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Tips for Managing a Press Conference During a Crisis

February 24, 2020
Reading time: 9 minutes

The 3 key parts of a conference that grow trust and show accountability. 

Imagine planning a press conference to address a situation that brought plenty of negative publicity to your organization.

Let’s say someone within your organization was accused of cheating and now you need to answer to the accusations. 

Alright, let’s say your organization was a major league baseball team and spring training is right around the corner. 

OK, your job is in the front office of the Astros and Houston, you have a problem

The Houston Astros Astronomically Bad Press Conference

The purpose of the press conference is to acknowledge the cheating scandal and get past it once and for all. The goal of the press conference is to rebuild a team’s reputation. 

The Houston Astros did the opposite. 

After the cheating scandal story went viral, people needed to hear from the Astros front office. 

The first mistake made by the Astros (aside from the cheating) was saying nothing – for a long time. 

Cue February when pitchers and catchers are getting ready to report to spring training. Something – anything – needs to be said.   

  • MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred likely pressed the Astros’ front office to respond. 
  • Fans need to know they can still root for the Astros and wear – and buy – team merch.
  • The press needs answers, particularly sports reporters.

 

If you work in the front office of the Houston Astros, you know you need a press conference and you need it before the start of the baseball season. 

Time to schedule a press conference. 

You assemble the press. You set up a live feed. You have a principal member of the organization ready to kick off the presser, two popular players set to speak, and your new skipper.  

Everything is in place.

All the Astros need to do now is offer a well-crafted mea culpa to keep their brand from self-destructing further.  

What could go wrong? 

Plenty. 

Just like the Astros TK, it started off well enough. 

Team owner Jim Crane, sitting alongside the team’s new skipper Dusty Baker, starts off by apologizing on behalf of the team. 

“I want to say again how sorry our team is for what happened,” Crane said. “I want to also repeat that this will never happen again on my watch.”

So far so good. We got an apology. 

But then, he fouled out. 

Let’s check social media. Everyone else does, and that’s part of the problem. 

 

“It’ll blow over by spring training.” – Jim Crane’s not so prescient opinion on the cheating scandal. 

When an official spokesperson or a principal member of an organization is attempting to dodge or deflect blame, it’s the verbal equivalent of running through raindrops. 

Attitude, Attitude, Attitude. 

Time and time again I see this particular attitude rear its head in today’s news cycle and it never nets a positive result.

This attitude tends to result in a crisis communications problem that spills into a social media crisis. 

It’s a mix of dismissal, arrogance, with an ’Ok, Boomer’ spin in for good measure. 

I know, I know – but let me explain.  

A person dismisses an allegation, the pushback, or any person or group raising questions. An, “I don’t even understand what the big deal is over this issue” type of attitude. 

“The problem, you see, is them – the accusers. Not me.” 

An arrogance brings on that dismissal that the person or organization knows better than the accusers. Rabble-rousers is a term I often hear from these folks.

The Ok, Boomer touch. Well, that’s the out-of-touch or close-minded opinions associated with the Baby Boomer generation. That’s NOT to state that people in the Baby Boomer generation are out of touch. 

Not at all. Many Boomers I know are social media savvy and know their way around a crisis. 

It’s that out-of-touch moment mixed with close-mindedness that I often behold with this generation posses when they are faced with any pushback – particularly on social media.  

The concept of “viral” sharing on social media is lost on them. They don’t factor it in when it comes to managing an event, or in the case of the Houston Astros, a press conference. 

The level of scrutiny at this press conference and those watching it live was so high. I cannot even begin to understand how any of the talking points managed to make it out of the building, much less make it to air. 

The press conference was a disaster. 

There are three media tactics the Houston Astros didn’t focus on when planning their press conference. If you want to plan a crisis-free press conference, focus on these three areas of public relations: 

  1. Planning

  2. Optics

  3. Messaging 

The Planning 

The first question people from within the organization needs to ask themselves is this: 

Do we need to hold a press conference? 

In most cases, the answer is no. 

The press conference is a media relations tactic from the past. They were scheduled at a time before social media. The presser was an event that required reporters to leave their desks to cover an unveiling, remarks, or whatever important news the organization had to share. 

That’s not to say the press conference is obsolete. There are plenty of reasons to hold one, however, due to social media, the leaders and other members of organizations can get by with remarks on the fly or after games. 

Proof?

How many White House press secretaries can you name? 

