A PR View Of CEO Apologies

Most public relations experts agree that the rules of the public apology are relatively simple. Be sorry. Do it quickly. Take full responsibility. Where possible, communicate how you will fix the problem.
But if apologizing is so simple, why do so many CEOs botch the apologies? Sometimes it’s because legal advice conflicts with PR counsel. It may also be due to those who are delivering the mea culpa.

As the face of the corporation, many CEOs are naturally charismatic. Some are effortlessly sincere. But in a high-stakes situation where a strong apology is required, most leaders need help with the art of expressing remorse. Media training can be a useful communications tool, whether it be for national TV interviews or phone chats with small trade press.

Several factors determine how the public will receive a video/interview apology. A good apology can actually be turned into an advantage for a company. Netflix, for example, bounced back after it mishandled the announcement of a short-lived split of its services. (Remember Qwikster?)

Not all behavior is intuitive. A study of video corporate apologies conducted by researchers Leanne ten Brinke and Gabrielle S. Adams found that the more the CEOs smiled, the more the stock prices dropped. Yet share prices rose as the CEOs expressed more regret.

Here are our nominations for best CEO in a video apology:

CEO John Stumpf, Wells Fargo

Scandal: 2016. Charging customers for phony accounts
Time elapsed before TV apology: 5 days
Contrition? He does express regret, but it’s hard to tell if it’s due to the fake accounts or the negative PR that resulted. In interview with Jim Cramer on his CNBC show, Stumpf accepts no real responsibility. Before the interview starts, he jumps the gun by cutting off the host, stuttering a bit, and leaping into his statement. He does say “we are sorry,” but not “I am sorry.” Most significantly, he blames lower-level employees, saying they “misinterpreted” the company’s sales incentive policy. Yet anyone watching can spot the flaw in his explanation. If 1% (over 5000) employees are fired for defrauding their customers, how can management not take responsibility for this behavior?
Body language: He used lots of hand gestures but sometimes they make him look defensive. Yet it’s worth noting that overall, Stumpf is a good spokesperson. The eye contact is strong; he leans forward and sits at attention.
Apology accepted? Denied. He was forced to resign about a month after the scandal broke. Even a strong on-camera performance couldn’t overcome the problem with the apology itself.


CEO Rick Smith, Equifax

Scandal: 2017 Epic data breach
Time elapsed: A video statement was released on the same day *(but the breach had been discovered by Equifax two months prior)
Contrition? It takes Smith a full minute to get to the apology. He expresses regret, but hardly takes full responsibility. To his credit, he uses the pronoun ‘I,’ but his language is stilted. The stock phrase “I deeply regret the incident” sounds designed to distance him from the problem. It would have been more effective to say, “I am very sorry that our customers’ information was stolen on my watch.”
Body language: His posture is a bit stiff. He omits a tie, so he looks more relatable, yet he speaks in a monotone. His eye contact is shifty, which is a hazard of using a teleprompter. This video apology raises the question of when to use a recorded statement instead of an interview. The advantage is that there’s no aggressive journalist to challenge him, which can be very important for a nervous or media-shy executive. The problem, however, is that it’s easy to come across as stiff and antiseptic. And if the lines aren’t memorized it’s likely to seem fake. At least in an actual interview, there’s a chance for the CEO to seem like there’s blood coursing through his veins.
Apology accepted? Not accepted. After getting grilled by Congress, he “retired” with golden parachute intact.


CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook

Scandal: 2018: Not informing the users of a massive data breach
Time elapsed before TV interview: 4 days.
Contrition? Yes, Zuckerberg is sorry. You’d be sorry too if you lost $9 billion in wealth in 48 hours. In the CNN interview, he never evades the tough questions. He outlines coming solutions and good things Facebook is doing. He appears reasonable and credible. He does not appear aloof, or as if he’s making excuses. Zuckerberg does not like interviews, and he admits as much in this one, which is a show of honesty that actually helps the apology. He later admits that perhaps the company should be regulated, explaining that the question isn’t “whether” but “how” regulations should be applied. It’s a disarming approach, both in the message and the delivery.
Body language: Excellent eye contact (too much?). He is actively engaged, yet fairly relaxed. His dress is casual – in typical big-tech fashion — which helps promote an image of accessibility.
Apology accepted? Remains to be seen.


