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TODD SMITH'S THE SPIN CYCLE: Media Tips, Crisis Communications & Negative Press, Oh My!

Todd Smith

Todd Smith

As a former journalist, avid writer and lover of well-crafted turns of phrase, I spend a lot of time at our shop coaching, advising and strategizing with companies and organizations on how to come out on top while navigating the pitfalls of tough interviews, simmering crises and negative news.

At Deane, Smith & Partners, we have a team of creative communicators who advance these principles each day. In our fast-paced, interactive world, it is critical that you — and your brand — are prepared well in advance of lurking crisis that can sink your reputation, or at the very least put a serious dent in your identity.

So, now, the Spin Cycle’s media training 101 is in session. When you or someone from you company is preparing for a media interview, here are the top 10 things to consider as you talk to a reporter:

1. Take control of the interview! While reporters may have a great deal of general knowledge it’s highly unlikely they know as much about your subject as you do. Always go into an interview with the goal of emerging as a subject or industry expert — and leaving as a thought leader. Always give the reporter some background, snapshot or anecdote of the issue, trend, service or product.

2. Be alert and friendly. Maintain a friendly, helpful attitude, regardless of the reporter’s approach, bias or slant. If you provide useful and interesting information, everyone’s needs will be met — and you will solidify your relationship with the reporter.

3. Flag your messaging. Enter the interview with two or three strong messages you want to see in print, broadcast, online or posted socially. Hone them to 12 words or less. Mention your key points at the beginning of the interview, and make sure to refer to them at least twice — or more if possible. When a negative line of questioning hits, you’ll always have these in your back pocket. Call attention to your messaging by using signal phrases such as “What’s important here …”, or “we see a trend developing toward …” or “what I like …”

4. Pause before answering. Give yourself a moment to think before responding to a question. Make sure you know what you want to say and give a solid answer, always.

5. Stay on track. Avoid rambling. If you drift, pause, then refocus the reporter. Use comments like “what is really important here …” or “the point I want to make is …” and then bridge back to one of your key messages.

6. Don’t go off the record. This is a common mistake, and quite frankly, old school. Remember, anything you say — especially evidenced in social media missteps — can, and will, be used against you in the court of public opinion.

7. Don’t repeat a negative — ever! Take the high road, and travel across the bridge to you key message points. If a reporter badgers you on a point, continue restating the messages, and eventually they will move on. Remember, it may sound awkward during an interview, but when it’s distilled into a sound bite for the evening news or story snippet for the daily paper, the message rings through loud and clear.

8. Always look for the bridge. It’s your lifeline in stormy waters. See No. 7. Remember, the bridge takes you across canyons of negativity, around baseless bias and prickly pejoratives and over rigid, rocky reputation obstacles.

9. The interview is not over until you stop talking. Often, the toughest questions come near the end of the session or a time after the potentially hazardous subject was discussed. Always be prepared — like the good Boy Scout — for these traps, a casual question lobbed after the interview is presumably over. Anything you say is fair game.

10. Know your interviewer | know your audience. In life, it always serves you well to know the background of the person you are meeting. Media imitates life. It’s never impolite to ask their affiliation. In impromptu interviews, especially, it will decipher between activists with an attitude and truly balanced, objective journalists.

Now that you have a dose of media training, it’s time to shift into crisis communications mode. Is your organization prepared for a communications crisis? Does the plan include social media? When was the last time the plan was reviewed or updated? Have staff been trained and drilled on the crisis communications plan?

If you answered “no,” then it’s time to pull out the crisis communications plan, review it and live it. If you don’t have a plan, you must build one. Now.

The likelihood of an organization experiencing some sort of public relations crisis, such as an attack on reputation or an event that disrupts business operations always looms. Add social media and the risk rises drastically.

A crisis communications plan is part of an organization’s risk management plan. During a crisis, a company will not have time to figure out how to communicate with staff and the public while conveying important information.


The Building Blocks of a Crisis Communications Plan

So what are the essential bricks in the foundation of a strong crisis communications plan?

People: You need a well-trained crisis response team made up of business-critical people. The team shouldn’t be just made-up of executives. You need staff that understands the situation at hand. They must be media trained, and able to speak fluently — and intelligently — on behalf of the company.

