The Alberta Election – A Time To Rebuild Trust?

This week in Ottawa Elizabeth’s May, in a moment of inappropriate behavior,  set her Green Party gains back years. Last week in Edmonton a ‘cabal’ of oil industry businessmen held a news conference to wag their fingers at voters admonishing them not to vote the way they were going to may undermine their personal authenticity for years to come. In a world where every utterance is instantly broadcast through social media, trust and credibility is built slowly but can be instantly lost. Those who express an organization’s moral code through behaviors, words and actions are more exposed now than ever.

There’s a lot of talk these days about trust building, especially by the oil and gas business. Trust building isn’t as intuitive as many may like to think. There are subliminal non-verbal cues that are now increasingly amplified under scrutiny in a video driven age. In Alberta, an overnight sea change in government was brought about less by what was said but how it was said. Rachel Notley’s non-verbal cues, amplified in video on both traditional and social media were as important as her verbal cues. Her composure, her body language, her tone of voice, how she appeared thoughtful, how she moved her eyes. These were all part of a package that built trust. On the other hand, stern or befuddled business women and men in suits just didn’t cut it.

The recipe for trust building is well researched, simple in description but complex in specific application. Empathic communications is at the core. The industry in Canada can learn a lot from Notley. It’s core competence of technical expertise is unrivaled in the world. But this ‘go to’ message is not enough. Trust is given when people begin to see candor through non-verbal behaviors that communicate a long-term commitment and dedication to their physical, social, environmental and financial safety. As content meets authenticity in a social media driven world every industry spokesperson or industry employee engaged with community stakeholders should take some time to watch themselves in action, learn from their mistakes and build on their strengths. When trust is at issue and concern is high, as much as 90% of trust building communications is non verbal. With so much at stake for the industry, it’s time to took another look at it’s own non-verbal behaviors.

Credible Spokespeople Build Credible Reputations

In the housing development industry there’s something called the broken window theory that’s proven to be critical to the improvement of neighborhoods and cities across North America. A Harvard criminologist had noted that if a broken window in a building went unrepaired all other windows would soon be broken. Apparently, the unfixed window sends a message that no one cares enough to fix it and vandalism will go unpunished. Leaving graffiti on the walls evokes the same reaction. If there’s no response to the most petty of crimes, vandals take over the building and lay waste to the neighborhood. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani used the theory to successfully clean up crime in New York in the 1990’s.

I’m using the theory here as a rallying cry for becoming a Credible Spokesperson. In the end, a poorly reported story is almost always the result of a poorly conducted interview. Petty acts of spokesperson inaccuracy, lack of focus, poor preparation, hostility towards the news media, lack of effective interview agenda control and a misperception of the job of a reporter are rampant in many media interviews. Combine this with the two hard realities. First, the media institutions most reporters work for are now driven by an increasingly intense competition for scarce advertiser dollars forcing these institutions to skimp on the resources required for good reporting. And second, the insane demands of 24-hour news and the almost instantaneous speed that information, true and false, now moves through social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter means that time for fact-checking diminishes and accuracy suffers. From the perspective of a Credible Spokesperson, that’s a very potent recipe for interviews going sideways. And yet, whether it’s politics, science, health, economics, business or the arts, the news media continues to be a huge picture window frame through which we see the world. And so, back to the broken window theory, if spokespeople don’t care enough to make sure the window glass is clean, unbroken and well framed, they run the risk of succumbing to its outfall and to reputations laid waste. You can’t shoot the messenger if you don’t take charge of keeping the neighborhood clean. That’s why Credible Spokespeople are so important; these are the people who do the hard work of being effective communicators, of keeping the record straight and of taking charge of the interview agenda. They’re disciplined in their answers and understand the impact of what they’re saying. Fewer broken windows, less graffiti, more trust and a better chance at a credible reputation.

It’s Not a Conversation

I loved what American comedian and TV host Jon Stewart said about the news media a few years ago. At the ‘rally for sanity’ held in Washington just before the 2010 US congressional elections when the Tea Party was about to make big inroads. Stewart compared the News Media to a bright sun focusing its light through an absurdly large magnifying glass on a small anthill. The ants of course catch on fire resulting in a week long media frenzy about the strange phenomena of burning ants. Hilarious, but like any good comedy there’s tragedy in this truth about the distortion of the media lens. Sadly, it’s the source of much of the deep distrust many people have of an encounter with the news media.

In the hundreds and hundreds conversations with people in my coaching seminars I hear, almost to a person, that their engagement with the news media and of having to speak publicly is often one of terror about the way in which they feel their words will be misrepresented or distorted by individuals with an ax to grind or reporters assigned to finding a dissenting viewpoint no matter where it comes from and most often without sufficient fact checking. Many of them tell me they do their best to avoid any media exposure because they feel certain that whatever they say will somehow be worked against them and they’ll get into trouble with their bosses, political or otherwise. Or they might get into trouble with their friends and family. Or they might have some kind of exposure that makes them look different than they feel they want to look. As a result they are often preparing themselves for an encounter they dread because they’re very unsure of their capacity to focus on their own personal knowledge, expertise, stay out of the weeds, know that they can manage an outcome that’s successful for them. Sound familiar?

