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Tough Media Questions II: Repeating Negatives
By George Merlis Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I recently read an article in the New York Times that contained a textbook case of how not to respond to a negative question.

The story was about a large employer, which I’ll call “The Enterprise.”  The Enterprise is encountering some rough weather including worsening conditions that has led it to some downsizing.  The Enterprise’s chief executive was quoted this way in the newspaper:  “We’re not adrift. And the vision is not gone. And we have a plan. We have a very sound plan.”

I always encourage clients, when formulating an answer to a media question, to include the sense of the question in the answer, so that the response can stand alone as a soundbite or direct quote.  The sole exception to this rule is if the question is hostile or contains negative words.  While I was not there when the chief executive’s interview took place, I am confident that the quote I cited came in response to some variation of this question:  “Is The Enterprise adrift under your watch?  Does it (or, do you) lack vision?”

The executive snapped up the bait.  Omitting the question and just running with the answer, the reader is left with the impression that the whole matter of visionless, drifting leadership came from the executive.

Similarly, if you’ve ever read “This is not a disaster waiting to happen,” or “This is not a desperation move” in an interview, you can bet it came in response to “Isn’t this a disaster waiting to happen” or “Isn’t this a desperation move?”   By omitting the question and just using the answer that contains the negatives it appears the interview subject brought the negative up for consideration.

So how do you answer “Isn’t this a disaster waiting to happen?” and its kindred questions?  In a previous post, I wrote about my four-steps to get from a tough question to your agenda point:  acknowledge the question with a short form answer, build a verbal bridge, deploy an agenda point and, finally, shut up (don’t revisit the hostile question or the negative words.)

The executive, faced with, “Is The Enterprise adrift under your watch?” could have answered, “No”  As far as short form answers go, “no” is unparalleled -- it’s the second shortest word in the English language  (the shortest being “I.”)  If the reporter wants to use the negative word adrift, it has to come from him, it didn’t come from the executive.  Then he might have built a bridge, “As a matter of fact.” (Also short).   And then deployed his agenda point: “We (or I) have a vision, a plan, a very sound plan.”    “No.  As a matter of fact, we have a vision, a plan, a very sound plan” is a lot more positive response to a negative question than “We’re not adrift. And the vision is not gone. And we have a plan. We have a very sound plan.


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Tough Media Questions I: Shock and Awe Answers
By George Merlis Monday, August 29, 2011

In 1949, U.S. Air Force Captain Edward A, Murphy, came up with his famous Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong will.”  With a nod in Captain Murphy’s direction, I have come up with my own law for media interviews:  “Anyone unprepared for tough questions will get them.”

Captain Murphy  came up with his law after observing a particularly inept technician.  I crafted mine as a cautionary note for media training workshops after watching countless spokespersons fall apart when they were asked unanticipated tough questions.  If an interview subject prepares for nightmare questions and gets none, there is no down side.  But if she does get them, she’ll be prepared to gracefully answer them.

In workshops I ask participants write a list of nightmare questions and then we collegially figure out how to respond to them.  In the next round of practice interviews, I ask the nightmare questions.  And when the interviews are over, we critique how well the participants deployed their responses.

What should that answer contain? I recommend the interview equivalent of General Colin Powell’s “Shock and Awe” tactics: overwhelm the negative in a question with multiple positives. How many positives?  According to Vincent Covello, a social scientist and risk consultant with whom I have worked, you need three positives to overwhelm a negative.

To illustrate how this works, let me cite a real world example.  I do a lot of media training for NASA and inevitably in those workshops a participant  comes up with some variation of this nightmare question:

“Why waste or spend money on space exploration when there are such pressing needs here on earth?”

Over the years workshop participants have supplied me with an embarrassment of riches for the answer.  Taking multiple effective responses and merging them, I came up with three cogent shock and awe points, and a subset of three specifics to illustrate the final point.

Here are the elements of that response:

1.  NASA’s budget is approved by the people’s representatives in Congress.

2.  NASA’s budget is less than one percent of the total federal budget.

3.  NASA’s budget is an investment that pays society a variety of beneficial dividends.

The subset are specifics that illustrate the third point:

1.  The space agency creates a lot of science and technology jobs; the kind of jobs America needs in order to stay competitive in an increasingly technology-driven world economy.