CEO Oscar Munoz, United Airlines

Scandal: 2017: Ticketed passenger dragged off plane.
Time elapsed before TV apology: 3 days
Contrition: Not sufficient. After releasing a pair of inadequate public statements, Munoz is forced to go on TV. In his interview with ABC’s Rebecca Jarvis, he says he feels “shame” and clearly attempts to appear regretful. Instead, he comes off as more annoyed and angry than ashamed. Munoz fails to evoke much humanity. He uses the pronouns “we” and “our” instead of “I” — which can indicate a lack of acceptance of personal responsibility.
Body language: His posture is fine, but he sits back in his chair, which can make one seems defensive. He does not maintain good eye contact with the journalist. He often looks as if he’s trying to remember his messaging.
Accepted or denied? Accepted. Still CEO, though his planned promotion to chairman was scuttled.

 


CEO Steve Ells, Chipotle

Scandal: 2015: E. coli & norovirus outbreaks
Time elapsed before TV interview: Over a month.
Contrition? As CEO apologies go, this was solid. In the interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, the concern shows on his stern, serious face. He has clearly benefited from excellent media training. He gets to the apology immediately and uses the pronoun “I.” He shows his fallibility and seems very authentic. Ells talks extensively about all the things they will do to correct the problem, promising they will be 10-15 years ahead of the industry in food safety. When Matt Lauer asks him about stock prices, he smartly says, “That’s not what we’re thinking about now. We’re thinking about safety…”
Body language: He sits with good posture and leans forward. He maintains good eye contact, but not too much. His dress is a bit more casual than most CEOs – a sweater under a jacket, which makes him appear less aloof or corporate than, say, Munoz.
Accepted or denied? Debatable, because, as strong as Ells’s performance was, Chipotle continued to struggle with fresh outbreaks of food-borne illness among customers. Ells stepped down in late 2017, which shows that you can be an excellent apologizer, but if you don’t fix the problem, it won’t matter in the long run.

6 Things Your PR Agency Can Do Beyond Media Relations

Those seeking public relations services often pigeonhole it into media relations. But there are some important value-adds that PR partners can bring to a relationship that help elevate a company or brand. Here are just a few:

High-level media training. Many a CEO has declined to make time for a media prep session on the grounds that “no one knows the company better than I do” or “I don’t want to sound ‘canned,'” only to falter in an important interview. Common mistakes include disclosing more than necessary, getting angry or defensive, or simply failing to maximize the opportunity. For a real dash of schadenfreude, check out these examples  of what not to do. The best media training sessions train the entire team, starting at the top.

Brand perception audits. As more brands forego traditional advertising but increase overall PR spend, communications partners need to be integrally involved with brand culture, messaging, sales strategy and the industry landscape. For that reason, we advocate for PR to take the lead in conducting a detailed analysis of a brand in its current state, engineered to highlight strengths and weaknesses and help the team structure a results-oriented program. The audit isn’t new, of course, but it’s newly important.

Website analysis and evaluation. One of the first things we do when partnering on a PR assignment is review the company website, a topic we also tackled here. Our experience can offer insight into what makes a successful e-commerce site or what a B2B destination tells its prospects, and we will always make recommendations to make a client site more journalist-friendly and stronger in telling a company story.

Thought leadership events. An excellent way to create quality content and gain exposure for a trendsetting company is a thought leadership event. One example: convene a panel of like-minded executives to weigh in on a specific sector or issue. We’ve produced panels and meetings on topics from art e-commerce to worker’s compensation insurance. (Often, the narrower the topic, the better.) In addition to opportunities for media to attend and cover such events, a savvy PR team will package the resulting content for white papers, bylines and other post-event coverage.

Long-form content.  In the era of digital publishing, any executive can be an author, which also speaks to thought leadership. But the most successful in the genre get help from great writers – many of whom are journalist or PR professionals. Books lend credibility to a CEO or a company while offering a fresh news hook for an ongoing PR program.

