|The Art of the Interview: Advocates, Politics, Simplicity, and Honesty|
|By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.|
Beyond “O My Gawd” Interviews
The rest of this chapter focuses on basic characteristics of day-to-day interactions. While everything in this chapter is interchangeable, it seems simpler to address prepared interviews separately. For day-to-day interviews, you have a good understanding of the characteristics of your organization. You are aware of your policies, research operations, legal issues and the preferences of leadership. You also have a decent awareness of your detractors and the reasons behind their concerns. You are knowledgeable of your lines of communication. Media inquiries are expected and understood. In this scenario, little takes you by surprise.
Being Understood, Being Direct
Every time you create your primary communication objectives, try to think of your audience. When I’m creating answers to potential questions, I run them by my wife and trusted friends. I do this because I want to know how the average person is going to respond to my answers. I want to communicate to a very general audience, the same audience that the reporter also wants to influence. If my communication objectives do not resonate well with the general public (they sound like a pompous bureaucrat), then a reporter and the public may see this as an insincere response.
The public is suspicious of bureaucrats or corporate officials and their vague and technical answers. My goal is to respond in a way that can be clearly understood. I am not going to resort to jargon or legalese. Reporters and the public do not appreciate, nor will they accept, purposefully vague answers especially when their questions pertain to personal or public safety. You need to have basic themes in your arsenal of answers that honestly defend your position and resonate well with everyone.
I am going to contradict myself somewhat and suggest that there are times when vague responses are appropriate, depending on the accuser, reporter, or audience. There are stories that hit like hurricanes, and all you can do is hang on and see what unfolds over the course of days or weeks.
If you are debating someone who is employing unfair tactics, then I believe that it is ethical to respond “carefully.” Advocates are known to “advocate,” and to some of us, this means that their assertions are less than honest. Talk show hosts can be unfair. Reporters can be biased. Sometimes, the question is so general that it’s impossible to respond directly. There are times when the story becomes so intense, and the accusations so strong, that you are uncertain of what to do.
I’m not suggesting that you engage reporters in battle. I am saying that there are times when generalities can be a useful part of your strategy. For example, you could be asked about a mildly embarrassing but wildly exaggerated event brought forward by an advocacy group. The group has handpicked the reporter because she shares their views. Rather than respond directly, you might say, “Well, based on a preliminary review, the charges seem unfounded, but we are very concerned about the issue, and I can assure you that we are looking into it.” Your quote is not going to stop the report, but you probably avoided a dispute over details that have the potential for providing additional coverage.
Please remember that fair questions deserve equitable answers. However, there is no obligation to respond directly to questions that are purely self-serving or ridiculously general. Smile and be polite in response, but generalities are sometimes necessary.
If you are debating issues with advocates during a talk show, and they are deliberately unfair, you are not obligated to comply. Remember, they are trying to get your organization to do something. That is their only objective. If they have to “stretch the truth” to do it, they will. Here is where your communication objectives play an important role. Stick to them. If asked about your factory dumping thousands of gallons of raw sewage into a stream and it was only fifty gallons that you promptly took responsibility for and initiated an immediate cleanup, you are not obligated to participate in an unfair debate.
The purpose of the advocates is to enact additional laws to protect the environment. It’s a noble purpose but not at your public relations expense. They are trying to make an emotional point that resonates with the public’s suspicion of corporations. If it’s a stretch of the facts, then so be it. They believe that the end justifies the means. If you quickly point out that it was fifty gallons and what you did to rectify the situation, they will insist that it was much more than that and therefore your response was inadequate. They know that the public has no way of knowing the truth. The host may know that your accuser is wrong, but he will insist that it’s not his job to take sides.
I would state the truth, but I would suggest an immediate launch into everything your corporation is doing to protect the environment. “We are committed to the environment!” you insist. “We spent over ten million dollars last year retrofitting smoke stacks to produce clean air,” you assert. You then continue to focus on what you want to talk about rather than give in to blatant unfairness. Politely but firmly stick to your communication objectives. Take control of the interview. Choose the moral high ground by insisting that you and your organization are staunch supporters of environmental issues.
I do not advocate vagueness or combat for the vast majority of questions or interviews. Yes, I realize that it is easy for bureaucrats to read unfairness into a question and automatically lapse into generalities. Yes, politicians use this tactic all the time and get away with it.
