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What's the Best Approach When the Headline Is You? Crisis Expert and Author Ansell Outlines Some Deep Concepts Every PR Pro Should Know

Jeff Ansell
Richard Carufel’s exclusive interview this week: Jeff Ansell, founder and principal of media and crisis consulting firm Jeff Ansell and Associates; Author, "When the Headline Is You"

This year alone, poor media management has damaged the reputations of several of the world’s strongest brands including BP, Apple and Toyota. Managing beneficial relationships with the media has never been easy, but in recent years — with the onset and popularity of blogging and other social media tools — it’s become even more difficult.

Media and crisis communications consultant — and former investigative journalist — Jeff Ansell‘s new book "When the Headline Is You" (Wiley) offers a new, values-based model for successfully navigating all types of media encounters and reveals the inside secrets to understanding the media, building credibility, and developing persuasive communication skills. The framework described in the book offers executives, leaders and communications pros practical tools and step-by-step messaging formulae needed to address problematic issues in an open and responsive.

Here, Ansell offers some of the book’s key messages for PR professionals, touching on everything from social media’s impact on crisis handling and the value of media training to how many of the concepts in his book can be used to great effect by communicators who have their backs to the wall:

Do you think that skillful PR messaging can always smooth out a tough crisis situation?

It’s not a matter of PR messaging smoothing out a situation, but their words should reflect a genuine heartfelt concern for the situation. People don’t trust smooth messaging, so PR people must reflect a genuineness and authenticity. The last thing consumers want to see is a rehearsed, insincere message.

In the book, you describe a built-in adversarial relationship between the press and newsmakers. Has social media made this worse? How does it change a PR person’s job?

Social media represents a game changer for PR, a whole new playing field. With social media, anyone wearing sweat pants in their basement can become a journalist. Like Matt Drudge says, "We’re all newsmen now."

Bloggers answer to no one, they’re not accountable to any rules, and there are no checks and balances for blogged stories. Its tougher for companies because they not only need to be mindful of traditional media like they always have been, but now also social media, and they must consistently monitor what’s being said there.

Can you give an example of a company’s poor handling of a crisis situation — and how could it have been improved?

Jamba Juice was accused on the Consumerist blog of having dairy in their nondairy products. The Consumerist blogged about it, but the information was wrong. The blog corrected it, but Jamba Juice itself never put anything on its own blog about the mistake. That’s a huge mistake in this media environment. Only a small percentage of people who saw the original news will also see a correction anyway, so you have to do all you can to make the right information visible.

I had a news director in radio, and instead of "No sooner said than done," he always said, "No sooner done than said." That’s even more the case these days.

Another interesting concept in the book is the value compass, which is a tool that can help companies prepare for these circumstances. How might BP, for example, have salvaged its reputation during its crisis? The damage had clearly been done, and their CEO clearly made things worse with his callous comments. How might things have played out if Hayward had said all the right things, and what would those things have been?

The problem with BP is that its situation was an operational crisis. The value compass asks you to determine the emotional state of victims, so BP might have committed to fix the problem and more carefully considered stakeholders’ concerns. Tony Hayward missed this on both points.

Good PR obviously wouldn’t have fixed things outright, but Americans have a real sense of forgiveness when a company like this shows some feeling and remorse. Is the CEO the best person to put forth to relay that feeling? Sometimes he is, but he must have the goods to deliver, and Hayward was missing the goods.

The book offers a great example of a pharmaceuticals company that developed an expensive cancer cure that a reporter felt was exploiting victims, and it was very telling about how the media will try to — and can — twist messages around. Is there any way a PR person can quell that kind of situation when the reporter appears to have his mind made up about where he wants to go with the story?

It’s not a matter of reporters twisting your words — they can report them just as you say them and cut you off at the knees. You can control the policy and the communications, how you get the message across, but you can’t control the media — what she or he will ask, or how they frame a story.

