Posted by: Kristen Ridley | May 31, 2011

If you’re GOING to speak, don’t you want people to understand!?

listeningHere in Canada where I live, our postal workers are getting close to going on strike after negotiating with the post office for months past the expiration of their current contract without being able to agree on terms.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that even though I grew up in a place where the majority of workers were unionized, and I have been a union employee myself, I have issues with the way unions work, and serious doubts about how – using their traditional approach which hasn’t changed a lot in the past 20 years – they fit into the economic realities the business world is currently facing. I’ve had some very animated discussions with some of my friends who are currently union employees about this issue as the postal negotiations have continued and the media has reported on the progress.

But it is NOT the negotiations themselves, or any of the specific issues the two sides are discussing that precipitated me to post today. Rather I’m reflecting on the lessons for communicators in terms of how the issue has played out in the media and for the public based on the spokespeople I’ve seen from both sides.

Today, for example, on the national morning TV show Canada AM there were interviews with spokespeople from both the union and the post office and the difference in how these two individuals addressed the TV-viewing public was an almost text-book demonstration of both “how-to” and “how-NOT-to” handle a spokesperson role.

The postal union’s spokesperson was on first, and the host of the show, who is about the nicest, most-polite, most pleasant person you’ll ever meet, got right to the key question: “What are the issues to getting an agreement?” Now I think we communicators can all agree that is a simple, clear question that allows the person being interviewed the opportunity to make their points in whatever way they deem best.

And the union’s spokesperson started out well, by saying the key issue was the health and safety of the members due to the post office making changes in how the mail is sorted, and he also noted the fact that the post office remains profitable.

Unfortunately, he then got bogged down in trying to explain the intricacies of what categories of mail go where, and where those various groups of mail items sit on a carriers arm when he picks up his bag, and that the bag is “pre-sorted” which seemed to be problematic based on the way the spokesperson referred to it, but we never did get an explanation why that was bad. He also mentioned repetitive strain injury but didn’t explain which part of all the confusing explanations related to that.

He rambled on for quite a while until the host, trying to be helpful, asked a clarifying question about the mention of repetitive strain injury and if that was a key item the union was trying to get addressed as part of negotiations that was stopping the reaching of an agreement?

The spokesperson said: “No” that wasn’t the key issue, and then he again drifted off into a lengthy confusing diatribe about “pre-sorted mail bags” and where on a carrier’s arm certain types of mail sits. He did, at one point in all the rambling, note that the union believes that what makes Canada great is the workers who have built it, and that at its heart the issue is what kind of society we want to be. But then almost immediately, he got bogged down in more complicated explanations about things that I suspect only someone who actually works at the post office would understand.

Eventually, the host had to talk over the spokesperson, who just went on and on without really at any point making clear what the union felt was the key issue[s] that were impeding the possibility of reaching of an agreement. The spokesperson responded that he wanted to explain, but the host noted that they had already run well over-time, and that there had to be an opportunity given to the post office’s spokesperson to give their side too.

In contrast, the spokesperson from the post office, when asked to respond to the same question, very succinctly replied that Canada Post has spent $2 billion on health and safety related measures to support employee safety and they wouldn’t have spent that amount of money were they not committed to supporting the health and safety of all their employees. He also briefly noted that the post office is concerned about the continuing declines in mail service use.

Basically, the post office’s spokesperson was poised, calm, concise and clear with the points he wanted to make, and delivered them in a manner that was a clear contrast to the manner of the union’s spokesperson who appeared confused, unprepared, and unclear.

It is necessary, I think, to note that the union’s spokesperson had an extremely heavy French Canadian accent, which not only made it difficult to understand everything he was saying, but it also seemed at some points that he was struggling to find the words he wanted in English to explain his points.

Now, Canada is a bilingual country, with French being one of our official languages, however, the TV program the spokesperson was appearing on is an English language program. It was a very ill-considered choice to select a spokesperson who isn’t fully comfortable speaking in English for an English television appearance. That was simply exacerbated by the fact that it appeared that the spokesperson either had not prepared thoroughly for this appearance, or did not have proper direction about the key messages the union wanted to deliver to the public.

The result was that the post office’s representative won this battle. And if you are a communicator reading this, and you think that media appearances like the one I’ve described, where two opposing sides are presented to the audience is anything other than a battle well, then you and I will have to agree to disagree.

Now, you might say to me: “Who cares whether the public understand’s the union’s position and the issues they are dealing with in the negotiations. The public isn’t involved in the negotiations so it makes no difference whether they are behind the union or the post office.”

And my answer to that would be two-fold:

1) if you don’t care what the audience thinks about your position, issue or objective then why are you accepting requests to speak to members of the media at all? I firmly believe that it is better to decline media requests entirely than to participate and do a disservice to the constituency you represent. And,

2) the postal service in Canada is what’s known as a Crown Corporation, which basically means it is owned and funded by the government, which means it’s ultimately funded by taxpayers dollars. So while it may be true that the public won’t be in the negotiations, if you think the government isn’t watching public opinion to the spectre of a strike, and gauging whether that reaction would allow it to get away with reduce the amount of money they assign to the postal service long-term, then, again, we’ll have to agree to disagree, particularly when everybody, including governments are desperate to reduce costs and balance budgets. And the fact is, the majority of the online opinions from the public that I have seen on this subject basically say: “Who cares?! We never use the mail service anymore anyway, so why don’t we just do away with it entirely and put the money spent on it towards something else.” So I think it really does behoove the postal workers’ union to take every possible opportunity to make the validity and importance of their position crystal clear to the public.

In fact, there were several opportunities for the union’s spokesperson to make positive points that he completely missed out on, such as the fact that it’s been 15 years since there has been a postal strike [which the show’s host was the one to note], or the opportunity to encourage the public to review the publicly available information that Canada Post remains profitable. When he said that in amongst all the confusing babble, I went onto the internet, and confirmed that – yes! – Canada Post is, in fact making plenty of profit as of 2010. These were missed opportunities that could have been extremely beneficial to presenting the union’s position to a nation-wide TV audience and for free.

So to re-cap, as I said earlier, this TV appearance reminded me of what I see as the “golden rules” for spokespeople:

Spokesperson golden rule #1 – select the most appropriate person to act as the spokesperson, and make sure they are fully trained to do so effectively.

Spokesperson golden rule #2 – create, understand, and articulate your key messages clearly and succinctly.

Spokesperson golden rule #3 – understand the audience for the media you are addressing and ensure that your key messages respond to the issues that audience is likely to have.

Oh, and if you don’t want to take MY word for it, in an entirely coincidental instance of serendipity, Seth Godin just addressed a very similar topic on his blog this very morning in a post titled “How to be interviewed.” Feel free to take it from Seth if you’d rather, and please take special note of items #2 and #6 in Seth’s post.

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