If you hadn’t noticed, the first month of 2017 has offered a veritable smorgasbord of what not to do in public relations.
Donald Trump’s White House has led that charge, with his asinine rant about crowd sizes, his undisciplined tweeting and his staff’s now-infamous coining of the phrase “alternative facts.”
But the #PRfails have been local, too.
In Broken Arrow, school superintendent and Leslie Knope-wannabe Janet Dunlop answered a simple question about the tenure of her predecessor by telling News on 6 reporter Marty Kasper, “Shame on you.”
On camera, Dunlop grimaced and painfully stared at her communications director, Shelli Holland-Handy, who tried to steer the train back on the tracks: “Dr. Dunlop, I think what she would like to say is just that she does not have any information about that because those were confidential conversations between the board.”
Dunlop, though, couldn’t keep from making the situation worse.
“When we agreed to have this interview — turn the camera off, please — when we agreed to have this interview, you agreed we wouldn’t talk about that,” Dunlop argued.
“I did not agree to not talk about anything,” Kasper replied.
‘Don’t play games with me, alright’
While there have been other examples of poor PR resulting in unfavorable reportage, we found ourselves in the middle of reporting a controversial story this week that was made so much worse by a business owner’s defensive attitude and blunt statements.
That, of course, was not the first time that I’ve seen a professional person make an interview go poorly by getting defensive and aggressive.
“You’re telling me that you’ve got this footage and you’ve got all this information but you haven’t released it,” Dallas attorney Emmanuel Obi said in a bizarre rant about police footage and Oklahoma County District Attorney last spring. “You’ve been sitting on it, so you say, which is bullshit, OK? Don’t play games with me, alright. This is really sick what you guys are doing, OK? This is really sick what you guys are doing. And God is watching you, and he will have his justice done.”
So for the Emmanuel Obis and Janet Dunlops of the world, here are four practical tips on how to avoid major #PRfail moments.
If the press calls you, feel free to take a deep breath and ask to call them back in five minutes.
There’s rarely anything wrong with asking for a few minutes to gather your thoughts on a topic and then call the reporter back. You can shroud your request in unclear nuance — “I’m re-potting the ficus in my office right now” — or you can be open and honest about your desire to think the situation over before you start talking. Either way, it’s hard to imagine any journalist taking offense at having to wait five minutes.
Declining to comment or dodging phone calls never looks good.
Some people and companies choose to avoid phone calls or emails from journalists if they think the story is going to be a negative one for their interests. Typically, however, that’s a good way to make sure you ultimately look bad in the story. Good journalists aren’t obsessed with “gotcha” questions, and they are (theoretically) trained to present your comments in a direct and raw form for readers to make their own interpretations. The absence of such comments results in statements like, “John Doe did not return multiple phone calls about this issue.” That never looks good.
For TV news interviews, hit your soundbite 10 times in a row.
Whether you’re responding to a crisis situation or just promoting your organization, consider that TV news interviews may last 15 minutes while only using a 15-second soundbite. In TV news, two minutes for a story represents an eternity. As such, many interviews will only feature one or two soundbites that last 10 to 20 seconds at most. On the one hand, that means complex details often don’t make it into TV news stories. On the other, it means that a disciplined messenger can basically repeat their organization’s branding/statement over and over during an interview to increase the likelihood that it makes it on air. Just be sure to conclude your statements every 15 seconds. Find the period, Jim.
If you’re putting out a press release, paste the text into the body of the email.
Pretty much any journalist known in a community will tell you that they get dozens of press releases each day. As a result, none of us wants to download your stupid .doc or .pdf files to our cluttered computer desktops or our mobile phones. (You know who you are.) So help us out a little and paste the press release into the body of the email. Doing such makes it substantially more likely that we will at least read what you’ve sent.