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TV consumer reporters, more than any others I’ve observed in my career, are very fond of the ‘gotcha’ interview. When they can’t get a spokesperson or official to agree to a formal interview, they often just show up with a camera in a parking garage, or at the office door, or outside the elevators. It’s a great strategy when you want to get someone on tape primarily saying, I can’t talk to you about that now. Because most of the time, that’s the result of the gotcha. And the reporter almost always turns that into the impression that the spokesperson was evading the questions, which of course, they often are doing.
But in media relations, we know that sometimes the gotcha ambush seems unfair, and our spokesperson would answer those questions if the timing was different. Still, when you or your spokesperson are caught out, is evasion the best tactic?
In Canada, CBC Marketplace are big users of the gotcha interview. Check out last week’s episode(go to about 16:15 on the video) where they ambush an autobody shop manager, who walks out on them and looks very guilty on camera. Or when Starbucks won’t give them an on-camera interview for a story about whether the coffee giant is really recycling cups as they claim(starts at about 8:00 on the video), Marketplace just walks into the corporate office with a camera. They look evasive too. And there’s always the one where a provincial premier’s PR rep refused to let her boss be interviewed in a dismissive, gum-chewing manner.
But I’ve got to call out a St. Louis PR rep for her high-handed manner in blocking a camera and reporter from interviewing her boss. Not only is she obtrusive and made herself the story by blocking the gotcha interview, but if you watch the video below, her boss was handling things fine before she stepped in and made it worse.
Local Fox news consumer reporter Elliott Davis was doing a story about St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green’s take-home car, which was paid for by taxpayers. He couldn’t get a scheduled interview, so he decided to ambush her in the hallway outside her office. Ms. Green was handling the gotcha pretty well, but then her media relations rep, Melanie Streeper, stepped in and made it much worse. According to some reports, she said the word “no” 36 times as she physically inserted herself (and her large file folder) between the reporter, his camera and Ms. Green.
And when the reporter tried to schedule an interview after that encounter, as offered by Ms. Green, Ms. Streeper emailed him that “No sit-down will be scheduled until we have all of your questions sent to us.” When I teach media training, I always point out that reporters hate being asked for questions and find it insulting, so don’t ever ask unless your client is the head of state or something similarly important. I guess Ms. Streeper missed that lesson, because her refusal just made her boss, and her, look worse.
The ambush gotcha interview may not be a media relations rep’s favourite situation, but it doesn’t have to end like this. And it seems Ms. Streeper is no longer working for the St. Louis Comptroller’s office, so maybe it was a hard lesson to learn for her.
In March 2015, a new top-level internet domain started selling new domains, but to many in the online and branding worlds, it was all blackmail. The controversy made news, mainstream and online, for a couple months, especially when the US and Canadian internet regulators said they would look into it.
But what really caught my eye (well, ear really), was how the company selling the .sucks domains responded to its critics. In all the interviews I heard and saw, the same CEO was quoted saying the same messages, and stuck to his guns in a polite and lighthearted way. I may not agree with the company’s business practices, but I gotta admire their media relations strategy and execution.
Here’s the story: This past year a bunch of new top-level domain names were offered for sale. When the domain .sucks became available, the company selling this top-level domain, Vox Populi, began by charging a lot of money to brands for their .sucks domains, to prevent the public from owning a domain that might leave their brand open for criticism.
The .sucks sale began with a 60-day sunrise period, where the domain names are available only to trademark holders to buy their names before they go on sale to the general public. Normally a sunrise period for a new domain name would see the domains being sold for a few hundred each, but the company selling .sucks, was asking $2500 US. And that would be the price every year. Many critics called this brand blackmail, since companies who didn’t buy their brand.sucks domain could find it in the hands of those wanting to say mean things about them. The price was described as “predatory,” and critics were saying the seller was “trying to shake down large companies.”
Vox Populi, however, said owning a .sucks domain was for the greater good of society. Their CEO John Berard was quoted as saying:
“If we’re successful in making .sucks a recognized location on the internet, not only will it give people the opportunity to say what they want to say, but it will increase the chance that what they have to say will be heard by the people they’re saying it about.”
I heard Vox Populi CEO John Berard on an interview with CBC’s Day 6 radio program. The show offered a lot of criticism of the whole .sucks situation, but Berard stuck firmly to his messaging about a .sucks domain.
“It provides a clean, well-lighted place for the kind of criticism that customers want to be sure is heard and companies can leverage for improvement…My hope is that companies, institutions and governments will see the value of creating, cultivating and managing that website so as to get a handle sooner, better more meaningfully on criticisms that might be coming it way.”
And when asked about brands having to buy their .sucks domains to block and silence critics, he said:
“Our hope is that smart people inside these successful companies will see the value of launching this site and cultivating the commentary. We have set pricing for the names so as to encourage their use…The motivation for our doing this has been to establish these websites. I can only hope that our intent will be matched my market action and that there will be over time a new class of comment and criticism that emerges.
Nothing shook Berard from his key messages, and he never got upset or rose to any of the criticism. It was a great example of how to manage media situations and come out smelling if not sweet, then at least not bad, on the other side.
Now that the sunrise period has ended, anyone can buy a .sucks name for about $250 US, although the company says this fall some people can apply for subsidized sites for as little as $10/year. And yet, Vox Populi says that some “market premium” domain names (defined by the company as “names that the market over time have designated as having a high value”) are only available if you shell out $2500.
That kinda sucks, but if it blows up, I think their CEO can handle the criticism.
