Vol. 36, No. 4

Crisis communicator tells how to work with media, not be the villain

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Speaking at this year’s ABA Bar Leadership Institute in Chicago, Bruce M. Hennes, managing partner at Hennes Paynter Communications, described his job this way: “Our goal is to make your story shorter, make your story better, or make your story go away.”

In fact, he added, “The best stories are the ones I can’t tell you because we made them go away.” Such is the life of a crisis communications expert.

Hennes, who is also the public representative for the Cleveland (Ohio) Metropolitan Bar Association Board of Trustees, said there’s a difference between a legal defense and a public relations defense: In the courtroom, the focus is on small details, and in the court of public opinion, it’s on the big picture.

Helping the public see that big picture—and see it your way—first and foremost requires suppressing the lawyerly impulse to withhold negative information until it is discovered, Hennes said.

In any type of crisis, it’s a safe bet that the media will be involved; Hennes outlined five things that bar leaders and others should understand about the media.

Tell the truth.

“Always, always tell the truth,” Hennes stressed, and always tell 100 percent of it. Why? Even if you survive the initial round of media interest with your secrets intact, he explained, the truth always will come out. Whatever you risk by being direct and honest now, he said, it’s better than if a reporter learns the truth two years down the road. Omitting key details is the same as lying, he noted.

Tell it first.

Be the first one to release your story, Hennes said. Otherwise, someone else will—and then you’ll have to play catch-up with their version.

One strategy, Hennes said, is to hand-pick a reporter whom you trust to be fair, and give him or her the story. During a recent crisis, this resulted in a big headline that said, “Agency discovers loss, takes action.” The reporter was candid enough to tell Hennes that taking the initiative was a smart move and that otherwise, the article and headline would have been much more negative toward the agency that was involved.

If you are “the bad guy” in a particular crisis, Hennes explained, the story loses a lot of its power if you are the one who tells it to the media.

Tell it all.

That is, tell as much as you are “legally, morally, and ethically able to,” Hennes said. That includes potentially sensitive information—but, he added, you should redact things like social security numbers.

During one recent crisis, a lawyer—citing the belief that bad news shouldn’t be shared unless it is discovered—balked at Hennes’s suggestion to meet a reporter at City Hall, and to bring along a relevant personnel file. The lawyer feared that this would result in a big article on the front page of the newspaper. Eventually, though, he took that advice. The result? A three-paragraph story, below the fold, in the second section of the paper—nine days later.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, Hennes explained, the reporter would have gotten the information anyway, as it was public record. It’s ultimately much better, he believes, if you help provide the information rather than “playing games” and putting up roadblocks that the reporter will eventually get around.

Everything the media touches, they filter.

This filtering—that is, determining what to include in an article and what to leave out—begins as the reporter is taking notes, Hennes said. It continues once the article reaches an editor; even a comma or two can change the meaning, he noted.

Another stage where meaning can change is when the headline is written. “Reporters never write headlines,” Hennes said. “Never.” That’s because headline writing, which requires creating maximum impact within a tightly defined space, is its own art. The problem, Hennes said, is that the headline doesn’t always accurately match the story—and 99 percent of readers will read the headline but not the story.

How can you get around the filter? In terms of traditional media, live TV is Hennes’s top choice, because it is so immediate; within just a few seconds, you can get your story out to a large number of people.

Phone calls, direct mail, billboards, and email are other ways to get around the media filter, he said, and now there are also Facebook, Twitter, Ning, Flickr, and other ways to reach an audience quickly and directly.

In five minutes, he said, you can post a video on YouTube, send it to specific audiences that are important to your cause, and instantly know who opened it and how long they watched. It doesn’t take a video person, a script, or “a single dime,” he added.

If you take care in determining what types of people you most want to reach, then posting on YouTube can help you reach them quickly and fulfill an important goal Hennes mentioned earlier.

“They may not believe what they read in the paper the next morning or see on TV that night,” he said, “because we told them first.” Even if you end up taking “a beating” once the general public gets the story, he added, you still will have won with the people you most care about.

It is not the fundamental job of reporters to inform and educate.

