloads working memory. The presenter’s information never makes it to the trough and is lost forever.

You fill too quickly if you don’t pause during your presentations. The audience needs time—in silence—to move each small piece of information from tank to trough.

You fill past the line by showing the audience any form of written information while talking to them. Every slide that’s shown or used when someone is talking—every situation in which there’s something for the audience to read, to think about, to decode or to decipher—comes with a cognitive cost that results in working memory being overloaded. When working memory is overloaded, very little (if anything) makes it to the trough.

As researcher Dr. Christoph Wecker puts it, there is a “speech suppression” effect of PowerPoint. His research demonstrates that, when slides are used—even using what he calls “concise” slides that are less cluttered and fewer in number than the vast majority of slides you’ve seen in your life—the audience does not hear large portions of what the speaker is saying.

If you want to improve the amount of information that makes it from your tank to their trough—if you wish to increase your ability to inform or persuade any audience—you will be most successful if you do it one bucket at a time.

Don’t deliver a presentation to your audience. Have a conversation with them, and they will better retain and use your ideas long after you have left the room.
_______________________

Media training consultant Eric Bergman beside his motorcycle with the skyline of Toronto in the background
Eric Bergman has been helping his clients embed their ideas in the minds of audiences through speeches and presentations for more than 35 years. Contact him if you’d like to take your communication skills to the next level through his presentation skills seminars, workshops and one-on-one coaching.

Listening is critical during public consultation

A recent public meeting on the construction of a light rail transit (LRT) line in northwest Toronto illustrates why public meetings cannot rely on “traditional” approaches toward communication.

dog listening
You cannot and should not ignore questions to bridge to your message. And if the crowd seem to even remotely be saying “you’re not listening,” put your presentation away and answer their questions first.

The Toronto meeting was hosted by Metrolinx, a provincial government agency. Toronto councillor Georgio Mammoliti used it (hijacked it?) to reinforce his perspective that the $1.2 billion Finch LRT should be scrapped and replaced with more expensive subway service.

According to a Toronto Star article, residents “appeared to be divided on the LRT-versus-subway issue.”

The Star article says meeting descended to shouting when Councillor Mammoliti refused to let a Metrolinx representative finish a presentation about the LRT project. (I wasn’t there, so I can’t say if this was what was presented at the meeting, but Metrolinx has a presentation on its website about the Finch LRT.)

There are three concepts to be considered here that anyone involved in public consultation should consider.

First, questions should be answered, not ignored. At 1:07 of the video, a resident is interviewed by the CTV reporter. “I asked the question ‘what are you going to do for safety for the children’,” this resident says. “He started talking about the budget. I don’t care about the budget. I care about my kids.”

If Councillor Mammoliti was asked and he bridged to the budget, my advice would be that he might want to be perceived as a better listener, especially during an election year and at a meeting attended by someone who ran against him during the last election and may very well run against him this fall. When child safety is the issue, people are never swayed by talk of dollars, cents and projections.

If a Metrolinx representative was asked the question, the opportunity was missed to respond with: “Everything we can.” If people want to know what that involves, based on their understanding of the project at that moment in time and their own children, they’ll ask more questions. I would, and so would many others.

Second, people with burning questions care less about a presentation than they do about the answers to their questions. At 1:30 of the embedded video, the reporter points out that the Metrolinx presentation was cut short to move on to questions.

I’ve often counselled that when the room is divided, it can be prudent answer first and present later—if it’s still necessary to present at all. I’ve seen many situations in which dozens of questions answered clearly and concisely provides the community with everything it needs to know. If they want to know more, they can read it or inquire about it later. Sometimes, the "Contact us" slide needs to be the only one shown.

Third, the kiss of death in issues management is the phrase “you’re not listening.” In any form of public consultation, listening triumphs all. And there is no better way to demonstrate listening skills than answering questions clearly and concisely. Logically, you can’t answer someone’s question if you’re not actually listening.

If remembered and applied, these three concepts can help manage real or perceived hostility. When they’re combined with the polarization model (which I presented to the North American conference of the International Association for Public Participation last September in Denver), they’re a powerful force for ensuring that those affected by a decision can understand and potentially have input into that decision in a meaningful way.

And makes it less likely that the "other" side, whichever side that is, can hijack the meeting and decrease its success.


Issues, crises and social media tornadoes

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.

tornadoe on a field
We covered three concepts. Sarah first addressed the notion that, if stormy weather is anticipated, less time is spent dealing with the aftermath. Next, I talked about separating stormy weather into its components, so it can be better managed and prevented. Finally, we both talked about helping management understand the need for change, and provided a series of tools for steering management into effective, sustainable decisions.