Bonus tip. PR partners come to know a business and a team, and like any other good consultant, can be an important resource for key business moves such as hiring. As a client partner to many early stage businesses, we’re often called on to help vet and hire internal marketing staffers as well as make recommendations for outside experts in branding, market research, or marketing automation.

What Master Interviewers Can Teach PR People

Because we spend time preparing clients for meetings with journalists, PR people tend to study media interviews from the view of the person getting the questions. During this crazy political primary season, interview-watching is a spectator sport, usually starring Donald Trump.

Yet something changed this week. Trump has had interviews with conservative Wisconsin radio personality Charlie Sykes, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. Though the journalists are very different, each interview was like a mini-master class in political interviewing style.

In every case, the reporter managed to break through the candidate’s bluster to reveal more than most previous interviews put together.

Trump’s struggles may stem from his attempt to broaden his appeal and therefore branch out in accepting interviews that he normally wouldn’t agree to. And most “normal” media interviews – like the ones public relations people set up every day – need not be adversarial. But analyzing each exchange got me thinking about first-rate interviewing skills that most PR people and their clients should cover in their own media prep sessions.

Create a relaxed environment. Every skilled interviewer starts with small talk, ideally flavored with a little common ground or flattery. They know that a relaxed and engaged subject will offer better responses, and that a friendly demeanor will play better with the audience if there is one. But those being interviewed should be aware of this, and of the fact that, unless an interviewer is rushed for time, he’s likely to start out easy and move to the tougher questions later. It’s not over ’til it’s over.

Match your style to the subject. Chris Matthews was particularly effective in questioning Trump because – like the candidate – he’s naturally bombastic. He badgers, meanders, and interrupts; in fact, he was so relentless that he was able to press Trump on his views about abortion, which resulted in a tangled response that had to be walked back by the campaign by the time the interview aired. Trump’s error here was being unprepared.

For other interview occasions, the challenge may be different. Badgering won’t work to draw out a reserved spokesperson or pull a colorful quote out of a canned speech. One reporter that I worked with confessed a trick for opening up reluctant subjects. She would pretend to end the interview, start to pack up, then act as if she’d remembered one last question, essentially starting fresh with a slightly less guarded interviewee.

Share your goals. Reporters don’t have to hide their motives; in fact, the journalist who explains what she’s going for in an interview will probably get a better and more authentic response from the subject. At the end of the day, you both want an interesting interview and an engaged audience.

Master the follow-up. Every good journalist knows that it’s crucial to follow-up, and follow-up again, but there’s an art to not appearing hectoring. Broadcast journalists sometimes temper their style when politicians segue into talking points without addressing the question because they don’t want to appear disrespectful on camera. Anderson Cooper did a good job with Trump in pinning him down even though he was challenged by Trump’s frequent interruptions and diversions into portions of his stump speeches.

Ask why. This is a useful and legitimate way to follow up, and it often elicits a better quote. It’s also an effective way to get at more personal motives or emotions, or to go deeper than a rehearsed sound bite that’s been used many times before. I don’t see it as dangerous for the interview subject, but it’s useful to practice an interview by going beyond a series of first-line questions.

Don’t fear the silence. In media prep sessions, I always tell clients not to feel compelled to fill a silent period during an interview. Staying quiet is a common technique used by journalists to encourage people to keep talking even when their answer has run its course. The impulse to keep talking to fill an awkward silence is a strong one, but the best response may be a smile.

Recap the story. We often prepare clients for interviews about technology issues where they may not realize they’re going into too much detail or using language not familiar to regular people. That’s why it’s helpful to recap the “story” to the person being interviewed to give them a sense of an average person’s takeaway and offer a chance to correct or simplify. With political candidates, it can also make them realize what’s inconsistent or disingenuous about a response.