On the plus side, many of the hundreds of people I’ve talked to in my seminars understand that the news media is a business and that tension or conflict sells. They get the idea that the more tension or conflict in the story the more it sells. They get that a reporter’s job is to write something people are actually going to read, see or hear. And in that context, they get that finding a way to balance a reporters inclination to focus on tension and conflict against the need to tell the story accurately and fairly is the ongoing challenge every good journalist faces. This puts a tremendous amount of onus on the spokesperson, the person speaking for a legitimate organization whether it be a government agency, a big oil company, a service provider or a not for profit organization trying to raise funds. Put in this context, every engagement with the news media conspires against every spokesperson because it’s not their story that will be told but the story of the tension, the conflict, the dissenting point of view that must be there and often finds it’s way above the fold because it generates a more interesting story.

My sense is also that most recognize that reporters are forever wary of the spin coming at them by all those trying to seek free publicity for their messages. But even if the spin is great and honest and founded in deep credible research or in some unquestionable truth, reporters are obligated by their profession to find the dissenting opinion unless there’s clear an irrefutable consensus. How often is that the case?

These are the realities that shape the world in which I work as a coach. My brand is “The Credible Spokesperson” and the world I’ve just described is the one that shapes people’s perception of the media world and their engagement it. The questions they have are about what they need to know to have the best chance of success when they feel the odds are often severely stacked against them. The challenge in doing this can be huge for many. On top of needing to really manage the message and intensely focus on doing so, people engaged in news media interviews have to make a shift in perspective. An interview with a reporter is not a conversation no matter how hard a good interviewer will try to make it so. Because when it becomes a conversation you loose control.



WhatsCred, the name of this blog, is about thinking and behaving in a way that builds trust and maintains credibility. Everyone spins. Every time we put our sunny side up we’re spinning.  All of us want the world to see our shiny side, our best profile and our most credible self. In today’s 24/7 social media world the word authenticity has become central. When every utterance can so very quickly be broadcast worldwide through Twitter, Facebook and You Tube, the need to communicate authentically has never been more important. Old public relations tools that controlled what people see, read or hear are out the window. More than ever, everyone who chooses or is forced to live their lives in the public realm must take charge of their own credibility.

For companies and governments it’s just as important. Their behaviors and the spokespeople that express their moral code are more central now to the credibility of their reputations than ever. Just as a serious misstep can undermine all corporate goodwill instantly, a good spokesperson can build trust in meetings with stakeholders and in interviews with the news media if they know how. Many do, many do not.

Anyone can be a credible spokesperson. Sure, some speak better than others, some look better on TV, some even have that hard to define personal charisma.  But, if unencumbered by the pressures of a job, personal self-doubt, or the challenge of articulating complex thoughts in simple language, no one should doubt their capacity to speak credibly. And yet, many of us do primarily because most of us are encumbered by doubt, pressure, complexity. Working with the News Media amplifies these doubts and pressures.

To be a Credible Spokesperson you must have the consistent capacity to deliver a reported message as closely as possible to your original intent. It’s not rocket science, assuming of course that you have a credible message, are telling the truth, are clear on what your story is and do not have a history of gouging the public. Pretty straightforward really.  Why is it then that for most it seems like such a difficult task? For some just managing the stress of speaking publicly is challenge enough. There’s much at stake in an interview with a reporter and the pressure to do well on behalf of the organization you are speaking for can be overwhelming.  But the good news is there are tools and a straightforward framework to think through answers on your feet to almost all challenging questions a reporter might throw you and there’s a simple way to anticipate what they’ll be.

At the beginning of many workshops I ask the question “does the news media do a good job?” It’s a useful question because it starts a conversation about the perception workshop participants have about the nature of news, a conversation that helps people start to come to terms with their generally low level of trust in the news media as an institution. I recently sampled some 1000 answers and about 70% say no, 20 % say it depends and 10 % say yes. In fact, I’ve found the key challenge a majority of my clients face in being effective spokespeople is their mistrust of the news media. Expecting the worst they’ll tend to deliver the worst. Not a good place to be for an aspiring credible spokesperson.

It’s my job as a coach to help people manage these misgivings and to give them the tools to ensure the reporters they encounter get it right, even if it’s just one lonely six second sound bite arising from a 20 minute interview. I’ve spent enough time in the news media to know first hand how, why and when reporters tell their stories. I’ve now spent an equal amount of time showing people a successful and systematic way of delivering messages reporters will use. And while the News Media has changed a lot in that time, the basic premise of message delivery hasn’t changed a whit. Credible spokespeople build credible reputations. That’s where we’ll start.




Truth telling

Today we have so little darkness: our world is lit up 24 hours a day. Its transparent with blogs and social networks broadcasting the buzz of a whole new generation of people who have made a choice to live their life in a much more public world in a much more noisy world.

So one challenge we have is oversharing – that’s not honesty. Our manic tweeting and texting can blind us to the fact that the subtleties of human decency, character and integrity is still what matters and is always going to matter.

So in this much noisier world it might make sense for us to be just a little but more explicit about our moral code and signal it to everyone around you that “in my world is going to be one where truth is strengthened and falsehood is recognized and marginalized.” When you do that the ground around you is going to shift just a little bit…and that’s the truth.

Pamela Meyers, author of How to Spot a Liar speaking at a TED talk in Edinborough Scotland in 2011.