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The 80s Fun Boy Three (with Bananarama) song could equally could have gone “it aint what you say it’s the way that you say it” and this in many cases is true, extreme views given in a calm, measured and a well structured way, seem almost sensible. In the same way senior managers during disasters have tried to calmly explain how the disaster was anything but their own companies fault, when it is plainly was. When senior managers get taught media training the emphasis is always on presenting their statement professionally, with conviction and without the umms and errs. Usually, not so much time is actually spent in looking at detail at the words they are going to use and what they are saying to the audience. Tony Hayward of BP was very good at speaking on camera, he looked a man of action with no suit or tie on and was interviewed in an appropriate location, on the quayside with BP workers responding to the incident in the background. What ruined his reputation was not how he said something but the words he used. “I want my life back” was a serious gaff when his company had presided over an incident which killed 11 oil workers and wrecked the lives and livelihoods of the people affected by the oil.

In the same way Republican candidate Todd Akin in the Missouri Senate race controversial comments on rape and abortion have caused outrage across American and beyond. This lead to calls for him to resign even from his own party and have resulted in him having have to take out a series of adverts out to apologise. As business continuity people what lessons can we learn from these events?

  1. Yes, senior managers need to go on media courses to learn how to be interviewed but their support teams also need training in developing media strategies and what subjects and views to avoid. Exercises should include the senior managers practicing their media skills but also support teams working together to develop the organisation’s view on the incident, media strategy and making sure the spokesperson is well briefed and their statements and words spoken are practiced and refined.
  2. There are certain subjects that are almost always controversial for politicians, such as race, rape, crime and punishment and views on women. If generally held public views on the subject are deviated from, it can cause outrage, calls for the politician to resign or severe loss of public standing. In the same way those advising organisation’s spokespersons in an incident should identify which ideas, subjects and views during an incident are likely to be controversial and make sure the spokesperson does not mention them or their statements are very carefully checked to ensure that a major gaff is not made.
  3. All this preparation withstanding, in the end there is nothing you can do to stop your senior manager spokesperson ignoring all your training, the advice of his or hers support team and making the gaff. I am sure Tony Hayward had armies of (highly paid, I suspect) crisis, media and PR advisors and still made the gaffs. As business continuity managers we can only do so much!
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