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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15 comment on “10 Essential Words and Phrases for Media Pros in a PR Crisis
  1. Susan,
    Very Informative and interesting. With that said, am I the only person who hates ‘wiggle words’. I recognize the protection they offer those who wish to stay in a non commit, vague or easy exit zone and the frequency they are used by attorneys and politicians, as you note. But aren’t these the very reasons why individuals with gravitas, that are accountable, clear and straightforward in their communication shy away from, and revile, the obfuscating of those that embrace this modus operandi?

  2. Agree with your POV about painting yourself into a corner in some media interviews, on some situations. However, we have to be careful about suggesting that these phrases fit every situation. Depending on the crisis, using “wiggle words” can also get spokespeople in trouble for being too politick, spineless or elusive. In a recovery, it is smart to be definitive and then follow up the words with demonstrable action.

    1. Dan and James,

      Thank you both for your perspectives. Wiggle words must be used (as I noted-it’s an art and science) very carefully, simply to buy time until the factual and direct communication can be crafted. The example sentence I provided is one I have heard, but would caution against using all of those words in one sentence. When left to using 1 or 2 wiggle words in a crisis, versus no comment or misspeaking—I still vote for wiggle words.

      Best regards,
      Susan

  3. Even better than wiggle words?

    “I don’t know, but I will find out and tell you in [accountable time-frame of hours/days].”

    Said into a mic, or on camera, this makes you look like you actually (a) want to give the right answer, and (b) give a damn about truth AND accountability. Everybody wins, no linguistic contortions a la the lawyer-ese “definitely maybe, and possibly soon”

    1. Dear Casey,

      Yes, an accountable time frame and genuine willingness to help can avert additional problems. Perhaps my PS/ Footnote to this post should have been: “Never lie to a reporter. If you don’t know, it’s ok to say so, but follow-up.” The linguistic tightrope is not intended to mislead, it’s intended to politely stall, even for just a few minutes. The goal is to get through the crisis, and still be a credible resource to the media. An art and a science, for sure.

      I appreciate your insights- thank you!
      Susan

  4. Interesting post Susan. I absolutely agree with you on “no comment” and how important it is to just say something. I always advocate acknowledging, addressing or even attempting a response rather than say nothing. For example, “we are frustrated too at the time it’s taking and I can assure you that we are doing absolutely everything we can to fix the problem/get to the bottom of what happened.” Take the macro, high grund where possible, rather than take the question at face value. Address the underlying issue of the question is always a good strategy. Not sure that I favor “wiggle” words, but as you say Susan it is an art.

    1. Hi Jane,
      You bring up a critical point for all communication (not just in a crisis)—and that is validation. Acknowledging “they must be frustrated” —and of course the helpful “I don’t know but will find out”—and then doing it—is also key.
      Thank you for adding to the conversation!
      Susan

  5. We’ve learned to use “scheduled for” or “planned for” when referring to dates for new business grand openings in Las Vegas. Rarely do new concepts open the day (or month) the proprietor has planned!

  6. Dan Collins, you are not the only one who hates wiggle words. (Maybe “only” should be added to the first list!) I do, too. I felt like the ones recommended in this article make you sound noncommittal, political, and lawyer-esque. Especially in times of crisis, stakeholders want definite answers and they want to know information that sounds truthful, and not like leadership is trying to avoid the issue. It’s critical to building trust. Phrases like “These are the things we’re doing now (xyz), and this is what we expect the outcome to be (xyz) in an (xyz) time frame.” You don’t have to be unrealistic, like “always” and “never” but you certainly don’t want to appear slippery.

    1. Hi Connie,

      Indeed, these wiggle words are political and lawyer-esq, which is exactly what I posted. They are not intended to make anyone appear “slippery” or non-committal, just making sure that in a pinch, no one paints themselves into a corner. I’ve seen this happen too many times when reporters are grilling people who are not adequately trained/prepared…or simply don’t have enough information in a breaking/developing story. I agree people want definite answers but PR people and leaders w/out media training can’t be throwing out answers under the glare of cameras that are not accurate or available. It’s critical that anyone who speaks to a reporter on the record knows how to skillfully “do this dance” and control the message. Again, one or two wiggle words, with the promise of following through and getting accurate information in a prompt follow-up is acceptable, and far from slippery.

      Susan

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