It’s the goal of every PR professional to get a good headline. In the case of bad news, the goal is to avoid the cringe-worthy one. The cringe-worthy headline is even worse when it’s a self-inflicted wound, based on an actual quotation.
Take this headline from the Globe and Mail last month, “Canada Post CEO defends delivery cuts, says seniors will get more exercise.” Trying to find the silver lining in a dark cloud of negative news is not a good strategy. The “positive spin” of forcing seniors out of their homes to collect mail from a community box rates an eight out of 10 on the cringe-worthy scale. Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra lost the good headline where the rationale for the decision could have been explained. Instead he was mocked by MP’s at an emergency session of a House of Commons committee for his “mail Participaction”.
It is unlikely you or I will ever be called before a Commons committee, emergency or otherwise, to be grilled by partisan MP’s, but a news conference bears all the same characteristics, especially when you are there to deliver bad news. Reporters can be just as tough as opposition politicians.
Here are my top 10 tips for avoiding the cringe-worthy quote.
1. KISS – Keep it Short and Simple.Because your announcement is “big news,” you feel that you need to hold an hour long news conference so the media gets the full story. Wrong. You need to hold a news conference which is just long enough to give the media what they need for a story, without giving them what they want, which is the negative comment headline. News conference success is measured in messages and not minutes. You don’t have to sit there and take an endless string of questions. In fact, reporters don’t like long news conferences, so you aren’t doing them any favours. Make your opening statement, answer a few questions make a wrap up comment and get out. If you find questions are becoming repetitive, you’ve already stayed too long.
2. Have the news conference professionally moderated. A CEO is at the top for a reason. Unfortunately turning to others for help often isn’t one of them. The stronger the CEO’s personality, the more they usually think they can “handle the media” by themselves. There is a reason politicians have someone run their news conferences. It’s so they can concentrate on providing the best responses to the questions. It is too much to expect one person to answer questions, keep track of who is up next, and not let one reporter dominate the news conference while at the same time judge the mood of the room and decide when it is a good time to wrap up. A moderated news conference stays on track and on topic. Professionals hire professionals to help them.
3. Don’t try to defend the indefensible, express regret instead. When you are delivering bad news, nobody thinks it’s funny. A glib response makes headlines (see above) and shows disrespect to those adversely affected. Present the facts and the reasons you are being forced to take the actions you are taking and the consequences of doing nothing. Don’t try to find the good news spin. It’ll just make you look ridiculous at best, insensitive, elitist and uncaring at the worst and your message will get lost.
4. Make a plan and stick to it. Every news conference needs a plan. It should be laid out minute by minute from when to give media the information (always before you start) through to how long you will speak and how long you set aside for questions. You should know which media members are coming, how they are likely to view the announcement and what questions they will ask.
5. Get media training on your specific announcement with real former reporters. Simulating a rough ride from veteran reporters will pay off. There is no substitute for being prepared and having specific training for your news conference with professionals putting you through your paces. You need to train until you are comfortable with whatever might happen. You should never be surprised by what is asked or how it is asked. But if there is something way off base, being trained how to deal with that scenario will ensure you don’t make the cringe-worthy comment. Again having a moderator there, managing the news conference, is crucial.
6. Practice. Media training is not one time only. There is no substitute for actually practicing it. You should have the team put you through your paces until you are comfortable. And don’t forget a refresher just before you go out to face the media.
7. Run your key messages and Q&A by a real former reporter. It’s like getting a second opinion. You get the fresh set of eyes and a fresh perspective. Remember that reporters are outsiders, so when you bring someone in for another look, they are simulating the reporter experience and are more likely to ask what a reporter will. No matter how thorough you are, I’ll guarantee they’ll find something that could trip you up. It doesn’t mean your communications team has done a bad job. It simply a matter of perspective.
8. Give the media the facts and rationale before you start. To tell your story, the media needs to have your story. The most common mistake that ensures a bad news conference experience and bad news coverage is giving the media the information when it is over. To ask intelligent questions, to understand your point of view, they need the information before you start and in time to digest it all. Then they will concentrate on the highlights you give them during the news conference.
9. Give the media what they need not what they want. What reporters want is enough time to ask questions that will get you to say or do something stupid, which for a reporter is a golden moment. What reporters need is enough information to do a story. That means they need to get only enough time to ask questions that supplement the information you have given them. It’s a lot less time than you think, particularly if you have already given them a clear set of facts. Give them the story you want by giving them only what they need.
10. Stay on script and on message. This is often the hardest step, avoiding message drift. I put it last because everything above leads to this. Doing the other nine steps will naturally help you to stay on script and on message. If you get the urge to go rogue, don’t do it, or you can guarantee what the headline will be. And I’ll have more ammunition for a blog post.