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.

Eric Bergman and Sarah K. Jones present to the annual conference of the Canadian Public Relations Society
First, it’s important to speak the language of executives. Most executives do not want to get lost in detail. They are more interested in broad strokes and the forty-thousand-foot view. Why is this weather report important to them? What will they lose (or gain) by not listening or paying attention? Sarah shared insights into her experience working for the public sector, and I introduced the concept that shareholder value may be an important lever to get the attention of any company executive.

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.

Conclusion
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.”

Toronto's LGBTQ Community Should Be Extremely Disappointed

I listened to an interview with Toronto Police Service deputy chief Barbara McLean on CBC's Metro Morning last week. If I were a member of Toronto's LGBTQ community, I would have been extremely disappointed by some of her answers to the questions posed by host Matt Galloway.

Pride flag (rainbow flag) flying
Galloway introduced the interview by posing a question that the community and the police service have been asking: "What needs to be done to repair the relationship between the police and Toronto's LGBTQ community?"

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.





Witless in Witless Bay

There is an issue washing ashore on Canada’s eastern edge that clearly serves two notices to municipal politicians and developers across the land: Integrity and transparency are growing issues everywhere; social media isn’t going anywhere.

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.

The council in Witless Bay, NL needs media training
The village council, all of whom were acclaimed in last fall’s municipal election, recently voted to “retain an independent criminal lawyer to review recent social media accusations against current town council or councillors to empower the finance committee to take disciplinary actions.”

In other words, they are using taxpayer money to investigate whether they can retaliate against those who speak up against them on social media.

Huh?

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?”

Free advice
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.

The Fallacy of Ambush Interviews

Some media training consultants use ambush interviews at or near the start of training sessions. One or more participants are singled out and asked (but more often coerced) into participating in an interview at the start of the training—with minimum preparation or guidance. Theoretically, this demonstrates the value of being prepared at all times, although it seems to underscore a message that there may be a reporter lurking around any corner or under any rock.

Spokesperson in a media scrum.
In real life, ambush interviews are extremely rare. When they have serious issues brewing, most organizations are aware that such issues could erupt at any time.

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.



The Crisis Brewing at Tim Hortons

Outside picture of Tim Hortons franchise.
There is a crisis brewing on Ontario’s coffee horizon that could soon spread its aroma to other parts of the country as minimum wages rise in other jurisdictions. While this brew-ha-ha will probably not decimate the Tim Hortons brand, it could leave a bitter aftertaste for the stakeholders involved if not handled properly.

When the minimum wage in the province of Ontario increased by approximately 21 per cent to $14.00 per hour on January 1, two franchisees in Cobourg, Ontario (about an hour east of Toronto), sent a letter to employees stating that benefits would be scaled back to offset the cost.

Other franchisees followed suit, cutting back on everything from medical insurance to paid breaks and a free drink at the end of a shift. While we could argue that some of these seem petty, there is an economic reality here of which we shouldn’t lose sight.

The increase in minimum wage will hurt franchisees, costing approximately a quarter million dollars per location. This is money that comes directly out of owners’ pockets. And it will hurt. Their profitability has been declining. About a year ago, they formed a franchisee association to bring this fact to the attention of the owner of the Tim Hortons brand, Restaurant Brands International (RBI)—months before anyone in Ontario even heard of a $14.00 minimum wage.

For managing their businesses to adjust to labour costs that could rise from 30 per cent to 43 per cent of franchise costs, franchisees have been labelled “bullies” for picking on workers by Ontario’s premier Kathleen Wynne and “rogue(s)” for messing with the Tim Hortons brand by RBI.

Quite the tempest. And nary a teapot to be found!

Advising the Franchisees
With an issue like this (which is not yet a crisis), if I were advising the franchisees, I would encourage them to not back down. I would strongly urge them to not stoop to the name-calling tactics of the premier and brand owner—to instead tell the honest story of how this impacts their stores, their families and their communities. I would also suggest that they consider focusing on the profitability of the Tim Hortons brand owner as a lever to get the corporation's attention.

The objective of any media relations activity would be to motivate the premier to acknowledge that franchisees are hard-working, tax-paying contributors to Ontario society and the communities in which they operate—ideally she should apologize for calling franchisees bullies—and to entice RBI to work with franchisees to find some middle ground while subtly reminding the brand owner that the minimum wage will soon rise elsewhere across the country.

This can only be done with a balanced, logical response—not by stooping to the name-calling tactics of the other players in this drama.

