By Tim Hayes
It was one of those times when every member of an in-house public relations staff had to really be on his or her game. The company had made some bad mistakes, investors began getting restless, regulators smelled blood, and the media wasn’t about to let up.
My role in coping with this particular house afire was to develop a series of media questions-and-answers for executives to use during press conferences and telephone interviews with reporters – a standard tool meant to limit any ad-libbing under pressure and to ensure a consistency of message emanating from the company.
The Q&As developed for the executive team pulled no punches. Every potential “gotcha” question made it to the document, along with verifiable and forthright responses. Having been a reporter earlier in my career, I wanted our guys to be ready for anything the media could throw at them. They were in for some uncomfortable give-and-take with the press, so realistic preparation remained paramount and prudent.
We sent the materials upstairs for review, and what came back to me from the chief financial officer still blows my mind. He had slashed in angry red marker across the entire first page: CHANGE THE QUESTIONS!
My first reaction? Stunned silence. My second? Nervous laughter quickly spinning into raucous guffaws that drew the attention of my compatriots in the Corporate Communications Department. My third? An icy numbness down the center of my cerebellum as I realized the CFO wasn’t kidding.
So instead of manning up and properly preparing for the media firestorm minutes away, he decided that adopting an alternate reality where nobody asked unpleasant questions about touchy subjects made for a better, smarter, more winning strategy. Ridiculous didn’t begin to describe the situation.
Since the Q&A was my responsibility, it fell to me to go into his office and explain that we couldn’t actually tell the reporters to rephrase their questions, no matter how prickly or unnerving they may sound to us. But before I did that, I reworked the Q&A document just enough that the questions covered the same topics and led to the same answers. The CFO felt better, the answers remained consistent, and no one was the wiser.
The moral of this story? Good preparation always will help an organization deal with crises, even if you have to assuage egos a little along the way. This particular executive dealt with his blossoming, ripening anxiety by making a ludicrous demand. By altering the “means” and humoring him a tad, the organization reached its desired “end” – a successful series of media interviews that kept our message clear, credible, and consistent.
Copyright 2010 Tim Hayes Consulting