Nothing But The Truth

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It’s nearly as bad as it gets: a staffer falls to ground from a 15-foot platform. His lanyard, still attached to his harness, has a broken carabiner on it.

Think you know what happened? Fact is, you don’t. All you know is that you’ve got an injured employee and a piece of equipment that failed. Among the things you don’t know: whether the equipment failure was the cause of the accident, or a result of it. If the former, you don’t know WHY the equipment failed. A manufacturing defect, perhaps? Lax inspection procedures? Improper use on the part of your staff? There are almost certainly other possibilities.

It’s at this juncture that two important courts should come to mind: the court of law, in that litigation is almost certain, and the court of public opinion. Truthful answers are needed for both, but the legal circus will arrive in its own time. You can expect the press, which presides over the court of public opinion, to show up five minutes ago. They’ll want answers.

Never Say “No Comment”

What’s your reaction when you see a news story and a source says, “no comment”? If you’re like most people, you probably think they might as well have said “guilty as charged.”

Reporters think that, too. “No comment” is an ineffective way of refusing to answer a question. When sources don’t want to answer, it raises suspicions—and can make reporters even more aggressive.

Four essential tools. But you can take entire lines of questions off the table. When I teach organizational spokespersons how to work with reporters, I provide them with four essential tools for managing interviews. Those tools are:

  • “Must Air Points” (things the spokesperson must express during the interview.)
  • The “Perfect Quote” (a quote you create ahead of time that’s too good not to use, lest the reporter extract a quote from something else you said.)
  • The Clock (you control how much time you give the reporter, not the other way around.)
  • “Cans and Can’ts” (these set and manage expectations.)

Set Limits

The Cans and Can’ts are the most valuable in staying away from questions and answers that could get you into trouble. You need to establish them before giving the reporter your first answer. If the reporter asks you a question before you state them, simply say, “Bob, I’m happy to answer your questions to the extent that I can. But before we begin, please understand there are some things that I CAN talk about, and some things that I CAN’T. Here’s what they are.”

In the case of our earlier-stated hypothetical, you might say “One of the things I can’t talk about is what caused this accident. We simply don’t know, and the investigation and forensic analysis is likely to take months.”

And this is absolutely true. In addition to your own internal incident analysis, it’s likely that local law enforcement and an accident investigator from your insurance company or an independent will analyze the situation. That takes time.

Further, the broken carabiner will require forensic metallurgical analysis. That takes a while, too, and by the time the answers come back, it’s highly likely that the news media will have moved on to other, more current stories. So, effectively, you’ve removed causal questions from the interview and still told the truth.

Can/Can’t use cases. What other sorts of things can you use Cans and Can’ts for?

  • You can tell the reporter you’re going to stick to the things you know and won’t answer speculative questions.
  • You can exclude things like subjective information related to employees. Performance reviews are invariably subjective, so you can (we’d argue should, if you haven’t already) set organizational policy such that HR records are off the table when it comes to reporters. If you establish such a policy, by the way, do it before anything happens—and stick with it. Not discussing employee performance should be thought of the same way you think of giving references for ex-employees: when the employee was hired, when they left, and whether you’d rehire that individual.
  • You can use objective information to describe employees, should you choose to do so: “All of our front-line employees are seasonal hires. If they’re not at least meeting our expectations, they’re not invited back. Sally has worked with us for 10 years.” By using purely objective information, you’ve painted a picture of Sally as a satisfactory employee without using any subjective descriptions.

Keep your rationale logical. The important thing to remember about Cans and Can’ts is that your rationale for not addressing a given set of questions must be logical and must make sense to the reporter. The reporter may not like it, but that’s their problem, not yours.

Further, they may go ahead and ask an off-the-table question anyway, but you can simply remind them that the question is one you can’t answer, and remind them of the reason.

You shouldn’t use Cans and Can’ts just because a given line of questions makes you uncomfortable; uncomfortable questions are likely after a bad event. That calls for a second tactic.

Map It Out in Advance

One of the core elements of in-depth media training is learning how to anticipate questions before they’re asked. When I’m training spokespeople, we spend a lot of time developing this skill (My media training process is a minimum of eight hours per trainee.).

That level of training and practice is beyond our scope here, but you can—and should—have a pretty good understanding of what you’ll be asked prior to starting an interview. Here’s a way to think about it:

Who’s the audience? Every incident touches different groups of people. I call them “stakeholder groups.” In our hypothetical, some of the stakeholder groups should be obvious. First, there’s the injured employee and the employee’s family and friends. Then, there’s other members of your team. Beyond that, there are regulatory bodies, law enforcement, competitors and peers in the industry, trade associations, social media followers, chambers of commerce/tourism bureaus, and so on. Finally, we have the general public, which loves to cluck its tongue.

Each stakeholder group may have different reasons for being interested in the story. So, before going into interviews, identify 1) who the stakeholder groups are, and 2) what each group likely wants to know. That’s because the reporter’s job is to ask you the questions that stakeholders would ask if they had access to you.

In essence, the reporter is a conduit between the stakeholder groups and the organization. So if we can figure out what the various interested stakeholders want to know, we can do a reasonable job of anticipating what a reporter will ask.

Make yourself comfortable. Some of those questions are likely to be uncomfortable. But if you can anticipate them, you can generally script your answers in ways with which you are comfortable—and that can make all the difference.

And remember: gaining a full understanding of major events usually takes time. You can often defer even uncomfortable questions by saying, “That’s something we don’t know yet, and may not for a while.”

Don’t Forget Your Lawyer

The last person you want present during a media encounter is your attorney. The reporter will instantly suss out who that individual is, and that won’t make the interview go more smoothly.

Still, I recommend finding legal counsel before anything happens, in order to help map out your communications strategies in advance. If you can get their agreement to review your materials prior to talking with reporters, so much the better. But that may not always be possible, so I recommend getting their agreement in principle on strategies, rather than individual tactics.

Should you have an incident with a high likelihood of litigation, your insurance company will most likely assign a defense attorney to you, and you may not know who that is until days, even weeks, after the incident. So they may not be in a position to help you coming out of the gate. But you probably have an ongoing relationship with an attorney who helps you with other matters—such as incorporation, permitting, etc. That attorney can most likely refer you to a colleague with whom you can discuss communications strategies. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with several attorneys with knowledge of the active outdoors space who understand the communications challenges that come with major incidents.

By the way: many general liability policies in the active outdoors space include first-dollar coverage for communications support in the immediate aftermath of an event. Check with your broker to see if yours does; it can mean the difference between writing a check to a communications consultant or having it paid for. And it’s also a good idea to have a solid emergency communications plan in place, including spokesperson training.

With that said, however, you can tell reporters the truth after a major event—without making your situation worse—by using a few simple tools: question anticipation, answer preparation, and Cans and Can’ts.

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