Remove Foot From Mouth: 6 Tips for Speaking With The Press

How many times has this happened to you? You’re watching live television or attending an event with family and friends, and a CEO or some public official says something you, as a PR pro, know could spell trouble.

Your friends may notice you cringing. If it were your CEO up there, before your friends even notice it, you'd be heading to the office or ducking out to make or receive a phone call about what you just heard. It's part of the job.

Jeffrey Morosoff, director of Hofstra University’s graduate program in PR, and an assistant professor of PR and media studies, believes, as many PR pros do, that media training is critical, particularly in today's unforgiving digital environment.

He cites a pair of historic doozies where the CEO's words flopped. First, in 2010, an explosion in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in the death of 11 workers and spilled an estimated four billion barrels of crude oil into the Gulf.

The largest environmental disaster in U.S. history also was a prodigious PR blunder. BP CEO Tony Hayward started an answer strong, telling a reporter, “We’re sorry for the massive disruption this has caused [people’s] lives.” It went downhill from there when he said, “There’s no one who wants this thing
 over more than I do, you know…I’d like my life back.”

As Morosoff wrote, “Considering the quote came from a millionaire CEO surrounded by death and destruction, there may be few greater foot-in-mouth moments than this." A firestorm ensued. Hayward was gone one year later.

Another regrettable moment, Morosoff notes, belongs to Lululemon founder Chip Wilson. Responding to customers’ complaints of “pilling” fabric, Wilson told a journalist, “Frankly some women’s bodies just actually don’t work for [wearing Lululemon pants]’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there over a period of time, how much they use it.”

Morosoff writes, “Sometimes it’s far better to keep a CEO away from the spotlight and find a more appropriate spokesperson.” On the other hand, “Often the public demands to hear from the person in charge. The buck-stops-here sentiment seems to force the CEO to be the public face of the company and the crisis.” For that reason and others, it is “essential for companies to provide intensive media training for their leadership,” he concludes.

“Most of us don’t have the ability to be warm, smart and concise every single time we speak, especially when talking to members of the media," Morosoff writes. "Staying on message, polishing content and being prepared are essential in such situations, and while some might view training for media appearances as disingenuous and calculated, it’s not an option in today’s environment.”

Below are six tips Morosoff offers CEOs, other executives and spokespeople who face the media for their living.

  1. Never try to wing it. Going into an interview unprepared can be fatal. While the CEO or spokesperson shouldn’t try to memorize answers, he or she must know the subject matter inside and out and be comfortable talking about it in brief, conversational sound bites.
  2. Interview the reporter. It’s OK to ask a reporter what types of questions to expect. Building trust between the media and the CEO/spokesperson is fundamentally important and should happen before an interview gets started.
  3. Slow down. Pacing a response allows the CEO/spokesperson to think before words tumble out. It also gives the print reporter an opportunity to take notes more accurately. For TV or radio interviews, slowing down comes across as thoughtful, engaging and smart.
  4. Think visually. Pictures and video can be cruel. What the CEO/spokesperson wears and how he or she looks often is as important as the words used. Get honest opinions and take constructive criticism on clothing and hairstyles as well as gestures, eye contact and body language.
  5. Speak with authority. Umms and uhhs never make a CEO/spokesperson look good. He or she must relay information to reporters clearly and concisely. Practice, practice, practice with coaches, staff and friends, and use video to review and critique performance.
  6. Talk to the real audience. The CEO/spokesperson must always remember that ultimately it’s not the reporter he or she is addressing—the readers/viewers/listeners are the real audience. Speak to the public with intelligence, empathy and warmth. It will reward you with its patronage and support.

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Contact Jeffrey Morosoff: [email protected]

Follow Seth Arenstein: @skarenstein