Advising the Brand Owner
If I were advising Restaurant Brands International, Inc., I would encourage them to sit at the table and listen—really listen—to what franchisees are saying. There are many hints that franchisees believe the brand owner is not listening— the formation of a franchisee association and an article in The Globe and Mail last September that highlights declining profitability.

As I’ve pointed out to clients for nearly 30 years, the phrase “you’re not listening” is either one or two things, and it’s their choice which. “You’re not listening” is always an early warning sign in issues management. If the warning isn’t heeded, “you’re not listening” can become the kiss of death in a crisis.

How likely is RBI to truly listen? Not likely, I’m afraid. A recent study showed that the very best organizations at listening devote less than one-third of their resources to listening—i.e. they talk twice as much as the listen.

For RBI’s sake, I hope they’re different. Right now, failing to listen may be the biggest threat to the Tim Hortons brand. (And make no mistake, other franchisees are watching.)

Advising the Government
If I were advising Kathleen Wynne, I would first urge her to quit being a bully by calling franchisees bullies. (If you’re interested in more about bullies, look me up on Facebook and read my post there.) And I would point out that she may have missed a glorious opportunity to come out of this smelling like a rose.

A quick search would have revealed that franchisees feel they’re being squeezed. Instead of calling them names to champion the downtrodden, she could have advocated on behalf of franchisees—perhaps not a bad thing to do during an election year.

She could have said that she knows they’re under pressure. But she could also could have used her spotlight to publicly encourage Restaurant Brands International to meet with franchisees and work out a solution beneficial to all. After all, as the company has publicly said: “Owner profitability is the backbone of our system.”

A media-savvy premier would encourage them to put their profits where their policy appears to be.





Managing Polarization in Public Consultation

angry crowd polarization 3During a presentation to the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) North American conference in Denver this past September, I had the pleasure of introducing participants to the polarization model, a strategic tool that helps my clients manage polarization, and the real or perceived hostility that often accompanies it, while being interviewed by journalists and during all forms of public consultation.

“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.

media training polarization model
However, research shows that the further you go from the middle to the outer edges on each side of the spectrum, the more you go from a logical to an emotional perspective.

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.”

Supports Transparency
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 Ten-Pushup Rule Improves Communication

pushup team
During my media training and presentation training programs, I often introduce a slightly tongue-in-cheek training tool I call “the ten-pushup rule.” The rule immediately underscores the value of succinct answers.

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.



When to not answer questions during media interviews

As a general statement, I believe that media training should teach spokespeople to manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes.
answering questions is at the heart of media training


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:

  1. Yes, I have the answer; here it is.
  2. No, I don’t have the answer; I’ll get it for you (or find someone who can provide it).
  3. Yes, I do have the answer; I cannot discuss it.
The third option—knowing but not answering—can be evoked in situations for which:

  • 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
When asked a question that cannot be answered directly, the answer is simple:

  • "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."
The situations above are legitimate reasons for not answering questions, but they are not barriers behind which an organization can hide.

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.

The fundamental skill of answering questions effectively

After more than 25 years of examining the concept and teaching it successfully, I am completely convinced that the most important thing we can teach presenters and spokespeople alike is to pause, answer the question, and stop talking.

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.

PAS image green inside
If you've ever given evidence at a trial or examination for discovery — and you were coached by a lawyer prior to giving that evidence — you were undoubtedly told to pause and think about the question asked prior to ever opening your mouth. You were then told to answer the question asked and that question only. Then you were told to stop talking. (Although a lawyer may tell you to "shut up," the net result is exactly the same.)

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.

Bridging to Messages on Anderson Cooper’s RidicuList

I have often said that the skill of answering questions is the least developed skill in human interpersonal communication. And it’s a skill I believe we could (and should) continually hone. As a general statement, we could all benefit by constantly working to improve how we answer the questions we’re asked.

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.

Trump, Ink by the Barrel, and Eyballs by the Millions

Here we are, on the first official working day of the Trump presidency, and already time-tested traditions in media relations are being tested yet again.

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.

Media Interviews Don’t Have Two Steering Wheels

I absolutely love this YouTube clip. The best way to watch it is to think of two people in a car, each of whom believes they have a steering wheel, a gas pedal and a brake, and each of whom believes they can steer the vehicle to their destination.


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:

There is only one steering wheel, one gas pedal and one brake during media interviews. The journalist ultimately controls all three. Some journalists exert more control than others, absolutely. But organizations that want to control destination and direction should buy advertising, not arrange media interviews.

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.



Print Interviews Are NOT Conversations

When being interviewed by a print journalist—in which the final article is words printed on paper or words printed on a screen—spokespeople should remember that they're not there to engage in a conversation.

