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Foot-in-Mouth Disease

Strong communication is an essential ingredient for crisis management

Merrie Spaeth’s BIMBO Awards nominations never fail to provide perfect examples of what NOT to do when speaking to the media. In fact, it certainly looks like foot-in-mouth disease is making the rounds again, because this month brings us quite a few displays of poor communication, including this one from a typically strong communicator, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg:

“We’re not banning everything,” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a caller on his radio show who complained that the city was “on a track to ban everything.” (This is an example of how we pick up words. The caller used the phrase “banning everything,” and the mayor repeated it back as a denial – and then put it on steroids, saying “You can still buy cigarettes, we haven’t banned that!” This is also as an example of how deadlines are a thing of the past. After the original story posted, a reader pointed out that a few years ago, when it was noted that it is illegal to ride Segways on New York City streets and sidewalk, the Mayor said, “I think we banned them. We ban everything.” Note that the denial became the headline.)

Politicker, “Mayor Bloomberg: ‘We’re Not Banning Everything,’” Feb. 15, 2013

When defending yourself, or your organization, it’s never a good idea to use the negative terms you’re combating. Repeating negative terms gives them even more power, as well as more page space and, as the example shows, often a spot in the headline.

It’s been proven many times that, while the full headline may read, “Mayor Bloomberg: ‘We’re Not Banning Everything,’” what will most often stick in reader’s minds is “Mayor Bloomberg, Banning Everything.”

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Remember this when planning your crisis management messaging. Instead of repeating, and thereby further enforcing, negative terms in your denial, create a list of positive terms that can be used in discussion.

Of course, it’s not enough to simply make the list. Without practice, you’re bound to fall into old habits, and for most of us that will mean automatically using the negative term.

Handling the media well is often tricky, and can be treacherous for the unprepared. If you truly want to be ready to communicate in crisis, you have to put in some serious practice, especially in front of hostile audiences. Simulating this with peers or employees is fine, but make sure the “hostile” crowd isn’t afraid to be harsh. After all, the public, and media, certainly won’t be pulling any punches.

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For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management

By Jonathan and Erik Bernstein

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