2.  NASA’s missions have broadened our knowledge of our planet, our solar system and our universe.  In fact they have rewritten astronomy and physics textbooks.

3.  Spinoffs of technologies developed for NASA have improved our daily lives by enabling powerful computer microprocessors, by giving us global positioning satellites, by supplying life-saving accurate weather predictions and by creating the means to build medical imaging devices that give early warning of cancers and other dread diseases.

This three-part answer, with its three-part subset is a powerful shock and awe response to the negative “waste” or “spend” money on space.  For media purposes we can’t get all of this to fit our ideal soundbite length of 30 words, spoken in ten seconds and comprised of three sentences.  But with some condensation, here is a soundbite version:

NASA’s Congressionally-approved budget, less than one percent of federal expenditures, is an investment in high-tech jobs, scientific knowledge and spin-offs that make life easier and safer.

Following up on the soundbite, the respondent can then cite any or all of the specifics.

Whether you’re dealing with outer space or outerwear, when you prepare for an interview, it’s critical to anticipate tough questions and to be ready to respond with shock-and-awe answers.


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Harvard Business Services Announces Mobile Site
By Brett Melson Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Harvard Business Services, Inc. is pleased to announce our most recent addition, a mobile version of our website!  The Internet is quickly evolving and more and more people are using smart phones, or internet capable phones to pay bills, access web sites, view videos, research products/services , and much more! Estimates show that by 2013 mobile phones will overtake personal computers as the most popular way to access the Internet, and HBS wants to be ahead of the curve.

Our new mobile site will enable clients to view our videos, research the different types of companies, view our pricing for a new company formation and access our blog in a clean, easy to view format, specifically for mobile devices.

View the new site on your mobile phone by going to The site will recognize it as a smart phone and will automatically connect you to the site designed for mobile devices.

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101: News Conferences
By George Merlis Monday, August 22, 2011

There are many ways to disseminate news about your achievements, your company, your projects:  you can write a blog, send out a press release, initiate a call-in to a radio talk show, pitch yourself to an individual reporter who covers your area of expertise.  Today, let’s deal with one of the most effective methods of communicating with the public through the media: the news conference.

Before you call a news conference, be sure you have something to say. I teach clients that news conferences should be reserved for truly big news or in response to media inquiries about a major event -- especially a crisis.  When you are busy doing damage control in a crisis, the news conference may be the most time-efficient way to handle large numbers of inquiries from diverse media outlets. Since news conferences allow you to reach many media outlets simultaneously, you can save a lot of time.

But  a news conference can be more challenging than a one-on-one interview where the reporter‘s questions offer clues to his agenda.   In a news conference reporters may have very different agendas - some of those will mesh with yours, others may conflict.  Dodge a question in a one-on-one interview and the reporter may or may not press the point.  Dodge a question in front of a dozen reporters and at least a few of them will be waving eagerly to get your attention so they can put your feet back to the fire.

Many news conferences involve media with somewhat varying levels of expertise and interest.  The Wall Street Journal reporter is likely to know more -- and ask more sophisticated questions -- than a radio reporter from an all-news station.  So you are often faced with the question of how sophisticated to make your answers. Your best bet is to stick to the basics so you don’t exclude the mass audience.  If a reporter needs more arcane information, he can often get it from the handout materials.

Which brings me to what you should display and hand out at a news conference.  I recommend making your presentation as graphically interesting as possible, using slideshows, videos, charts and the like.  I also recommend giving the assembled media supporting documentation and all the visuals you use on DVDs  You want to supply reporters with anything that will enhance your message.

Always begin a news conference with an opening statement.  If you don't take advantage of that opportunity, you are yielding control of the agenda. Also, deliver the first and last lines of your opening statement from memory.  This will go a long way toward engaging the room right from the start.   If you are looking down and reading, you are telling the reporters that, in effect, you don’t have mastery over the subject.

It’s important to establish command of the situation even before you speak. Stride in, face the audience and begin your remarks, looking right at them.  Don’t fish in your pockets for materials and notes, don’t grip the lectern to hold you up, and never rest your elbows on the lectern, it looks sloppy and insecure.

