We all enjoy those programs that engage the audience and provide practical information that you can use. A recent WMACCA chapter program on dealing with the media did just that.
WMACCA Chapter President Michael Finn, who is also vice president & general counsel for General Dynamics Advanced Information System, moderated an outstanding panel that included Pete Williams (NBC News), Lisa Joyner (GC Feld Entertainment), Bob Bostrom (former GC Freddie Mac), David Goodfriend (Goodfriend Public Affairs) and John Villa (Williams & Connolly).
The panelists addressed the tension between the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle and lawyers’ natural inclination to get all the facts and avoid damaging admissions. They emphasized the importance of preparation, from thinking about how to handle a crisis and having a crisis communications plan, to individual media training and preparing for interviews in advance rather than just winging it.
There were differing views regarding “on the record” (put the statement in quotes and identify the speaker), “background” (put the statement in quotes but only provide general description of speaker) and “off the record” (cannot attribute or use). Regardless of the “rules of engagement,” everyone agreed that it was crucial to have a clear understanding of the facts, focus of story and reporter intent.
Each panelist emphasized a common theme: Be clear and concise. Villa did just that when he said, “Know your message, stick to it, be brief, be clear, be confident and shut up!”
The panelists also touched on admissions and apologies with views ranging from “admit nothing,” to “be sympathetic,” to avoid apologizing unless you are willing to accept the consequences of an admission.
Particularly noteworthy take-aways:
- Remember that discussions with your PR representatives may not be privileged. (John Villa)
- Avoid statements that enrage your adversary, especially when it is the Department of Justice or the State Attorney General. (John Villa)
- It is dangerous to have the GC inform the press; she knows too much. (John Villa)
- If you are going to be interviewed, practice your answer. (Pete Williams)
- When you make affirmative statements, be sure of your facts. (Bob Bostrom)
- Speak clearly (e.g., in English – not complicated legal jargon). (Pete Williams)
- First, do the right thing; then, it is easier to talk about it. (David Goodfriend)
- Know your client and its culture, as it will be major factor in how you deal with the media. (Lisa Joyner)
- Bring your public affairs professionals in early so they are aware of what is going on. (Pete Williams)
Whether the story is about the company facing civil liability or accusations of criminal conduct, a bad turn in business, an employee complaint or an unhappy customer –– you must be ready to field calls from the media, have a strategy for responding to questions and be prepared to address the difficult questions.
And, as Joyner reminded us with a quote from Will Rogers, “Never miss a good chance to shut up!”