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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Perhaps Dalhousie's Dentistry Students Should Step Up

If you’re like me, and you’ve been following the issue that erupted this week at Dalhousie University, you have to be shaking your head.

On Monday, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) broke the story that a dozen dental students at Dalhousie University, located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, were participating in a Facebook page under the name “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” and using that forum as an opportunity to post sexually explicit comments.
Mr. Media Looking right

And folks, these were not your everyday sexually explicit posts (to the extent, at least, that we can say there is such a thing). Chloroform was mentioned in a number of them. One provides two names and asks: “Which one would you rather hate f——k?”

Yes, Facebook took the page down last week. And yes, there were only 12 members of the page. But in today’s world, in which many of us were recently introduced to the term “hate f——k” by a former radio star with the same organization that broke the Dalhousie story, one knuckle-dragging neanderthal moron is too many.

Twelve is truly a dumbass dozen.

University president Richard Florizone has said the university “has a responsibility” to ensure it’s free of harassment. As the father of a young woman who graduated from a Canadian university two years ago, I couldn’t agree more. But does the president take that responsibility seriously?

Obviously, he hasn’t read the latest crisis communication handbook. Folks, he wants 48 hours to consider his response. And he almost promises to announce a plan of action by the end of the week.

Huh? Or should I say: duh?

Then we learn that Dr. Florizone first got wind of problems in the school of dentistry last summer. He was approached by the president of the students’ union with allegations about sexual harassment and he referred them to the campus Office of Human Rights, Equity and Harassment Prevention.

The complaint went no further when that office explained that anyone making a complaint must provide their name.

Referring the complaint may be a requirement of his office, but if the president didn’t conduct his own quiet investigation, especially when the Jian Ghomeshi incident broke, does he deserve to still be president? That’s a question the university’s board will need to address when the smoke clears and the dust settles—and the damage to the reputation of a 200-year-old institution is assessed.

As Caroline Sapriel so eloquently wrote in this week’s Communication World Insider, the first step to managing a crisis is anticipating one. The second step is mitigating it.

What has Dalhousie done? The president got wind of problems four months ago. Now that they’ve surfaced, fourth-year dentistry exams have been postponed until January.

Wonderful, rather than taking a relaxing breather during the holidays, those who weren’t involved now have the stress of unfinished exams waiting for them in the new year. Let’s punish everyone who wasn’t involved.

(But don’t be surprised if the university puts a positive spin on it by saying that students will have more time to study.)

While the writing was on the wall for this crisis, those of us who counsel executives know that we (both external and internal consultants) can only lead a leader to the wall. We can’t make him or her read what’s there.

More’s the pity, I say.

Is Tom Mulcair a Q&A Hypocrite?

Perhaps I’m jaded, but in my world when people do exactly that for which they criticize others, they’re hypocrites. And Canada’s official leader of the opposition, Tom Mulcair, may be just such a beast.

For the past few years, Mr. Mulcair has constantly criticized Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper for not answering questions. “We’ve asked the prime minister a precise series of questions,” he often says, leaving the impression that it is completely unacceptable for someone to not answer those questions.
Canadian leader of the opposition Thomas Mulcair

Yet in numerous media interviews I’ve observed, Mr. Mulcair does exactly the same thing. He almost never answers a question directly. In fact, sometimes it seems he wouldn’t answer a simple question if his life depended on it.

And it negatively impacts his credibility.

I first became aware of this during a radio interview featuring Mr. Mulcair in November 2013 while I was riding my motorcycle home from a media training session in downtown Toronto. I was listening to CBC radio (it’s a Gold Wing with a premium sound system—and heated grips and seats, thank goodness!). Mr. Mulcair was being interviewed about the expense scandal in Canada’s senate shortly after three senators were suspended.

Mr. Mulcair was waxing eloquently about how the prime minister refused to answer simple, direct questions during question period in the House of Commons. The prime minister was avoiding questions. He was sidestepping questions. He was waffling. He was obfuscating.

Just after Mr. Mulcair made his point that the political party he leads, the New Democrats, believe Canada’s senate should be abolished, the interviewer asked an obvious question: “Don’t you think that suspending these three senators is a good start?”

Folks, it’s a closed question requiring either a “yes” or a “no.” And, based on Mr. Mulcair’s worldview, the answer should probably be “yes.” Was there even a hint of a yes or no in Mr. Mulcair’s answer? No. So the interviewer asked again. And again. And again. Until she finally gave up.

