He presided over the biggest environmental catastrophe in US history. But Tony Hayward survived the global blowback from the BP oil spill only to destroy his career with five little words, five weeks after the Deepwater Horizon disaster: “I want my life back.”
It was May 30, 2010, and Hayward was the head of BP, whose alleged drilling safety shortcuts spewed millions of barrels of toxic oil into the Mexican Gulf. It crippled the industry, devastated the environment and left 11 rig workers dead.
The fact that Hayward’s off-the-cuff remark to a reporter was taken out of context is irrelevant. He’d been apologising to all those affected by the disaster and promising a safe and speedy clean-up but that momentary brain synapse snap undid any goodwill he’d started to rebuild.
Such was the public condemnation of the callous-sounding remark that nine days later President Barack Obama scored easy political points by telling the press, “[Hayward] wouldn’t be working for me after any of those statements”.
While few financial services executives will find themselves dealing with a BP-sized crisis, Hayward’s statement is a vivid example of an under-pressure professional forgetting the basics when it comes to interacting with the press.
Only say what you want the world to know
It sounds simple, but treat every microphone as though it’s live. Never let any words escape your lips if you’ll regret them being heard. The worn out saying “nothing is off the record” is just as true today as it was when it was first uttered by Franklin Roosevelt during his presidential fireside chats with reporters. (If you’re really keen to know more, PRNewswire has a great blog on what “off the record” really means.)
Align your nonverbal cues
When you’re speaking on television, viewers aren’t only listening to what you say, but also how you say it. They’re likely to be judging your wardrobe choice, tone of voice and body language just as keenly as the content of your response.
A few basic tricks can help you appear more self-assured and authoritative. For example, it’s important to pay attention to your posture, and to remaining completely still. Speak with your shoulders back, breathe deeply, but without raising your shoulders and fix an eye-line and stick to it. Shifty eyes make anyone come across as shifty! A confident delivery in this medium is crucial and practice makes perfect.
Finding your presidential voice
The greatest television program of all time, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing (fact), features a political candidate’s debate preparation involving the search for his ‘presidential voice’.
The White House brand is obviously not for everyone. But everyone can aim to strike the perfect ‘voice’ or perfect tone that represents their company and personal brand.
Media training can help identify and unlock yours, the subtext of which is ideally “Listen, what I’m saying is important”.
The banking inquiry in Canberra had all the makings of a media storm for Australia’s big four bank chief executives.
Instead, the collective performance of Messers Narev, Elliott, Thorburn and Hartzer was widely praised by the press.
One journalist commended the often-pilloried men for their “frankness, contrition and strength”, and asserted that the banking inquiry actually “overwhelmingly proved why they earn those big bucks. The PR agencies that have been coaching them would have been chuffed”.
From a public relations perspective, the grilling in Parliament can be seen as a great success, as each of the chief executives dealt expertly with three hours of uncomfortable questions, thanks to on-point messaging, and grace-under-fire performances.
Focusing your message to your audience is an effective way of getting your message out via the media.
It’s the job of a journalist to evoke in you a surprising new angle. In the 24-hour-news-cycle-world a “gotcha” moment almost guarantees media coverage.
Avoiding “gotcha-moments” (Hayward, anyone?) or being quoted out of context IS entirely feasible so long as message clarity is honed through preparation. Decide on three or four key points and hold firm to them.
Media training can help you discover what the media is looking for and the differences in how to communicate differently with say, newspaper and radio journalists.
That said, anticipating questions and tackling curveballs takes practice.
Identifying the points you wish to make, AND those you do not.
If your goal is to attract more media coverage, being seen and heard on a regular basis is essential. Coming across as a competent spokesperson will give you the competitive edge.