The medium is the message.
— Marshall McLuhan
And the reporter's are your messengers. Letting the media tell your story, or at least your side of it, is the best way to make the most of limited resources. Think of all the writing talent and broadcasting resources that are beating a path to your door, if only you can get your thoughts together in support of your premise and give a good sound bite. Take a public interest viewpoint, and communicate it in clear, compelling, and concise answers.
In writing a recent article for an association of in-house counsel, or corporate attorneys, I reported on a panel of their peers who told them, in no uncertain terms to "'Just Say No' to 'No Comment.'" The reporters will tell the story with or without you. But journalists want a balanced story, if you will just give them that chance. If you stonewall them by expressing no defensible position or any position at all, you've made the story one-sided.
A press conference is a meeting, too. And not unlike most meetings, press conferences used to happen far too often. Publicists believed that if they scheduled a press conference, their announcements would seem important, too. Sometimes, on a slow news day, this works. But often, the media is too savvy and too busy with breaking news. Still, if you are a news-maker and you understand the news cycle by scheduling an announcement just before the media's deadlines, you can often create a story where none existed before.
One of the most poignant examples of using the media as a communications tool happened during the George W. Bush administration when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested to a newly liberated Iraqi people to speak freely to the hundreds of imbedded journalists from around the world. To paraphrase him: Tell your stories of repression and torture under Sadam Hussein. Who better to help justify a war of liberation than the citizens it liberated? Asking Iraqi citizens to be media spokespeople used Marshall McLuhan's tenet, "The medium is the message" to perfection.
Although John F. Kennedy seemed a natural for the medium, President Nixon wasn't. "I was not lying," he explained. "I said things that later on seemed to be untrue."
It was the perfect example of denying negatives instead of professing positives. To a similar question, President Ronald Reagan began his answer with, "I believe in the integrity of the American people."
This law of communications once prompted me to ask my tennis instructor to please stop criticizing what I was doing wrong. "Don't take your eye off the ball." "Don't just stand there." "Don't toss the ball so high."
By calling my bad habits across the net, he was reinforcing my mistakes. Instead, I asked him to correct me with the proper technique. "Keep your eye on the ball." "Move your feet." "Toss the ball so you can hit it." My tennis game improved immeasurably. Finally, I heard what to do and could act on it.
The media has been a thorn in the side of many presidents and presidential hopefuls since the early days of television. In the first televised presidential debates, Richard Nixon's nerves, pallor, and 5 o'clock shadow contrasted sharply with the tan, relaxed, Jack Kennedy. And former President Carter didn't fare much better in his Playboy interview when he admitted that he "lusted in his heart." Asked about his religious beliefs, Carter replied not in a sound bite but in more a stream of consciousness:
"Christ said, I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery. I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do — and I have done it — and God forgives me for it. But that doesn't mean that I condemn someone who not only looks on a woman with lust but who leaves his wife and shacks up with somebody out of wedlock. Christ says, Don't consider yourself better than someone else because one guy screws a whole bunch of women while the other guy is loyal to his wife."
The public never quite forgave nor forgot, despite years and untold acts of kindness since.
Spontaneity can, and must, be learned, particularly when your shots will be heard round the world. It is generally thought that unsuccessful presidential hopefuls such as Al Gore lost his presidential bid in the media.
George W. Bush's administration came a long way in understanding the old saw, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em". Although many speculated at the tradeoffs in the name of security that the network news organizations may have made for having military access to the war in Iraq, the Bush administration seemed to understand that no one could or would tell the story as well as the media. There seemed to be an appreciation of each other's role in the process. Corporations should take note in letting the media work for, not against, them.
Politically incorrect, culturally insensitive, last-minute remarks made in anger or jest can get anyone fired, or worse. Distinguished careers are forgotten in an instant, replaced by a sound bite that lives on forever.
One, made in anger and frustration by President Clinton's secretary of the interior, Bruce Babbitt, as he pulled the lavaliere microphone from his chest and tossed it on the floor, was used all weekend to promote the ABC program John Stossel Goes to Washington. "I'm going to fire whoever scheduled this interview." Poignant to this day because it no doubt strikes terror into the hearts and minds of everyone who has a boss or an important client.
