Ethical Voices

Own It and Fix It: Ethical Media Training Advice from Melody Kimmel

Joining me on this week’s episode of EthicalVoices is Melody Kimmel. She is one of the nation’s leading media, presentation and message trainers. She helps executives, scientists, subject matter experts, authors, celebrities, and others persuade, convince and then always convey their positions of power and passion. And I thought she would be a great guest for Ethical Voices.

Over the course of our discussion, Melody provides insight into a number of key issues including:

Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit more about yourself and your career?

I was a journalist for nine years, so I come by my media training credential honestly. I worked as a freelancer in the US and the UK for The New York Daily News and The Baltimore Sun, Cosmo, What’s On in London, et cetera. I was on staff itself in GQ, and a brief aside, I’ll out myself. One of the most interesting things I did when there was to try and organize Conde Nast Magazines to join the News Guild, which is the largest union in the country for news professionals. I don’t share that too often, but why the heck not?

Anyway, after that I opened the New York office of Quick Tally, which does audience response systems. And it was so interesting to do work in public affairs, research and corporate meetings. And then somewhere around that time, I crossed over to the dark side to public relations, made my way to FleishmanHillard, where I stayed for a good two decades. I was a pure play, purely did media training, presentation training, message training the entire time and culminated my stay there as the Head of the National Practice before MSL spirited me over to have the same position. And then I guess it was 2018 MSL let me go with many other senior folks, and I think of it as the best bad news I ever got, because it was just the push I needed to start my own MK Media Training, doing the same thing on my own and working direct to clients rather than through colleagues is intermediaries, which is also very enjoyable.

The only thing I push back on is by joining the public relations team, you’re not joining the dark side at all.

Well, you and I definitely agree on that but I guess in common perception, maybe not always.

Thinking about your career and all of the discussions you’ve had or roles you’ve held, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

I’m going to give you two examples. And this is a really interesting thing to think about as this whole interview has been for several. One of the agencies I worked at, I was on the team promoting tourism for a foreign government, which shall remain nameless. And it was very early in my stay at that agency and it was such a great team. We did wonderful work. Tourism went up. We got it through some downturns in tourism at that time, really helped move the needle. And then the contract came up for renewal and it became clear… I can’t believe I’m saying this, that one of the deciders was looking for the proverbial suitcase of cash. I’m happy to say that did not happen. I’ll come to the learning from that later.

The other ethical situation that I was thinking about is the agency I was at was supporting a client who brought us on as they landed in the middle of a very public crisis involving a car recall. There were fatalities. It was bad. It was just warning, warning, red light. And we jumped in wholeheartedly. The client wanted us to basically script the words that would make their black eye go away. We were standing by to do that, but of course said, “Well, have you done this? And have you made that change? And have you fixed this?” They kept refusing or dragging their feet on making the operational changes that would have made any words sincere. And we pushed and we pushed and they pushed back and we parted ways.

They basically wanted you to talk the talk, but they weren’t willing to walk the walk.

Exactly, exactly.

How did you escalate the issue, particularly the first one, we were talking with a suitcase of cash? How do you address this and come to the conclusion to part ways and not compromise your ethics?

That happened at the very highest levels. In both cases we tried everything that we could making the case that this wasn’t the way to go. On the first one, none of us wanted to end up in jail. But nothing worked. It’s a very hard when you come to these ethical crossroads, because there’s always a lot at stake. In both of these cases, a lot of billings were at stake and we were trying to figure out, is there a way that we can still look at ourselves in the mirror and stay with this client and keep the billings and keep doing great work.

But that last phrase was the killer. You couldn’t do great work when it was based on such a sandy, shifting unethical foundation. And the key lesson for all of us, that has stayed with me all these years since, is that you can do well by doing right, that these clear displays of integrity and ethics paid off in far bigger ways than whatever we lost from both of those clients.

