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How Not to Be a Chip off the Old Block

Musings from the PR trench on toxic spokespeople and the importance of preparation

While helping a client last week prepare for upcoming meetings with media and industry analysts, I was reminded how much I enjoy watching business leaders develop their communication capabilities and grasp the importance of having great answers to tough questions. It’s my job, and everyone’s job at Red Fan, to make sure our clients are prepared to answer questions accurately while still getting their most important messages across.

Smart leaders take their role as an organizational spokesperson seriously and recognize that each interview, each speaking engagement and each board presentation requires careful preparation tailored to the specifics of the situation. Mind you, most executives were not born great spokespeople, and the best among them have invested wisely in a communication coach.

As a PR executive, the number one thing I want to see in a CEO, CTO or founder is that they are coachable. Communication coaches work alongside their clients to think through the gamut of possible questions and craft authentic responses that map back to the company’s messaging strategy. The most memorable responses are generally thought out well in advance; include statistics that are effortlessly conveyed through clever analogies; and are the product of research, writing and rehearsal. Or, worse they could be off-the-cuff and memorable for all the wrong reasons.

And yet, as vital as preparation is, it only goes so far, as Fast Company reminded us last week with its retrospective on the verbal train wreck that is lululemon’s founder, Chip Wilson. Observers everywhere are wondering what, if anything, lululemon can and should do to muzzle its toxic founder.

It’s a fair question to ask and a tough one to answer. Ultimately, it probably will be dealt with in the board room. Clearly remediation work has begun with the launch of Wilson’s apology video. Still, can we learn something from extreme cases like Wilson? That too is hard to say. At a minimum, lululemon’s PR crisis is a reminder to choose your spokespeople wisely and to invest in customized, ongoing media coaching and interview preparation. To put this in perspective, we see CEOs spend half a day on media training for a feature interview with Forbes and never blink an eye at the cost or investment of time. The outcomes speak for themselves.

For me, a quote by veteran journalist Sam Donaldson captures the moment.

“The questions don’t do the damage. Only the answers do.”

Red Fan helps businesses and organizations anticipate questions and provide clear, tangible, authentic responses. We kick the tires on potential storylines, customize messaging, develop quotable quotes (you can quote me on that), and practice techniques for managing pitfall questions. If you’ve ever wondered why media coverage is called “earned media,” now you know. More interview tips from Red Fan here.

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