How do you manage a crisis?

The incidents in Corfu currently hitting Thomas Cook so hard are beyond the remit of a media tips blog, they’re too serious. Irreparable damage has probably been done to the company’s reputation and it would be trite to try to address it with a glib blog on media tips.

However, it’s worth looking at what companies in general can do to manage a crisis when one arises. There’s actually quite a lot, and here are some ideas.

Crisis management

  • First, go into lockdown without appearing to do so. Only a handful of people in your business should be speaking to the press anyway; when there’s a crisis, make doubly sure all the staff are aware of this but have a statement on your website – have them refer journalists to this rather than offer them “no comment”, which never works.
  • Second, don’t dodge the issue. Your starting point is that something bad has happened and you’re determined to find what went wrong. If you can’t comment while your internal inquiry is going on, say so but stress that your thoughts are with whoever has had the rough end of the problem.
  • Third, and this is vital, empathise. The people listening to you will be very much in sympathy with anyone who’s been wronged. I heard of a case, years ago, that could be apocryphal but it makes the point. A 90-year-old woman had lung cancer and was suing a tobacco company. The lawyers at the tobacco company found she’d worked with asbestos in the 1950s and there was a perfectly reasonable case to suggest that in this instance tobacco wasn’t to blame. They suggested not only refusing her compensation but suing for defamation, and they’d have had a chance of winning. The PR department stepped in and pointed out that no matter who was factually right and wrong, the big tobacco company suing the little old lady was never going to play well, so they backed down immediately and paid compensation regardless.

I’m not saying the Thomas Cook incident is similar to that of the woman in the tobacco company case. Every case is different. However, its apparent view – that the family has been compensated adequately with a payout one tenth the size of that which the company itself received – is worthy of comparison because it’s a big company being perceived as pushing the little people around.

No matter whose fault something is, no matter how you might feel your company has been wronged, it’s worth taking a little time out to empathise with the other people. Communicate this at least, and you might get to limit some of the damage that might otherwise happen.

Do you need help with your company’s communications? Click here for information on my media training service.

Media training issues: Is a ghost-written blog OK?

Many large organisations get people to write blogs for their executives. Is this a good idea?

I was media training a great group of people in the Midlands yesterday and one of them asked about the importance of blogging. He blogged quite a lot, he said, and always made sure he wrote it. His question was about whether journalists would pick up corporate blogs in their research (answer: in theory yes, in practice if it’s for a short news story there may not be time) but for me this raised a more important issue.

I’ve been asked from time to time to ghost write blogs for corporate clients, which then come out under their name. This is, subject to a good briefing, of course. But is it OK?

From my point of view of course it’s OK. I’m not doing anything wrong and as a freelance writer I’ll take most jobs on offer for which I have the right competence, which are straightforward and honest and for which the fee is right. I’d question whether it’s right for the client companies, however. Other people’s words can get you into trouble.

Authenticity and consistency

Before I even heard the word “blog” I received press releases regularly, as you’d expect. One was from a laptop manufacturer whose MD said, very stridently, “the age of the desktop computer is dead”. It was a good quote and a strong view so the release worked well – until something very particular happened.

The MD in question got a job at a desktop computer manufacturer. As you might guess, I found this highly amusing and threw his quote straight back at him. He denied having said it in the first place, he suggested he’d spoken about market growth for laptops rather than the decline of the desktop. He said it was a good journalistic dig but I’d got it slightly wrong. When I checked the original release back in the office, of course he’d said no such thing – the desktop, he’d declared, was dead. So what went wrong?

The answer was almost certainly that a PR person worked up the quote for a quick sell into the news pages (and it worked), the executive signed it off and thought no more about it. In the 1990s there was every reason to think a quote would be dead within a couple of weeks – he was just unlucky I’d remembered (and I was even unluckier I hadn’t brought the press release). It’s very different now.

Blog your own thoughts

Now, if you put something down on a blog, it’s semi-permanent. After I’ve published this piece of writing, anyone can read it and many can copy it onto their site (they shouldn’t without permission but I’ve had this happen to me – and as long as there’s a link back here I don’t mind). I can delete my copy and take it off this site but it might hang around for a while.