You do have control during your opening remarks.  The Q & A session is more challenging.  Introduce it with a line like:  “I'll now take questions for ten minutes.”  This serves notice the Q&A session is finite. Occasionally, reporters are slow to come up with questions.  If they are, ask yourself the first question: “I'm frequently asked about....” Always ask yourself a question that enables one of your agenda points.  In fact, you can even ask yourself one of the tough questions you anticipate.  Doing that shows the media you aren’t afraid of their inquiries and it also enables you to phrase the question in a milder form than a reporter who could ask the same thing in a far more prosecutorial manner.

If hands do go up, take your first question from a reporter  who has treated you fairly in the past, because chances are he will do it again. Keep an eye on the clock.  If you said ten minutes, at eight or nine minutes, say, “We have time for one or two more questions.”  Take a question from someone you know or from someone representing a reputable outlet.  If the question allows you to make one of your agenda points, don’t take a second question (you did say one OR two more questions, not two more questions).  If the first question didn’t allow you to make a positive point, take a second one.  If that one, too, puts you in the same bind, end it there; there’s no percentage in going on in the vain pursuit of a positive question.

When you end the news conference, that should be the end of your communication with the media for that period of time.  Don’t linger behind and answer stray questions.  For one thing, it is unfair to reporters who cannot hear your answers, for another it is a favorite trick of reporters to ask really tough questions once they think your news conference guard it down.  It’s a little like throwing a sucker punch at a boxer as he walks up the aisle to the dressing rooms after he’s gone 10 rounds with an opponent.  In this case you’re the boxer and you’re likely to sustain a lot more damage in the aisle than you did in the ring.


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101: Inflation, Part 2
By Gregg Schoenberg Wednesday, August 17, 2011

In the first of our two-part post on inflation we came to the conclusion that a low and steady rate of inflation, roughly in the neighborhood of 2-3% annually, is preferable to the alternatives of deflation or hyperinflation.

Central banks the world over tend to agree with our conclusion and thus seek to ensure that inflation does not get too high nor too low.  Unfortunately for central bankers, they cannot simply declare that they would like inflation to be 2% a year and have it be so.  Instead, they must use the tools at their disposal to try and accomplish this goal.

The primary tool that the Fed, or any central bank, has in its inflation-influencing arsenal is the ability to set short-term interest rates.  If inflation is too high, then the Fed will raise rates to try and slow down the cycle of borrowing and spending that leads to higher prices; if inflation is below the Fed’s comfort zone, then it will lower interest rates in an effort to prevent the destabilizing effects of deflation.  (For a more detailed explanation of how the Fed sets and influences rates see our interest-rate post).

Periods of low and steady inflation don’t just make central bankers happy, they tend to make things easier on small business owners too.  After all, if the prices of the goods and services that you need to buy for your business tend to rise slowly and predictably over time, it is a lot easier to plan your long-term budget.  In addition, if your input costs are predictable, you will find it easier to maintain profitability without having to impose large, sudden price increases on your customers.

Despite the best efforts of the Fed, small business owners are sometimes faced with periods of rather high inflation, as those of you who have been in business since the 1970s, or have read your economics history, can attest to.  Fortunately though, the U.S. has been able to avoid deflation with the exception of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

If you find that inflation, as reflected in the price of the goods and services you need to run your business, is having an adverse affecting on your operations, there are a number of things you can do in response.  First is to try and determine what is behind the rise in prices.  Is the price of one key item that you need spiking upward due to a temporary situation? (e.g. a rise in the price of coffee beans from your preferred provider due to anomalous weather).  If so, then your best bet may be to look for a substitute good until prices revert back to normal, or to look at other areas where you may be able to cut some short-term costs.

If, on the other hand, it appears that the price rise of a necessary good or service is likely to be permanent (e.g. a new tax is imposed on a critical component), and there is no acceptable substitute, then it may be time to think about raising your prices.  While this is always a sensitive subject with regard to your customers, a clear explanation of the forces behind the price hike can go a long way toward maintaining a healthy relationship.  Take the time to explain which of your specific costs have increased and highlight the fact that you are merely passing on a portion of this cost to your customers.   You will probably find that most of them are sympathetic to your plight and may even be familiar with the effects that inflation has had on their own lives and businesses.


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