Monitoring: An organization has to be listening at all times. Because of the speed of social media and how quickly a crisis could evolve, it’s mandatory that monitoring systems be in place. Fortunately, there are valuable platforms available for monitoring social channels.

Scenarios: To be fully prepared for a crisis, you must to be vigilant with all possible scenarios facing your brand. Anticipate scenarios using a SWOT analysis. You need to understand your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as the threats to it. No scenario should be discredited. Any crisis moments are within the realm of possibility, regardless of how far-fetched they may seem. This is a time to be really honest as an organization.

Statements: Having holding statements and solid developed around scenarios will buy you the time you need when a crisis is breaking. Holding statements bridge the gap from the initial crisis breaks to when you can deliver more concrete information and situational analysis. Statements should be prepared for all channels, including social media platforms, and be pre-approved by executives and legal before a crisis strikes.

Notification: Getting information out during a crisis is important, and notification systems are critical to getting information out quickly. Websites, phone calls, text messages, e-mails, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and traditional media are all important channels — and a multichannel effort works best.

Preparation is key.


Navigating Negative News (N3)

The way you handle a negative story can make a world of difference when a crisis arises. Here’s how to respond without fanning the flames.

Always respond. Don’t run. Don’t hide. In many cases, a lack of response will be seen as a validation of the criticisms, or at best, an information vacuum. The sooner the response, the easier it is to control the situation. Yet, a speedy reaction is often difficult. In a high-stakes situation where the facts are unclear, say so, but refute any untruths, and pledge to march out the supporting information quickly.

Don’t dignify baseless rumors. One exception is the case of an unsubstantiated rumor, where you risk calling more attention to it by responding. The same is true of an Internet troll. In that case, let the community handle blatant misbehavior, foul language, or abusive comments. Remember, if you must respond, a well-crafted statement such as “these accusations are meritless” goes a long way toward establishing credibility and paving the road to a better reputation.

Let your advocates defend you. If you have trusted clients or customers willing to comment in your defense, let them. The essence of reputation is what others say about you in public, so third parties, even those who are not 100 percent objective, are your allies. Remember the golden rule of reputation preservation — an unsolicited third party endorsement is better than any advertising.

Don’t overreact. It’s natural to feel emotional or even use defensive language when attacked, particularly if things get personal. If you can’t be objective (and it’s hard when it’s your business), seek objective advice.

Ask for equal time. Most legitimate news sources will give you the opportunity to refute a questionable story. Where facts or details are wrong, your smartest approach is to calmly — and methodically — insist on setting the record straight. Don’t threaten or bully; rather appeal to the journalist’s desire for accuracy. No one wants to get it wrong.

Use objective facts and figures. A convincing response is usually one that uses statistics or objective facts and cites sources. Where possible, quote third parties. Corporate recognition, ratings, and recommendations can be useful in making your case.

If at fault, apologize. If your organization has made a mistake, admit it and offer a prompt and sincere apology. Avoid weaselly or legalistic language. Take responsibility. Then, take steps to fix the situation or make amends.

Look for the opportunities. Public criticism can be a gift in disguise. Think about whether it could be an opportunity to remedy a problem or improve your business offering. If appropriate, thank your critics and take advantage of the opening to tout the fix.


Vodka Stained Mic | Vladimir Putin

It was Spin Cycle’s worst highlight of the Winter Olympics thus far. In a sloppy attempt at international sports détente, Russian President Vladimir Putin dropped in on U.S. Olympic headquarters to chat about the Winter Games and the upcoming Russia-U.S. hockey showdown. He even wore a red “Happy Valentine’s Day from Team USA” pin on his lapel. Talk about international groveling! Perhaps Putin was aiming to be a hospitable host, but unfortunately he came across as a curler who had one too many shots of potato juice.

» Todd Smith is president and chief communications officer of Deane, Smith & Partners, a full-service branding, PR, marketing and advertising firm with offices in Jackson. The firm — based in Nashville, Tenn. — is also affiliated with Mad Genius. Contact him at todd@deanesmithpartners.com, and follow him @spinsurgeon.



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About Ross Reily

Ross Reily is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. He is a husband to an amazing wife, dad to 3 crazy kids and 2 dogs. He is also a fan of the Delta State Fighting Okra and the Boston Red Sox.

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