General Stanley McChrystal learned the hard way that venting to a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine is not the most effective method of getting your message heard. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, “So this general with the background in intelligence who is supposed to conquer Afghanistan can’t even figure out what Rolling Stone is? We’re not talking Guns & Ammo here; we’re talking the antiwar hippie magazine.”
And while it could be argued that the blowback from the article did give the world some insight into the frustrations that the general and President Obama face in Afghanistan, it’s also true that at least one member of the general’s usually adoring press became a PR – and career – enemy.
Take the BP oil spill – please. CEO Tony Hayward has become the William Hung of the public relations world – so inept and off-key that you can’t take your eyes off him. But while Mr. Hung merely stunned the viewers of American Idol, Mr. Hayward has astounded the world with his thick plume of PR gaffs.
In both the McChrsytal and Hayward cases, there wasn’t much that could have been done to save the day after the men opened their mouths. But there are (at least) three lessons to be learned.
1. Know your interviewer.
Comedian Sasha Baron Cohen has made a lucrative career out of portraying an innocent, slightly dim interviewer in his Ali G, Borat, and Bruno personas. Yet he has eviscerated politicians, media figures, and businesspeople simply because those targets – or their PR people – did not do their homework. If you unexpectedly wind up on the sharp end of an interview, you really have no one to blame but yourself.
The Internet makes it possible to quickly research people and determine if Reporter X is an experienced hand known for honoring the ground rules and being factual, has an agenda or bias, is known for taking cheap shots, or is young and inexperienced. Know whom you’re dealing with and you’ll be in a much better position.
2. Stay on message.
Do explain to a reporter that the war in Afghanistan is going to be a tough slog, but that an end is in sight.
Don’t tell a reporter that you don’t have warm fuzzies for your president’s staff.
Do tell a reporter that cleaning up the oil spill is going to be a tough slog, but that an end is in sight.
Don’t try to get your life back by telling a reporter that you’d like to… um, “get my life back.”
3. Practice, practice, practice.
To appear knowledgeable and in command during an interview, you need to practice with your communications or public relations staff. Have answers ready, have follow up answers ready, and make sure every possible subject, question, and piece of minutia are reviewed.
Simply put, if you know your stuff, chances are you won’t be Hung out to dry.
Felicia Knight is President of Knight Vision International, LLC: www.KnightVisionInternational.com