In a way, we picked up our marbles and went home. We retreated from the battle and won the war. Sure, it was very hard on the balance sheet for a quarter or two, but it turned out to yield incalculable benefits for a long time, with all the key stakeholders. I remember being in a number of pitches after the product recall incident. It was very well known that we had resigned this and prospects would ask, “What was that all about?” And we had a nice way to explain it and I’m sure we won more business than whatever dollars were lost from that episode.

More than anything else it helped with employees. Speaking for myself, I was so proud to work for a company that put integrity and ethics first. It bought a lot of commitment, engagement, and loyalty from me and I have no doubt from all my colleagues that were involved at that time.

It’s definitely short-term pain, but long term, making the ethical decision will benefit you and help you grow as well as help society.

Yes.

I love that you’re giving the auto example because I was talking to Scott Monty about a year ago and one of the examples he talks about when he first joined Ford and they were dealing with a crisis and their pickup trucks were catching on fire and they wanted to call it a thermal event. And he’s like, “No, we are not calling exploding pickup trucks due to fire a thermal event. Just say they catch on fire. You’re undermining my credibility if you try to have me say that. I can’t do it.”

That’s from the school that brought us wardrobe malfunction, but at much higher stakes.

That’s one of the reasons I wanted to really have you as a guest and I’m so excited I do, because I realized as I’ve been doing this for almost two years, I haven’t talked to somebody who really is focused on media training. And there’s some misperceptions about media training and interviews. As a media trainer, do you teach clients to fabricate or bend the truth and interviews?

Absolutely not. I always begin my time with the client by saying, “Number one rule is tell the truth.” Now I do say there are some nuances here, let’s have a little humor value, but I always tell them never ever lie to a reporter. I like quotes. I like Warren Buffett a lot. Who doesn’t like Warren Buffett? But one of his great quotes is, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” I think trust is the same kind of thing. It takes a long time to gain, a moment to lose and you may never regain trust just as you may never regain your reputation.

When we’re preparing to do a media training one of the first questions I ask is about messaging. I want to see that if the talk matches the walk, that the messages are true, credible and provable. If they don’t have messages or if they’re still very weak at the knees, I advise that we delay and I work with them often in reformulating them. Whenever possible, I like to recommend that people invoke third parties, which helps boost credibility. So, it’s not just take my word for how this product or drug works, you can say it was recommended by the FDA ad comm committee, the advisory committee approved it in record time, whatever. Is there a government or another private sector institution that we can reference that adds credibility to the statements that are being made? Facts are facts, because you can look them up. So, all in all I tell people, “Tell the truth, under promise and over deliver.”

I think that’s a great point. I have a lot of discussion with my class every semester on the differences between spinning and framing. Spinning is where you go too far. Framing is setting the parameters, that’s okay. That ties into my next question. When you’re thinking about that and telling them to tell the truth, as you said, does that mean highly ethical spokespeople have to disclose everything?

I love the way you phrased it. There’s a big difference between spinning and framing and positioning. And that’s exactly what I say to clients and I remind them, you have rights as well as responsibilities in an interview. For starters, it’s good for everyone to remember that the news is a constructed product. It doesn’t just sort of happen. It’s not just this balanced representation of the events of the day. It’s balanced based on the input, the resources, the facts that have been gathered. I advise them to be humble but confident and to own their place in the tale. They have to understand their point of view is legitimate and it has been perceived by reporters as integral or they wouldn’t be asked to participate. We’re entitled to tell the story the way we see it and we can decide which facts to focus on, but we cannot manufacture information.

I believe to my core, that truth exists. I think if we dispute that we’re in George Orwell country, or more to the point, in Trump’s White House. But it’s also important when it comes to framing a story, you have to speak up. You have to have your voice heard. If you refuse the interview, or if you take the interview and keep brandishing a very curt no comment, you’re relinquishing your space in the story. And no doubt, other people are going to tell it for you, and undoubtedly, it’s not going to be the way you would want to tell it or the way you see events.

Where is that middle ground to effectively get your message out when other folks are attacking it or not agreeing with you?

You need to frame it. You need to position it. You’re not spinning it. You are telling the story as you see it in your own language.

