Remember Anthony Weiner, the former New York congressman who’s now a late night punch line? He denied any salacious tweeting and insisted that someone hacked his Twitter account. The inconsistencies in his story made him look worse and worse, until he was forced to resign in a humiliating news conference. Now Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is on the hot seat. Each time he’s asked about sexual harassment charges, he gives inconsistent accounts, leaving himself open to more questions. You can bet that as long as he’s in the race, the story isn’t going away.
Negative stories that won’t die are what keep public relations people up at night. Reporters are tenacious creatures who compete with each other to keep a juicy story going. Not out of malevolence, but because it’s their job to be watchdogs. As I wrote previously, journalists are accountable to readers and editors, not to you.
It’s amazing how many interviewees on television seem to misunderstand that an interview – no matter how friendly – is a business situation and resembles a job interview more than a social event. When someone becomes evasive or even prickly and gives answers that don’t add up, a decent reporter does not politely drop it. Journalists are trained to analyze facts and statements and find inconsistencies. A kind of Geiger counter clicks loudly in the interviewer’s head – What is he or she hiding? What’s the truth and how can I find out?
So how do you end a negative story, or keep from starting one?
1. Stonewall with a blanket denial. Consider these infamous statements: I am not a crook. I did not have sex with that woman. The Watergate hearings and Clinton’s impeachment, respectively, followed each.
2. Invent something that can easily be disproved. Weiner gave reporters an alternate version of events that was also a story – Congressman’s Twitter account hacked! When they tried to verify the phony story, the truth came out. The truth has a funny way of doing that.
1. Be as forthcoming as you can. When you’re under attack, your best strategy is to give a full interview and take responsibility for your part (unless your attorney advises otherwise, of course). When Tylenol products were tampered with in 1982, causing seven deaths, the company recalled the product and alerted consumers. Counter a bad story with the full story. Show what you are doing to fix it. Often, a cover-up is more lethal than the truth.
2. Be prepared. Don’t let yourself be blindsided. Know what might be asked and have a plan for responding. Incredibly, Cain admitted he deliberately ignored the story that he knew was about to break. He should’ve anticipated any question that might be asked and had a prepared response.
3. Be pleasant and courteous under pressure. In customer service, dealing with a disgruntled customer means being respectful and calm even when the customer isn’t. But if you are asked what if your wife were raped, as Michael Dukakis was, don’t answer dispassionately! Show human emotion, but be polite even if the reporter isn’t. Remember, you’re the one who’s required to make a good impression.