Crisis Management: 3 Ways To Avoid Sounding Scripted in Media Interviews: Crisis communications
Being on-message with the media is great. Sounding on-message can appear ridiculous and hurt credibility. NPR news anchor Linda Wertheimer said she loathes interviewing obsessively message-based people because they only say what they want and not much else. Former Nightline Anchor Ted Koppel got irritated with presidential candidate Steve Forbes who was being compulsively on-message. Koppel told Forbes that if every question was answered with the flat tax (Forbes’ campaign focus) then there was little reason to continue the interview.
Virtually every professional understands that talking points give a center of gravity, a focus, to conversations with the media or other important audiences. That’s good. Overdoing it? That’s bad. For instance: 1) how do you explain something complicated and nuanced with just a few bullet points, and 2) how can you look anything other than canned if you keep saying precisely the same thing over and over? (Caveat #1: in breaking crises you might have to do this very thing. Caveat #2: in crises, if you have no information to deliver, at least convey values.)
Before we look at solutions, let’s be clear: 1) You must know what you want to accomplish in an interview, and therefore 2) you must have key talking points to convey. It is not your duty to spill your guts even though reporters would prefer that you did. Your responsibility is to represent your company or institution as best you can and to communicate messages that benefit your audience or, in a crisis, reassure the public. Having said that, let’s look at three simple ways to avoid being so on-message that you seem like a robot.
- Answer legitimate questions. I put it this way, “Your credibility rests on your ability to answer tough legitimate questions.” Your job is to anticipate worst-case and most likely questions and draft answers for them, even if the answers sometimes are “I don’t know”, “we are still getting the answers”, and “I regret that litigation limits what I can say.” You must plot your Q&A strategy in advance.
- Deliver talking points as concepts not as The Ten Commandments. Give the essence of the talking point as though you are conversing with a neighbor. This frees you to speak like a human and use words that naturally occur. In each discussion with a reporter or someone important you will give your messages slightly differently and, therefore, sound like a regular person, not an automaton. (Caveat: if you cannot vary your wording at all, you probably shouldn’t be doing an interview and, instead, issuing a statement.)
- Write your talking points using different words. As said in the previous paragraph, it is best to simply say what comes instinctively, but if you are one of the many who prefer to have sentences nailed down then write the messages in alternate forms. For example, here are three versions of the same point: “We will investigate this incident to learn how to prevent it from happening again.” “Trust me; we are determined to get to the bottom of this so that it never happens again.” “We don’t want our customers to ever have to face this situation in the future, so we have launched an investigation to learn the cause.” Different words – same idea.
Yes, you can concentrate media interviews and important conversations with talking points while remaining conversational and responsive. I think you’ll be pleased with the outcome, and so will your audience.