Honestly, he came across as a hypocrite.

This past week, I was watching CTV Newsnet when Mr. Mulcair was interviewed by Sandie Rinaldo. To lead off her interview, Ms. Rinaldo quoted Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who says he supports the capacity of Canadian troops to defend themselves. “Do you agree with that?” she asked Mr. Mulcair.

Is this an open or closed question? Closed. The first thing out of Mr. Mulcair’s mouth should be a yes or no. Instead, he ignores the question and says:

“What I do know is that in September and October I asked the prime minister a whole series of questions—very specific questions about what our troops were doing.”

Huh? Isn’t he criticizing someone for not answering specific questions by not answering a specific question?

But wait, it gets even better. “But it seems our troops had no choice but to defend themselves,” Ms. Rinaldo said. “Isn’t there an allowance for that?”

Again, a closed question. Yes or no would be good to hear, especially from someone who criticizes others for not answering specific, direct questions.

“When you’re involved in a firefight it’s because you’re involved in combat,” Mr. Mulcair answered, in his attempt to bridge to his message and tell us all what’s really important, “which Mr. Harper told Canadians we wouldn’t do, and that’s the problem.”

This doesn’t pass the sniff test on a number of levels. If I was a member of Canada’s armed forces, I’d be miffed. You mean to tell us that we shouldn’t defend ourselves, regardless of what the politicians say in their squabbles with each other?

It also illustrates the absolute foolishness of staying on message. As I’ve said many times during interviews and in my media training program, politicians are the only ones who could possibly get away with this tactic (but why would they, when a better alternative is available?), which I believe is an outdated paradigm in an information-driven, media-savvy world.

Mr. Mulcair has until October 19—the date of Canada’s next federal election—to get it right. His predecessor did, probably because he knew he was fighting his last fight.

Mr. Mulcair should go back and watch Jack Layton’s interviews prior to the last federal election. Jack provided a refreshing perspective on treating audiences with dignity and respect. More often than not, he answered questions clearly and concisely, and communicated effectively.

I believe Jack’s performance is a huge reason why Mr. Mulcair currently resides at Stornaway, the residence of Canada’s official opposition.

If he hopes to stay there (or potentially move up in the world), he should gain insight from Jack’s cogent example, and learn how to answer questions as a means of treating audiences with respect, and ultimately managing interviews to strategic gain—without exhibiting the same behaviour for which he’s criticizing others.

In Praise of Pitching

I read with interest Andre Beaupre’s article entitled 7 Reasons why it’s time to retire ‘pitch’ and ‘pitching’ and I must respectfully disagree with his perspective. I don’t believe these words date or harm the PR industry.

The word “pitching” arises from comparisons to baseball. The pitcher is on the mound and pitches the ball to the catcher.
Picture of someone pitching a baseball as an analogy to pitching to the media.

If you’ve ever witnessed such an event, you know that the catcher throws the ball back to the pitcher and the process repeats itself. It is, therefore, two-way by its very nature. The pitcher does not have a large bucket of balls from which he (or she) keeps throwing, without any regard for whether the catcher actually catches.

But what people unfamiliar with this exchange may not know is that the pitcher does not blindly throw fastballs, curve balls, sliders, knuckle balls or changeups to the catcher without a thought of what the receiver is expecting. The catcher first gives the pitcher a sign to indicate what he (or she) expects to receive.

Competent media relations practitioners understand what journalists need or expect to receive, and tailor their pitch accordingly. What harms us is not the word, but the behavior of exuberant individuals within our profession who keep firing pitches from their large, limitless bucket.

I don’t believe the word “pitching” damages our reputation. What is infinitely more damaging to our reputation is when we train spokespeople to keep firing the same messages from the same bucket, regardless of whether the journalist is even remotely interested or listening.

So let’s not focus on the word. Let’s focus on the approach, and make all of our exchanges with journalists two-way, with the expectation of creating win-win outcomes from which everyone benefits.

In this, I agree with Mr. Beaupre. Two-way exchanges are the foundation on which long-term relationships of lasting value can be constructed.

MRP Alone Not Good Enough

This is the first instalment in a series on media relations measurement.

I’m going to say something that could be perceived as sacrilegious among Canadian media relations practitioners.

I’m not a fan of Media Relations Rating Points (MRP).

For those who don’t know, MRP is a uniquely Canadian innovation. It is a relatively simple and inexpensive system for measuring publicity.

