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Media and Crisis Management

Curing “CEO Disease” and other communication ills

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Curing “CEO Disease” and other communication illsCrisis communications

How could someone as shrewd as Microsoft’s Bill Gates be such a poor witness? That’s what some observers asked after seeing Gates’s videotaped deposition for his company’s antitrust trial many years ago. Instead of the usual enthusiastic, incisive, boyish wunderkind, there was a hangdog, sometimes morose man whose attitudes and motives were hard to discern. He stared at the table, rocked metronomically in his chair, and gave answers so indefinite that even the judge shook his head over them.

One of Gates’ consultants at the time claimed that was a misperception, and said the software chief did precisely what he intended. He did not let prosecutors put words in his mouth. Microsoft maintained that its chief was truthful and being himself.

With the truth in the eyes of the beholder, let’s assume for the sake of this column that the testimony of America’s richest man was indeed flawed. The Wall Street Journal quoted a law professor who said the billionaire’s performance suffered from “CEO Disease,” a communications failure caused by overconfidence, under-preparation, discomfort at being challenged, a general disdain for the whole deposition process, or some combination of it all. If the professor was correct, then Gates made a misjudgment that sometimes plagues other top executives. They convey messages poorly in a legal setting only later to be dismayed to learn that not only did they fail to persuade juries or judges, their companies must now pay millions of dollars in penalties. A big price for poor communication!

I have watched something-similar play out in media coaching sessions with executives as I toughly question them in mock reporter interviews. They engage in a kind of psychological arm-wrestling with me. Self-assured, quick, knowledgeable, penetrating – and often aggressive – they deflect my deliberately nasty questions. It’s a verbal chess match in which they try to debate me to checkmate. Occasionally they do. Such interviews end with a kind of smug satisfaction on the executives’ face. They believe they’ve won. Minutes later they are surprised to see they’ve lost.

The revelation comes on the videotape of the session. As playback rolls, an argumentative executive expects to see himself flatten a media antagonist. Instead, he watches himself appear to be a defiant bully, or perhaps someone who seems to be pompous, arrogant, insensitive, cold, uncaring, selfish, spiteful, or calculating.

Why do some executives contract “CEO Disease?” They overlook the point of the interview, and forget their real audience. They lose sight of the fact that the give and take is an opportunity to send a message, not debate. The audience is not the pushy interviewer they are attempting to overcome, but thousands of news consumers, business associates, customers, shareholders, regulators, employees, politicians, and family members watching them on the news or reading their quotes in the newspaper. The mano-a-mano masks their true challenge – convince others that they and their companies are acting in their best interest.

How does an executive avoid this trap? Clearly, he or she must 1) look beyond the interrogator to the audience that must be addressed, and 2) deliberately choose the messages that would be most beneficial to that audience.

The first move is simple, and for the second, here is my approach to develop a useful message.

Message focus tips – The 3-Step model.

These steps (which I elaborate on my Mastering Media CD) comprise my three-step media preparation model that is also beneficial beyond the media as you will learn later.

  1.  Prepare messages useful both to you and to your audience. Remember the audience wants to know if you are acting in their best interest, and you must find messages (and actions) that reassure them that you are. Have an overarching main message and at least three supporting messages that reinforce or elaborate on your primary point.
  2.  Prepare to answer questions. Ask yourself what are the worst possible and most likely questions you will face and prepare constructive answers for them. By the way, these questions should reveal to you the audience’s true interest. Knowing the likely questions gives you a good crosscheck for whether your messages are on target.
  3.  Satisfy and steer. After answering questions, guide the interview toward the messages you want to convey. Use linking phrases such as “the important thing is,” “the critical issue is,” or “the bottom line is” to bridge to the point you want to make.

Collateral benefits of message focus –

These preparation tips are useful for much more than interviews with media. Here are just of many examples clients have provided me:

Inspectors. In one case, after experiencing contentious inspections by a regulator, plant officials used the 3-step model to decide precisely what they wanted to communicate to the inspector in word and deed. Throughout the next visit the regulator said he was impressed at the cooperation, the information, and the answers to questions. Unlike former visits, he completed the inspection in less time, left early, and departed satisfied.

Employee evaluations. In this case, after delaying a periodic performance review of a problem employee for weeks, a middle manager finally decided to use the 3-step model to prepare for the review meeting. The session proceeded surprisingly well with the manager convinced he conveyed critical information to the employee with maximum understanding. Importantly, performance improved.

So, whether you are middle manager, plant manager, CEO, or the head of Microsoft, it pays to set goals and know how to accomplish them before stepping before an important audience. As someone once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up someplace else.” That applies just as well to effective communications.

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