The worst crisis press conference ever?

 

Telling people it’s not safe to use their tap water is a pretty tricky crisis to handle as shown in our crisis communication courses.

After all, it is something we all use and having a constant supply of clean, safe water is something we take for granted.

Severn Trent Water had the unenviable task of handling this type of crisis over the weekend after higher than normal levels of chlorine were found in a reservoir.

Thousands of residents in Derbyshire and Leicestershire were warned not to use the water in any capacity with one spokesperson quoted as saying: “Don’t drink it, don’t wash with it, don’t even brush your toilet with it.”

News reports from the weekend suggest the majority of residents were happy with how they were kept informed about the issue by the company and fortunately the problem seems to be drawing to a close this morning (14/3).

But companies do not always get it right in these situations. One of the interviews we often show in our media training courses as an example of ‘how not to do it’ features Gary Southern, of Freedom Industries.

Unless you have taken part in our training you are unlikely to have seen this before as reporting of the incident was mainly confined to America.

His company was responsible for a chemical leak which contaminated water for 300,000 residents in West Virginia last year.

And at the height of the crisis he gave a truly horrendous press briefing, which looked more like a doorstep / ambush style interviews, and simply has to be seen to be believed.

Why was it so bad and what could he have done differently?

1 Drink water before the press conference 

Mr Southern biggest mistake was bizarrely deciding to sip water throughout an interview about hundreds of thousands of residents being without water – not a great message. He should have made sure he was properly hydrated before the press conference. 

 

2 Don't look for sympathy

He spoke about finding it hard to talk and how it had been an ‘extremely long day’, a statement unlikely to go down well with residents who has spent the day without water.

 

3 Work out where he should be looking?

Mr Southern was clearly facing a number of cameras but he needed to work out where he should look and then maintain that eye contact. Failure to do this made him look shifty and untrustworthy.

 

4 Don't speculate

In the full version of the interview Mr Southern says there is not point 'hypothesising' on what has gone wrong and then follows it up by speculating on the cause of the leak.

 

5 Have a press officer present

Five minutes into the nationally televised press conference Mr Southern, perhaps aware of how poorly he was performing as a spokesperson, decided it was time to bring it to an end and announced that it was over before starting to walk away. However, when the reporters loudly protested he returned to face more questions. It was an extremely awkward exchange and clearly the reporters were in control, which is not a good situation for any spokesperson. A press officer would have been able to take control of the press conference, telling journalists at the start that Mr Southern had limited time and then, as they tried to draw it to a close, making it clear he only had time for one or two more questions, to be better prepared should you be in a similar situation check out our article on The Questions You Need To Be Able To Answer During A Crisis.

 

In short, it is a great demonstration of what not to do in a crisis.

Fortunately Severn Trent Water did not make the same mistakes.

 

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. Click here to find out more about our highly practical Media Skills courses and presentation training.

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