Public Relations Reputation Management Crisis Management

The Science of Crisis Communication: Proactive and Reactive Strategies

Crisis communication—typically a reactive and intense endeavour executed with anxiety and haste. You may find yourself in a situation where you haven't fully planned what to say, b...

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The power of a good quote is that it keeps on keeping on. It repeats and echoes in our cultural memory. 

- Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee - 

I can resist everything except temptation - 

Unfortunately, so does a bad quote. The kind that makes your co-workers erupt with laughter or groans for years each time it comes up. The kind that sticks to the speaker’s reputation, far outliving the original news story. “Oh that guy/woman? Remember when he/she said …”

Sometimes, the outcome may not be catastrophic, but a lack of clarity may mean not only will the audience miss the important information you have to say - but you may lose credibility for not seeming to be across what you should.

Consider the following recent interview, where a sharp focus by the interviewer on specific cases led Professor Brendan Murphy to sound hesitant and unclear as to how the audience should handle COVID-19 era social interaction:

David Speers interviews Chief Medical Officer and Health Minister | ABC News

At its worse, the wrong phrases can haunt you for years, such as Joe Hockey’s infamous advice for first home buyers “to get a good job that pays good money”, or his claim that poor people “don't have cars or actually drive very far". 

Or former NSW Labor leader Luke Foley describing suburbs "in terms of white flight — where many Anglo families have moved out".

Maybe you remember BP’s CEO talking about one of the largest oil spills in history, which killed 11 people and spilt nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. His unthinking soundbite? “No one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back. 

BP CEO Tony Hayward: 'I'd Like My Life Back'

You may think the focus on some of these quotes are unfairly prominent - seized on and repeated in news stories despite an overall reasonable message. Yet there are techniques you can use so that "unfairness" is less of a factor, and that put you in more control of a discussion.

Yes, the Tony Hayward incident took place during a crisis communication period. But even in friendly interviews, on positive topics, the ill-prepared can fall down holes they didn’t know where there.  

One of the biggest dangers we see for clients is underestimating the potential for an interview to go south. We’ve even seen instances where they thought it went great – until they read the headline.  

So what do you need to do before and during, to ensure your interview goes smoothly? 


  • Know and believe in your key messages

You should have one to three things that you really want to get across, and a short and punchy way to say them. You should be able to back them up with proof points, and you should be able to bring most lines of questioning back to these messages. Ideally, you'll say them more than once, given the audience may face many other distractions.

Such key messages or talking points are sometimes regarded with cynicism. But they recognise that for your audience to absorb your point, you need to use simplicity and focus to cut through the thousands of words and messages flying around the heads of audience each day – as well as the agenda of an interviewer whose "angle" that day may not be what's most important for either you or your audience. 

  • Have the data to hand 

This sounds obvious. But it’s easy to forget the facts and stories you want to use in the heat of the moment. Make sure you’ve reviewed the key facts beforehand and don’t use any you aren’t sure about, simply because you're being pressured to - this can bring you undone. If the situation allows for it - say, in a phone interview - have them on a cheat sheet in front of you during the interview.   

  • Pivot, pivot! 

Bridging – the art of moving from an unwelcome question to the answer you want to give - is probably the strongest tool in your arsenal. How do you do it? If you are asked a question you can’t or don’t want to answer, you can’t launch straight into your key message with a non-sequitur – you’ll look insincere.

First, acknowledge the question, and if you can, give a short response. Then, transition to what you would like to say (a key message) with a bridging phrase such as “The important thing to remember is...”, “If I just say one thing...:”, “That's for others to comment on, but what I can say is..”. 

Key messages aren't just a shifty technique to avoid difficult questions. Rather, they allow you to talk about what you believe is important for the audience to know, in the same way that if you were discussing an issue with a friend and believed they were missing the most important point, you'd draw attention to it because you passionately believe it is important.

  • Practice, practice, practice 

Practice your sound bites, practice bridging, practice answering questions standing up without swaying, fiddling with your cuffs, or blinking rapidly. Get your bluntest friend to give you feedback. Even if all you can manage is one or two run-throughs in front of a handheld phone, you’ll be glad for a dry run. Things always come out smoother the second time around and it will get less painful and more second nature the more you can put yourself through drills.  

Here’s an example of how not to bridge

Screenshot (18)

 Gladys Liu's disastrous interview with Andrew Bolt

And an example of it done well: 

Sky News Business: Cian McLoughlin (Trinity Perspectives)


  • Fall for the booby trap 

Remember, anything you say can be quoted – by itself if required. Often called “swallowing the grenade” – a.k.a., to the layman, shooting yourself in the foot – repeating negative or outrageous questions, even to deny them, sets you up for a fall. Maybe you remember the headlines after the Defence Force Head was asked about the “children overboard” incident during a press conference. He inadvisably responded to a question saying “No, I don’t feel like a dill!” You can imagine what followed.   

  • Forget the little black box 

It’s not over till it’s over – and sometimes it’s started before it’s begun. Treat every microphone and lens as though it’s live, treat every moment of your interaction with the press as though it’s on record, and you’ll never be caught out. Don’t save the juiciest bit of gossip for the walk to the lift and then be surprised when you see it in print.   

  • Recite endless numbers 

Far better, especially on tv or radio, to tell a story than to list statistics like they are going out of style. The numbers may seem compelling to you, and your story should be substantiated, but a narrative is easier to follow, has greater impact, and stops you sounding like a corporate mouthpiece. A story is easier to remember, it brings your point to life, and it gives you energy and empathy on screen or on air.   

  • Play dead 

They say the camera adds ten pounds, but what is for sure is that it drains life – by about 70%. Remember that body language – at least if it’s for broadcast, including TV, online video content, radio, podcasts, or other multimedia – is a huge part of your communication and will translate you’re your messaging. You don’t need to act like one of The Wiggles, but you do need to remember to bring additional energy, movement, expression and – if appropriate – friendliness and smiles to the camera. Your voice and posture are part of your arsenal. 

  • Show off how "professionally" you can speak 

Strange things happen when you put some inexperienced people in front of a lens or mic – they can show behaviour they didn’t know they had, and their usually clear speech can suddenly be transformed into the polysyllabic and pretentious phraseology of a caricatured stuffy professor.

Even if your nerves (or exposure to corporate lingo) try to make you do otherwise, don’t use long words where short ones will do, or technical ones where common ones will serve. Avoid jargon as much as possible: even if your audience is highly knowledgeable, experts can also be tired and distracted listeners/ watchers/ readers. Plain English is the easiest and most pleasant to digest, whereas formality often makes you seem cold and can make listeners or readers lose enthusiasm quickly.  

Most importantly, know you don’t have to go it alone. Work with your comms team or agency to make sure your prep is air tight, and if you haven’t yet been media trained, consider booking in a session to build your fundamentals. Because you don’t want your reputation to last forever – for the wrong reasons.  

If you’d like to discuss adjusting your communication strategy for the current times, please call us or fill out our contact form here.

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