“I am not a crook.”
You don’t have to be a baby boomer to know who in U.S. history uttered those words. And while only birds were tweeting at the time, President Richard Nixon’s infamous declaration in 1973 was covered and analyzed by every major news organization and political talk show. If anyone was giving the president the benefit of the doubt before the remark, the word “crook” hanging in the air like a noose probably flipped the verdict.
This turning point also provided a painful but important lesson in crisis management: When in crisis mode, don’t serve up a negative image with a cherry on top.
Crisis communication consultants tend to get called in after the bomb explodes, but crisis media training is an exercise that should take place before disaster strikes. Every company, corporation, politician and public figure should engage a crisis communications coach who can impart the do’s and don’ts when you are forced into a harsh and hostile spotlight. Stress, pressure and the weight of consequences that hinge on whether you say the exact right words, can change a usually cool interviewee into an anxious, stammering talking head.
Don’t let that be you. Be prepared.
Tip #1: Do Your Homework
Before going under the knife, you would likely want to know your surgeon’s reputation and track record on the procedure. The same applies for the reporter scheduled to interview you in a crisis situation. Research his past stories. Is he fair? What does she tend to write about? Is she on a crusade or objective? Can you identify a pattern in the reporter’s thinking and style of reporting? These details are significant and can help you better prepare and anticipate how the interview might go.
Tip #2: Focus on 3 Main Messages
How do you keep a tough interview from veering into uncharted territory? Think of the three major points that you need to get across. These are your key messages that you want everyone out there to understand. Commit them to memory—remember; this is the bulk of what you are trying to convey. These are the key points you will want to bridge back to regardless of the questions you are asked and they will help you take control of an interview that could start to veer off in a negative direction.
Tip #3: Avoid Traps
Even the best prepared interviewee can get caught off guard by interview tactics designed to fluster, intimidate, or coax a specific sound bite. Here are a few traps we’ve seen over the years that can be avoided by knowing the signs:
- Negative Words: You may hear the reporter use negative words when phrasing a question (“So, your company is not socially responsible because of what happened.”) Don’t fall for it. Turn it around: “My company is socially responsible because of x, this situation has come about because of y.”
- False Information: If you hear a reporter using false information in the interview, don’t ignore it. Speak up and provide the correct information. Don’t let her put words in your mouth. Period. Remember, this is not just the integrity of your company at stake but your character as well. Respond with the correct information and bridge to your three main messages.
- Instigation: Sometimes reporters will intentionally fluster their subjects in order to get them off kilter and perhaps say something damaging. A person who is stammering and looking confused or anxious doesn’t come across as being honest. But this is not the time to lose your temper. Again, use bridging language to get your points across. Avoid negative words and words that suggest wrong doing—such as despicable, overwhelming, disaster, etc.
- Open Mic: I think we’ve all seen and heard enough replays of the “open mic gaffes” when lewd, rude or otherwise inappropriate comments are “whispered” near an open mic and the entire world ends up being privy to the secret. If conducting a television interview, you will likely be suited with a wireless microphone. Sometimes, it will be turned on even before the interview begins, or even kept on after a reporter is finished. Avoid saying anything regarding the interview topic while the interview isn’t in progress or even making small talk while your microphone is on. It is fair game and you don’t want to be the bullseye.
Tip #4: Maintain a Professional Physical Stature
Don’t fiddle with your hair, wipe your upper lip or tug at your sleeves. Sit up or stand straight and don’t shift your feet. You want to appear assured and comfortable while you are giving your answers with conviction. If making a point, don’t hesitate to use hand gestures. If you are talking about something positive, be enthusiastic, even smile. If you are delivering a very serious point, pause and say, “And here’s what is really important….” and then continue. Always make eye contact with the reporter. Don’t look up or down or sideways. This is a conversation and you are trying to persuade the audience you are telling the truth. Try to establish a presence on the set before your accuser. Come across as confident but not arrogant and it will be easier to win the match.
Remember: People in the public eye are more susceptible to feeling the heat now and then. Stay cool and confident under fire and the flames may die down quicker.