10 Essential Words and Phrases for Media Pros in a PR Crisis

crisis commYou may have noticed we’re surrounded by emergencies and crises–big time. In between the BP oil spill and Toyota recalls, we hear about office shootings, corrupt politicians, building collapses, plane crashes and savage beatings. It’s rough out there. Sure there’s the good news too. But it’s easier for PR pros and management to speak to reporters when all is well.

Are you and your team prepared to go head-to-head with the media when you’re faced with horrid breaking news that can quickly destroy your company, staff, and reputation?

I do a lot of PR and crisis communication trainings and coachings on how PR teams and leaders can develop a carefully crafted message and sound bite for reporters. In my 25 years of news and PR experience, I’ve played more than both sides of the fence. I’ve been a radio news reporter and news director, and ran New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman’s Office of Radio and TV. I’ve managed press conferences with clients hoping they won’t be dragged out of their office in  handcuffs with a raincoat over their heads. All of this in the New Jersey/New York/Philly media market- one of the toughest out there.

It’s been interesting to walk that fine line of linguistics.  In crisis communications, the mouthpiece of your organization has to use words and phrases like those of politicians and lawyers. Don’t get sick just yet.

Words that Trap

Anyone who is publishing content in Social Media, speaks with journalists, or writes press releases knows that there are words that can trap you with little or no way out.

They are: never, always, and definitely.

These three words can spell trouble because reporters and writers are trained to listen. They often take things literally. For example, you may say to a reporter, “Our family-run liquor store has never sold alcohol to anyone under the age of 21.” Most reporters spend their days digging for information, scanning the Internet, and asking a lot of questions to a variety of people. They are curious. They look for cracks in your story. They will find the old buried archive from 1971 when your dearly departed Grandpa sold beer to a 17-year-old who was killed in a car accident.  And you said “never”.

Instead of using words like never, always or definitely, start to think in vague terms. Avoid the pitfall of painting yourself into a corner.

Enter “wiggle words.” These are softer words that attorneys and politicians use all the time.

  1. Tend to
  2. Usually
  3. Typically
  4. Often
  5. May
  6. Prefer to
  7. It looks like
  8. It appears to be
  9. It’s likely to happen in a few weeks
  10. It could be

Here’s an example. Anyone with news savvy knows that “no comment” means guilty. You have to say something. Here’s a line I love to quote from an attorney: “It looks like it could likely happen sometime soon. That may be a real possibility.” Huh?

The Art and Skill of What Follows

Using these words and phrases gives you “wiggle room” in case there’s an error or something from 100 years ago that you and your bosses may not be aware of. When you deliver the line with an authoritative and credible tone of voice, it can work like a charm. But please don’t misunderstand. There is clearly an art and skill to this method.

If you use my “vague” example in a hastily called press conference during a crisis with breaking news, you are trying to buy time. You’ll have microphones, cameras and glaring lights in your face. It could be 3 AM on a Tuesday or 11 PM on a Friday. “No comment” doesn’t work. So you use whatever information you may have available but you carefully word your statement and remarks with the wiggle words. You will provide accurate and detailed information in a timely way, but when you are prepared. You control the flow of information. Buying time, even if it’s five minutes or five hours, can be the key to surviving a PR crisis.  In other words the follow-up is essential.

When done correctly, this process can save your boss, company, job and your reputation with the media.

(Photo Credit: bhanukaran)


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