Media Training for Ebola Crisis Communications Interviews

October 31, 2014

[ap/corbis]
[ap/corbis]

This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on Oct. 16 on the Braud Communications blog.

The Ebola crisis has spawned a rash of spokespeople saying things to the media that they should not have said. If you are a PR person responsible for writing statements and news releases or the media trainer preparing spokespeople, then this is for you.

The hospital released a statement on Oct. 15, as a second nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital became ill from Ebola: “Patient and employee safety is our greatest priority and we take compliance very serious.”

You can’t say that! You cannot defend that statement from the PR team from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.

Here’s why: If it were true, then two nurses would not have Ebola. Two nurses have Ebola because safety was not the greatest priority and compliance was not taken seriously.

Use the cynic filter

Every time I teach media training or do a conference presentation, my advice is to run every statement through the “cynic filter.” If you filter your statement past me, then will you get a positive or negative reaction?

My apologies to the PR team if these were not your words. As a PR professional, your job is to shout “No” when a statement like that is written or proposed.

Back in August, when the Ebola story broke regarding Emory University Hospital, CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden made bold statements about Ebola not spreading in the United States. He was wrong.

In an interview on the “Today” show on Oct. 11, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health said, “We’re not going to see an outbreak” of Ebola in the United States. He even referenced Dallas as an example of proper containment of the virus.

If you are the person providing media training for the spokesperson, then you cannot allow the spokesperson to say something like that. You have to be intense in the media training class and don’t release them from role-playing until they are perfect. Media training should be designed to let a spokesperson fail in private so they don’t fail on TV or in an interview.

Close isn’t good enough. A crisis this serious demands the best communications possible. There isn’t a margin for error in interviews or when containing a serious disease.

Would you like to know the magic words that will set you free? Insert the word “goal” and throw away the words “committed” and “top priority.”

Instead of saying, “Patient and employee safety is our greatest priority and we take compliance serious,” a better option is to say, “Our goal is to protect the safety and health of every patient and every employee.”

My statement is one that can be defended because it is stated as a “goal.” It is forward-looking and aspirational, but not definitive.

If you are responsible for writing statements that get rewritten with tired clichés by your lawyers or CEO, then your job is to push back. If you write these types of clichés because you were taught to do this or have heard these clichés so many times that you think this is the way it should be done, then please stop.

If you are responsible for media training your spokespeople, then you must not be afraid to push back when the student doesn’t perform well. As the trainer, you must not be intimidated, especially if you are training your boss or a powerful doctor.

We have an Ebola crisis on our hands. Are you making it better or worse with your statements?

Gerard Braud
Gerard Braud is the author of “Don’t Talk to the Media Until… 29 Secrets You Need to Know Before You Open Your Mouth to a Reporter.” Leaders rely on Braud to be their expert for media training and crisis communications (braudcommunications.com). Twitter: @gbraud.

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