You don’t have to tell every single detail. You can use sort of broader brush strokes. I think it’s very important. I tell people to find the line, find the boundary. It’s important for us in our private lives to have boundaries and it’s true in public communications as well. What I mean by that is it’s not your duty to tell the other side of the story, nor is it your appropriate role. It’s not your area of expertise. You can only speak for the part of the story that you control or that you’re responsible for. You don’t want to speculate. You don’t want to guess. And of course, as I was saying, you don’t want to speak for another company or another individual.

Most of us in PR are probably pretty familiar with the phrase blocking and bridging. I am a fan of that. I think it’s a deft and legit way to make it clear that what you’ve just been asked about is not in your area of expertise and to bring the conversation back to what you are expert in talking about. There’s nothing wrong with answering a question with something like, “That would be a better question for them. What I can tell you about is blank,” or “I’m at the Acme Company and the way we approach blank is as follows.” Stick with what you know. Find the line.

I think that’s great advice. People often do a lot of media training and coaching before they speak during a crisis. When there’s a crisis, there’s all this conflicting emotion and directives and people having to make decisions quickly. How do you advise clients to keep ethics in the room during a crisis?

There is a fog of war or the fog of crisis operations and crisis communications. They’re, of course, not identical. People and brands need to be authentic. We are all expecting them now to stand for something beyond product quality. That’s entry stakes. The public expects that and it guides their buying behavior.

I mean, just look at this marvelous wellspring we’re all seeing of companies communicating their stance on race at the moment. While I think that’s great, surprising sometimes the companies that suddenly make a pronouncement, but we’re going to be watching for signs of true commitment. For example, there’s a lot of chatter about diversity, equity and inclusion and well, let’s see it. Let’s see it at the C-Suite and the board. For example, there are only three or four black CEOs in the 500 companies that comprise the Fortune 500. We need to be authentic.

In a crisis, people and brands need to remain authentic, to stay true to their brand identity. They need to be transparent and they need to act and communicate quickly. Gosh, if nature abhors a vacuum, so does the public right? And so do all the variations on what we mean when we say the word media anymore. The public is going to evaluate companies by asking, “What do you know? When did you learn it? What did you do about it?” If you made a mistake, own it. That will support reputation repair nearly as much as not having made the mistake in the first place. When you make a mistake own it and fix it.

I do my best to follow my own advice there. And I look to the four Rs as a process to follow. The four Rs are regret, restitution, reform, responsibility. Express regret that something happened that fell short of what you expect of this brand. Restitution, give back, make whole in any way you possibly can. And by the way, not all of this can happen on day one of a crisis.

Reform. What are we going to do differently to keep this from happening again? And that wouldn’t be credible if it were announced on day one. The day one story version of reform might be, “We are doing a root cause analysis.” You can tell I work with a lot of engineering and science companies. Whatever the correct version for that is and figure out if there’s something we can do better, improve so this never happens again.

And the fourth R is responsibility. Take it throughout, sound like you are shouldering whatever the blame or the responsibility is for getting to the bottom of what happened, making people whole and fixing it.

Starbucks is a great example. It was almost exactly two years ago; they had a bad misfire and we can barely remember it now. You remember when the manager in a Philadelphia store called the police on two African American men who were sitting in the store without having ordered anything. They said they were waiting for friends to show up, who indeed did show up a little while later. That was two years and 11 million views of the Twitter video ago.

Well, what did Starbucks do after this dreadful episode? Quickly Starbucks parted ways with the store manager. Soon after the CEO came to Philadelphia, apologized to the gentlemen and a month after the incident, Starbucks did something that was unprecedented at that time. They closed their 8,000 US stores for one day to conduct racial bias education for 175,000 employees.

Now let’s fast forward two years when the police murders of George Floyd and other innocent black people have assaulted a community already staggering from the quarantine’s disproportionate health and economic blows. Starbucks is one of the companies that issued a public letter. It supported Black Lives Matter and it encouraged what they called courageous conversations. Nobody has responded by invoking a snarky mention of the earlier crisis, because as I see it, their actions had allowed them to get past that. That’s why we folks in crisis communications at some point always cite the famous Chinese ideogram for crisis, which combines the signs for danger plus opportunity.

