Learning What Not to Say

You practice crafting and delivering key messages. You also need to practice sticking to the script so you don't say what you didn't mean to say.Crisis responders and reputation managers coach clients on what to say and how to say it. They also should spend time emphasizing what not to say.

It is hard enough to extinguish a crisis or reinforce a reputation with carefully chosen words. But some words, no matter how well intended or even deserved, should not be uttered because they will stoke controversy more than quell it.

Here are some examples:

Make Your Case, Then Shut Up

The best practice in a controversy is to tell your story as straightforwardly and factually as you can. The temptation is irresistible to add an editorial. Resist the temptation. Your commentary is likely to fuel more controversy and prolong negative media coverage, which is exactly what you are trying to avoid.

Avoid Lecturing the Media

There is an old saying, you don't want to argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel. A lot less ink is bought these days as newspapers slim down, but the principle remains true. Why pick a fight that makes you look defensive? Telling your story as best you can is your best defense.

Stick to the Facts

Credible facts are hard to come by in the onslaught of a crisis or an orchestrated campaign to discredit you. Instead of lashing out at events or antagonists, focus on gathering critical facts and double and triple checking them before you roll them out publicly. A believable fact, with ample documentation, can be your best friend in the middle of bedlam. An unsupported or inaccurate claim can deepen a crisis and further erode trust. Stick to the facts. Anything else in a crisis is an opinion and an invitation to more controversy.

Forget About Being in Control

Crises are bad for org charts. They steal control and make you the subject, not the master, of events. It is like being on a roller coaster ride, where it does little good in the middle of the ride to stand up and issue commands. You have to weather the whiplash curves and 360-degree turns. There are things you can control — such as fact collection and simplifying what you have to say so it is comprehensible and quotable. But you can't control the crisis. Trying to control it will only add frustration to injury.

Think Simple, Not Encyclopedic

In a crisis, people want to hear what you have to say, within limits. They will form an opinion of what you say in the first few moments you speak. That requires you to speak directly and simply. Include relevant and significant detail, but delete the superfluous and nice-to-know comments. You have a small window of opportunity and your best shot is a straightforward statement, with a quotable line or phrase. The more you talk, the less people will listen.

Look Confident of What You Say

So much of perception is framed through the eye, not heard through the ear. You can undermine the words you speak by weak or inappropriate body language. Don't let your facial expression, hand motions or basic posture betray your words. Let your words do the talking and allow your body language to provide the exclamation mark.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Actors hone their characters so once onstage they become the characters they play. They have a part to play. The spokesperson in a crisis needs to emulate actors and practice, practice, practice. A misplaced word, a muffed line or an out-of-place smirk can divert an audience's attention and undermine your message. Stick with the script and play the part.

Stay on Guard

The reporter says he's done asking questions and puts down his microphone. You relax. The reporter asks what seems like an innocuous question and you gush out information that is off-script. You made a huge a mistake. The interview isn't over. It just entered a more dangerous phase. Remember, if you don't say it, they can't quote it — or, worse, show it on tape.