A Terrible Violation of Trust

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Daniel Keeney, APR

In the 1980s, Don Henley had a big hit with the song, “Dirty Laundry,” which extolled the virtues of tabloid journalism from the perspective of a TV talking head.

I make my living off the evening news

Just give me something-something I can use

People love it when you lose,

They love dirty laundry

This is what crossed my mind as I read the Forbes account of pizza chain mogul John Schnatter’s scandalous use of the N-word. Not because the media reveled in the fiery crash of his image, which they did, but because the name of his former company’s now former ad agency is “Laundry Service.”

The irony meter only slightly jiggled when I heard that – more like coincidence. A firm named Laundry Service was representing a guy whose dirty laundry is out in the open for all to see.

But consider the circumstances of the Papa John’s founder’s immolation, and the irony meter goes off the charts. After all, how did Forbes staffer Noah Kirsch come into possession of a recording of a media training session? Is it possible that Laundry Service leaked John Schnatter’s dirty laundry?

To be fair, nobody has confirmed the source of the recording. Laundry Service refused comment (quite the opposite of what many media trainers would recommend) and our request for an opportunity to speak with Noah Kirsch at Forbes was politely declined. It is conceivable that someone with Papa John’s leaked the recording, since Schnatter was not universally appreciated within the organization. Schnatter himself calls it extortion and blames Laundry Service.

A lot of people (including my wife) would say the source of the revelation really doesn’t matter. There is no excuse for using such a horrible, hurtful word in any context and in any setting.

Does that apply to a training session that is expressly designed to test how people respond to challenging questions about difficult subjects so they can learn to respond sensitively and positively?

Common Fear

I can’t tell you the number of times a media training participant has nervously asked whether the recordings of our mock interviews would be deleted. It always made me laugh as I assured them all evidence of the training would be obliterated – except for their own improved performance.

I won’t laugh anymore. The trust between media trainer and training participant has been broken.

“Back when we shot with VHS, trainees used to take the tapes home with them,” said Jim Lukaszewski, a well-known author and crisis consultant, who calls the Schnatter story a cautionary tale. “People who hire media trainers should make it a condition that the training materials, including the recordings be kept confidential or destroyed following the training. It should be part of the contract.”

Here’s the dirty little (not so) secret about media training: a lot is said that should never be heard beyond the training. People routinely say things that they immediately regret. The questions and the behavior of the mock journalists are intended to poke and prod. If others are involved in the training, the responses might elicit gasps or laughter in the room.

That’s fine – it is supposed to be a safe place.

Media training participants say things that are just plain wrong and they know they are wrong but they don’t know what else to say. They freeze up, unable to cough up a single syllable. They use terms that are outdated and could be considered insensitive. They jumble thoughts together that are unintelligible and make them look ridiculous. And they sometimes use comparisons, analogies or tell stories that are downright offensive, could tarnish their reputation and cause considerable harm to the company they represent.

And you know what I call a media training when any of those things happens? It is a success.

Training Is Where Weaknesses Should be Discovered

Any media training that gets a spokesperson to say something awful is a success because it gives us an opportunity to understand what’s going on. It’s a success because the train wreck didn’t happen in an actual media interview – it was just training and we can fix it.

It’s similar to a pilot in a flight simulator. If they encounter a problem that leads to a catastrophic failure, you work to understand what led to their decisions. Realistic training scenarios are extremely powerful learning tools that are proven to prevent real-life disasters.

In media training, you might discover that a physical thing is a trigger – the spokesperson is made uncomfortable by the proximity of the microphone or the heat of the lights and loses concentration. Sometimes it’s a lack of preparation – the spokesperson is embarrassed that they don’t know the answer so they make something up. Sometimes a question strikes a nerve and the spokesperson gets angry or defensive.

Each is a learning opportunity. They provide the instructor a chance to peel back the onion and understand what makes the spokesperson tick. Where is he or she coming from? What’s in their background that led them to choose those words and phrases?

It’s not about being judgmental. It’s about being real and exploring what’s in the spokesperson’s head. That’s where personal growth can happen.

This is what gets me most upset about the Papa John’s fiasco. In response to a question in a media training session, Schnatter said backlash from his past statements related to the NFL were overblown – especially compared to another fast food chain whose founder (Schnatter claims without evidence) called blacks the N-word. Only Schnatter didn’t say “the N-word,” he said that actual word.

Okay, big personal growth opportunity!

What Should Happen

If I was conducting the media training, I would be tempted to jump on it and declare that the word must be eliminated from his vocabulary. Immediately. Never utter it again. It is radioactive.

However, it’s more important to understand why he used that word in the first place. Demanding that it never be used effectively censors the spokesperson, but it doesn’t achieve any real understanding. It’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t know using the word in an interview would be a horrendous disaster, right? So let’s talk about it. Why go there? How could that seem like a viable route to take?

Through this discussion, we can explore if the word carries any meaning to him – or is it just like any other word? How often does he say it? What does he think the N-word means to African Americans? What does he think people who hear him say the word will feel about him saying it? What is the likely backlash? We would explain the consequences suffered by others who used the word and work through other ways to respond to the question.

Following the training, we would caution Papa John’s of the dangers of allowing Schnatter to speak with media, since any interview would likely touch on matters related to race, due to his NFL statements. We would recommend further sensitivity training and encourage a review of potential needs for a broader deployment of sensitivity training.

These are all positive outcomes of discovering potential weaknesses through media training.

What we would never do is violate the confidentiality of the client. Confidentiality is a staple of our contractual agreements with clients. We would delete the audio and video files of the training as is our standard procedure. Aside from conversations with the client, we would never discuss the training.