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How NOT To Handle a Crisis

BY IN BLOG On 12-11-2013

I have a lot of rules for handling rough questions in a crisis situation; here are two of the most important:

1. Don’t repeat the negative words in a question.

2. Don’t evade. 

Unless you live in a cave without Internet access, you know,, the federal sign-up site for the uninsured, debuted October 1 and was, putting it kindly, a disaster of the first magnitude. Making matters worse, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has  been communicating poorly, violating both these rules repeatedly.

SebeliusPageOneHere is a dramatic example of the price she paid for ignoring the rule about not repeating a negative: The lead story in the October 31 (Halloween!) edition of The Los Angeles Times has quotation marks around the word debacle.  The paper is quoting Secretary Sebelius who was lured into using the D-word by a Congresswoman deploying a reporter’s age-old trick question. And while Ms. Sebelius fell for it in a Congressional hearing, not a media interview, the lesson is still valid.  (The fact is, many Congressional hearings ARE media events first and fact-finding ventures second.) Here is the exchange that led to the Los Angeles Times headline:

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn: “Michelle Snyder is the one responsible for this debacle?” (Ms. Snyder is the chief operating officer at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid.)

Sebelius: “Excuse me, congresswoman, Michelle Snyder is not responsible for the debacle. Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible.”

Secretary Sebelius used Rep. Blackburn’s negative word twice in two sentences!  Had the secretary responded, “No, congresswoman, hold me responsible,” any media wanting to use the word debacle would have been forced to quote the representative deploying it.  As it was, more than a few outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, used the answer without the question so that it appeared in the story that “debacle” was Secretary Sebelius’ characterization.  CBS News, on the other hand, used the soundbite, but showed Rep. Blackburn’s maneuvering Secretary Sebelius into repeating the negative word.

That gaffe was just one element in a long-running series of teachable moments on crisis communications from Secretary Sebelius; she has supplied us with a virtual textbook chapter of botched responses in the wake of the fumbled rollout of Obamacare.

Now on to the evasion. If you get a tough question, you can use it to promote your agenda.  But first you have to answer it. Otherwise, you are being evasive. On October 7, a week after the website debuted and with no fixes in sight, Ms. Sebelius chose The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as a venue for an interview. It’s likely she and her handlers thought a show on Comedy Central, hosted by an unabashed liberal would be friendly ground. And Stewart might have been disposed to be more sympathetic than a journalist had Sibelius not violated the evasion rule in her very first answer.  That set Stewart off on an 11-minute line of questioning that got tougher as it progressed.

Although Stewart and Sebelius talked over each other several times, making for some garbled exchanges, I was able to accurately transcribe the opening of the interview:

Stewart: “I’m going to do a challenge.”  (Takes out laptop) “I’m going to try and download every movie ever made and you’re going to try and sign up for Obamacare and we’ll see which happens first.”  (Audience laughs; Stewart puts away laptop and asks in a unchallenging tone) “What’s going on with this is this? Is this working, is this not working?”

Sebelius: “Well, the great news is we have a terrific market and for the first time people are going to have a chance to compare plans, figure out what they qualify for. Insurance companies have to play by new rules. And for about 85 percent of us, we don’t have to sign up for anything because we have insurance…”

She evaded; she didn’t answer the question!  I advocate using every question you get in a media interview to work your way toward your agenda.  But first you have to answer the question.  The technique is called bridging.  Acknowledge the question with a short form answer, build a bridge and then make your agenda point.  Bridging properly, Sebelius might have responded: “There have been some extremely challenging problems with the web site and we’re working to fix them, but the volume of people attempting to use it shows that we have a terrific market…”

By not acknowledging the questions, she was overtly evading Stewart. The comedian, still not put off by the evasion, asks: “I see, so this Obamacare is for the fifteen percent …”

Sebelius: “For the 15 percent who have no insurance at all or …”

Stewart: “How many have signed up thus far?”

Sebelius: “Fully enrolled? I can’t tell you. Because I don’t know.  We are taking applications on the web, on the phone —  we will be giving monthly reports — but I can tell you we have had not only lots of web hits, hundreds of thousands of accounts created….”

Stewart: “So it’s hundreds of thousands of people have signed up?”

Sebelius: “Have accounts created, which means then they’re going to go shopping. Jon, this is like a Kayak site, where you might check out what plane you want to get on. The good news is  you don’t have to buy it today.  You have to have insurance by the 15th of December to have a plan that starts in January.”

Notice in both her first answer and the last one I quoted,  Sebelius used the construction “the good news….” (actually, in her first answer it was “great” news).  This is always a bad idea in an interview because if you use “the good news is” it invites the interviewer to ask about the bad news.  Even he doesn’t ask,  the “good news/bad news” construction is such a fundamental part of American conversation that using the phrase “the good news is….” implies there is bad news, too.  And not spelling out the bad news gives the impression of evasion — because it is evasive.

In the Daily Show interview, the evasions continued until an exasperated Stewart said: “Let me ask you this.  Am I a stupid man?”

Sebelius: “I don’t think so, I that…. because that…. (Both speak at the same time) …have been waiting for a long time finally have a market to choose from.”

Stewart: “Yes.”

Sebelius: “That’s the good news.”

Again, the “good news.”

At the end of the interview, Stewart asks: “Can we come back and ask more questions?”

Sebelius: “Sure.”

Stewart, without a hint of irony in his voice: “Can I ask the same ones?”

Sebelius: “If you want to.”

You can see the whole Sebelius interview here.

Making the worst of a bad situation, Ms. Sebelius fell victim to the negative word trap before Congress and acted evasively with an interviewer who didn’t let her get away with it.  All-in-all, sorry performances for her but good lessons for us in how not to handle crisis communications.








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George Merlis

George Merlis is the founder and president of Experience Media Consulting. He is an award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist who has been doing media training, presentation training and crisis communications consulting for more than two decades. He has been day city editor of the nation's largest-circulation afternoon newspaper and executive producer of two of the three network morning news programs, Good Morning American and the CBS Morning News. He also served as executive producer of Entertainment Tonight.