This is why it’s important to me that I write my own blog, and it’s why my client yesterday was determined he should write his own stuff. He was right. Contrary to my interests though it may be to advise people not to use ghost writers, having someone else put words and even views into your mouth can be counterproductive. If a journalist asks you what you meant when you wrote something that you didn’t actually draft, and they can produce the article on their phone or tablet and it has your name on it, it’s difficult to envisage a good ending to the interview.

If you don’t have the time to blog and absolutely have to use someone else, here are some thoughts:

  • Everything is in the briefing. Telling them you want “something about added value” is not going to produce a very precise article. I’ve had those clients!
  • The article should sound as though it comes from you. If there are certain words and phrases you never use and the writer slots them in, take them out.
  • Familiarise yourself with the message. By all means change your mind about something later and tell us so, but don’t be like my desktop computer man and deny you ever said something.

Need help with your media interactions? I can help – here’s my media training page.

The worst media training delegates

Media training can help a lot of people in the right mind set – here are some attitudes to try to avoid.

One of the things I always ask my media training delegates is why they felt they needed to go through the process and what they wanted out of it. There are two reasons for this: first and most importantly it helps me to tailor the session on the hoof for the majority of the participants. Second, it is a good way to unmask the bad candidates. These may not be the ones you’d think.

Some facilitators don’t like the quiet delegate in the corner. I don’t mind that so much; often “quiet” is the noise they make when they’re listening and thinking. They may be taking everything in. No, the ones I don’t like fall into two categories: ogres and overconfidents.

Ogres

I meet very few of the first category, in fact only a couple so far. The first time, the day didn’t start well; I’d forwarded my slides to the PR person who’d commissioned me for the day and he’d put them into his company font (fine) and layout (no problem) and then at the end had a copyright notice crediting his organisation.

That’s a bit of a no-no when it’s someone else’s work. He took it off, but this was as nothing compared to his client. There was a team of five people, led by the MD who said he was there to support them. Then every time I asked a question in a dummy interview and had an answer from one of the more junior people, the MD told them he’d sack them on the spot if they ever said anything like that to a journalist.

As you’ll gather, he wasn’t a great advert for his company. On the second occasion, the MD clearly didn’t want to be there and made it plain that he had no time for journalists, then started clearing up the room ready for another meeting when I was only half way through. My feedback to the PR company was that the press interaction might not be the company’s biggest communications problem; the response was that they were aware of this.

Overconfidents

I also come across people who don’t think they need media training but who aren’t necessarily ogres. They are pleasant enough people who’ve been sent to see the trainer because their manager told them to, but they don’t see why they should bother. Sometimes they make a huge mistake without realising it.

One guy presented to me at an actual interview rather than a media training session. He was pushing an early Internet device; we spoke in (I think) June and he explained it came with a month’s free connectivity. Meanwhile, he told me, he’d organised a new deal so that as of February the following year customers would get indefinite free connectivity.

I approached his PR company offering messaging sessions and media training. His response was that he didn’t need it and he was surprised I should think he did; he clearly hadn’t spotted that he’d just told me to tell my readers not to bother buying his products for six months.

On another occasion I had feedback suggesting I’d been too basic in my approach and that the delegate was more advanced than I’d given him credit for. This was interesting because he’d told me he’d spoken to a major national newspaper for half an hour only the previous week, offering a massive amount of background technical information which the paper used, and managed to keep his company’s name out of the press.

Let’s get this straight: half an hour of his company’s time, the paper uses the information and his organisation gets no credit, no publicity, no website link – and he thought that was good use of his time? His boss or his shareholders might not be quite so sanguine.

Obviously I’m biased because I’m a media trainer. But if someone has suggested you need help in this potentially fraught area, they might just be right- I’d be pleased to discuss how I can contribute.

Do you need media training? Click here to read about my offering or call on 07973 278780

Robert Downey Jr. needs interview training but not from his current team

Robert Downey Jr. walked out on an interview – so what went wrong?

In a media interview yesterday for Channel 4 News, the subject being the new Avengers movie, Robert Downey Jr. walked out. Here’s the clip, if you haven’t seen it (skip to about 5 mins 30 to watch it go really sour, he walks a minute later):

The reactions have been fairly polarised. Either Channel 4 is an independent production company according to some, so the questions are fair, or they were supposed to be talking about the movie and it got personal.

