If there are two things most media trainers and PR experts agree on, it’s this:
- Never lie to the media. If you do, you will be destroyed.
- During a crisis, you must answer questions from the media. You cannot simply dodge questions.
While I think that decent people should always follow these rules, I can’t in good conscience claim that these rules are actually true in all cases.
Proof of the day is Bill O’Reilly. It has been proven repeatedly that O’Reilly has lied or gotten his facts profoundly wrong in his books, speeches and TV appearances. To name but one example, there is 100%, incontrovertible evidence from numerous sources, plus audio evidence, that he was not in Florida and did not hear a man shoot himself to death in 1977, even though O’Reilly has said and written repeatedly that he did.
Those of you who like Bill O’Reilly may be tempted to write off my statements as ideologically motivated or partisan. Look, I think O’Reilly has many talents as a broadcaster and I’m not using this column to make the case that he should be fired.
But you either believe in facts, evidence and reporting or your don’t. And all evidence shows that O’Reilly has been as slippery and imprecise in telling tales about himself as Brian Williams of NBC. Reasonable people can differ whether O’Reilly’s misstatements are firing offenses, but reasonable people can’t really argue whether he was factually wrong on numerous occasions.
My interest is in how O’Reilly has handled himself during this career crisis. Earlier this week, O’Reilly went on Letterman to promote a book. Letterman suggested that there was no difference between what he did and what Brian Williams did.
And here’s how O’Reilly responded as reported by Meidaite.com.
“Only if I did something that wasn’t true,” O’Reilly replied, (suggesting his innocence). “What I said was accurate,” he insisted, despite evidence to the contrary put forward by organizations like Mother Jones and Media Matters, among others. “It worked out OK for me,” he said, noting that he got “even more viewers” out of the whole thing, a 20% increase.
So when confronted about specific lies, O’Reilly just says “what I said was accurate,” which is a lie if you believe in the concept of lying.
O’Reilly understands that as long as he says he is telling the truth and that all criticism is simply partisan lies by enemies, then the media will be forced to report “he said versus he said” and the waters will be muddied. And in that case, O’Reilly’s fans and supporters will stand by him
O’Reilly then dodges questions about his lies by bridging to unrelated topics, namely that his ratings are up.
And O’Reilly is getting away with it. As I have predicted earlier in this crisis, O’Reilly is not going to be fired or punished in any way; he will likely receive a bonus or pay raise from this incident.
So, while I believe (and advise) that people should never lie to the media or anyone and that people should answer tough questions, Bill O’Reilly shows that lying and dodging can be effective and successful tools to use during a crisis, though many like to pretend otherwise.
And for those of you who think my analysis is somehow shaded by partisanship, I think the very same points can be made about how Bill Clinton handled his scandal in the initial days of the Monica Lewinsky crisis. Clinton lied, it became a case of he said versus she said, and the waters were muddied. Only much later did evidence come out disproving Clinton, but by then the public had become so disgusted by Clinton’s accusers that Clinton’s lies were no longer the focal point of the public’s contempt.
Again, I’m not advocating lying or dodging, but smart observers need to be able to identify and critique it when it is used, when it fails and when it succeeds.
TJ Walker is a crisis communications expert. You can reach him at 212.764.4955. http://www.mediatriaingworldwide.com