PIOs occasionally ask me for advice. Even if they don't ask, here's the advice I give in part or whole to those who may want to stand up in front of a group or do media interviews:
1. Be true to yourself. The easiest way to lose credibility is to pretend to be someone else. People will know right away. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
2. Be humble. The ancient Greeks wrote a lot about hubris for a reason.
3. Be honest. Albert Einstein's quote applies to our work: “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”
4. Never spin. You may choose to emphasize something, but never spin.
5. Remember, you are not a news celebrity or a media personality. If you are ever tempted to fake laugh banter with the sports guy, immediately stop what you're doing and reevaluate. Being on TV doesn't make you better looking, increase the value of your house, or make your kid any smarter. It's not about you. You are just a PIO and you represent everyone affected by and working on the incident. If people absorb the information but do not remember who you are, that's a good thing.
6. Observe. Watch other PIOs. See what you like, see what you don't like, and see what you would change. It's OK to borrow from others but don't become another. Make it your own. If you hear a little voice in your head saying you are copying someone, try to figure out how you can reach the same end but in a way that is yours. Always keep #1 in mind.
7. Practice. When you're not on an incident, pay attention to the news and watch how spokespersons handle things. What would you do in that situation? How would you phrase it, communicate it? You can even rework previous incidents. How would you describe that tough day? How would you talk about the feared tough day that never quite materialized? What would you say if that tough day turned out to be worse than it was? The point is to always practice. Though it seems we have lots of opportunities, the interview times are limited and incident-dependent. Practicing prepares you for your time and in our work, you can never predict when your time may come.
8. Read. The better vocabulary you have the less reliant you will be on verbal constructs created by others. (See the Partisanship post.) Read a bunch.
9. Pay attention to the nonverbal. Communication is best when what you say lines up with what you do and it's even better when you are comfortable doing those two things together. Again, don't feel like you have to copy others. Do what's comfortable for you assuming it's within bounds. For instance, you'll probably distract from the message if you bob your head like a chicken, so no matter how comfortable that feels to you, it might be a good idea to find another path. For another instance, if you move your hands a bunch when you explain stuff, just make sure they don't fly in front of your face.
10. Figure it out and put it all together.
11. You will make mistakes. Learn and move forward. Don't dwell.
12. Understand that people will probably talk about you: colleagues, team members, administrators, reporters, elected officials, people in DC, and everyone else. Some may even say mean things. So what? They are not the ones standing in front of an audience or a bunch of cameras talking to people under stress while trying to explain difficult concepts and manage emotions. Get a thick skin. If you need affirmation, look to your mentors and loved ones. If you want legitimate critiques, go to people you trust.
13. Know that experiences will change you, so be open to learning--and to questioning yourself. Then figure it out again and put it back together. It's a continuous process.
Note: For #4, think of an incident where homes have been lost. Emphasize would be something like:
"We tried our best to protect as many homes as we could and through some gutsy firefighting we were able to stop the fire on Hickory Avenue, which kept it out of the larger subdivision that has several hundred homes."
You're emphasizing the firefighters and the homes saved, not the homes lost. It's also honest because you acknowledged the homes lost--you're not trying to hide anything. The emphasis on the homes saved will, in all likelihood, draw a question about the "gutsy firefighting" which gives you many good options in how you might respond and carry out the interview or briefing.
Spin I think of as saying something completely opposed to the interests and emotions of the moment to create a false confidence or reality:
"In 6 months, this local economy will be humming with new jobs and the construction business will be leading the way by rebuilding these neighborhoods."
At first, I thought that example might be a little too cute, but looking at what we hear on the news during elections and such, I guess it seems plausible.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.