Crisis Management: Talk to Reporters – But Watch Every Word You Say: communications – from the archives
This was on my mind long ago after a Meet the Press clash between the late Tim Russert of NBC and then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Russert showed Army SPC Thomas Wilson famously asking Rumsfeld in December why soldiers must scavenge landfills for scrap to armor plate their vehicles in Iraq. Russert, as most reporters (and this column), ran the following quotes from Rumsfeld’s answer. “You go with the Army you have… not the Army you might want or wish…” and “… you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up.”
Rumsfeld heatedly told Russert, “That is factually wrong. That is not how I answered that question.” Russert disagreed. Rumsfeld then read on-air the transcript of his entire answer. Having read it myself, I agree that the oft-used quotes do not fairly represent the Secretary’s comments. For example, Rumsfeld said to the soldier, “I can assure you that (the Army) (is) sensitive to the fact that not every vehicle has the degree of armor that would be desirable… the goal we have is to have as many of those vehicles as is humanly possible with the appropriate level of armor available for the troops.” There’s more like that.
The Secretary may have been misrepresented, but, and this is my point, Rumsfeld DID say what Russert and others quoted.
Something similar happened to Martha Stewart during her insider trading meltdown. She was widely derided for her 2002 interview on the CBS Morning Show. Some called it a crisis communications train wreck. As the host asked about the scandal, Stewart chopped lettuce and said, “I hope we are going to make salad.” She also said, “…I think this will all be resolved in the very near future and I will be exonerated of this ridiculousness.” Believing this interview would demonstrate to clients what not to do, I got a video of the entire exchange. I was surprised to find the criticism of Stewart, as with Rumsfeld, incomplete. Stewart’s salad reference was logical. She prepared foods weekly for that show and was mixing salad that day. She also said, “I am involved in an investigation that has very serious implications… and many people are involved in this whole investigation and I’m just not at liberty at this time to make any comments whatsoever and I certainly hope that the matter is resolved in the very near future.” She described how when she was a model she always wanted to be on magazine covers, and said, “I’m the CEO of a New York Stock Exchange listed company and I don’t want to be on any covers of any newspapers for a long long time, that’s the story.” She was genial and most clients who have seen the whole interview believe she did reasonably well. That was not how the interview was characterized in the press.
Nevertheless, Stewart, as with Rumsfeld, DID say what was quoted.
I have experienced the same thing.
A client’s associate once got into a minor controversy that generated media attention. A reporter called corporate headquarters for comment and a senior executive and I crafted a response.
Paraphrasing here, the executive told the reporter, “Charlie (not his real name) is one of our most valued representatives, we like him, and we think he just a got bit overzealous. He has assured us it won’t happen again, we believe him, and we’re going to move on.”
The reporter used only one word from the above quote: overzealous. Thus, a benign, mostly complimentary statement became negative. We didn’t like it. However, like Rumsfeld and Stewart, we DID say what was quoted, albeit one word, “overzealous.”
While most reporters fairly summarize interviews, sometimes they don’t. Talking to them is usually productive. Nevertheless, these incidents remind us that you must be conscious of… every… single… word… you say, especially during controversy.
Keep talking, but as Sgt. Esterhaus used to say on TV’s Hill Street Blues, “Let’s be careful out there.”