Leaders must speak with one voice, have coordinated, unified message

Avoid confusion with a primary spokesperson

Have you ever heard that there are two sides to every story? Or multiple ways to answer a single question? No doubt you have. There are multiple perspectives for every situation. In life this can be good. When it comes to your business’s reputation, multiple perspectives and answers can be problematic if they do not mesh.

The goal when interacting with members of the media is to avoid contradictory information delivered by multiple individuals. If several sources give differing information to a media representative and these are used in a news story or online piece, how does the public know which information is correct? This inconsistency will lead to issues with credibility and can be damaging especially if sources offer contradictory thoughts or facts about a situation. The solution to minimize information confusion is to have a single person responsible for delivering information to members of the media.

Who communicates a message or speaks for your business?

When it comes to your business, it is always preferable to have a single person act as your company’s designated spokesperson and official media contact for your company. Your dedicated spokesperson must be media savvy, understanding how to interact with journalists accurately and communicate transparently.

For a small business, the designated spokesperson might be the CEO or the Director of Marketing, or may even be an external public relations firm representative.

When you have a critical situation in which you’re communicating technical information you may also want to have a subject matter expert speak in conjunction with your designated spokesperson. Subject matter experts can often convey a highly technical information in a way that bolsters the message and helps people understand complicated topics.

For larger firms there will be a communications team whose job it is to speak with members of the media. There may even be specific individuals who are aligned with the various publics or audiences of the corporation: customers, stockholders, employees. This team is coordinated, so they all deliver the cohesive information.

Unified messaging whether in a crisis situation or in regular PR and marketing communications is mandatory. When you have several people who communicate with the media without coordination, the result can be detrimental publicity which damages your reputation.

Multiple points of view help shape credible messages

When working out what to say and how to respond, every viewpoint of the potential audiences must be comprehended. These viewpoints shape the manner, tone and content of a response. Evaluate and utilize insights from all your constituencies in order that the resulting message does not open up a minefield of other issues.

You have seen this happen when leaders deliver tone-deaf messages which cause slights or insult various members of the public. As an example there is the apology type I call “sorry, not sorry”. A classic example is United Airlines’ 2017 contrasting initial public response and employee directed response to the involuntary removal of a passenger from their plane. [Read the story on PR News Online.]

Annual communications audits and training

Annually your communications team or corporate spokesperson needs to work with the company leaders to identify key messages. They also must identify potential vulnerabilities and outline for the team how those vulnerabilities — if they become occurrences — might impact your business. After having identified potential threats, whether it’s a customer complaint which goes viral via social media, violence in the workplace or a storm which disrupts business, you can outline an initial message and points of response. Keeping these points fresh and updated allows you to respond with nimbleness to an immediate situation.

The foundation of these plans will include who will speak in each given situation and who has the responsibility of communicating on behalf of the business. As noted earlier, in some situations you may be able to benefit from having subject matter experts partnered with your designated spokesperson.

How will frontline staff interact with the media?

When members of the media visit your business locations and attempt to speak with people who are not designated to speak with the voice of the company, it’s critical that frontline staff understand how to react as well the appropriate method for providing contact information for the designated spokesperson. One of the simplest ways to do this is to have the unit manager meet the media person if they are in the store or speak with them on the phone and provide the contact information or the business card for the spokesperson.

It is the staff member’s responsibility to then communicate the journalist’s name, contact information and affiliation which they got during their interaction to the communications person or team. Doing so in this manner means that both the journalist and the spokesperson know about the contact. Most PR people will go ahead and reach out to the journalist, rather than wait on the media contact to reach out.

Training for frontline staff members needs to be a part of their orientation when they join the firm. Regular review of this topic with employees to keep everyone familiar with how they direct inquiries will ensure that when a media representative contacts your business, the person who greets them will know what to do, and do it well.

If you follow this simple outline of how to get your message coordinated, you can avoid multiple messages which may lead to confusion, or damage to your business reputation.