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.
quotation marks floating on string
With print interviews, more context (i.e. longer answers) equals more risk. Period.

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.

Bridging the Gap Between Truth and Transparency

During a presentation to the World Public Relations Forum in May, 2016, I stated my view that public relations professionals have an opportunity to carve out a new area of practice globally and become more trusted advisors to clients. To do this, PR professionals need to bridge the gap between truth and transparency, and virtually eliminate the focus on bridging to messages.

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.
Image of the lions gate bridge as an analogy to bridging 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.


Ex-Senators Coach is a Polarization Pro

After a disappointing hockey season for the Ottawa Senators of the National Hockey League head coach Dave Cameron was fired. During his subsequent media exchange with the owner, Cameron proved to be a polarization pro.
Ottawa Senators logo

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.

A Case Study in Apology

Perhaps the one benefit of the sordid Jian Ghomeshi affair is that it provides insight into how and why apologies could and should be made by individuals and organizations facing a crisis.
CBC logo

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.

A Crisis is Like a Heart Attack

During the past 30 years, I’ve used a heart attack analogy to explain to management groups why effective crisis communication is less about communication than it is about sound decision-making.
Heart monitor in the foreground, doctors working on patient in the background

“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.

Cost per Practice Interview Should Be a Media Training Metric

Media training has been half of my core business for about 25 years. And, in that time, I can safely say that one aspect of training has had more value than any other—to the organization, to the public relations team, and to participants.

Practice interviews.
Journalists holding microphones up to a spokesperson

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.

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

An experience in San Francisco a few years ago opened my eyes an interesting irony that exists in the media relations industry.

In 2009, I had just finished creating and testing my At Ease With the Media online training program. Around that time, I attended the IABC world conference in San Francisco. While in the Bay area, I decided to schedule a few sales calls for my newly-completed online program in a relatively safe environment.
Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco


One of those meetings was with the director of media relations for a national professional association. Going to the meeting at Fisherman’s Wharf even became a bit of an adventure; it may be the only time I will ever ride a cable car to a meeting.

During our discussion, the director revealed that he was a former journalist. A minute or two later, I asked him what his biggest pet peeve was when, as a journalist, he was interviewing someone. He barely hesitated, then replied: “When spokespeople didn’t answer a simple question directly. I couldn’t stand it when all they talked about were things that were important to them—when they kept going back to their messages.”

Later, I let him pick a module from the online program to sample. He chose "Working with Reporters.” This module discusses creating win-win outcomes with journalists—helping the journalist by answering questions clearly and concisely on one side, while seeking strategic opportunities to influence specifically identifiable audiences along the way.


Towards the end of the meeting, I asked: "Can we do some business together?” He replied: “I don’t think so.”

When I asked why, he replied: “Because you are not as message-driven as we are.”

Well, folks, if you pushed me with a feather at that moment, I would have fallen off my chair. I immediately started to wonder how many other former journalists have done exactly the same thing.

I didn’t get the sale because I didn’t know how to overcome the objection without offending him by pointing out the obvious irony. I have since learned to overcome this objection because I have encountered it many, many times.

Win-Win Outcomes

Call me crazy, but I believe that spokespeople can be taught to answer journalists’ questions clearly and concisely as a means of communicating effectively with them, helping them complete their stories accurately, and enhancing working relationships. (It is, after all, called “media relations.”)

I also believe that gaining a strategic communication advantage is not mutually exclusive to the skill of answering questions. As I’ve witnessed during thousands of media training sessions I’ve delivered over the past 34 years, spokespeople can be taught to seek, identify and capitalize on strategic opportunities during interviews while helping the journalist and protecting themselves along the way.
San Francisco street car

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?

In a Crisis, Secrecy is Your Worst Defence

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

A perfect case in point is a recent article in the Toronto Star that reported Toronto’s student transportation fleet has been in 1,157 collisions with 20 injuries during the past five years. To make matters worse, nearly 80 per cent of those accidents were deemed preventable — which simply means they did not need to occur at all.
yellow school bus

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.”



Perhaps It’s Time to Embrace "No Comment"

As I was listening to CBC radio while driving to a media training engagement a few weeks ago, a featured story inspired me to consider that perhaps, as an industry, we should start using “no comment” as part of our professional lexicon.

Immediately after having that thought, I was aghast. I have been a member of this industry since June 14, 1982. During the past 33 years, I can never remember a time in which I would not have cringed if I heard any spokesperson say “no comment” when asked a question by a journalist.
Just say

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.”