  • Ron Ziegler
  • Marlin Fitzwater 
  • Mike McCurry 
  • Sean Spicer 
  • Sarah Huckabee Sanders 

Press secretaries who work for an administration when events of national significance are happening. Or as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars. 

Now, name the current press secretary. My guess; you couldn’t come up with the name. 

Why? Leaders deliver their own news. 

It’s Stephnie Grisham. And you never hear from her because President Trump gives his own remarks in person and online in tweets.  

The Houston Astros did not need to hold an official press conference. Statements from the owner and player would have sufficed.

My guess for why they held a news conference at the team’s spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, before pitchers and catchers report to spring training was to capitalize on the optics. 

They wanted to get away from Houston, the scene of the crime, and place the team in a sunny locale representing a refresh on the upcoming season. One last little piece of housekeeping from last year’s season that we want to get behind us as we prepare for the new season. 

The Optics  

If you go ahead with a press conference, you need to think about how it will play out on camera. 

What is the backdrop for cameras? 

Where will your spokespeople sit or stand? 

Do you have a contingency plan for outdoors? 

What if it rains or if it’s windy outside? 

When third baseman Alex Bregman was speaking, someone likely from the Astro’s front office attempted to place a sheet of paper on the podium for Bregman to use.

He never even noticed them and kept talking. But everyone else noticed. 

The Astros three-ring circus was held outside. My favorite viral moment of the entire event was from the VP of media rations who, after his remarks to start the press conference, exited the podium by tramping through the bushes behind him. 

 

 

 

What else appeared off? 

The other unfortunate optics from the press conference. Search Google images for Alex Bregman and José Altuve who sat in silence, stunned, at the press conference.

You’ll see two players looking down at the ground and looking like they would rather be anyplace but sitting at that ballpark.

They likely both knew they had an impossible task ahead of them. How to tell a story about not cheating, when you were cheating, while keeping your reputation intact. 

Dead men walking. 

The most difficult story to tell is the one that never even happened. 

Even your biggest fans can become your biggest taunters in the face of a lie or fishy answers. 

José Altuve learned the hard way. Welcome to the new season, Jose. 

José Altuve signs a baseball for a fan at Fenway Park
José Altuve signs a baseball for a Red Sox fan at Fenway Park in 2015 who became a José Altuve fan but is no longer. That fan is my son, Conor.

And your new brand. 

José Altuve learned the hard way. Welcome to the new season, Jose. 

The Messaging

If you’ve listened to my podcast, you know my framework for responding to an issue or a crisis.

  1. Acknowledge, apologize, or accept your role in the event or incident. 
  2. Put your role into context. How you were involved and what were the circumstances. This is where you explain “the why.”
  3. Describe your plans, promises, or changes you plan to make having gone through this event or incident? 

Follow all three, in order, and you can move to the bonus round.

Say it on camera, write it in a statement, or film a video and share it on a website and social media – you’re likely given the opportunity to stay. Stay in your job, in office, or in the game. It’s your redemption moment. 

Fail to deliver all three, ideally in order, and chances are you will not be given the chance to stay in the bonus round. 

You’re out. 

The fact is, when it comes to cheating, lying, and plain dishonesty, people find it no longer acceptable in any form. Whether you are a baseball fan or an airline customer, people will not tolerate shady messaging that looks like worming out of telling the truth. 


How do you get out of a lie in a press conference?

Guess what? You can’t. 


How do you talk your way out of a crisis?  

Even though we are in an age of limited patience for PR spin, people will give leeway for organizations who roll out a spokesperson who steps up to the plate and tries to explain with facts and feelings. 

However, Godspeed to any person who sits down in front of a mic and attempts to shift blame and dole out excuses for bad behavior. 

Any attempt at dodging or deflection during a press conference will land you in a quagmire of misinformation and lies. 

In short – don’t even try. 

Everyone and I mean anyone who tries, fails miserably. People are too savvy nowadays to buy a false narrative. Social media users can spot spin and they will let you know in real-time that they want nothing to do with the story, or you for that matter. 

That’s a part of this new cancel culture, and the Houston Astros are feeling it.  

What do they say about the truth? It will set you free. Literally. 

You are free to go about your business because you have to leave the unpleasant stuff behind. But if you lie or obfuscate, another way to say a lie, you will carry it around with you.

You won’t shake it. 

Telling the truth ain’t easy, but it feels so much better when you do. 

Want to hear more about how to plan a press conference? Listen to “How to Conduct an Astronomically Bad Press Conference” on The Confident Communications Podcast

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