What if you do not have someone who capable of serving as a spokesperson?

A public relations firm such as Charleston PR & Design can provide identification of vulnerabilities, message development, spokesperson training, and can act as a spokesperson in critical situations. We can also provide training to your frontline staff around interaction with the media. Don’t wait until it’s too late, plan ahead and be certain that your messages are coordinated and represent your business with clarity and unity and that your designated spokesperson is ready, able and can respond with authority.

Photo Copyright: microgen / 123RF Stock Photo

Prevent a “Walk Back” – Get Your Message Right the First Time

Years ago, Monty Python crafted what may be the funniest sketch in the world. The episode titled, “Face the Press”, is about a civil servant who works at the Ministry of Silly Walks. There, using grants from the government, he develops crazy high stepping gaits. In the sketch, John Cleese walks with the most exaggerated manner of hops, twists, turns, lunges, and leg swings. I never thought I would see the day when the Ministry of Silly Walks was reality, but lately, it appears that the Python’s sketch has come to life with all manner of civil servants doing walk backs. But what is a walk back?

Walk backs are silly walks of the verbal kind

Lately, when leaders in both the political (and corporate) entities wish to re-shape perception of prior statements, a spokesperson is called in to tell the audience what the leader *really* meant to say.

We have words which apply to communications such as retraction, clarification, explanation, and, now we have a new term: walk back. If you’ve noticed an increase in the use of walk back in political or corporate news lately you’re not alone.

In a 2013 entry in StackExchange, a writer asked, “Does “walk back” have a meaning of ‘deny’ or ‘keep distance from somebody / something.’ as an idiom?” In responses posted to the query, one individual noted, “I’ve often heard walk back used idiomatically to mean backpedal from or retract a statement or promise.”

In our opinion, a walk back happens because somebody didn’t think first before making a statement. Leaving others to clean up a mess. Noted crisis communications expert Jonathan Bernstein says, “I think walk-backs are disingenuous, they are a less-honest way to acknowledge a mistake.”

In news headlines we’ve seen spokespersons backpedaling by redefining a message. Examples from the news include (emphasis mine) the following usage:

The opening sentence in a Washington Times article, “Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer predicted Wednesday that President Trump is going to walk things back on immigration after expressing interest in a compromise bill on Tuesday.”

Or in a NY Times article, “Through it all, Mr. Trump repeated a series of misleading assertions and falsehoods, such as when he seemed simultaneously to walk back and yet double down on his accusation that President Barack Obama had wiretapped him.”

In a story published on Talking Points Memo, the piece opens with the lede, “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday tried to walk back her suggestion that historically black colleges were the product of a “school choice” movement rather than legalized segregation and Jim Crow laws.”

Walk backs in recent news headlines

Learn from the poor examples of walk backs

Communication is fraught with complications and challenges. What one person says may not be comprehended (as intended) because the recipient’s experience, worldview or beliefs differs widely from those of the speaker. In the case of the walk back, a speaker communicates, and later finds that what he or she said didn’t fly, creating the need to distance him or herself the statement, hence a walk back.

The art of the apology requires one to communicate with sincerity, transparency, and honesty in order to find acceptance with individuals one has wronged, slighted, or insulted. If someone has mis-spoken, then clarification is in order. If one was erroneous in one’s statements, then a retraction and apology are required. But we don’t see much of the retraction or apology these days from leaders. What we get are these limp walk backs, which are doing nobody any good.

Some of the walk backs we’ve seen and read are delivered with a dismissive tone, indicating that anyone in the public who thought such a thing must certainly be dim-witted, because *obviously* the person meant, what the spokesperson is now saying, not what was perceived.

Such ham-fisted attempts to shift perception, distance or change understanding cause more damage than they cure. People are easily offended, and not so easily wooed back into alliance. Backhanded apologies do not go down well with those who have been offended or wronged.

Craft your messages to avoid walk backs

If you are going to deliver a message or statement about a situation, endeavor to keep it from being taken “the wrong way”. It’s better to craft a solid message which says what you mean it to say, rather than have to deploy a second round of messages clarifying the first message.

