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Teachable Moments: A Microphone is Like a Gun; A Reporter is Like a Microphone

BY IN BLOG On 21-06-2010

[This entry was originally posted on June 21, 2010]

In media training workshops, I teach the following: Always treat a microphone as if it is a gun. You treat a gun as if it is always loaded.  Similarly, treat a microphone as if it is always on.  Never say anything in proximity to a microphone that you don’t want the whole world to hear.  And treat a reporter as if he is a microphone.  Reporters are always working, always recording, always looking for a story.

Additionally, I teach that there is no such thing as off the record anymore.  And there certainly is no such thing as “not-for-attribution,” because it does not take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out the source of most quotes.

Barack Obama, Stanley McChrystalWhich brings us to the aesthetic General Stanley A. McChrystal and his staff hanging out with a reporter for, of all publications, “Rolling Stone,” and dissing the President, Vice President and everybody else who isn’t in their immediate circle.

General McChrystal is proud of the fact that he sleeps only four hours out of every 24 and eats only one meal a day.  Too bad for him he didn’t use some of the time he saved not eating and not sleeping to study up on how to behave around the media.  But he didn’t, and now he’s been fired.

The take-away from all this: don’t say anything controversial or provocative in front of a reporter — even in a saloon — unless you want the whole world to hear or read it.

By the way, Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice reads, “Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.”  (Why the Secretary of Transportation and not the other cabinet posts?  Could a commissioned officer use contemptuous words against the Secretary of Education with impunity?)

In addition to being  ignorant of how to behave around a reporter, the general and his staff appear to have egregiously violated military law.  One can understand how career military officers might not know how to deal with the media, but it’s beyond understanding how they could not be familiar with the UCMJ.

BP and the Gulf Oil Spill

 A client e-mailed:  “When are you going to write something about how BP is mishandling their media relations?”

Right now.

BP and its executives — to paraphrase friend and colleague Kerry Millerick — is the gift that keeps on giving.  At least for a media trainer and crisis communications consultant looking for egregious examples of what not to say and do.  BP’s gift is so (tragically) generous that there is just too much for just one essay, so today I’ll address the lessons we can learn from BP executives’ uncanny gift  for unfailingly saying the wrong thing.

How Can You Stand Up When You’ve Got Both Feet in Your Mouth?

BP is supplying us a torrent of teachable moments, a veritable gusher of simply dumb soundbites and inept media relations actions. Makes you wonder whether BP-Deepwater-Horizon-005the company’s top brass had media training, didn’t pay attention during media training, or were trained by the world’s worst media trainer. Whatever the cause, BP’s response over the two months of historic oil spill is a text book case on how not to deal with the media.  Throughout this period,  whenever BP management has been afforded a choice between the right and wrong way to communicate, it has taken the wrong way — even when the right way was easier, cheaper, made more sense and should have been self-evident.

Those who have taken an Experience Media workshop may remember the fifth of our Five Commandments: “Thou shalt not lie, evade, speculate nor cop and attitude.”  BP egregiously broke all parts of that one.

Thou Shalt Not Lie. Begin at the beginning: BP severely underestimated  (and the government uncritically accepted) the amount of leaking oil.  We now know the oil leak was well over ten times BP’s original figure, but early on in the spill, independent scientists and engineers looked at live video images of the gushing oil, did the calculations and gave the lie to BP’s initial estimates. The images these experts were studying were supplied by BP which owns the cameras trained on the gusher.

When scientists discovered that oil had formed underwater plumes that were spreading widely, BP denied their existence. The company stubbornly held to its cover story: a substantial — but severely underestimated — leak with all the oil floating to the surface.

As ex-President Nixon — who was in a position to know — said on any number of occasions, the cover-up is always more damaging than the offense.  The result of this cover-up was destruction of any corporate credibility.  So now nothing the company says is taken at face value.

 Copping an Attitude

 BP CEO Tony Hayward, caused no end of consternation when, standing on an oil-soaked beach, he told the Today Show, “I’d just like my life back.”  (See it here.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTdKa9eWNFw

That came across as the height of unfeeling arrogance since thousands of Gulf Coast residents who were losing their livelihoods to the spill had not chance to get their lives back while Hayward continued to collect his $ 5 million annual paycheck.

But Hayward was outdone by his boss, Board Chairman Carl-Henric Svansberg who stood outside the White House after President Obama woodshedded the BP top bras and announced: “People say that large oil companies don’t care about the small people.  we we care.  We care about the small people.”

Apologists for Svansberg pointed out that English is his second language and that he may have been translating the supposedly less loaded Swedish word “smafolket” or the phrase “sma manniskor.”  But those translate as “little people,” and it’s hard to see how “little people” is less condescending than “small people.”  Might Svansberg have picked up the “small” from President Obama, who earlier had referred to small businesses destroyed by the oil spill?  Perhaps, but the Swedish phrase for small business is either “smafolket foretag” or “litet foretag” and Swedish for small business people is “smaforetagare.”  Even if Svansberg was translating from his native Swedish, he left out the word business or business people and left in the word small. (I read one account that said that in Sweden “smafolket” was not condescending because the country has such a pervasive egalitarian streak.  But read any (or all three) of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy novels and you’ll learn Sweden’s industrialists look at the “smafolket” the way the British peerage looked at chimney sweeps in the 18th Century.)

With the Chairman of the Board in the lead, there was no way Tony Hayward could not compete, so he showed us all how concerned he was about the spill by flying off to attend a yacht race off the Isle of Wight the weekend following the meeting with President Obama.  And not just any race, but one in which his own 52-yacht competed. (Hayward’s yacht lost, for those looking for a hint of poetic justice.)

Hayward’s outing gave the company’s critics a chance to show they, unlike BP toppers, know how to seize a media opportunity.  Senator Richard Shelby (R. -Alabama) said, “I can tell you that yacht ought to be here skimming and cleaning up a lot of the oil.”

And White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel unleashed this soundbite: “To quote Tony Hayward, he’s got his life back.”

As long as we’re quoting, NPR dug up a 2009 speech Hayward gave shortly after taking over the helm at BP from his predecessor whose reign was ended after a prostitution scandal: “We had too many people that were working to save the world,” Hayward said in the address. “We sort of lost track of the fact that  that our primary purpose in life is to create value for our shareholders.”

In addition to speaking outrageously, BP has acted outrageously, excluding the media from beaches and waters befouled by oil — beaches and waters they do not even own.  In one instance, BP personnel on a launch manned by Coast Guardsmen got the Guardsmen to threaten a CBS News crew with arrest if they didn’t leave the oily waters.  Right after that both the Cost Guard and BP said that had been a mistake. 

Reporters attempting to talk to cleanup workers said they had been denied access, even on public beaches. Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, released this statement: “Recent media reports have suggested that individuals involved in the cleanup operation have been prohibited from speaking to the media, and this is simply untrue.”  Wrong.  What Stuttles said was untrue because two days later Scott Walker, from New Orleans station WDSU, was blocked from access to workers on a public beach by BP private security personnel. You can see Walker’s attempt here: http://www.businessinsider.com/bp-hires-mercenaries-to-prevent-reporters-from-interviewing-workers-flex-some-muscle-2010-6

BP’s gaffes just keep coming.  It seems no one in this huge, multinational corporation has the capacity to learn anything from previous media mistakes.

If BP had a crisis communications plan it was either highly flawed or got thrown out the window as soon as the crisis hit.


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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.