Recent press appearances by officials in the limelight offer a stark comparison about how press coverage should be done and how to mangle it.
Governor Chris Christie, responding to allegations that a bridge lane closing that resulted in a huge traffic jam for four days was politically motivated, barricaded himself in a three-sided podium and then flawlessly orchestrated a nearly two-hour exchange with the press that ended only because reporters ran out of questions.
Freedom Industries CEO Gary Southern, by contrast, standing alone in what appeared to be an open field and said to be suffering from pneumonia, appeared frightened and out of place when he tried to answer questions from a gaggle of reporters demanding an explanation for how a toxic chemical leaked into a West Virginia river threatening the health safety of 300,000 people in nine counties. With the look of a man about to executed, after only a few questions he abruptly stopped the news conference and walked away by himself while reporters were still barking at him for answers.
Both men still have many questions to answer and it is likely that future press encounters will have a similarly aggressive tone. Be watchful for press ambushes.
That happened frequently to BP America CEO Tony Hayward during the gulf oil spill in 2010. As the disaster unfolded over the weeks, Hayward was constantly bombarded with questions every time he appeared in public, a situation that ultimately led to infamous gaffes such as, “the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume,” and, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
Security personnel are rarely in control of the content of a media message but still can exert control over the venue and, as a result, perhaps influence the optics, if not the message, to the benefit of their principals. That kind of control is possible if the principal will include his security team in planning and managing press appearances, and the team has the right skills to handle press contact.
A good source for some practical advice and tips for how prepare for and manage press contacts in both impromptu and planned situations is in the article, “VIP Press Coverage and Executive Protection,” by David Johnson, President of ITG Consultants, himself a veteran of many press encounters with high-profile principals.
As security experts we try to anticipate and prepare for every possible disaster, however remote. It seems evident that press relations was not on the disaster list at either BP America or Freedom Industries.
Blindsided by all the negative press inflamed even more by his gaffes, a frustrated and dispirited Tony Hayward finally capitulated and just asked, “What the hell did we do to deserve this?” That was the wrong question at the wrong time. The correct question, before he ever stepped in front of a camera or microphone, was, “How do we do this right, and right now?”