Atlanta Mayor Shows How NOT To Talk To Reporters

As I’m sure you are aware, the city of Atlanta is currently paralyzed by icy snow leaving hundreds of thousands stranded to sleep in their cars on impassable roads and 8,000 children left to sleep in their schools.

mayorMany question why the city and state government didn’t salt the streets and close schools sooner.

As Atlanta’s Mayor Kasim Reed has grown increasingly testy and defensive with reporters wondering how two inches of snow could cripple the city, he is now the perfect example of what NOT to do when talking to the press.

A full video of the Mayor’s press conference is available here.

The most damning statements begin around the 14 minute mark, but, for now, let’s review some highlights.

THE FIRST RULE IN A CRISIS IS ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY:

In this press conference and, again in an interview with CNN, the Mayor repeatedly blamed the gridlock on the stranded citizens who were never told to stay home and left work and school as the storm hit:

“If we had not had everyone exiting at the same time and going en route to pick up their children, I don’t believe we would have had the kind of gridlock that has resulted in what people are seeing around the nation.”

When reporters asked why the salt trucks weren’t sent out until after the storm hit, he then blamed the weather:

“Mother Nature has a mind of her own,” said Mayor Kassim Reed.

Setting aside the weather reports that keep us apprised of what’s on Mother Nature’s mind, the simple fact is the government is responsible for emergency responses. To shirk that responsibility and place the blame for delays on the people stranded and on the weather is to imply the Mayor had no duty or authority to help Atlantans and that is both inaccurate and most certainly bad PR. 

DON’T GET DEFENSIVE, COMBATIVE OR UNCOOPERATIVE

The Mayor defensively responded to a reporter’s question about how the nation sees this as the city not being prepared for such a storm:

“I’m not going to get into the blame game, but the crisis that we are going through is across the region. If you look at anybody’s street in any community across the entire region, there’s no one doing a better job than we are in the City of Atlanta.” 

Many in the press and online have taken issue with this defensive posturing, especially considering at the time of this writing, twenty-seven hours after the storm hit, thousands are still stranded on Atlanta’s streets and highways.

The Mayor began the press conference by telling reporters they can ask just one question. But, when a reporter stated he had two questions, the Mayor said:

“You can ask one.”

The reporter repeated that he had two related questions and the Mayor, shrugged and pursed his lips and angrily said:

“Okay. You can ask one.”

Obviously, this comes off as combative and uncooperative. When dealing with a public crisis, it is especially important to appear as available, accessible and cooperative as possible. Recognizing that questions often have follow-ups would have been the way to go here. I’d also recommend having your PR representative in the room. Let them be the one to set and remind reporters of the rules. If you really want to stick to just one question, the PR pro should be the one to speak up, not you. Your PR rep is your bullet proof vest; let them take the flack so you look completely open and transparent.

Next, a reporter suggested that the National Weather Service issued a warning Monday morning and again overnight and asked if there should have been action taken earlier to salt the roads, the Mayor responded:

“You can always Monday morning quarterback it. We had a schedule and we met our schedule.”

He did go on to list their successes. But, he would have done well to leave out the defensive remark and go straight to the successes.

When the reporter pressed, asking if it is reasonable to respond at the moment the National Weather Service issues the warning, the Mayor snapped:

“I’m not going to do this with you. We did respond. And, if you’re saing we could have responded faster, that is something I’m going to do in the future. But, this notion that we didn’t respond is not true.”

Again, this defensive posturing is unnecessary and only highlights the fact that the Mayor did not answer or address the question. The reporter never said the city didn’t respond. He was questioning the timing of the response and by not answering the question, viewers and reporters are left to assume the Mayor had no answer. I’d also note that the Mayor did what’s called “repeating the negative” which means repeating the negative thing the reporter asked. But, in this case, the reporter wasn’t the one who said the city didn’t respond, the Mayor delivered the soundbite on his own.

A reporter then referred to a photo of a clogged interstate and asked if the Mayor was satisfied with the job the city did overnight and the Mayor grew increasingly annoyed:

“Well, Doug, it’s a shame that you asked that in that fashion because you know looking at that interstate that’s not the responsibility of the city. And, you know it. “What you are trying to do is bait me and upset me and you’re not gonna do it … the interstate that you just pointed out, you’re smart enough to have said that interstate is the responsibility of the state … so for you to point at an interstate and ask how satisfied I am with the city’s response is a real low ball.”

Scolding a reporter is never the way to go. While the Mayor is right that particular interstate falls to the Governor’s jurisdiction. He could have easily said that and then segued into the successes his office has had on city streets. Instead, he again comes off combative and uncooperative.

DELIVERY MATTERS:

As a reporter began to ask a question when the Mayor was finishing answering a previous one, Reed tersely shut him down:

“No, no, wait a minute. I’m answering her question, so you’re gonna have to wait today.”