Add a question as an afterthought. Nearly anyone being interviewed is on their guard, so good interviewers often save their toughest or best questions for the end. They may signal that the session is about to wrap up, wait for the person to relax, and fire away. But by the same token, an interview subject can volunteer to answer the question that wasn’t asked, and a good journalist will often welcome the opening. Many reporters we work with won’t conclude an interview without inquiring if there’s anything else that should have been asked.

For anyone who is the subject of a media interview, it bears repeating that the interview isn’t over until it’s over. And even then, there may be follow-up, fact-checking, editing, and adding, so don’t exhale until you see it printed, posted, or broadcast.

Five Steps To Mastering Media Training For B2B PR Clients

Providing customized media training offers one of the best opportunities for a  B2B PR firm to impact client communications performance while also strengthening the relationship. The agency team can also come away with a deeper understanding of the company’s business goals, mission, and messaging, making for more successful media outcomes. Want to do media training properly? Follow these five steps:

Start with the big picture. Even if interviews have already been secured successfully, the odds are that the client doesn’t have a full grasp on the media landscape and how journalists work today. Start with an educational overview of media to set the stage.

Refine key messages. This one sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how often full media training sessions (read: simulated interviews with full critique) devolve into an overhaul of presumably approved story points. If the session takes place after you’ve worked with a client for a while, this is an excellent time to review background materials to make sure wording is up to date. Review to make sure the tone is right for each target and that the messages aren’t too jargon-heavy or commercial. It’s wise to be prepared to rip apart the master messaging document to make sure it’s working for where the client and the story are now but if a revamp is needed, it should happen before the training session.

Use video. It’s important to focus on the likeliest Q&A scenarios to face each client; however, video playback is critical even for those clients who will never be offered for a TV spot so that the critique can be meaningful. The best trainings are highly tailored, and the agency trainer needs to know key media targets. There’s no point in role-playing a mass media interview for a B2B client, of course, and casting the net too broadly (or at too high a level) can be confusing, so video simulations should be focused on interviews with specific imagined media outlets.

Be a constructive critic.  Once the practice interviews take place, it’s important to be observant and comment on everything from hand gestures to repetitious words and garbling of the message. This is the most important part of the session and where the real change can take place in client presentation. Of course, a generous allotment of praise and reinforcement is also advisable.

Recap the session…quickly.  Best to do this within a few days, while the learnings are still fresh. This documentation will help the client perfect interviews and positively impact the way client stories are offered to press. Most importantly, the session should be flexible, so key materials can be easily reviewed in advance of a key media conversation as a refresher. No one will remember everything!

PR Pros, Avoid These Common Broadcast Interview Mistakes

Preparation is more than half the battle when arranging a broadcast interview for a PR client or spokesperson. Whoever your client may be – tech guru, CEO of a major consumer company or a celebrity spokesperson, there are always pitfalls to avoid! Check these out to help you prepare your PR client for a TV interview.

An interview is not a commercial.  If you convey anything of merit to your spokesperson, convey this: message delivery must be organic and natural, not obvious mentions of the product or company. It is always wise to prep your clients by having them view some great spokesperson interviews in advance as part of overall media training.

An interview is not an interrogation.  “You can’t handle the truth,” Jack Nicholson shouted famously at a climactic point in classic film “A Few Good Men.” And his verbal attack made sense in the courtroom.  But your client needs to remain even-tempered and unflappable in the face of a combative reporter.  New Jersey’s Governor Christie has had to master this in the face of “Bridgegate” often deflecting with humor, which can work quite well.

An interview is not a laundry list of messages. Don’t let your spokesperson drone on endlessly.  Prepare for the art of conversation. Lively, natural back-and-forth is a hallmark of an interesting interview, and effective media training should always stress this.

An interview (shouldn’t be) a waste of time.  In media training we tend to spend a lot of time preparing for negative or even hostile questions, but the more likely trap is the irrelevant query.  Make sure your spokesperson is prepared to segue into an appropriate response if asked an inappropriate or off-topic question. After all, he is there to share expertise, enlighten, or tell a story, not to fall down a rabbit hole.

