14 May 2013

Lessons PR Practitioners Can Learn From The Government’s Very Bad Week

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Just a week after President Obama warned a class of graduating collegians to shun the voices that warn of the slippery slope of tyranny, we see exactly why those voices exist.  In the event you have not been paying rapt attention to the happenings in DC over the last week, allow me to recap.

  • At a Congressional hearing into the death of a US Ambassador and others at Benghazi, testimony revealed that, contrary to administration claims, the people on the ground repeatedly asked for and had military assistance/rescue denied.
  • At an IRS briefing on Friday, the agency admitted to having targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny in requests for tax-exempt status, contrary to agency regulations.
  • The Associated Press announced that the Department of Justice had subpoenaed phone records for office phones, home phones, and Capitol Hill phones of AP reporters. The reason for this? Well, it turns out this was a DOJ effort to track down a confidential source who leaked classified information. In other words, the Department charged with protecting the first amendment guarantee of freedom of speech decided, instead, to run roughshod all over it.

If you think that sounds like a lot of government fail and overreach in one week, you’d probably be right.

But that’s not really the point of this post.  Instead, I’d like to focus this post on the poor schlubs who must be the public face of an institution that gets its hands caught in the cookie jar.

SpokesmanJust about every day there are corporate PR professionals and government flacks that take fire for the actions of the organization, its officers, and its employees.  They are required to put a positive spin on events that may or may not be true, could or could not lead to legal jeopardy, and can quickly escalate into much bigger problems. There are a number of key things these people need to remember:

Never, ever speak in absolutes.

Having no evidence, at a given moment, that something never happened is not the same as that thing never having happened. Many a spokesperson has been tripped up because they issued a categorical denial only to see a reporter produce evidence of that which is being denied. Phrases like “to the best of my knowledge”, “we are unaware of”, and “we have seen no evidence of that” sound like cheap PR spin, but they are far better than saying “absolutely not” and then having a reporter prove you wrong.  

Never, ever offer personal opinions. 

You are there to say what the company tells you to say.  Say that and nothing more.  A good friend involved in an infamous scandal once told me he want so far as to walk to the podium and clearly state: “I have been given the following statement to read…”  He made no personal conjecture about the person in the crosshairs, his rectitude or the likelihood that he had or hadn’t engaged in the alleged activities. He simply said what he was told to say and made sure the press knew that.  It’s probably the reason he didn’t face investigation for obstruction or making false statements.

Don’t think! Know!

One of my first bosses in politics taught me the key to success is to know the answer to the question before you give it. In my career I have seen A LOT of people give me answers based on assumptions. There is no shame in telling a reporter that you don’t have the answer to a question and you will have to get back to them.  That said, if your job is to communicate on a day-to-day basis with the press, you had better figure out how to anticipate the next line of inquiry and be prepared.

Reporters often ask simple questions to drive their probing:

  • What is the potential cost (to taxpayers or shareholders) of the event?
  • Who, if anyone, benefitted financially from this event?
  • What did they gain?
  • How did the parties know each other?
  • Could there be third parties involved that have not yet been discovered?

Those are just a few of the basics.  At a minimum, you should walk those paths with your superiors to make sure you have the basics covered.  And don’t let them violate the rules above either. Even if you have confidence that those you speak for are being candid, don’t even think about sticking your neck out. You will be the first person to lose your head.

Remember, as the spokesperson, you can easily make yourself part of the story. You can also easily make yourself the scapegoat. When dark clouds roll in and you have to be the guy that holds the umbrella, the key to survival is to keep your personal feelings in check and in your head, and never let your mouth utter a single word that might make you part of the story.

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