News is made up of drama, conflict, controversy, emotion and irony. Reporters stereotype and cast characters to tell the story. If you look at a story like BP, it’s easy to assign these roles. You have the victims — those who died, as well as the environment. The villain was BP; the hero could be the media, the regulators, or anyone trying to bring out the truth. There are the witnesses — those who saw the situation unfolding and warned of the dangers. There’s the expert, who describes how rigs should be built, what the consequences are to faulty construction and so on. Then there’s the "village idiot," who constantly buggered things up and makes an even bigger mess, and that was Tony Hayward.

It’s easy for someone in a CEO position like Tony Hayward to become defensive and argumentative. They are not used to being talked to in the manner that a reporter will talk to them. No one would speak to Hayward like a reporter would — the people he knows and works with tiptoe around him in conversations. A reporter’s approach throws a lot of CEOs, who aren’t used to it.

Do you think the public is to any degree forgiving when a spokeperson comes out and says, "I said the wrong thing before. I was nervous and the reporter was on the attack." Or does this just make matters worse?

The spokesperson can have a second chance to make an impression with the public, but just know that there’s very little sympathy in most of these situations, especially if you come out and say your comments were taken out of context. Spokespeople confuse that with being edited. The fact is, you’re only as good as your worst quote. If a spokesperson projects likeability, that helps. When you meet someone for the first time, you instinctively ask yourself if you will like and trust this person. If a spokesperson can project that kind of trust, then that helps.

When I was a reporter and had to interview a CEO accused of wrongdoing, and they were respectful and nice, I’d be inclined to cut them more slack than I normally might, but if that CEO is cold, unresponsive and adversarial, then I’m going after him with everything I’ve got. That’s just human nature.

Another great piece in the book described when Steve Jobs appeared on cable news and asked the interviewer not to ask him about Apple’s CEO hunt at the time, and then stormed off the set while on the air when the reporter brought it up. Was Jobs just being naïve to think the subject wouldn’t come up? Is walking off the set like he did the worst thing you can do? Worse than saying the wrong thing?

Walking off the set can be as bad as saying the wrong thing. In Steve Jobs’ case, it wasn’t a matter of him being naïve, although that was certainly part of it — it comes back to him thinking, "I’m Steve Jobs and when I talk, you listen." A reporter has no obligation to respect that. He waved a red flag and invited the topic by asking the reporter not to bring it up. Jobs could have just said, "We’re committed to finding the right person," but he got so put off by the reporter’s audacity that he couldn’t process it.

Saying "no comment" has always been the equivalent of blood in the water for the media sharks. Why is this strategy used so often? Does it ever work?

"No comment" never works. It’s used so often because people see it in the movies and on TV — only guilty people on "60 Minutes" say "no comment," usually with sweat running down their foreheads. If you can’t answer a question, just say why — it’s proprietary information, there’s a legal issue that forbids you to discuss it, etc. "No comment" looks like you’re trying to hide something, and that’s never good.

Does "off the record" ever work anymore? Did it
ever? Are journalists under some kind of mandate to honor a code in this regard?

Spokespeople think there’s a law about how reporters have to honor comments that are "off the record." That’s bogus. Don’t ever say anything off the record that you wouldn’t say on the record. And if you want your comments to be off the record, don’t spill your guts first and ask for those comments to be off the record afterwards.

As a reporter, I had many relationships where off-the-record comments were used. But those sources knew me and knew I could be trusted. If you’re ever not sure about the relationship, the rule is simple — when in doubt, leave it out.

How important is body language in a broadcast interview? How much mileage can you really get out of body language — whether you’re saying the right things or not?

Body language has to be congruent with the message being delivered. When someone says something, 55% of the way it’s interpreted comes through visually, and 38% comes from how it sounds. I think the words have to be bang on, but the real goal is to get the visual, vocal and verbal elements on the same page. If you want to look like you mean what you say, your body language and tone of voice has to match what you’re saying.

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