By Lynn Holley
In part one of this two-part Q&A with Dennis Culloton, we talked about what it takes to be a successful crisis manager and how to navigate working with clients. In part two, we discuss one of the more difficult aspects of managing a public crisis … interacting with the media.
Lynn Holley: Probably one of the hardest parts of crisis communications — and the part people look forward to the least — is being in front of the camera. How much does the ability to think on your feet play into being a good spokesperson? Do you need to have a good vocabulary? What steps can someone take to train themself to be a better spokesperson?
Dennis Culloton: You know, I think I have a decent vocabulary but I still get befuddled by the New York Times crossword puzzle. So it doesn’t take brilliance. It just takes preparation. And most of the time when you’re seeing the top people in crisis communications deliver their messaging, that’s the last phase, the last 10% of crisis management. Ninety percent of it is taking place behind the curtain or in the boardroom where you’re thinking through all of the worst case scenarios. You’re thinking through the top 10 questions and their answers. You’re also thinking through what will your competitors or opponents say and do in response to what you do. You’ve thought all of that through and then you come out and talk either in a one-on-one interview or in a press conference about what you’re going to do, how you’re going to move forward, what you’re going to do differently and why customers, constituents or voters should trust that you are on top of this situation.
LH: I want to talk now about questions from the media. Sometimes reporters can be rude. How do you handle rudeness?
DC: I think you see a lot more of that now with social media. We handled a very unusual crisis case several months ago at the firm and an activist showed up at the press conference and was doing a Facebook live stream of the press conference. So as crisis managers, you now have to deal with that on the side while still keeping your composure and understanding that you are communicating to people on that smartphone just like you are communicating to the end user who’s getting the story from the reporters.
I got some advice very early on that said: you may not always agree with or get along with the news professional you are talking to, but you have to respect the process. That was actually Jim Williams, Mayor Daley’s press secretary for several years who is now back in the news business in Chicago. But that was great advice because you do occasionally get into tense moments with reporters. It doesn’t really help you to lose your cool with them. But it is bound to happen. Everybody’s human. But if you ultimately keep your mind focused on who you’re really talking to, meaning you’re not talking to this person who is throwing questions at you. You’re really talking to the mass audience that the reporter may be writing or broadcasting to. That’s what’s really important. You can’t let this exchange get to you because you’re really trying to reach the many people that are reading their work.
LH: What if a reporter asks a naïve question? Even in Chicago or New York City, you may get someone who doesn’t fully understand the situation and they may ask something in a naïve way. How do you handle that?
DC: Right, and I’ve asked some dumb questions back when I was on the other side of the pen and microphone …
LH: Me too …
DC: You know, if you’re in a group situation such as a press conference or gaggle, sometimes you don’t have the time to talk that reporter through the entire background story that would help them ask a better question. So, sometimes a technique you can use is to say, “I want to fill you in more on that, but let’s talk offline so we don’t take up everybody’s time here.” So, that’s one way to approach it. And then the other thing to try — even though reporters get upset when they hear this — is to get back to your message. That’s where bridging comes in handy, and can look like, “You know that’s a great question, but what we’re really talking about is crisis communications and how we’re mentoring a whole new generation of crisis communicators. That’s the most important thing.”
LH: How do you feel about off-the-record remarks? Is there ever a time when it’s appropriate, and if so, are there any guidelines to follow?
DC: Well, I tell my clients that there is really no such thing as off the record. And some of them try to go down that path because they think it’s safer, maybe they expend less energy. Perhaps they feel there’s less risk. There’s actually sometimes just more danger. Anything you say can and will be used against you. Obviously, there are different types of journalists out there. The ones who go through journalism school understand this concept, but there are many other people out there in the digital and social media space who don’t have that training and don’t know there are different levels of off the record, including off the record, on background or on background with attribution. Most people don’t understand it. Most reporters, because they’ve got a lot of pressure on them to meet deadlines, have to write more stories on more platforms. It’s a big risk because you are asking the journalist to forego some news and sometimes, out of expediency, things that you think are off the record are actually being used. So, in general, stay on the record. If you’ve got something you don’t feel you can say, don’t say it, because someone else can overhear it. Everybody has a smartphone these days, so there are potential broadcast news reporters at any given moment.
Now there are times in crisis communications and political communications when there are trial balloons put out. That’s a very intentional, mindful thing that is done. It’s not without risk. And even then, there must be some agreement before you utter the words as to what it is. So, in general, I tell clients there is no such thing because there really is no such thing.
LH: One of the techniques that reporters often use is to not say anything and just shake their head in agreement, which causes the interviewee to feel the need to fill the silence. What do you suggest to clients about something like that? Do you warn them about that? How do you handle that?
DC: I do warn clients about that and I have probably, in my many years of doing this, made that mistake myself but not recently. Don’t fill the empty silence. Give your answer. Put a period at the end of your answer, and if a reporter wants to sit across from you and nod, wait for them to come up with the next question. It may seem like forever. It will probably be just a few seconds. But put the onus on the reporter to put an end to the silence by asking the next question.
LH: The last area that I want to talk about is countering propaganda as it’s become increasingly more relevant. Do you have any tips for crisis communicators on how to handle propaganda?
DC: Well I guess it depends on how you define it. And we’ve certainly seen that there is a lot more stridency, a lot more division in our national discourse. We’ve had contested elections, controversial elections, so that creates an environment where there is this notion of propaganda. And there certainly also is this notion of verifying where your news came from, verifying your sources, because sometimes the way certain sources are portrayed makes them look like they are an objective news product when they’re not, and that’s damaging. I don’t have the short answer as to what we do about propaganda but it’s something to be very mindful of. And the one thing we should all be doing is asking, “where is this information coming from and why?” This goes back to my advice to anybody doing crisis communications. Take a look at the story and understand where the story came from and understand why the different parties in the story are saying the things they are saying. And sometimes it could be as simple as a sports story or it can be a story about something happening in the White House or Congress.
Dennis Culloton is the president and CEO of Culloton + Bauer Luce. One of the most experienced crisis communications and media advisers in the marketplace today, Dennis operates on the philosophy of providing clients with a dynamic, strategic approach to achieving their goals.