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.”
I’ll bet it was the longest one minute and forty-seven seconds of his life.
￼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?
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.
We all know the organization wants to either protect itself or enhance its brand, or both. It should legitimately be attempting to use the exchange to influence specific audiences.
But we have to recognize that journalists ask questions for a living. It's probably why they became journalists in the first place. (If they like making a little more money than they like asking questions, chances are they're one of my colleagues in PR.)
Therefore, if a spokesperson wants to help the journalist's "win" (not to mention be polite and build a better relationships by communicating more effectively), answering questions clearly and concisely is the secret to success. Doing so enables the journalist to create a story that is relevant to the audience, interesting to read, watch or listen to, and factually correct.
There are three acceptable answers to questions posed by journalists:
- Yes, I have the answer; here it is.
- No, I don’t have the answer; I’ll get it for you (or find someone who can provide it).
- Yes, I do have the answer; I cannot discuss it.
- The case is currently before the courts.
- Union negotiations are under way, and a news blackout has been imposed.
- An emergency has occurred, and next-of-kin have not yet been notified.
- Answering the question would breach securities legislation
- Answering the question would compromise employee, customer, member, client, patient or other confidentiality
- Answering the question would breach another aspect of privacy of information legislation
- Answering the question would divulge sensitive competitive information
- Answering the question would compromise national security
- "I'm sorry. I cannot answer that question. Doing so would divulge sensitive competitive information."
- "I'm sorry, I cannot answer that question, because doing so would breach securities legislation."
If your organization is tempted, it's important to discuss the fact that there are two courts in our social-media-driven land.
In a court of law, the premise is that you're innocent until proven guilty. In the court of public opinion, the premise is reversed; silence can be (and often is) construed as guilt.
Bottom line? Answer whenever you can. When you can't, don't. But say why.
We all know that politicians are a category unto themselves when it comes to being terrible at answering questions. But Florida governor Rick Scott, the politician on Anderson Cooper’s RidicuList in this video clip, is in a league of his own.
When I watched this video the first time, I recalled many conversations I’ve had over the years with my PR colleagues who, when I’ve questioned the value of bridging to messages instead of clearly and concisely answering questions, have said to me: “Politicians do it all the time.”
Yes, they do. But as Anderson Cooper aptly points out, ignoring questions “doesn’t really work. It just insults everyone’s intelligence.” And the insult can apply to everyone—a journalist in a scrum, an employee at a town hall, an upset or confused neighbour at a public meeting, or a sales prospect across the desk.
Cooper then asks: “What if people in other professions started doing this?”
For example, if a teacher is asked a question in class, imagine that he or she keeps repeating that “attendance is up … attendance is up.”
Or imagine that, when asked by a patient if he or she is dying, a physician keeps repeating “I’m appreciative of everyone who comes to see me.”
Unlike virtually everyone else, politicians can get away with the non-transparent tactic of talking about “what’s really important” because they live in a gilded world built on the twin pillars of blind loyalty and least objectionable programming. It's time we realized that other industries do not have this luxury.
In all democracies, there are people who are blindly loyal and have voted for one political party their entire lives. They will continue to vote for that party, regardless of whether a convicted felon or a narcissistic blowhard is leading it.
For the vast majority of the rest of us, the choice is not for the most desirable candidate, but the least objectionable. The 2016 US presidential election was a perfect case in point. How many millions of people who are not blindly loyal to a political party actually voted for someone they wanted in the White House? But of all the elections in which I've personally voted since 1976, there have been only one or two candidates for whom I have been rooting. In virtually every other election, I find myself holding my nose and voting for the best of a bad lot.
Politicians may be able to get away with not answering questions, but for the vast majority of the world, for which transparency is a growing issue, answering questions will continue to trump bridging to messages each and every time.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
The word “pitching” arises from comparisons to baseball. The pitcher is on the mound and pitches the ball to the catcher.
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.
On one side, we have Dalhousie University. When questionable Facebook posts by fourth-year dentistry students were made public, the president chose to instigate a process of restorative justice. It wasn’t until he faced a mini-revolt from faculty members in the new year that he banned the male dentistry students from clinical practice, and scheduled separate classes for them.
From the university’s perspective, this issue isn’t going away any time soon.
On the other side, we have 13 male dentistry students.
These young men are in serious crisis. Somebody needs to explain to them that things won’t get any better by crawling into a cone of silence. News reports are indicating that ALL male dentistry students of Dalhousie’s class of 2014 will need to prove they are of sound ethical judgement (i.e. they were not a member of the infamous Facebook group) to any provincial registry before they can practice their profession.
In other words, no proof, no license.
Silence is not an option for these young men. They need to go public, take responsibility for their actions, discuss the foolishness of their behaviour, apologize to everyone involved, and convince the world that this one lapse in judgement will never be repeated in the future.
I don’t only say that as a crisis consultant. I say it as a parent of two young people who are almost exactly the same age as these fourth-year dentistry students.
As I’ve always explained to my kids, people make mistakes. Young people sometimes make more than their share. Their old man has made more than most.
If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from all the fence-mending I’ve done in my life, it’s that while the mistake is important, what you do after the mistake is absolutely critical.
In the case of these 13 fourth-year male dentistry students, silence is not an option. If my son was involved, I’d like to think we’d already have our news conference behind us and be moving forward together.
