A public information officer colleague returned from a recent disaster incident deployment and gave me the lowdown on how the job went. Turned out it could’ve been better! A particular low point for my friend came when he was demobilizing and had a short exit interview/debrief with the incident commander, focusing on his team’s contributions. The IC said something like, “You did fine. As long as I have someone here to write talking points for me, I’m good.”
I wasn’t there and I don’t know that IC, but what supreme confidence she has that she can cover all the aspects of crisis communication in the midst of a disaster with just a set of talking points!
Flash forward to a few days ago: I was watching my alma mater’s home opener football game. During a pre-game television interview, the head coach boasted about the school having the 42nd straight home game sellout. The stands behind him, however – just a few minutes before kickoff – were about 75 percent empty. During a post-game television interview, the university’s president made the same statement, almost word-for-word, that the coach made before the game – and, still, the stands behind him were mostly empty. The stadium was half-ish full during the game. There had been bad weather (which explains why every ticket being sold ≠ stands being full), but the coach’s and president’s adherence to their talking points (I assume) was just kind of silly, considering the view over each one’s shoulder during the televised interviews. If you’re going to brag about selling out a game, a full stadium in the background is a good thing. I was a little bit embarrassed for them.
Here’s the deal with talking points: they’re just succinct, focused notes to prepare one person, or groups of people, to speak about something important that they’re not 100 percent versed in, or to focus on a few points that are most important in complex situations. In the crisis communication world, they’re a means to an end – that end being to inform or to persuade.
You can use them to “stay on message,” but using them to “stay on script” when you’re preparing groups of people to speak on the same topic is gag reel fodder (think multiple spokespeople saying the exact same thing over and over during media interviews, and you get the picture – they start sounding like robots, instead of people who care about what is going on). Not for nothing – if you think the purpose of talking points is to “spin” something, you’re probably reading the wrong blog.
Talking points are simply a vehicle. Think of you (or the speaker(s) you’re preparing) and your talking points like a car and driver going from point A to point B on a highway, not like someone on a train traveling from and to the same places.
In the first analogy, you have a modicum of freedom and flexibility, within certain bounds. You can speed up or slow down when you need to. You can swerve out of the way when an obstacle is in your path, but keep moving forward. If you need to take a slight detour, then get back on the highway, to get to where you need to be, you can. In the second analogy, there’s rigidity built in to getting to your destination. If there’s an obstacle, you’re at full stop. If you need to detour, you’re out of luck (or off the rails!).
Talking points should cover what you want to say, and how you want to say it, without sounding like a memorized speech. What else should you watch out for when preparing and delivering talking points (or preparing someone else to do so)?
- Consider your audience first. When you’re in a crisis, you’re not necessarily communicating what you want, but what people need to know and hear. You don’t define the parameters of your crisis; those affected by it do.
- Never use language that you wouldn’t normally use. All it takes is a single word that you either don’t know how to pronounce, or don’t fully understand the definition of, to derail (pun!) your talk.
- Layered messaging and repetition is key when you’re battling the mental noise that comes with publics in low trust/high concern situations. The tried and true, education-based TTT method is great – Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; Tell ’em; Tell ’em what you told ’em.
- Use jargon only when you’re in a jargon-friendly atmosphere (i.e., when your entire audience will understand it). You can use jargon at other times, but you need to define words and acronyms immediately after using them (learning incident management organization jargon is actually appealing to some people affected by crisis – it makes them feel more a part of what’s going on).
- If you’re crafting talking points for someone else, You. Have. To. Do. Speaker. Preparation. before he or she mounts the podium or steps in front of the television camera. You’re not handing someone a script, you’re giving a qualified individual a roadmap (pun #2!) to help him or her communicate to people what’s most important about your crisis, in a way that the audience will understand and that your speaker is comfortable conveying.
And, yes, incident commanders, CEOs, subject matter experts and other assorted principals – talking points can be an important tool in communicating how you’re mitigating crisis. There’s, um, some other stuff, too.