How not to fan the flames of scandal for your company

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An untrained spokesperson can ruin even the best public relations strategy. We saw startling evidence of this recently, in the midst of the ongoing SNC-Lavalin saga, when the company’s CEO met with Canada’s top news outlets to get SNC-Lavalin’s message out.

It didn’t go so well.

Neil Bruce told various media outlets that he never cited the protection of 9,000 Canadian jobs to the federal government as a reason the construction giant should be granted a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA). Instead, he said, the company told Ottawa its workers might end up working for foreign rivals outside of Canada if SNC-Lavalin was convicted of criminal charges and forbidden from bidding on federal contracts.

In a “clarification” statement a few days later, the company denied it ever made such a veiled threat to the federal government. It simply reiterated its desire for a DPA as the best way to protect those 9,000 jobs and expand the company in Canada.

The 660-word clarification was aimed at correcting perceived media inaccuracies, and starts off by blaming the media and others for using "one-liners aimed at summarizing complex issues."

Is that fair? We all strive to make the complex simple in our lives, especially journalists, whose jobs require them to simplify complicated issues to convince average members of the public to pay attention to a big story.

Communications teams should know this better than anyone. Condensing, distilling, explaining, getting the message out clearly and succinctly -- it’s the name of the game.

CEOs also have to understand this, and adapt their approach accordingly. They must ensure that their messages are as simple and brief as possible, and they should practise their delivery and fine-tune their message repeatedly, just as they would if they were stepping in front of a large, potentially unfriendly crowd to deliver a speech.

Maybe Neil Bruce was, in fact, trained for his foray into the editorial boardrooms of major Canadian news organizations as he waded into an ongoing political firestorm. If so, that training missed the mark -- and then some, given one organization reported he became visibly angry during the interview.

Anyone speaking on behalf of your company, from PR people to senior executives, needs to be properly prepared first. They may be exceptional employees, gifted at what they do, but interviews with the media can be a minefield, particularly in the midst of a controversy or crisis. Those speaking on behalf of the company must be articulate, precise and able to perform under pressure, and that requires a lot of advance training.

Reputation is paramount, so make sure your company spokespeople are fully armed to protect it.