An interview is better with storytelling. Encourage your client spokesperson to have a couple of interesting anecdotes or examples that bring your messages to life. This will engage them right away and provide a natural lead-in to a logical brand message. Make the story about the audience. In a recent piece about fashion upstart Rent the Runway, the co-founder of the company began by describing what today’s fashion-conscious consumer wants and then led into what her company provides that is different and compelling.

As any PR pro should know – effective media training will help make any interview more successful.

PR Tips for Interview Prep

A former colleague once told me that she “interviews recreationally” – that is, she actually enjoys going on job interviews even if she isn’t actually looking to make a jump.  She interviews for sport – to see what else is out there, remain savvy about the PR marketplace, and stay competitive within the field.

Assuming you’re in the majority who don’t rank interviewing among your top hobbies, you probably get apprehensive the night before an interview.  The what-ifs can be killer, especially if you’re new to the interviewing scene.  Below are key tips borrowed from PR media training as well as life experience, to help you prepare for, and ace, your interview.

Nail the “tell me about yourself” question. Set yourself up for a successful meeting by “wowing” your interviewer when asked an open-ended question about yourself. Think of three major points you’d like to convey about yourself and your background and memorize them. Then supplement each with anecdotes or supporting points that you can use throughout the session. If you’re a publicist like me, you might list media relations as one of your greatest strengths, but take it a step further by sharing an example of heroic work.

Anticipate difficult questions. You’ve agency-hopped three times in the last year?  There’s a mysterious time gap on your resume?  Know how you’ll tackle these questions, because they will be asked.  For tough queries, honesty and brevity are always best – if the company wasn’t a good fit, say so.  Follow your response with a genuine reason why you’re interested in this company.

Practice out loud. What sounds good in your head might not sound as compelling out loud, and the last place you want to learn that is during your interview.  Sure, you’ll want to talk about brilliant accomplishments or ideas, but delivery is the differentiator between confidence and arrogance.  Practice reading in front of a mirror, or better yet, in front of an audience. If all else fails, call your mom, whose unconditional love for you will force her to oblige.

Like the company. On Facebook, that is. And follow them on Twitter.  And Pinterest.  Many companies have a newsletter and/or blog – sign up for it.  Social media is a great way to obtain information that can’t always be found on the company website, including icebreakers like hometowns or sports team favorites.

Prepare intelligent questions:  Always have questions.  I once met with someone who rocked the interview until I asked “Do you have any questions?” and the candidate said, “No.”  Really, nothing?  So you’re telling me you know EVERYTHING about this agency and this position?  This was a red flag that may have signaled a lack of interest. To play it safe, prepare roughly ten thoughtful questions (in case some are answered during the interview).  Don’t ask about salary or benefits until later in the game.

And finally, remember that it’s just an interview: Think back to a time you were mortified beyond belief.  Chances are this interview pales in comparison.  Even if this is your dream job, the worst thing that can happen is you bomb the interview, learn from it, and move on.  And, you’ll have a funny happy-hour story.

Meaningful Media Training

Whether your client is a “PR Virgin” or a veteran of multiple media encounters, media and message training are vital to conducting successful interviews.

Media training can be defined as preparation for an interview, including counseling and rehearsal conducted prior to the interview or appearance on radio or TV. A media training session strengthens communications skills and helps develop a comfort and confidence for getting key message points delivered when talking with reporters. “Refresher courses” after interviews are also vital.

We recently worked with an author whose native language was not English and whose message was a bit complex. The training session included a professional media trainer and a cadre of PR professionals.

Here are some of the takeaways from that session:

Brainstorm every possible key message point. Then narrow down to three.

Of your three key points, state your most important one first. Don’t bury your main message.

Answer the question YOU want to address. But don’t dodge questions! Answer in eight seconds or less, then bridge back to your main point. Devise two or three segues to steer the answer your way. Practice them in role-play sessions.

If needed, repeat the interviewer’s question aloud to give yourself time to gather your thoughts.

Repeat your message often using different examples, phrases, and ordering.

Remember that a single vivid example is worth a thousand boilerplate message points.

All the media training in the world is worth nothing unless your client “buys” into it and practices. The proof will be in the ever-improving interviews he or she gives. What media training tips have been effective for you?