Friday, September 25, 2009

September Lunch Recap: Handling Communications Surrounding Controversial Projects

So for our September lunch, we were lucky enough to have Michael E. Newman from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Michael is NIST's Senior Communications Officer and served for six years as Communications Director for the agency's technical investigation of the collapse of three World Trade Center buildings on 9/11. Needless to say, he had a lot to share... so much so, that we even allowed him to break our "no PowerPoint" rule so that he could show some graphics. (Big thanks to the D.C. location of the Greene Turtle for helping us make this happen!)

So what did I learn:
  • For a high-profile, long-term project like the WTC investigation, it's important to have one point of contact for the media. (It helps prevent confusion.)
  • Whenever possible, it also helps to have one primary expert or project leader handle the majority of the media interviews.
  • As a PR/PA/Comms professional, you have to make sure you or someone from your team is a member of any task force supervising the project so that you can provide input on strategy and plans. (i.e., Communicating what your company / org is doing can not be an afterthought.)

Michael also had some great advice on how to deal with those who may (very publicly) oppose your work:
  • Be respectful and respond to their correspondence, but realize you don't have to get into an active debate. (It's too easy for those of us in the communications realm to feel like we have to respond to every media query, every letter, every invitation. Sure, we do need to respond. But responding vs. debating are two very different things.)
  • Don't condemn or criticize those who oppose you. (i.e., avoid "we're right and you're wrong" debate.) Instead, address opponents' claims directly and without judgment.
  • If you do respond to the opponents' claims, do so with the right goal in mind: to provide balance for others who already have heard the opposing viewpoint. Don't respond intending to convince the opponents to see things your way.

So there's my take on our latest lunch. Did you attend? What did you learn from Michael? Let us know.

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