I’m on the side of the journalist to an extent. It’s a free country and he’s allowed to ask what he wants (and Downey has every right not to answer, stemming from the same freedoms),

The thing is, like Christopher Eccleston a few weeks ago (the link there is about Eccleston hanging up on a journalist who wanted to talk about Doctor Who rather than a current project – although Eccleston has happily covered his Doctor Who year with the BBC, Radio Times and others so there’s presumably more to that story), the star had his expectations mis-managed.

Publicists and expectations

Journalists are obliged to be independent. We’re not part of a film company’s marketing department and our editorial sections are not advertising spaces for a business. Marvel and its movie entourage will not have paid for a space on the Channel 4 News programme. If they’d offered to do so there would have been a firm “no thanks”.

So the idea that a journalist will stick to what the subject wants to talk about rather than anything else they he or she thinks may interest the readers is plain wrong. The question that remains is: who’s telling these spokespeople otherwise?

My guess is that their publicists are assuming the papers and broadcasters will co-operate and brief the performers accordingly. As the Eccleston and Downey examples illustrate, the media doesn’t always do so. There’s actually no reason it should. It doesn’t work for the movie companies and if those movie makers want to threaten to withdraw interviewees, they’ll find we can interview someone else and fill the pages.

Like any business conversation it’s about compromise and understanding where the other person is coming from. In my view the Downey interview should have taken another turn when it became apparent he was uncomfortable and not going to answer in some areas; you can always switch back to talking about the film. There’s every reason to hope, but no right to insist, that he would be willing to answer the more personal stuff. Equally, though, I wish some interviewees, in the business world as well as in entertainment, would grasp the simple truth that the press is an independent entity in its own right and not an extension of their marketing operation.

For information on my media training offerings please click here.

Image: Flickr: JD Hancock

Five media training tips from the General Election campaigns

So what can business leaders learn from the communication skills demonstrated by the political party leaders in the UK so far in the General Election campaign?

This entry updated 8 May after a Conservative win. 8 May comments in italics.

The run-up to the General Election in the UK has made for fertile ground for communications specialists and media training companies such as mine. Here are some key lessons, both from delivery and from the messaging point of view – my own politics may show through here, which is not my intention; I’m aiming to offer neutral insights on all of the howlers that have been dropped.

  1. Don’t insult your audience. Last week UKIP leader Nigel Farage accused his audience of being left wing and referred to them as “this lot”. He’s now asked lawyers to investigate. Let’s leave politics out for the moment; even if he’s correct, he handed everybody else the moral high ground by dishing out insults. If you’re presenting on behalf of your business and you feel the audience has been stacked against you, remain above it – don’t hand them a moral victory without a fight. I stand by this one. Farage could have kept the audience on side and failed.
  2. Take part. The Conservatives have tried to paint David Cameron as Prime Ministerial and above last Thursday’s debate; however, in absenting himself he left the other leaders to say what they wanted about him unfettered. For him it’s a calculated risk, for you the gamble might not be worth taking. If there’s going to be a debate that concerns your brand, make sure you’re there to put your side when given the opportunity. I’d stand by this one too except three of the other leaders in the debate have now resigned. Whatever your politics, I suspect you have to concede that Cameron and his team read this exactly right.
  3. Don’t assume the other people will fall to pieces when you want them to. I have no inside information but it looks a lot as though the Conservatives gambled on two things. First, they assumed the rather awkward Ed Miliband would fall apart in election debates. Second, specifically last Thursday, they assumed the other parties, without the coalition members present, would end up bickering and a sprawling mess and put the public off. Neither thing happened. All Miliband has had to do during this election, and all he and the other leaders had to do last week, was to look averagely eloquent and civilised and undecided voters were left wondering whether these people were such a bad alternative..? If you’re pitching your idea to the public or to the press, make sure you’re not assuming the others will screw up and leave you to it. They may not. Make your own case. I’d still suggest clients make their cases properly but, once again, I suggest Cameron and the team read the electorate’s collective view correctly.
  4. Stick to your message. Since neither main party has pulled significantly ahead, we now have Labour claiming to be the party of economic competence and the Conservatives aiming for the workers’ vote. Now, I don’t believe for a moment that the previous caricatured extremes were ever true – but the sudden switching of priorities looks cynical and artificial. If you’re promoting your business and detect a lull in interest, don’t panic and change all your messages – nobody will believe you and your clients are bright enough to know panic when they see it. See above. It’s a gamble and a gamble that paid off for one side and may have been part of the disaster for the other.
  5. Prepare, even if you’re under the impression it’s an interview about stuff you know. The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 had an excruciating interview on Saturday, not with a politician but with a community leader(ish) of a group of American émigrés in Scotland. James Naughtie asked her about comparisons between our current election and the forthcoming US Presidential version; it was clear from the umm-ing, the aah-ing and his attempts to finish sentences – not putting words in her mouth but trying to help – that she’d put no thought or preparation in at all. That didn’t matter this time around, she wasn’t pushing anything or standing for election. However, if you’re ever invited to take part in a media discussion, even if you have only a short time to prepare, you need to make sure you have something to say. Make a point, be memorable – whatever you do, don’t let your first word be “Ummm…….” This remains completely right!