Don't try to find sound bites or lines. Sound bites will come naturally when, like Winston Churchill, you speak a simple truth, "The maxim of the British people is 'Business as usual'" or offer a powerful word picture, "An iron curtain has descended across the continent."
Critics blame media for the Gotcha Game, one of society's popular sports, but when spokespeople say the stupidest things, what's a waiting media to do? There are just too many column inches and broadcast minutes to fill. Besides, it's their job!
The secret is, don't be surprised. Think about what you want to say on the way there and don't be caught speaking without thinking.
Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott apparently spoke without thinking on December 5, 2002. What goes around, comes around, they say. And it comes and goes, really fast. By mid December, The Boston Globe quoted an aide as saying that the Mississippi senator was in the habit of arriving at meetings unprepared, as he apparently did at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party celebration on that fateful December day. There, Mr. Lott noted that his state had supported the renegade centenarian's 1948 Segregationist bid for the Oval Office. According to the gentleman from Mississippi, if the rest of the nation had simply followed his state's lead, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years." Less than month later, the off-hand and presumably cordial attempt at jocularity with an old friend and fellow senator lost Mr. Lott the respect of many and his lofty Senate position as well.
A National Rifle Association spokesperson was once quoted as making a case for guns with "[A gun is] a recreational tool, like a golf club or a tennis racket. You can kill someone with a golf club, you know!"
Chicago Cubs manager Jim Riggelman, was quoted as saying, "I try to have respect for people in general. Whether it's baseball players or lowlifes like the media." Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker was not New York's most valuable player when he pondered out loud the prospect of ever pitching for a New York team, "Imagine having to take the Number 7 [train] to the ballpark, looking like you're [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing [to be in New York]."
The sports world is famous for other infamous quotes and for seeming racial slurs by the likes of greats such as baseball's Al Campanis. Sports commentator Fuzzy Zoeller sacrificed not only his reputation but a reported multi-million dollar contract when he said about Tiger Wood's first win of the Masters, "That little boy is driving well and he's putting well. So...pat him on the back.. .say 'Congratulations and enjoy it.' And tell him not to serve fried chicken next year...or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve." Apparently, he was simply chiding the young black golf star, but out of context, which a sound bite always is, even teasing can be lethal to careers and reputations.
And corporations are not exempt either. One of the classic loose cannons for the media are disgruntled ex-employees and franchise owners, not unlike the McDonald's franchisees who traded memos back and forth that ended up in Time Magazine. To the question, "Why did McDonald's latest promotion bomb?" the answer came back, "It's the food, stupid."
You are too nice a person to let the Gotcha Game happen to you.
This is a phrase used by news organizations all over the world. And yet it is also what you must be, too, if there is a chance that, like an estimated one in four of us, your 15 minutes of fame will be documented by the internet, broadcast, or print media. We recommend that people read or review several reputable online media channels, newspapers, or magazines, preferably daily, but at least the morning before an interview. The interviewers are news folks, and if they didn't write the story, they probably pulled it off the wires. You've got to be up on the latest because they may ask for your comments.
The Bush administration's secretary of state, Colin Powell, thought to be a master of communication, exemplified the importance of being up to the minute on media coverage. The story goes that he was asked by an Iraqi journalist at the start of the Iraq war whether it was true or not that according to Forbes Magazine, only about 17 percent of young, college-age Americans could even find Iraq on a world map. A media-savvy secretary of state shot back, "That may be true, but the bad news for Iraq is that they are all young Marines."
Obviously, the secretary had read the article or at least heard the statistic beforehand and had time to prepare a ready response. When you are in a position of interest to the media, it helps if you know how to play their game.
Not mentioning the name of the sponsor, company, product, or book by name early and often is the biggest branding mistake made in the media. A close second is not including the advertising slogan or subtitle, once you know what you're selling.
Crisis happens even to the best companies and there is a proven formula for responding to it: give an acknowledgement of compassion, a bottom-line sound bite message, appropriate history, repeat of the sound bite, and then the next step. Rightly or wrongly, companies and/or their products have gotten reputations exclusively for how they have handled crisis. Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol poisonings in the 1980's was textbook crisis communication, as contrasted to British Petroleum's or Chevron's Alaska oil spill crises. Johnson & Johnson acted quickly to address the issue and used its media moment to introduce Tylenol's tamperproof packaging on the front page of every newspaper in the world.