I was watching a presentation from an international PR agency about trust, and they were talking about what makes a trustworthy spokesperson. Engagement ranked high on the list, right next to integrity. These are important points for your CEO to keep in mind, especially when reacting to a crisis.
A really bad example of how a spokesperson loses all public trust in a crisis is BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward.
In April 2010, a blast at BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and caused one of the worst environmental disasters in history. It took five months for the well to be completely sealed, with oil leaking into the ocean every day. BP was widely condemned for its slow response to the leak, which pumped out around half a million barrels of oil in to the gulf during the first month. The world looked to Hayward for reassurance that the company would fix the situation as quickly as possible to limit the environmental and financial damage. Alas, Mr. Hayward was not the guy for engagement or integrity.
He made a lot (a huge amount!!) of mistakes when it comes to media relations around this crisis. In fact, google his name and you’ll find entire pages from credible newspapers and magazines listing his errors. The worst, undoubtedly, is the one where he forgets this crisis is not about him:
“We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
Yikes, your life back, man? What were you thinking? Or how about this one?
“What the hell did we do to deserve this?” (speaking to fellow executives in London about the Gulf oil spill disaster)
There was the time he tried to deflect the blame.
“Well, it wasn’t our accident, but we are absolutely responsible for the oil, for cleaning it up, and that’s what we intend to do…The drilling rig was a Transocean drilling rig. It was their rig and their equipment that failed, run by their people and their processes.”
And of course, then there was the way he completely minimized the impact.
“I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest.”
And of course my favourite,
“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”
By October of that year, Tony Hayward was no longer BP’s CEO.
Oh, Rob Ford, how is it you’re still in office? Still, I probably shouldn’t complain. You’ve been a gift to bloggers like me who write about mistakes in the media. You’ve been a treasure trove, really!
Recently, after swearing you’d turned a corner and were laying off the hard stuff, you had a slip. You not only slipped, you fell when you were videotaped in a fast food joint ranting drunkenly. Really, really drunkenly. But worst of all for you, you were unapologetic. That’s what the media all called you. “Unapologetic.” The Globe and Mail wrote:
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford acknowledges having a “minor setback” in drinking again and being caught on video in a rambling, expletive-laced rant about the city’s police chief – but insists the latest episode is a private matter. An unapologetic Mr. Ford read the remarks from a prepared statement… “I’m a human being – the same as every one of you,” Mr. Ford said. “I’m entitled to a personal life, and my personal life does not interfere with the work that I do day in, day out for the taxpayers of this great city.” The mayor just two months ago admitted he had smoked crack cocaine in a “drunken stupor,” but swore he had given up drugs and alcohol. On Wednesday, he said he is “still working hard” to improve his health, but did not provide details.”
Really, man, how many times can you screw up without admitting your error? Time to be apologetic now, don’t you think?
It started out as just a lost dog, but then it spun out of control when Air Canada’s spokesperson sent an email without checking who he was sending it to.
This is Larry, a greyhound who was flying Air Canada from San Francisco to Victoria, BC in October 2013, but (something many of us have experienced), his flight got canceled. While waiting for the flight to be rescheduled, Larry was let out by an employee for a walk (probably to use the facilities, if you know what I mean), when Larry made a run for it. (Larry later got hit by a car and died, sorry to say)
A reporter from a Sacramento TV station emailed Air Canada’s Vancouver spokesperson to ask about Larry the day he got lost. She responded quickly with a good statement. Then the reporter emailed her back with follow up questions, asking for quick responses for her deadline. The Vancouver spokesperson turned to Air Canada’s manager of corporate communications in Toronto, Peter Fitzpatrick, for advice. Well he must have been in a bad mood, because he was exasperated with the reporter’s questions, that he couldn’t answer.
So Fitzpatrick sent an email, intended for the Vancouver rep, that said “I think I would just ignore, it is local news doing a story on a lost dog. Their entire government is shut down and about to default and this is how the U.S. media spends its time.”
But you guessed it, he sent it instead to the reporter, who was not amused at being dismissed in this callous fashion. And they aired Fitzpatrick’s email in their story. The dog owner responded with: “Oh my God. I guess I wouldn’t expect anything different from a company that would allow something like this to happen.”
Remember, as a spokesperson, your every word can be public. This is more than just a misdirected email, it’s a reminder to never, ever take any reporter’s query as less than serious. Otherwise, the going can be really ruff.
Rob Ford, the current and maybe-soon-to-be-ex Mayor of Toronto is such an easy target for this blog. In fact, I have several Rob Ford anecdotes lined up for the next couple weeks. But an article over the weekend caught my eye, when it compared how Rob Ford deals with media versus how Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, England deals with the UK media. Needless to say, Mr. Ford didn’t come off very well.
As Mr. Johnson smiled uncomfortably and looked at the floor, Mr. Mair accused him of “making up quotes, lying to your party leader, wanting to be part of someone being physically assaulted – you’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?”
And did Johnson have a hissy fit when attacked like that, as we might expect from Toronto’s mayor? Hardly. With a stiff British upper lip,
“he merely said, rather mildly for him, that “all three things I would dispute” and that Mr. Mair was not being “wholly fair.” Later, when reporters asked him whether he felt burned, he replied: “Some people say Eddie Mair was too hard on me. You cannot be too hard on politicians. It is the function of BBC journalists to bash up politicians, particularly people like me.” He added: “Fair play to Eddie, he landed a good one.”
Are you listening, Mayor Ford? The reporter was doing his job, and the mayor, while disagreeing, did his in a dignified, polite manner.