Anyone can download a free Excel spreadsheet from www.mrpdata.com, and for a relatively inexpensive subscription fee, can generate audience reach data, which is supplied by News Canada.

At the end of your campaign, you insert the names of newspapers, magazines, blogs, radio stations and television stations that picked up your story. The basic spreadsheet also has cells available for tone (whether positive, neutral or negative) and five other potential criteria that media coverage can be scored against, such as exclusivity of the story, the use of a picture, or prominence in the publication or newscast.

My complaint is not about the tool. My concern is about how it’s being used. And, quite frankly, it’s leading to a laziness among Canadian media relations practitioners in the way they evaluate the effectiveness of their communication programs.

During the past six months, I have judged some of the most prestigious awards programs in this country. I coordinated the media relations category for IABC’s Silver Leaf awards last fall. I participated as a judge in the media relations category of this year’s CPRS Toronto’s Achieving Communication Excellence (ACE) awards. This past weekend, I participated as a media relations judge in IABC/Toronto’s OVATION awards program.

I have been judging media relations entries at local, national and international levels since I coordinated the entire Silver Leaf program in 1992.

Over the past few years, I have witnessed a distinct deterioration in the discipline of media relations measurement since MRP was first introduced. Increasing numbers of entries at all levels are only submitting MRP “results” as their sole source of evaluation.

Honestly, that’s not good enough.

Our profession is about outcomes, not inputs. I have no qualms if your client is happy with MRP data as a sole source of measurement. As someone who has operated a successful business for the past 25 years, I understand the concept of giving clients what they want.

But if you’re asking your peers for evaluation in awards programs (or in portfolio submissions toward earning your ABC or APR designations), MRP alone isn’t good enough.

It’s not enough to say that 16,000,000 people may have been exposed to a message at a cost of one-third of a penny each. Did they get the message? And how did it influence their attitudes, opinions and behaviour?

Did the program reinforce existing positive opinions? Did it encourage audiences to form opinions? Did it neutralize negative opinions? Did the media relations campaign move specifically identifiable audiences to action in ways that support the organization’s objectives? And how do you measure all of the above?

In my mind, finding answers to those questions separates a practitioner from a professional.

If you want to use MRP, fine. But please don’t try to convince a fellow professional that MRP alone is good enough.

Quite frankly, it isn’t.

"You're Just Blowing Smoke"

This is the second instalment in a series on media relations measurement.

To help shed some light on what the state-of-the-art in media relations measurement should be, I thought I’d turn to Wilma Mathews, ABC, a long-time colleague and friend, and author of Media Relations: A Practical Guide for Communicators. Wilma has been practicing media relations for … well, let’s just say quite a few years.

When it comes to media relations evaluation and measurement, Wilma says our industry is certainly better off than it was even five or ten years ago. For many years, media relations practitioners relied on the simplistic output measures of counting clips and adding up circulation.

From there, the process evolved into impressions which, from her perspective, means pretty much the same thing as circulation and viewing audience. Next, the advertising value equivalency (AVE) was born, which she points out is a term that’s not even listed in theDictionary of Public Relations Measurement and Research.

“But over the years, as PR people, agencies and companies have gotten a little savvier, they’ve said that what we’re asking you as media people to do is sell a product, get people to come to an event, change their minds or vote for someone,” Wilma explains. “In short, we’re asking you to change behaviour of a certain audience. And that’s a little harder to do than counting clips.”

She believes the AVE was adopted as a matter of convenience (and I suspect she would say something similar about Media Relations Rating Points). It was a simple way to state some perceived value of media relations to management groups. But to her the AVE is a completely abstract number that has no correlation to any activity because advertising and media relations simply cannot be compared.

“You control everything about advertising,” she explains. “You control nothing about the editorial side of the media. But (the AVE) was a way to say to clients ‘if you had purchased advertising, it would have cost you X amount of dollars, and we prevented you from having to do that.’ And it sounded good at the outset.”

She makes a clear distinction between evaluation and measurement in media relations. “You can evaluate your media relations work and still not measure whether or not it worked,” she explains. “In other words, if a media relations practitioner wanted a positive story on the front page of the business section with a quote from their CEO — and they wanted it to appear before the product launch — if they got all of that it says their process worked. It says nothing about whether that helped sales.”

