February 28, 2013
Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, from “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win with the Public, Shareholders, Employees and the Media,” by Virgil Scudder. Copyright © 2012.
One of the biggest mistakes executives make in dealing with the media is that they sometimes get too comfortable and say things they would normally only say to close colleagues or friends. The penalty for such “loose lips” behavior can be severe.
A good example of this occurred in April 2012 when the CEO of a large Silicon Valley technology company was talking with The Wall Street Journal’s Alan Murray on the Viewpoints West Forum. It’s a very casual setting and, while a video of the discussion is recorded and put online, it feels almost like a living room conversation between friends.
In a discussion about what it takes to compete globally, Murray, a friendly and informal interviewer who makes his guests feel very comfortable, asked the CEO a question about what competitor worries him the most. The chief executive named a Chinese company, then stuck his foot firmly down his throat when asked why. He complained that “They don’t always play by the rules” in matters such as intellectual property protection and computer security.
Not surprisingly, Murray followed up by asking, “When you say they don’t play by the rules, could you give a couple of examples?” Now sensing the deep water he was in, the CEO stumbled, fumbled, made a feeble attempt at humor and had to stop and think for several seconds to come up with an answer. When he did, it was a bad one.
It was several minutes before the executive could extricate himself from the self-inflicted trap and get on to other subjects.
An unthinking answer to a simple question turned into a widely reported gaffe.
The CEO of an unrelated company, who is not yet convinced that media encounters can be consistently won if handled right, sent me the link to the video and said, “See, that shows the danger of doing media interviews.”
I replied to him, “No, that shows the danger of treating a media interview as a casual chat instead of a serious discussion that the newsmaker needs to control. The CEO should have given a brief response to the question without bringing up ethical issues and moved on to what he came to talk about. This was an embarrassment that should never have happened.”
In any interview, but especially one that is at all challenging or adversarial, it’s important not to let the reporter frame the issue. While you are obligated to address the questions raised, you are not obligated to use another person’s words.
Journalists don’t always have time to prepare for an interview as thoroughly as you or they would like, so they sometimes ask strange questions, especially when they’re not sure where to go next. Newsmakers sometimes get thrown by some of these “out of the blue” queries and fumble and stumble around a bit before regaining their composure.
This is not too likely to happen if you’ve framed the issues and carried the conversation ball, but it does happen from time to time. I’ve put together a list of some of the more common ones to help you avoid some similar traps. I call the list “What to Say When.”
Q: What keeps you awake at night?
A: Nothing in particular, but during the day my focus is on…
Q: What would you say is your biggest problem?
A: Our biggest challenge is… (plug in point).
Q: Who is your main competitor?
A: We have a number of competitors, and here’s why I feel we are well positioned to continue to succeed against them.
Q: How do you personally feel about this issue?
A: I am not here to speak for myself today but for the company. And the company’s position is…
Q: Why won’t you break down your sales by region?
A: That information is proprietary for competitive reasons, but here’s what I can tell you.
Q: Do people or profits matter most?
A: Both are important to us and our shareholders. We are proud of being both profitable and known as a good place to work.
Q: Did your company act out of greed or incompetence?
A: Neither. An honest mistake was made and it has now been rectified.
Q: What would you do if…
A: That’s a hypothetical question. Let me give you a real-world situation.
Q: We have heard a report that…
A: I haven’t seen that report and thus can’t comment on it, but let me give you the facts as I know them.
Most of all, it’s important not to repeat a negative, especially in a print story. Look at these two examples:
Reporter: Your company has a poor safety record.
Executive: No, we don’t have a poor safety record.
Reporter: Your company has a poor safety record.
Executive: That’s not true. Our safety record is good and getting better.
In Example 1, the resulting headline is likely to be “Safety Record Not Poor, Says Exec.”
In Example 2, it’s more likely to be “Safety Record Good, Says Exec.”
There’s a big difference.
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