That’s really great advice. Taking a step back and thinking beyond just some of the media training examples you have given, what are you personally seeing is some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

Well, that’s an interesting question and I may not answer in a popular fashion.

The floodgates of messages are open. We have landed in a more is less rather than less is more and more is less reality when it comes to this tsunami of public communication. The more we have the less trustworthy a lot of it is perceived. And in fact, much of it is not trustworthy. So that’s of concern.

One marker I see for what’s the relationship we all have with the traditional media is in my own business. I have seen a decrease in demand for media training that has been replaced by calls for presentation coaching. I interpret that to mean that a lot of companies kind of feel like shrug, we don’t have to let The Wall Street Journal talk to the CEO. We’ll just say, “No, thank you anyway. Send them a press release. We’ll put the CEO on our YouTube channel. He can do the video 10 times. He’ll get it eventually.” Right? It’s small wonder that the public’s trust in what they read has eroded.

Then we have an assault by reactionary forces, dismissing news they don’t like as fake. That adds fuel to this fire. US journalists have been assaulted during protests. One reporter lost an eye recently. Then the rise of social media and other direct to consumer forums is unfettered and it’s erratically regulated. I was dinged a few days ago by Facebook, because I reshared a post that had a swastika in the background. If you read it, the words on it, you would see that the post was very clear condemnation of Nazi-ism. I was really startled.

And then you have all these marketing channels, influencers, product placements, and pay for play TV interviews, which in my view are playing fast and loose with ethics. I doubt most followers or viewers understand that these placements or the endorsement by their favorite influencer are paid. These are turning PR into advertising. They parlay the strengths, the heart of public relations, which is that consumers trust a news item more than they trust an ad because they perceive that information has passed the filter of reporters. They buy what we could call the halo effect of that third-party endorsement instead of actually earning it. If I read it in The Washington Post, a reporter must have researched it and it passed his or her muster. This is perverting the strength of public relations. And I consider it a PR ethical challenge.

It’s a challenge I’ve discussed. I believe we’re entering into the disinformation age. The rise of deep fakes is going to have even a more compelling impact, because people believe what they see and technology makes it easier to fake what you see. People are going to lose trust in what they see. I think this is going to be one of the biggest challenges we as communicators, as well as just society, faces moving forward is that rapid spread of disinformation and the decline of trust.

Oh, for sure. That’s a great point. How can seeing be believing in the Photoshop era?

Photoshop is one thing, and now you’re doing it to video, put the face of a CEO in a compromising position if you’re an advocacy group and how do you then deal with those sorts of issues. It’s just going to get easier and easier and simpler for people to do.

I know. I know. It’s very frightening.

Well, I try not to end on a frightening point, so let me ask a positive question. When you’re thinking about ethics advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

Well, I already mentioned my favorite Warren Buffett quote. His language is almost as rich as his portfolio. “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.” And I think I’ll end with advice that I was given directly, obviously not from Warren Buffett, and this is from Peter McCue who hired me at FleishmanHillard, “Trust, but verify.” I think that’s excellent advice for us in all of our roles, our many roles in life as company leaders, as individuals and in particular as parents. Trust, but verify.

I think that’s great advice. Is there anything, Melody, you wanted to discuss that I didn’t ask you?

It’s hard not to believe that we are in a truly historic moment right now. It’s almost terrifying to check the news every morning when you wake up, because who knows what might have happened overnight and on what possible front. We’ve had assaults on almost every front. I’m a believer in the essential goodness of people and in the importance of communication. And I’ve been in public relations a long time, because despite all the teasing and the cautions that you and I have been pointing to, I still think that there are a lot of people that I have been honored to work with over the years who really are turning to me and to all of us and my colleagues in public relations for advice on how to tell their story and be heard most clearly in the court of public opinion.

Check out the full interview, with bonus content here.

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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of EthicalVoices.com

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