Politicians Can Stretch the Truth, But We Cannot
Politicians love “intangibles,” which are “themes” without specifics. They will stick to the big picture, especially during campaigns. As spokespeople, we need to recognize that there are different rules for politicians and us. Reporters know that they can be full of “hooey,” but they expect this. Political campaigns are filled to the brim with assertions that resonate with the public but are misleading. They will promise the sun, the moon, and the stars but promise not to raise taxes. It’s impossible to do any of this, but in that world, it’s acceptable behavior.
The media will try to substantiate or deny many of these claims, but political advertising can be overwhelming. Say anything often enough and it has a way of sticking. Society accepts this as standard operating procedure.
While some spokespeople admire the aggressiveness of politics, we should not be confused over what they can do (and get away with) and what we can do. But there are times when circumstances dictate general responses. Having your communication objectives in place and knowing when to be direct or evasive are sometimes necessary for survival. Like everything else in this business, it’s a matter of context.
But I repeat that honesty, simplicity, and directness will save you most of the time. Envious of politicians? Then join them. But they can do what you cannot.
The Straightforward Approach Is Best
Handling media under difficult circumstances is part art and part common sense. There will be many within your organization or from the home office that will encourage you to use a variety of strategies that would make Machiavelli proud. Examples include offering the response hours after deadline (or not returning the call at all) in the hope that the reporter will lose interest. Another includes the insistence that the journalists read a complicated court decision or a very technical document as the sole method of response. A third may include the suggestion that you simply lose the reporter’s requests and blame it on the demands of the day.
All of these suggestions range from silly to dangerous. Most reporters are fair-minded individuals who simply want to do a job ethically and without unnecessary effort (with emphasis on unnecessary). If reporters begin to feel that you are purposely “screwing” with them, then your goose is cooked.
Reporters talk to each other within the same newsroom and within the same market. It will not take long for them to come to a consensus regarding you and the organization you represent. If they believe that you are purposely trying to make life more difficult than it has to be, then you will find that your organization will be targeted for some nasty media. It amazes veteran spokespeople that some will advocate a disingenuous approach yet complain bitterly about the result.
A great example of this is the term “spin.” I often have individuals ask me how I intend to spin the story. They assume that I’m devious enough to know how to create a message that changes the story. I constantly hear about “spin doctors” and consultants for corporations and major political organizations who are responsible for the “spin of the day.” All of this suggests that we can control the media through what we say and how often it is said.
Most of us are not major political organizations with millions of dollars to spend on advertising. We’re not multinational corporations buying up advertising space during the Super Bowl who get to tell a story in the way they prefer. For the vast majority of us, all we have is our credibility and reputations, and I have yet to see any organization “spin” its way out of an intensely negative story. If our reputations for honesty and fairness precede us, we have the power to influence. If we are trusted, we can deny negatives. “Spin” infers a power that no one has, and even if “spinning” was successful for an incident or two, sooner or later it will backfire.
I like to use “sound bite” because it conveys to my co-workers the desire to take complicated issues and break them down into simple and understandable phrases. I’m not being devious; I’m being clear and concise. There is a huge difference.
The longest any response should be during an “on the record” electronic interview is twenty seconds (half that is preferable). Breaking your thoughts down into ten to twenty-second bites is useful in answering questions during any public engagement.
Abraham Lincoln had a simple yet direct strategy during his delivery of the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln followed a world-renowned speaker whose speech lasted hours. Lincoln’s address lasted minutes. No one remembers what his predecessor said. The world celebrates Lincoln’s address. Emulate Lincoln, and you will do just fine.
Simplicity Is Next to Godliness
Lincoln was also known for his plain speaking approach to dealing with practically any subject. Lincoln knew how to communicate; he was honest, direct, and to the point. He was also a very effective storyteller. Yes, even Abraham Lincoln had his communication objectives and hammered away at them at every possibility. Lincoln also had his fair share of complaints about the newspapers of the time. To Lincoln (and to all of us) simplicity is next to godliness. Keep your statements and communication objectives clean, simple, honest, and direct, and deliver them in like fashion.
There really isn’t a creative or strategic approach in dealing with the media. We cannot fool them forever. The straightforward method is best. The most effective strategy is being helpful, friendly, and knowledgeable and communicating in a direct and simple style. Some aspects of media relations have no mystery. You try a simple and direct approach and ordinarily the media will try to be fair in return. It does not have to be any more complicated than that.
Reprinted with permission from http://www.leonardsipes.com/.
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Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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