To her, measurement is the end outcome — from an attitudinal or behavioural perspective. Did people buy the product? Did they vote the way you wanted? Did they form an opinion or change their minds?

“If that didn’t happen and all you’ve got to show for it is advertising value equivalents or impressions,” she points out, “you’re just blowing smoke.”

Linking Objectives to Outcomes

This is the third instalment in a series on media relations measurement.

In this second part of my conversation with Wilma Mathews, ABC, I asked her where we needed to be as an industry when it comes to the strategic use of media relations.

How do we develop objectives for a media relations campaign? How do we evaluate whether we’ve achieved those objectives? In a perfect world, how should people approach those challenges?

Her advice was simple on the surface, but represents the complexity of media relations specifically, and organizational communication in general.

“People need to approach media relations by understanding what it is that your client needs to get done,” she says. “Too often, the client’s needs are misinterpreted to what we can do from a media standpoint, whether it has anything to actually do with solving the problem or not.”

She says that one of the challenges that many practitioners have with measurement is that they may start with a great objective — such as increasing the number of people who participate in a weekend run for cancer research from 10,000 to 12,000 — but their evaluation focuses only on the media clippings they generate. They forget to go back and count the number of people who actually participated in the run.

This goes back to her belief that there is a clear distinction between evaluation and measurement in media relations. Counting the clippings is a form of evaluation around the process. Determining how many people participated in the run is a measurement of outcomes, and therefore success.

“You cannot claim success if you are not measuring the right thing,” she says. “And this slides over into the issue of ethics.”

Wilma believes that it is incredibly unethical to tell a client that a campaign was successful because it generated a million impressions when the objective was to get more people to participate in the food drive, vote for a candidate, or other potential outcome.

There are those who may try counter her argument by saying that it was the client who wanted those media relations results — such as being a guest on certain television programs or being above the fold on the front page of the business section. Therefore, according to codes of ethics governing public relations (whether PRSA, IABC, CPRS or CIPR), the media relations practitioner has done his or her job.

“If that media plan is solely about getting the boss above the fold on the front page of the business section and nothing else, then that’s ok,” she replies. “The objectives may be that (the client) is looking for media support for the product launch, and (the media relations practitioner) will write an objective that says they want to generate 1.5 million impressions.

"You can get impressions. That’s the easy part. But those impressions may have no correlation to a bottom line.”

And without bottom line measurement, the job is less than half done.

A Case Study in Media Relations Success

This is the fourth instalment in a series on media relations measurement.

In the this part of my conversation with Wilma Mathews, ABC, author of Media Relations: A Practical Guide for Communicators, she provided an example of a media relations initiative that demonstrates the importance to linking behavioral outcomes to media relations inputs.
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A staff writer at Arizona State University received an assignment from the archaeology department to write a news release to promote an upcoming lecture: a local attorney, as an amateur Egyptologist, was only the second person to go into an Egyptian tomb.

Wilma told me this writer often takes what many would consider to be an unusual approach to media relations. “She knows her media, so she never does follow up calls to the reporters she sends material to,” Wilma explained. “She knows whether they’re the right ones to get the release.”

The communicator got two hits from her release. One was in a calendar listing in the local newspaper. The other was to a reporter who likes to write human interest stories.

“Without any prompting, the reporter turned this story into a front page of the Sunday leisure section, including two color photographs over three-fourths of a page,” Wilma says. “A lecture that would normally bring in 25 brought in almost 200 people.”

There is no AVE for this program. And the circulation numbers would be small by most media relations measurement standards, because there was only one newspaper’s circulation to include.

However, in many ways, this example represents the tried and true in media relations, and the importance of measurement over evaluation. To be successful, it’s important to understand the needs of reporters and only target those journalists or media outlets who would have an interest in your program, your product, your service or your candidate.

After going through that process, if your media list ends up being only five outlets — but they’re the right five outlets — you can achieve success with what would be considered to be an extremely low AVE, if any AVE at all.

Wilma pointed out that the Dictionary of Public Relations Measurement and Research defines impressions as “the number of people who might have had the opportunity to be exposed to a story that has appeared in the media.”

“It’s taken almost as a fact that if you have a million impressions there’s an assumption that a million people saw it and read it,” Wilma said. “You can make numbers do anything you want. But the real bottom line test is: Did your audience do what you intended them to do?

"You can have all the impressions in the world, but if nobody showed up for that dinner to raise money — and your job was to help improve attendance at that dinner — then you’re just not doing your job.”