With me standing beside him, supporting him, loving him, and helping him salvage as much dignity as possible from an extremely difficult situation.
For the past few years, Mr. Mulcair has constantly criticized Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper for not answering questions. “We’ve asked the prime minister a precise series of questions,” he often says, leaving the impression that it is completely unacceptable for someone to not answer those questions.
Yet in numerous media interviews I’ve observed, Mr. Mulcair does exactly the same thing. He almost never answers a question directly. In fact, sometimes it seems he wouldn’t answer a simple question if his life depended on it.
And it negatively impacts his credibility.
I first became aware of this during a radio interview featuring Mr. Mulcair in November 2013 while I was riding my motorcycle home from a media training session in downtown Toronto. I was listening to CBC radio (it’s a Gold Wing with a premium sound system—and heated grips and seats, thank goodness!). Mr. Mulcair was being interviewed about the expense scandal in Canada’s senate shortly after three senators were suspended.
Mr. Mulcair was waxing eloquently about how the prime minister refused to answer simple, direct questions during question period in the House of Commons. The prime minister was avoiding questions. He was sidestepping questions. He was waffling. He was obfuscating.
Just after Mr. Mulcair made his point that the political party he leads, the New Democrats, believe Canada’s senate should be abolished, the interviewer asked an obvious question: “Don’t you think that suspending these three senators is a good start?”
Folks, it’s a closed question requiring either a “yes” or a “no.” And, based on Mr. Mulcair’s worldview, the answer should probably be “yes.” Was there even a hint of a yes or no in Mr. Mulcair’s answer? No. So the interviewer asked again. And again. And again. Until she finally gave up.
Honestly, he came across as a hypocrite.
This past week, I was watching CTV Newsnet when Mr. Mulcair was interviewed by Sandie Rinaldo. To lead off her interview, Ms. Rinaldo quoted Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who says he supports the capacity of Canadian troops to defend themselves. “Do you agree with that?” she asked Mr. Mulcair.
Is this an open or closed question? Closed. The first thing out of Mr. Mulcair’s mouth should be a yes or no. Instead, he ignores the question and says:
“What I do know is that in September and October I asked the prime minister a whole series of questions—very specific questions about what our troops were doing.”
Huh? Isn’t he criticizing someone for not answering specific questions by not answering a specific question?
But wait, it gets even better. “But it seems our troops had no choice but to defend themselves,” Ms. Rinaldo said. “Isn’t there an allowance for that?”
Again, a closed question. Yes or no would be good to hear, especially from someone who criticizes others for not answering specific, direct questions.
“When you’re involved in a firefight it’s because you’re involved in combat,” Mr. Mulcair answered, in his attempt to bridge to his message and tell us all what’s really important, “which Mr. Harper told Canadians we wouldn’t do, and that’s the problem.”
This doesn’t pass the sniff test on a number of levels. If I was a member of Canada’s armed forces, I’d be miffed. You mean to tell us that we shouldn’t defend ourselves, regardless of what the politicians say in their squabbles with each other?
It also illustrates the absolute foolishness of staying on message. As I’ve said many times during interviews and in my media training program, politicians are the only ones who could possibly get away with this tactic (but why would they, when a better alternative is available?), which I believe is an outdated paradigm in an information-driven, media-savvy world.
Mr. Mulcair has until October 19—the date of Canada’s next federal election—to get it right. His predecessor did, probably because he knew he was fighting his last fight.
Mr. Mulcair should go back and watch Jack Layton’s interviews prior to the last federal election. Jack provided a refreshing perspective on treating audiences with dignity and respect. More often than not, he answered questions clearly and concisely, and communicated effectively.
I believe Jack’s performance is a huge reason why Mr. Mulcair currently resides at Stornaway, the residence of Canada’s official opposition.
If he hopes to stay there (or potentially move up in the world), he should gain insight from Jack’s cogent example, and learn how to answer questions as a means of treating audiences with respect, and ultimately managing interviews to strategic gain—without exhibiting the same behaviour for which he’s criticizing others.
At Ease With the Media teaches spokespeople to manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes—assisting the journalist on one side while supporting the organization’s objectives on the other.
Spokespeople understand the value of answering questions clearly and concisely. They learn to strategically influence audiences through the journalist, but are flexible and adaptable to the journalist’s needs along the way.
Of course, they are taught to always protect themselves and their organization at every step.
As the embedded interview illustrates (if the interview isn’t visible at the bottom of this article, click here to go to the TV network site), prior to convergence, a spokesperson could get away with repeating the same thing over and over, especially when answering questions from a print journalist or providing a quote for a newscast.
Today, however, the rules have changed. A single article on a website can contain both the print article, which provides detail into the issue, and the actual unedited interview with the spokesperson. In this format, it becomes obvious that the spokesperson is avoiding all questions by stubbornly repeating the same thing over and over.
There are some lessons to be learned here.
If your media training consultant focuses on constantly bridging or is mired in staying on message, find someone else to work with. Your spokespeople and your organization deserve better.
The results of a modern approach are clear: better relationships with reporters, improved strategic outcomes, and effective risk management.
Finally, if you provide media training that focuses on constantly bridging, please continue to do so. Those of us who have moved beyond that paradigm will be happy to chip away at your customer base.