In a recent survey, people were asked what they feared the most. After two obvious responses (their own death and the death of loved ones), the next answer was speaking in public. Yes, for many of us, the thought of having to get up in front of people and making a speech is just about as bad as dying.
Now, imagine having to do it for your business…in front of the media. And, better yet, add in an unexpected crisis or litigation, and then think about speaking in public. For Mitch Leff, of Leff & Associates and J. Mike Moore, Senior Manager of Communications for Emory’s Goizueta Business School, these are the situations they face every day.
From teaching CEOs how to deal with the press in stressful times to providing tips and training on being a better, more polished presenter, Mitch and J.Mike have experienced it all, the good and the bad. On this week’s show, they offer some clear recommendations on how to handle unexpected circumstances.
Don’t Be Afraid To Face the Media
Most of the time, they don’t bite. Mitch recommends putting a comprehensive plan in place to avoid getting into trouble. “I always say that a crisis that’s planned for is a crisis that’s averted.” Leff explains. For him, part of every business leader’s skill set should be the ability to plan for the unexpected and deal with it appropriately. “Very often in the process, you identify issues that you hadn’t thought you’d have,” he adds. For both men, it’s a matter of recognizing the steps that occur when such a situation arises.
It’s about timing, approach, and response, about getting ahead of the story, not behind it. “A classic example is airline disasters; they’ll always have a series of press briefings, every hour, every three hours. And, very often they come back and they say, we still don’t know anything,” Leff observes. Even with little or no information to give out, the seasoned spokespeople are out in front of the public, providing a connection and the necessary communication. If you wait too long, or try and spin the situation differently, you’ll create more harm than good.
Indeed, if you wait too long, you “create a vacuum,” Leff warns. “This leads the media and other audiences to spin their own theories. They will talk to anyone that they can talk to. If you’re not out there giving your message, somebody is going to and you’ll have false narratives,” he states. In a crisis situation, you should be in control – of the flow of information, the answers given, and the way such communications are taken by the media.
Don’t Wait Until You Need Something
Okay, so now that you’re in trouble, Mr. or Ms. CEO, you’re returning my phone calls? For Leff, it’s about treating the local media as another important business network. “We really encourage CEOs to have regular communications with the reporters they want to talk to,” he says. Not necessarily a personal relationship, but one based around the business and each other’s professional capacities. This is because the more comfortable you are with the media, the easier it will be to deal with them come crisis time. “It’s not about getting one story or two stories over a day or a week or a month,” Jeff says, “it’s about creating a relationship that lasts years.”
It’s all about understanding – understanding the needs of the media and the media understanding the needs of the company. And as we said before, it’s making sure that a crisis isn’t the first time you’re dealing with reporters and deadlines. “I think it’s important for CEOs to understand how the media works,” Leff explains.
Always Remember the “P”s
For these experts, it all boils down to a set of communication basics. “If you are an enterprise,” Leff says, “do the planning, be prepared, do the practice…that’s going to be key.” Again, it’s about not making a crisis situation the first time you get ready to address the media. In fact, it should all be part of another “P” – an ongoing process. “It’s knowing how you do radio; it’s different than how you do television, it’s different for how you do print,” Leff says. Moore provides even more insight. “One thing you can do is to think about the kind of crisis you could have and what type of effect the different mediums would have.”
There’s even another “P” to consider – pragmatic concerns. “If snow shuts down all access to your location and the power is off and you can’t get there, how do you manage your crisis…where do you?” Leff says. Where is your staff? Does the new location have power and/or Internet access? This should be the first thing you think about and prepare for, not waiting for when the roads are covered in sheets of thick ice to come up with a solution.
Part of your practice and preparation should be how you speak in front of the camera or microphone. As both experts have pointed out before, you are in control of the communication, and you should be as comfortable as you can be while putting out the company line. There’s a way you can roadmap your response so that you come across as calm, collected, and confident.
Do. Not. Ramble. “Identify the three main points you want to get across,” Moore suggests,” hit those, have good pacing and then say, okay, now, are there any questions.” Indeed, a CEO speaking to the media should always be prepared for a Q&A, even when the answer is a non-answer “We teach executives,” Leff explains, “say what you want to say, give out information, if you don’t know the answer, if there isn’t any information, it’s perfectly fine to say I don’t know yet.”
Remember Your Audience
One of the crucial aspects of any communication during a crisis is assessing what the audience reaction will be and should be. “They want to learn something, or be able to do something differently,” Leff points out, “it’s the same if you’re talking with a board of directors or investors.” It’s about reaching people and thinking two or three steps ahead of them.
And then, there is pivoting. Not avoiding – that’s failing to address or respond to a concern. No, pivoting, as Moore puts it, is about “bringing it back to your key message” and having fun with it. Yes, fun. “Basically, throw everything out there you can,” he continues, ”throw the questions out, throw the wild questions out and try to stump people.” It’s about learning to think on your feet and being prepared for any and all situations that may arise.
It’s also being aware that not every story is worthy of the front page. “We explain to CEOs that they should expect a mix,” Leff states. “You may occasionally get a feature story, but you’re also going to have contributing articles, you’re going to have some paid media, you’re going to have some social media.” By building a solid team full of talented and knowledgeable people, by having an operational plan at the ready and reviewing it consistently, by building a solid connection to the media around you, you will be able to handle anything that comes your way. After all, a crisis planned for is a crisis averted.