Hitting the Right Notes and Avoiding “Tone Deaf” Media Relations

We’ve all seen and heard it. That media spokesperson who says something in a media interview that has you scratching your head and wondering “what were they thinking?” Or “who thought it was a good idea to respond that way?

We saw it last year when United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz, defended the actions of United employees when a passenger was forcibly removed from an overbooked flight.

In a letter to employees, Munoz said, “The situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago aviation security officers to help,” Munoz wrote in the letter obtained by CNBC and other news outlets.

“Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”

Now in defense of Munoz, this was a letter to employees. But he and his team should have been wise enough to know that it would take about a nanosecond for the news media to see the letter. And they should have known that anyone who saw the video would not agree that the people involved went “above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”

It was a much more “in tune” Oscar Munoz who sat down with Good Morning America days later to discuss his feelings and the company’s response.

United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz

“Tone Deaf” Media Relations

At Interact, we call it “tone deaf” media relations. Media responses created in the bubble of your company or organization without appropriate thought to your customers and constituencies and how they may view your response. It is so easy to be insular and listen only to people who think and feel the way you do.

But it is critical to listen outside the walls of your organization and take the pulse of the people who matter most during a time of crisis – the people who form the court of public opinion. It is equally critical to think about how the news media are likely to frame the story.

Charlotte, NC Riots

The Message, the Optics, the Continuity

During the civil unrest in Charlotte, NC last year, Mayor Jennifer Roberts was interviewed by Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts, in what was a largely supportive interview. However, Mayor Roberts began the segment by proclaiming that “Charlotte is open for business” while pictures of the previous evening’s violence flashed on the screen. The incongruence was striking. Charlotte was not open for business.

We’re seeing it happen currently in response to the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The old familiar talking points from politicians, pundits, and lobbying organizations are not working in the wake of this horrific tragedy and the bright, articulate students who are demanding change.

How do you avoid being tone deaf? Leaders should surround themselves with brave individuals who are “in touch” with customers and public opinion. They should give them permission to bring bad news and they should listen.

You should have confidants and advisors outside your organization who you can pulse for their opinions and reactions. It helps if you have the research capability to conduct real time customer/public opinion research.

Remember Other’s Perspective

When all else fails, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Even if they don’t agree, will they understand your position? If they won’t, you need to change your tune. It is much easier to soften your approach or admit mistakes early than it is to recover after you are in a media/public relations crisis.

If you’d like to learn about media training at Interact Studio, contact Susie Adams.

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Susie Adams

Susie Adams has 30 years in communications. Accomplished in public relations, media training and crisis communications, she is known for her intuitive wisdom around even the most difficult messaging challenge. Read more about Susie at Interact or seek her on Twitter: @cltdogmom