Three Tough Q’s: Judy Hoffman

When I first formed the mission of this blog, I knew it would be an interesting experiment.  Crisis management experts and communications coaches are a spirited bunch.  Encouraging dialogue and debate on these topics should lead to interesting, educational places.  That’s the goal for all ye who browse here. 

What I didn’t count on, however, was how interesting the networking has become in such a short time.  Take Judy Hoffman, for example, founder of JCH Enterprises.  The blog was a few posts old when Judy reached out, sent warm complements and also offered me a copy of her book, Keeping Cool on the Hot Seat.  It’s a solid read of the foundations of dealing with (mostly local) media in times of crisis.  Check it out, if you get the chance.

We’ve traded emails and my fellow North Carolina neighbor graciously accepted the offer to answer Three Tough Q’s:


Q1:  How do you train spokespeople to find the sweet spot between staying on message and being authentic and candid?

I think there are two answers to this question. 

First, in preparation for interviews, I tell spokespeople to develop no more than three “must air messages.”  These are the major messages that must see air time, the pieces that are quoted as a statement.  I don’t want people to memorize or repeat the exact words so that they look canned.  But they need to review the three major messages enough in their own minds so they don’t forget them.  Then they need to adopt a “bridging” technique so that, after answering a reporter’s question, they can repeat must air messages using slight word variations each time. 

Second, to appear authentic and candid they need to maintain eye contact with the reporter ALL THE TIME while saying those must air messages.  When spokespeople have to refer to notes or – worse yet – read messages, their credibility levels plummet.  If you cannot look someone in the eye when talking with them, people assume you are not being truthful.

I advise spokespeople to practice developing and delivering main messages through mock interviews with peers and colleagues before the media appears for an interview.


Q2:  Your book illustrates differences between supporters, splenetics and audiences in-between. Do you find that splenetics are sometimes driven by a hidden agenda?

I should probably explain what is meant by “splenetic.”  Back in the Middle Ages, when someone was always angry, confrontational, and vocal about it, he or she was thought to have an overactive spleen.  There are people out there who take great joy in being this kind of person.  This is very different from the people more in the middle of the bell curve of audiences – folks characterized as sympathizers, straddlers or skeptics – who may have legitimate concerns about your organization.  These folks can be dealt with rationally.  Splenetics are different.  No amount of reasoning will change their minds.

There are three main kinds of splenetics: 

  1. Those who just like to hear themselves talk, especially when a microphone or reporter is capturing every word.  They actively seek the limelight any time a controversy surfaces.
  2. Those who genuinely hate your organization or industry.  It may be difficult to figure out why they are so adamantly opposed to your organization, but often there is a reason.  They may have been laid off by your company.  Perhaps they hold your organization responsible for physical, emotional, or financial damages.  Or your company could have denied support of their favorite cause.  Or they see your operation as potentially unsafe in their neighborhood.  And so on.  
  3. Those with a vested interest in finding fault with your organization, sometimes to the point of trying to make it disappear.  People can sometimes be paid by those who have an interest in making your company look bad but don’t want to be publicly exposed.  Environmental groups may take up cause against your company simply to gain community visibility, thus gaining more contributors.  Elected officials will certainly jump on a bandwagon to criticize your organization when it’s politically expedient.  These are the splenetics you reference in your question.

In any case, I recommend that organizations develop messages aimed at sympathizers, straddlers, and skeptics.  Try to address their legitimate concerns and give them reasons to support your point of view. 

Don’t waste energy trying to win over the splenetics.  You probably never will.


Q3: What’s the most difficult part of crisis counseling, in your view?

Without a doubt, it is getting CEOs and senior managers of organizations to the table.  Many people who reach the highest levels in organizations resent that they might need to be counseled.  I’ve been told the word “training” (as in media training) is a major turn-off because they think that is for lower-level managers.  CEOs often think they rose to their positions because of exceptional leadership skills and abilities – and therefore are able to lead their organization through a crisis.  Egos are involved. 

But when suddenly in the midst of a media feeding frenzy – with a situation spiraling out of control because they did not naturally know the first things to do and say – they realize too late they would have been better served by learning the defined set of skills required to communicate well in a crisis.

I have had countless experiences of trying to convince high-visibility organizations to proactively train their crisis management team.  Frequently, however, it is only after experiencing a small fire in a warehouse that doesn’t get handled well — or that “60 Minutes” has been asking questions about them — that my phone will ring! 

I wish I had a magic wand to wave over folks with their heads buried in the sand, saying “nothing bad will happen to me,” while a lightning bolt is aimed for their posteriors.  The cartoon in my office that depicts this has the caption, “When you insist on burying your head in the sand, a lot of your assets are left exposed!”

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