Thursday, November 26, 2009

Soundbite Savvy from Author, Crisis Expert

Rob Phillips has so much experience working with newsmakers that he makes it look easy! He's worked for several corporations and is now Director of Communications at LifeWay Christian Resources. When I interviewed Rob for a radio program, I liked how he's calm and authentic, yet passionate about his topic. Read and learn from this interview. Notice how some of his answers display his sense of humor.

Soundbite Coach: Rob, how did you get interested in working with the news media?

RP: I was working as a corporate speechwriter in 1989 when our company experienced a crisis. There was a major explosion and fire at one of our plastics facilities. Many people died and dozens were injured. I was pressed into media relations as a backup for the first wave of media specialists on the scene. I will never forget my first on-camera interview. It was with CNN, and I must have looked like a deer in the headlights. I did so poorly that, mercifully, the network didn't use any of the interview. I figured it could only get better from there. I was wrong. I found myself needing a police escort from a news conference after another operational crisis, and I witnessed a politician take over one of news conferences on a third crisis. But the experiences gave me an interest in understanding the news media and they taught me the importance of developing and maintaining good relationships with journalists who, even in rough times, are not out to get you; they're out to get the story.

SC: What is the hardest lesson you learned about news coverage?

RP: I'll never forget agreeing to hold a news conference after an investigation into a chemical plant explosion. I thought this would be viewed as full disclosure by a big corporation, complete transparency and a significant effort in befriending the otherwise hostile news media in this major metropolitan area. I had to make all arrangements long distance, and was not able to arrive until a short time before the news conference. My flight was late, and the rental car company decided to do a favor for me by upgrading me to a gold-trimmed Cadillac (as Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up). I arrived on the scene at the last minute, where a crowd of residents led by a local politician was waiting for me, as well as a full complement of news crews. Imagine how it looked for a corporate representative to wheel into this blue collar suburb in his gold-trimmed Cadillac. Needless to say, the news conference did not go well and I nearly got ridden out of town on a rail. Lessons learned: 1. There is such a thing as being too accommodating with the news media. 2. Don't make local arrangements with news media via long distance; get eyes and ears on the ground. 3. And by all means, don't accept upgrades from the rental car company!

SC: Those are lessons not often covered in a crisis media course. What do you like about corporate communications?

RP: Two things. First, the variety. At LifeWay, for example, we're engaged in everything from news and feature stories to social networking to crisis communications. There's never a dull moment. Second, I like the challenge of telling good stories in a way that journalists see as newsworthy and that our audiences want to share with others. With the social media, we're actually able to equip and empower our audiences to retell great ministry stories from LifeWay.

SC: You’ve been in charge of media relations for big companies. What is the hardest part for executives to get about working with the media?

RP: Seeing the news media as important conduits for reaching our audiences -- customers, suppliers, the general public, and so on. The news media often are seen as anti-business -- as an enemy that can't be controlled -- rather than as a vehicle for sharing news and information with others. Sure, some journalists either don't understand or don't want to understand business, and a few are hostile to capitalism. But at the end of the day, you still don't want to pick a fight with people who buy their paper by the ton and their ink by the barrel. Also, with the rise of cell phone cameras, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, anyone is now a potential reporter, so business leaders should forever get over the illusion that they can "control" the media. The only thing we can control as businessmen and women is how we speak and how we behave.

SC: How has working with the media changed since you entered the profession?

RP: The two biggest changes I have noticed have to do with deadlines and distribution. Because of cable and satellite communications, the Internet, and especially the social media, deadlines no longer run in 24-hour cycles. They're continuous. So media relations professionals need to respond quickly to inquiries from journalists. At the same time, the expansion of distribution channels has finally erased any illusion business leaders may have had of "controlling" the media. Anyone with an Internet connection -- or even a cell phone -- is now a potential reporter. So we need to make sure we speak with a consistent voice across our organization to customers, suppliers, journalists, and others. One final note -- corporations may benefit from Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social media in addressing public concerns and correcting inaccurate reports. No need to wait for a letter to the editor or a retraction to show up. You can respond instantly and effectively through these channels.

SC: How does your organization monitor social media? Are you as concerned about what an individual may say on Twitter, for instance, as opposed to what a reporter may write in an article?

RP: We do monitor what the news media say about us, and we follow the social media as well. Obviously, we are very interested in comments about LifeWay and its people. If we've done well, we like to hear about it. If we've messed up, we want to know that, too, and act quickly to make things right. One of the nice things about social networking is that in many ways it's self-correcting. Someone who places a snide comment in a blog, for example, is often chastised by a more fair-minded reader who posts a rebuttal. Someone who tweets nasty comments often is responded to by users of Twitter with more gracious words. Sometimes all we have to do is sit back and watch. But if we feel the need to weigh in, we're able to do so immediately. The big question about engaging in social media when you're attacked is: Is it worth it? If it's a blogger with eight readers, you might give the blog undue credibility by posting a response. On the other hand, if it's someone with a significant following in the social media, you probably want to take part in the discussion.

SC: You are now an author (The Kingdom According to Jesus), giving interviews representing yourself, not an entity. Which is harder?

RP: For me, it's definitely harder representing someone else -- a corporation or ministry, for example -- than representing myself. The responsibility is greater because more than just your own reputation (and perhaps career) is on the line. But it's also rewarding to know you've stepped into a difficult situation, represented your organization well, and helped defuse a volatile situation.

SC: What have you learned as you promote your book?

RP: I'm never going to get rich as an author. Beyond that obvious lesson, I have learned that when you're "promoting" a book, it's better to talk about issues in the book that relate to people and their experiences rather than to talk about the book itself.

SC: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see newsmakers commit?

RP: First, lack of homework. By that I mean they agree to appear on programs or submit to interviews without knowing much about the reporter, the news outlet, the reporter's angle, the format, etc. Second, lack of preparation. They've got their talking points memorized, but they haven't taken the time to consider the questions they figure they'll never get asked. Third, lack of execution. When they're asked a question, they go straight to one of their talking points and avoid addressing the question altogether. Politicians do this a lot, as do many political consultants. That's why their credibility is so low. People hear them talk and say, "Hey, they never answered the question."

SC: What else would you like to add?

RP: One of the most important things for media relations professionals to understand is that there are at least three agendas in any news story. First, the news media's agenda -- why are they calling you and what do they want you to do for them? Second, your agenda -- what's best for you and your organization in this situation? And third, the audience's agenda -- why will they want to watch the evening news or read about you in the newspaper? And what will they think afterward? When reporters call, it's good to think this through before deciding whether to participate and, if so, how to participate.

SC: Rob, thank you for your time and your thoughtful answers!

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