Need media training? Talk to me – check my media training page here or just email or phone 07973 278780.

Know where you’re going in a media interview

Sometimes I ask people a question in an interview and they give me a direct answer, just telling me what I want to know. This is always pleasant and a bit of a surprise. The problem with it from the media training/corporate messaging point of view is that it serves me well but the interviewee doesn’t actually work for me. Their employer might well think that they’ve wasted their time.

Now, I’m not one of these trainers who says “ignore the question and make your point” – we’ll see plenty of that from politicians over the next few weeks and you can already see through it as a technique. People aren’t daft, both interviewer and ultimately reader/listener/viewer will know you’re avoiding questions.

However, in no other business conversation would you have to answer the question and then shut up. This is partly because people don’t think there are special rules in other conversations, but mostly because in every other conversation you have an aim in mind.

Think about outcomes

The same will be true of the best interviews. The person answering the question will of course answer it, but will also make the point that will lead the reader or listener to a desired end point. This might be:

  • Eagerness to buy – the Apple watch is going to be a big hit because Apple is incredibly slick at marketing; they’ll answer questions about the watch but slide in stuff about how neat it looks and how much simpler it will make your life.
  • Willingness to invest: In the right context (we’ll come back to that) someone might want to plant ideas about financial solidity, profit performance, and prime readers that this is where there money should be going.
  • Branding: What, you’re a new company just needing to get your name out there? Fine, but build a few corporate strengths into your messages as well as answering the questions.

You’ll need to make sure you’re talking to the right people, too, which is where the expert advice of a switched-on PR company can be invaluable. Do you want investors? Try to get into the FT (good luck with that), or a paper whose demographic is the high-value individual. Do you want product sales in a local shop? A local paper would be a better bet. Those are obvious examples but you can grade others as you go.

Having an outcome in mind is vital. Only when you know where you’re going will you understand whether you’ve got there or not once the interview has been out there for a while. Know where you’re going and nudge the interview in that direction – you’ve every right to. But don’t do the politician thing of telling us what we should be asking and answering that instead; we, the readers and listeners and anybody else have seen it too many times and will see straight through it.

Need media training or interview sessions? My media training service is here.

How to match PR writing to journalists’ work

People often ask me  how “PR writing” differs from other writing. At base, it doesn’t; both disciplines aim to tell a story as effectively as possible. PR writers simply have to adjust their work to match a journalist’s writing process rather than their end product.

For both journalism and PR, understanding how the audience want to read and comprehend stories is the most important thing.

Any piece of writing should address the audience appropriately and in language they will find acceptable, whether it’s flat-pack furniture instructions or a press release.

  • In PR writing your starting point is to help the journalist. OK, that’s not quite true; you need to work for your client, not us, but the best way to do this is to make our lives simpler.
  • Journalists won’t care about your stories unless they are sure there readers will, so help them by focusing on the needs of their readers first.

Read the rest of this blog on the Henshall Centre’s website by clicking here