You know it's coming. Something unusually bad has happened—maybe an embezzlement, or a CEO who's had an affair with a staff member, or a board chair who's gone crazy—and people in the media, on the city council, or in the state legislature, smelling blood in the water, are now developing long teeth.
Or maybe it's as simple as a new reporter in town, hungry to make a name at your nonprofit's expense.
Whatever it is, you know that you're about to face an unusually hostile media interview or political hearing. A determined, smart reporter or politician with a career incentive will write an investigative piece or hold a hearing that will win him or her new status and money. If that means hard times for your nonprofit's reputation, that's just collateral damage.
Do you just stand there waiting for the bus to hit you, or is there something you can do?
There is. It's what presidential debate teams, CEOs with oil spills, and appointees with Senate confirmations do. It's called a murder board, and you don't need to be a pro to do it pretty well for yourself, with the help of your staff.
Hopefully you've already got a media crisis plan in place; that's the first step. You need one because things might still go south even with good preparation.
But you've got something going for you in this situation that's not common in media crises: you can see the hurricane coming on the horizon—moving fast, but not here yet. And that could make the difference. A murder board takes a bit of time, some practice, and especially a certain type of imagination and intuition.
So what is it, how do you set one up, and why does it work when done well? (And it does work, which is why people in high-stakes situations hire media and political experts to create them.)
In short, a murder board is a small group of people who take the role of the meanest, smartest questioners you could face in this situation. They ask you the most unfair and difficult questions in the most sneering way possible, with the intention of getting you to lose it as quickly and completely as possible and thus be embarrassed, defeated, and publicly humiliated.
EXCEPT—that they also have given you their questions in advance, along with the best possible responses in short bullet points. So actually all you have to do is practice, remain cool, dodge the incoming rounds, and fire back your killer responses, taking the high ground of being steady, calm, and courteous while they are mean, baiting, and asking one question after another of the "How often do you beat your wife?" variety.
Specifically, here's what you do:
- Find the right people. Ideally you want about three or four people who understand both the media and your organization's weak points. (You have to assume that a competent reporter will quickly find your soft spots. And if your tough questioner is a member of your association or a donor to your social welfare organization, you're not off the hook; those people are even more likely to know your organizational weaknesses.) Don't pick the sweetest-natured people on your staff for this duty. They don't have to BE mean, but they need to have the capacity to PLAY mean, and even to enjoy the temporary duty, the way fine actors who are personally nice people like to play bad guys now and then. If you have an experienced media relations person on staff, you want him or her as part of the questioning team.
- Encourage them to generate the nastiest possible questions for this situation. This is the most important part of the process and the one where it might be most cost-effective to buy some time from a consultant who's done many murder boards before and has seen what works and what doesn't. Ideally this person has had so much direct experience with the media that he or she really can guess fairly accurately what questions WILL arise, what worst-case questions MIGHT arise, and what answers will best work in influencing the questioner and, more important, the questioner's readers or followers. This question generation is best done by each member of the group independently. You really don't want group-think here but independent judgment, from different perspectives.
- Have them generate answers to their questions. The answers must be very brief, usually in bullet form, with not more than two or three bullets and in priority order of importance. You may have three great bullets, but if the reporter cuts you off after the first, you need that first one to carry the day by itself.
- Vet and refine the answers. At the very least, you've got to be comfortable with the answers drafted by your questioners, and you may want additional staff to review your revisions. Is each answer short enough? Memorable enough? The best way to respond?
- Practice, practice, practice. You want each question and its answer bullets on a single page, and then you want to practice with those sheets like flash cards, covering up the answer while trying to respond, then comparing how you did with the actual bullet points. Do that over and over until you've got it down so well that you can say the right things even when distracted—which is exactly what the murder board is going to try to make you feel.
- Then face your first murder board session. If they are doing their job, you'll fail, and pretty fast. That's because their job is to make the experience as painful as possible so that you freeze up—preferably so much more painful than the real thing that the real thing will seem a breeze by comparison. They can get as mean as they want, they can vary the wording and order of the questions, they can ask follow-on questions you haven't anticipated—they get to rant and rave, but you have to be consistently unflappable, courteous, gracious, and reasonable.
- Pick yourself up, dust yourself off. Take a deep breath, listen to their critiques, take another break, and practice some more.
- Hold a second session. And then hold as many as you need until you've got it cold and can handle unexpected variations.
So—why does this work? I think it's because the most important thing going on here is not so much the particulars of your answers but MAINTENANCE OF ATTITUDE. All of this practice and pressure in advance is simply to allow you to avoid freezing up by constantly staying on top of the situation. Think of a champion surfer riding a constantly changing wave, or a great skier adapting to a changing hill at 70 miles an hour—all these preparations are simply ways of making it easier for you to maintain an attitude of being calm while being hyper-alert as you do difficult things automatically. But whether or not that is why it works, it does work, which is why the pros use this again and again.
So—if you're facing a killer media or political situation, try a murder board. Mess up in front of your friends, so the real thing will seem easy by comparison.
Jason Hall, Public Trust Strategies
© 2014, Public Trust Strategies
Jason Hall is principal of Public Trust Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in helping organizations of all sizes build, enhance, or restore deserved reputations and influence with key audiences, and leveraging that increased reputation and influence to secure increased and sustained funding and enduring public trust. He is also a professor at George Mason University, teaching master's courses in media and government relations and in ethics for public administrators. He is the former director of government and media relations for the American Association of Museums (1991-2007).