What I’ve Learned As A Spokesperson: John Fitzpatrick

Editor’s Note: This is the first in an ongoing series of readers sharing what they’ve learned as media spokespersons. Would you like to submit your own article? Click here to learn more about how to submit a piece for the “What I’ve Learned as a Media Spokesperson” series.

Earlier in my career, I was a spokesman for the rail industry, to include both freight and passenger trains.

The day after an Amtrak train crashed, I was conducting a live remote interview for one of the cable networks. As the remote producer put the IFB in my ear, I could hear the segment producer during the commercial break prepping the anchor for my interview…and she obviously did not realize I was already on the line. She gave the anchor the particulars on the crash then teed up my interview. She said I was there to defend the industry’s safety record and that – while I was making that point – they’d cut to dramatic video of the train cars on their side, scattered down the tracks.

Clearly my defense of the industry via spoken word was about to be undercut with broadcast video that suggested otherwise.

Rather than get defensive or combative on air, what I ended up doing was flipping the video on its head. When the anchor asked me the obvious safety question, I made two points. First, I noted there was dramatic video of the train cars but then observed that no passengers were seriously injured – a testament to the safe design of those train cars despite how they might look on TV. Second, I said that while this was a serious incident, it also stood out as a news item because such crashes are extremely rare and passenger deaths are even rarer.

John Fitzpatrick

What I learned here were a few things. To be credible, you sometimes must concede an obvious point – but that does not mean you must concede on your overall message. The crash was dramatic and it would have been silly of me to suggest otherwise. That, however, is a far cry from conceding the industry is unsafe – which it is not.

Also, when it comes to TV (especially when you are remote and can’t see what they are airing), anticipate the video. Of course they were going to show dramatic video, so that was no surprise. I was prepared even if they hadn’t mistakenly confirmed it to me in advance. Finally, it’s ironic that a media training lesson we all remind our clients was lost on the news media itself in this case: the microphone is always on.

John F. Fitzpatrick is a senior partner with Stratacomm. He tweets at @FitzFiles.

Submit your own article for the “What I’ve Learned as a Spokesperson” series. Details here.