Speaking in the Age of “Zero Tolerance”

Erin Sanders • August 27, 2021

Many of us gladly bear the title of “spokesperson” for our organizations or clients, but these days, anyone talking into a microphone must be prepared for the responsibility – and risks – of speaking publicly, or just plain…speaking.

Whether you’re a CEO at a press event, elected official at a local meeting, or employee presenting at a conference, if you misstep in today’s world, you may find your mistake going viral in a matter of minutes. If it’s a harmless error, you should recover. But a more serious misstep can end a job, career, or elected position (or worse). The court of public opinion’s “zero tolerance” policy can be a cruel one.

Consider the famous example of BP CEO Tony Hayward who flew to the Gulf of Mexico to survey the vast damage done by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. When the media hounded him about the timetable for cleaning up the disaster, he thoughtlessly responded, “Nobody wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back!” Mr. Hayward lost his job.

This is just one striking example of the perils of speaking publicly, but there are countless “hot mic” fiascos or insensitive comments that resulted in public backlash. Whether you are presenting at a community hearing or facing a media “attack,” here are 12 helpful tips we offer clients during media and presentation training:

1. Stay calm. Do not react angrily or defensively to difficult questions, even if you feel justified.

2. Be concise and straightforward. State the most important facts first in simple, clear terms. Avoid jargon, acronyms or “corporate-speak,” and don’t over-explain.

3. Anticipate the questions likely to be asked and be prepared with answers.

4. Never say “no comment.” This sounds like an attempt to conceal information or guilt.

5. Do not speculate or respond to “what if” questions. Bad idea.

6. Discuss only what you know. Refrain from commenting on reports or events you have not seen.

7. Do not speak for others. Defer to law enforcement, regulators, or first responders, as appropriate.

8. Admit when you don’t know. “I don’t know, but I will see if I can get the answer for you,” is a perfectly valid response.

9. Never speak “off-the-record.” Assume everything you say to a journalist (or anyone) can/will be reported.

10. If you have a mic on, assume it’s hot. Always.

11. Don’t repeat negative language. Rephrase the question in your response or challenge the negative assertion, if appropriate.

12. Assume you are always on camera or being recorded. Anyone in the room who has a smartphone can record you on audio or video. Keep all comments not intended for public consumption behind closed doors.

Want to learn more about media or presentation training? Contact NP Strategy.

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