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.



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.