Far better is to have message templates prepared (before you need them) so you do not waste time when you need to respond. Communicating in a crisis is no fun for anyone. Doing it with grace, sincerity, transparency, honesty, and believability doesn’t happen when you’re in the pressure cooker. Advance preparation of both messages and leaders yields better messages, and less confusion. Better messages, mean no walk backs.

To get your message right, seek trusted opinions of people within and without your sphere and from all points of view. This will aide you in comprehending how your message may be perceived. Then edit your message to avoid compounding the very thing you’re trying to correct. Put the draft of the final message through its paces with your trusted panel, and make any adjustments required.

If you’re going to speak in person to news media, get media training to prepare you to respond to all manner of questions related to your message and subject. Practice your message delivery in a role-playing situation. Have a team playing the public or the media. Let them ask you hardball questions and get practice responding, staying on message and not losing your cool. Once you’re comfortable speaking, answering questions, you can deliver a message that prevents the need for a silly walk back.


Thanks to Deviantart Member chaplin007 for his Ministry of Silly Walks used in our header.

Crisis Prevention: Vulnerability and Risk Management

Animals comprehend their vulnerability. Vertebrates have a dorsal and ventral side. Our dorsal sides are our backs — from the Latin dorsum. Our ventral sides are our bellies. Unshielded, our bellies are one of the weakest points on a vertebrate animal.

Dogs showing submission roll onto their backs, displaying their belly to the dominant dog. Armadillos must roll into a ball to protect their vulnerable underside. Every animal species understands its vulnerable side and how to protect it.

What is your vulnerability?

Every business entity has a vulnerable side too. Learning how to protect your business by assessing risks and managing vulnerabilities is a wise investment.

If you do not assess risks and discover your vulnerabilities, you stand the potential to be ripped apart by unforeseen consequences.

How do you assess risk?

Assessing risk requires a systems approach and perhaps outside experts. There are professionals (such as our firm) who will help assess your risks. Experts from every area: financial, HR, IT, physical plant and electrical are all good to help assess your risk and propose safety measures to prevent loss. CPAs can assess your financial systems and identify weaknesses in your management of assets, both property assets and money. Human Relations consultants can help you by conducting background checks of potential employees. You can call on the fire department to assess your warehouse or office or storefront to protect you from fire threat. IT consultants can examine your ability to back up and secure vital information.

You may be a business with sales of $50 million a year or one with sales of $50,000 a year, but each is vulnerable. Physical / premises weaknesses, human / employee weaknesses, financial / information vulnerabilities, and reputation / public relations vulnerabilities are present in every business. Finding yours, making a plan and mitigating risk is crucial in order to be a mature business. Of course, there are many businesses who never undertake risk assessment. And they never have a threat or loss. And there are just as many caught unawares whose companies disappear overnight when the unthinkable happens. Do not hide from the opportunity to plan.

In the Carolinas, we live with the seasonal threat of hurricanes. Have you assessed your ability to weather a category five or lesser storm? Have you made sure you have all your IT systems backed up in the cloud? Are all your paper files stored above the one hundred year flood height? Do you have an emergency alert and notification system in place to inform your employees not to report to work in the advent of a storm? How will you notify them to return to work you are able to resume operations? Do you have business interruption insurance? We could go on and list multiple areas to examine.

Accept that every component of your business is vulnerable to loss, interruption of business, damage, or absolute breakdown. Now the question becomes, “What does it take for me to get back up and running?”

Involve every employee and manager in making an outline of what is essential and critical in order for them to work. Depending on your product or services, you may be able to all work remotely. If you are a manufacturer or hard-goods producer, you will need to outline how to get back into operation. This requires that you have agreements with vendors from outside our geographical area lined up to provide materials, support and services to help you get back up and running.

While you may object to going to these lengths now to assess risks and plan for interruption and recovery, planning now will save you money, time and ultimately your business.