In a Crisis, Attitude Is Everything

Different types of crises dictate different attitudes on the part of spokespersons. During a crisis, effective spokespersons must, primarily through their non-verbal cues, leave stakeholders with the impression that they are compassionate, competent and confident.

Think Rudy Giuliani on and after 9-11. It was his attitude and his non-verbal cues that gave his audience comfort. If he had delivered the same message in a stereotypical governmental manner, the amount of fear and anxiety felt by listeners would have been dramatically higher. Instead, what they clearly felt, for the most part, was "However horrible this situation is, Mayor Giuliani is going to get us through it. He's doing the right thing, in the right way." He actually delivered little substance, initially, because so little was known. But he won over his audience (not to mention laid the groundwork for his future ventures).
More recently, compare the communication styles of President Obama and former president George W. Bush. President Obama is proving to be one of the most adept communicators in the public eye today, readily moving from casual/friendly to serious/introspective to stern/reproaching. In contrast, President Bush’s apparently perpetual smirk and combativeness were poorly received not only overseas, but by a majority of people in this country, including many staunch Republicans.
The attitude you bring to an interview should be a matter of conscious choice and should be both related to the crisis at hand and also to your understanding of the stakeholders who will read or view the resulting story. Subtleties come into play when considering the appropriate attitude to adopt. There could be, for example, intra-organizational excitement about a certain outcome, excitement that could be perceived as gloating by the general public. Your gut-level attitude may or may not be appropriate to share with all stakeholders.
Manipulation? In a sense, perhaps. But post-disaster, a spokesperson’s gut reaction may be to "ignore the media and just take care of business," or to get very angry at anyone outside his organization whom he perceives to be in the way. Sometimes, channeled anger can be useful, but only when it’s a consciously chosen attitude to display.
One of the best trainees I’ve ever had was a 28-year-old woman responsible for a corporation’s college recruiting program. The company had been the focus of some criticism by college papers and bloggers. In media training, my interviewing tactics start off soft and warm up to hostile, with intensity varying depending on my assessment of the trainee’s ability to ‘take it’—i.e., their proven skill. Trainees have been known to swear at me while in front of the camera. But this young woman’s attitude was so good that nothing I threw at her fazed her in the least. She had an almost Ronald Reagan-like smile and shrug with which she acknowledged tough questions or comments without taking offense. She also had the chutzpah to come back with her best message points delivered convincingly. Even when she muffed some message points, her attitude projected competence and confidence. It didn’t surprise me, though, that she actually volunteered for more training a year later. That’s part of her attitude, too—a desire to improve.
If you’re nervous and tense, some reporters will understand and be empathetic, but others may become suspicious that your feelings result from guilt. They will probably attempt to test such suspicion, which means you’re in for a tougher interview.
Your goal is to learn to be as relaxed in the presence of a reporter as you are in your home. If you have a favorite relaxation exercise, be it meditation or deep breathing or even a quick walk around the block, by all means use it.
Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, is the author of Keeping the Wolves at Bay–Media Training. He can be reached at