What Mueller's testimony tells us about messaging
As I watched former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testify before Congress, I thought there's a lesson to be learned for anyone who works with journalists, serves as a spokesperson or public information officer (PIO) -- and it has nothing to do with politics. Hear me out...
Mueller did not want to do this. He already wrote and released a lengthy report to the public. He wanted his written word to be the final word, and felt the report spoke for itself. The public has had access to the redacted text version for several months. So why now is he forced by subpoena to sit before Congress and speak? Even if his testimony won't go beyond the written report, why is it important for the American people to see and hear him? One reason, I believe, is because of the power of his presence on camera.
Consider this: despite public interest in Mueller's findings, most Americans did not read the entirety of the redacted report. Polling found that its release did not have a major impact on public opinion when it came to impeaching the President. Weeks after the report's release, Robert Mueller held a press conference, and spoke on camera for just a few minutes about the conclusions in his report. It was after that press conference -- after the public had a chance to finally hear Mueller speak, see his facial expressions, hear his tone -- that opinions shifted. According to one Marist poll, support for beginning impeachment proceedings rose by six points after Mueller's press conference. His on-camera presence moved the needle. It had impact.
Even though Mueller warned his Congressional testimony would not go beyond the report already publicly available -- I believe Democrats know Mueller's in person, on camera testimony had the potential to continue to shift public opinion. They understand the power of the spoken word, and how the public connects to what they see and hear on television.
It's that power of appearing on camera that I hope all public information officers understand, and take into consideration when they field questions from TV reporters. For those not familiar with PIOs -- they serve as a spokesperson for an organization like a police department, school district, company, etc. When a journalist wants information and/or an interview for a story, the PIO is often the gatekeeper. Because they are employed by the organization, they are often (and understandably) loyal to the organization and strive to make sure news stories contain a positive spin. The PIO decides if the organization will respond, and how: whether it's an on camera interview, phone interview, written statement, or a "no comment."
Many times I see PIOs opt for a written statement over an on camera interview. While I won't pretend to read minds and know the reasons behind that -- my best guess is that they think it's the best way to control the message. It doesn't allow for follow up questions, and gives the journalist less of an opportunity to pick and choose the soundbite/quote to use. But if you only supply a written statement, you are also forfeiting the power of appearing on camera and having your message make a greater impact.
Think about it: you're watching a news story that contains some compelling video and emotional soundbites. But then it suddenly cuts to a generic slate on screen, with a paragraph-long statement that a monotone reporter has to read out loud for the audience. What are the elements that people at home will connect with? What will they actually remember about the story? (Hint: it's probably not the written statement.) As Mueller's written report/on camera presence demonstrates, the public responds when they can hear your voice and see your face. Showing up for an interview, sitting down, fielding questions -- it can demonstrate that you and your organization take the situation seriously. If you decline an on camera interview, we usually have to say in our story: "So and so declined an on camera interview." That doesn't always sound good. People might wonder, "What are they trying to hide?" Sitting down with a reporter and opening yourself up for a dialogue, in my opinion, shows an effort to be transparent and can go a long way with people.
Written statements can also be difficult to work with in our medium. Television reporters need interviews and video to build our stories. If all we have is a written statement, and no "sound" (interview, press conference, etc.) -- sometimes we don't have a story to air at all. We're a visual medium, and if we don't have video, the story won't get as much play. If an issue is important, and you want to get your message on the air, agreeing to go on camera helps ensure that the story comes together.
It should be noted that sending us a written statement does not guarantee that it will air in its entirety in our story. Just like an interview, we may need to edit it down due to time constraints. Sometimes sources send me written statements that are paragraphs-long. An essay like that will never be read in its entirety on camera, so we will be forced to pick and choose the most relevant parts and use a shortened version.
I get it. Sometimes it seems simpler and safer to craft a carefully worded paragraph and email it back to a reporter: hit send, and be done with it. But I hope more PIOs will harness the power of appearing on camera. It helps me do my job, and it really can help you make your message resonate.