Again, scolding and telling the reporter, “you’re gonna have to wait today” comes off as angry, evasive and dismissive. A smile and a quick, “let me say one more thing on that previous question,” would have enabled Reed to finish his thought and move to the next question in a way that made everyone feel he is being thorough.

In addition, as reporters continued to ask for details, the Mayor became increasingly annoyed, interrupting their questions by aggressively repeating their names. This makes him seem argumentative and makes his words come off as a personal attack on the reporter versus a statement of fact for the public.

DO NOT EXPECT POINTS FOR DOING YOUR JOB
In defending the city’s efforts to rescue people, Mayor Reed said to CNN:
“I have been available. I’ve been working. I gave my last interview at 2am!”

As you can imagine, this has not been received well by the general public. The Mayor complaining about having to give an interview at 2am while his constituents were sleeping in their cars or walking for miles through ice and snow at that time sent Twitter into a death spiral of anger. In fact, this comment drew parallels to Tony Hayward, the BP CEO who complained that he wanted “his life back” while cleaning up a massive oil spill that killed several men.

His defensiveness continued at his press conference when reporters pressed him for details around who did what and when:

“I’ve been completely available … I’m at a press conference so I’m providing you with what’s going on and I’m standing in front of you taking every question you have so people at home know their government is actively trying to solve a very bad  problem.”

Of course, anyone hearing this – especially those with loved ones stranded in the storm – are simply going to think to themselves, “well, yeah, Mayor. It’s your job to hold press conferences and answer reporters’ questions.” Once again, a defensive attitude will never serve your message.

DON’T DISMISS THE HARDSHIPS OF OTHERS BECAUSE THE SITUATION HAS BEEN EASY FOR YOU:

The Mayor grew increasingly combative with CNN, where he argued with a reporter about how his commute in was fine — ignoring the hundreds of thousands of people who were stranded over night. Reporter Carol Costello – who had been herself stranded on city streets – tried to understand why the city was so ill-prepared.

COSTELLO: People got out of their cars in icy situations.

REED: That’s easy to say from your anchor seat.

COSTELLO: No! I was out stuck in the traffic! I was one of those people!

REED: If you put up CNN cameras it looks pretty good outside of CNN, and –

COSTELLO: Right now it does.

The Mayor then talked about how the freeways were being cleared, a statement with which Costello took issue:

COSTELLO: Okay, well let’s talk about the streets within the city of Atlanta because I drove to work this morning.  And some of them are quite icy and frankly dangerous.  I have talked to many, many people who say they haven’t seen a salt truck anywhere.  Where are they?

REED: Well, obviously, there are salt trucks because there’s salt – the streets are salted and done on my route here.  So, I drove on the same roads you rode on, and I got here in 20 minutes.

Of course, insisting that because his commute in was fine, everyone else’s must be too is insulting to everyone who endured hardships during the storm. It also makes him appear out of touch and dismissive of the real sufferings his constituents went through.

DON’T MAKE YOURSELF THE STORY – OR THE VILLAIN:

Point of fact, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has greater accountability for emergency response than the Mayor. But, because Gov. Deal has handled the media with more charm (and because every story needs a villain), traditional and social media are vilifying Mayor Reed instead.   

I encourage you to watch the entire press conference and read the transcript and/or watch the CNN interview. And, remember, the next time you are faced with addressing a public crisis:

  1. Take responsibility for failures and even the appearance of failures.
  2. Clearly state and re-state successes and what’s being done in the moment.
  3. Clearly state what changes will be made to ensure the problem doesn’t happen again.
  4. Keep cool. Even if being provoked, never get defensive, combative or argumentative.
  5. Never demand points for doing what is expected of you.
  6. Never dismiss or make light of the hardships of others or compare your relative comfort with those who are suffering or are even merely inconvenienced.
  7. Let your PR Representative play “hard ball” with the press so you don’t have to.

Let me know your thoughts and feel free to share additional examples of what not to do when talking to the press.

Incidentally, for another mind-blowing bad media performance, check out Rep. Michael Grimm who recently threatened a reporter for asking a question he didn’t want to answer.

5 comments

  1. Excellent! In contrast, Nathan Deal’s press conference demonstrated what TO DO when talking to the press. He listed their successes first and answered report’s questions with patience and directness.

  2. I am soooooooo embarassed by this man. I was listening to this live and I was cringing. I was one of the ppl who sat in traffic 8 hours with a child at home alone till 3am. I didnt leave my job until 730 because i didnt want to be caught in the panic. so for you to blame this on the ppl who left all at one time is bogus. Those ppl panicked. Not because we are stupid Southerners who dont know what to do with cold white stuff falling from the sky, but because we are Georgians who lack trust in our local infrastructure to keep us safe. Apparently we are NOT offbase with this one here.

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