Friday, November 12, 2010

PRSA Philadelphia Event With Jeff Ansell – When The Headline Is You

Posted by Amanda Walsh

My colleague, Leah Ludwig and I had the opportunity to attend a PRSA Philadelphia chapter luncheon yesterday where Jeff Ansell, award-winning journalist, crisis communications veteran, and author of "When the Headline is YOU: An Insider's Guide to Handling the Media," presented insights and tips for crisis communications.  Leah and I enjoyed the event and wanted to pass along some takeaways to help you and your media training efforts BEFORE a crisis occurs.

Ansell discussed many points including the state of journalism today, why the media training model is broken and tips for facing bad news head-on.

The State of Journalism Today
The fact is that many journalists today are working with less time and resources. They need to tell the story the easiest and fastest way possible.  Today’s news has taken a turn toward sensationalism and emphasis has been brought away from thoughtful, public policy. Ansell comments that often it’s easy to cast characters and find the “village idiot.” We want to avoid having our spokesperson cast as that character.

Why the Media Training Model is Broken
Communicating with the news media can seem like “learning a new language,” so it’s important to train a spokesperson accordingly. Before, media training was all about communicating positive key messages or ignoring tough reporter questions – today we know that this is not always the best way to handle a crisis. If you’re not addressing their tough questions someone else may. The result? Your company loses control of the message and things typically start to spiral downward from there.

“You’re only as good as your worst quote” 
We’ve all seen it happen – the media frenzy that can make or break a company’s reputation and ultimately ruin their bottom line. Ansell notes the BP crisis as an example and the famous, “I’d like my life back” quote from BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward. 

Ways to avoid these gaffes:
1. Breathe.  The first reaction many spokespeople experience is holding their breath in a stressful situation. Breathing will help blood flow to the brain and increase clear thinking.

2. Acknowledge the problem. Pretending not to hear a question will not make it go away. Nor will repeating positive key messages help resolve the situation.

3. Frame the Story. It all boils down to how the story is framed. Ansell shares a story of two priests who are speaking with a monsignor. One says, “Father, may I smoke while I pray?” to which the monsignor replies, “of course not!” The other priest tries, “Father, may I pray while I smoke?” and his answer is, “Of course, my son.” A-ha!

4. Emotion Always Wins over Fact.  You can offer all the facts in the world in the face of a bad news story, but emotion will always win. Sometimes it’s ok to be honest and address the situation for what it is. When concern is high and trust is low, don’t shy away from using the negative words that traditional media training warns against using at all costs.

One of my favorite points of Ansell’s talk was that often times in the middle of a media frenzy, a CEO begins to only listen to the lawyer and the accountant. In order to effectively media train, it is important to get the lawyer’s buy in. Furia Rubel has a unique niche in this market because our CEO/President, Gina F. Rubel is a public relations and marketing expert AND a lawyer.

Ansell talked about a value compass and how to get to the root of the company’s values.  Meeting with decision makers and getting them to say out loud, what are we made of? What does our company stand for? Some examples of value words include caring, concerned, accountable, or maintaining high quality standards. Take into account how the stakeholders feel and how the company can enhance their well-being. Gaining buy in from all parties will result in proper training and provide opportunities to cultivate quality answers to tough questions.

To read more about this topic, check out Ansell’s book, When the Headline is YOU: An Insider's Guide to Handling the Media.

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