That statement drew some laughs, but Hennes explained that a completely factual account of an event would be a report, which is different from a news piece.

“No one wants to read a report at 6 a.m. over coffee and a bagel,” he said. “They want to read stories.”

In order to create a compelling story, he explained, the reporter puts the facts into a framework—and the framework often involves a “bad” person and a “good” one. A common structure, Hennes said, is what he called the “three V framework.” This includes three characters: a villain, a victim, and a vindicator.

If you realize that you (or the bar, or lawyers) have been cast as the villain, then Hennes believes the most important strategy is to “tell it first”—that is, to be open and direct with the media and the public, which will take a lot of the potency out of the idea that you are bad.

For many people, Hennes noted, the default in a crisis is not to call the reporter back—or at least, to stall for a while. But during that time, he said, the reporter is not sitting and waiting for you; he or she is talking to other people, going on Facebook, and tweeting. And the worst choice, he added, is not to talk at all; in the public mind, Hennes noted, “‘no comment’ equals ‘guilty.’”

If you let hours or a day go by without saying anything, then the reporter will go ahead and construct the story anyway, he said—and once people read it and note that you’re not in it, it might be too late for you to give your side, even if it is truthful.

“When the facts don’t fit the frame,” Hennes explained, “people discard the facts.”

How not to be a villain

Hennes described how villains usually behave—in other words, what not to do. Villains don’t return phone calls, he said. If they respond at all, they have their lawyers speak for them. If they’re caught having made a mistake, they try to “spin” it rather than admitting and fixing it. They have trouble with eye contact, and they use “weasel words” like “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Instead of that weaselly apology, Hennes said, it’s much better to offer a real one when warranted—coupled with a genuine assurance that steps are being taken to right the wrong and prevent similar ones in the future. He pointed to the Sorry Works! Coalition (www.sorryworks.net), which aims to decrease medical malpractice claims by training medical professionals to communicate honestly and compassionately about their errors. The plaintiff’s bar doesn’t like Sorry Works!, Hennes said, but it’s a useful model for crisis communications.

The TV factor

Television is a powerful medium, Hennes said, but it does require you to think very carefully about things like your appearance, your body posture, and maintaining eye contact. If you appear on TV, he said, you’re no longer a news source, but a “news performer.”

Hennes cited studies that have shown that 55 percent of the impression a  speaker makes on others is based on appearance (including clothes), 38 percent on voice energy, and 7 percent on the actual content. That might vary from one situation to the next, he noted, but he believes the “what you say” part never becomes more powerful than the “how you say it” one.

In terms of how much you move while on TV, Hennes advised that you be “lively, but not jerky.” There’s always movement on TV, he explained, and the brain is hard-wired to follow it. One reason people say C-SPAN is boring, even though it’s chock full of information, Hennes said, is that there’s so little movement.

Lean forward a little, Hennes suggested, and keep your hand movements within the “box” between your chin and your breastbone. Usually, the camera will shoot you from the waist or the chest up, he noted—unless, of course,  you’re the villain, in which case you’ll have a tight closeup.

It’s important to realize that your TV appearance might not be over when you think it is, Hennes said. In fact, it’s not over until you’re back in your car or the reporter is in his or her car; up until that point, he explained, you could be on the air again at any time, and you won’t be given any notice about it.

During the interview—and until you’re 100 percent certain it’s done—don’t cross your arms, Hennes said, and don’t move your eyes back and forth between the camera and the person interviewing you. Instead, he recommended, keep your eyes on the person the whole time, even though it feels “creepy.” If your eyes are always moving, he explained, then you look “shifty-eyed.”

If it’s a satellite interview, meaning that you and the interviewer are not in the same room, then pretend the camera is a face, Hennes advised, and keep your eye on the lens.

Hennes even gave suggestions for interviews done via Skype. Look into the camera lens, he recommended, not at the screen. He covers the screen during this type of interview, and then he might remove the cover when it’s time for Q&A so he can identify the people he’s calling on.

And whatever you do, he added, “never, never, never wear sunglasses on TV.” Not only does this block eye contact, he said, but it also makes you look like a member of a “crime family.” In other words, a villain.