Protect your PR efforts from Ron Burgundy moments

I love “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” for its comical yet near-documentary approach to newsroom dysfunction. The movie is also a great teaching tool for reporters and PR professionals about what NOT to do on camera.

In the movie, veteran anchorman Ron Burgundy feels threatened when Veronica Corningstone, an ambitious female reporter, joins his frat-pack crew and makes her way up to anchor status. Burgundy and his team launch a crusade to humiliate and discredit Corningstone, but she soon gets the better of him after learning that Burgundy will read anything he sees on the teleprompter. Anything.

In a classic scene, she changes Burgundy’s signature sign-off of “Stay Classy, San Diego” to “Go (expletive) Yourself, San Diego.” The clueless anchor reads the teleprompter without realizing he has just offended his entire viewing audience.

Things can easily go awry when a camera is rolling, but your organization can protect itself from Ron Burgundy moments by following just a few media safeguards:


1. Check your facts several times.
A newscaster in Oakland, Calif. had a Ron Burgundy moment earlier this month when she read the offensive and inaccurate pilot names from a crashed Asiana Airlines flight. The names, which were confirmed by an intern with the National Transportation Safety Board, were obvious racist jokes; however, no one in the KTVU newsroom noticed anything unusual, and the names were passed on as-is for the broadcast. A little further fact checking and proofreading by reading aloud could have prevented this mistake.


2. Make sure your video background matches the verbal message
There’s a lot of work that goes into making an interview area camera-ready. You want to make sure your brand is well represented with visible logos, clean surroundings and no distractions in the background.

In 2008, Governor Sarah Palin went to an Alaska farm to officially pardon one of its turkeys and save it from the Thanksgiving table. However, viewers were horrified to see other turkeys being slaughtered in the background while Palin spoke.


3. Find a likeable and trustworthy spokesperson.

Nothing kills a message faster than a bad messenger. Your organization’s spokesperson should be a good communicator and come across as likeable, trustworthy and believable. Why? Viewers instantly judge those on camera within a few seconds of seeing him or her. Their minds instantly ask, “Do I like this person? Do I trust this person?” If the answer is “no” to either question, the viewer won’t pay attention to the message or judge the message to be dishonest because of their feelings for the speaker.

Your CEO may not be the best person to speak on behalf of your organization. There have been several cases in which a CEO spokesperson actually made a bad situation worse. Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, didn’t win many fans when he served as the company’s spokesperson during 2010’s gulf oil spill. Hayward was constantly in front of the camera during the weeks that followed, and it appears that fatigue and frustration caught up with him when he said, “I would like my life back.”


4. Practice with your spokesperson.
Every media encounter requires training and preparation. As a PR person, you are familiar with how media work, but others in your organization are not. They don’t know what to do with pauses, how to answer the tough questions or how to convey positive body language. It’s your job to develop a list of tough questions and responses to share with the spokesperson. It’s even better to role-play with them to see how they respond. Be an aggressive reporter. Ask loaded questions. Be adversarial. Twist their words. It may seem silly during an exercise, but these are real issues that come up in media interviews and the spokesperson needs to know how to handle them.

Practice is especially important for remote interviews. These interviews are immensely  unnatural because your speaker hears the interviewer via an ear piece, but cannot see the other person in the conversation.  Her responses and actions are then captured by video and fed back to the news outlet. It’s important that the speaker look into the camera lens at all times, remain alert, and maintain a pleasant yet neutral face, especially when others are talking. The live remote below didn’t go very well for one guy:

It’s also helpful to record your practice sessions so your speaker can notice his voice tone, facial expressions, body movements and other issues such as excessive blinking, lack of eye contact, nervous tics and more. Many people are completely unaware of how they come off on camera.


5. Be human.
Emotion is part of the human experience, and therefore, it is often an important part of the story. Allow your spokesperson to show natural emotions when in front of the camera so that the audience can relate to their humanity. Howard Lutnick, the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, gave an emotional interview after losing his brother and all of his employees in the collapse of the World Trade Center  on Sept. 11, 2001.

An overly emotional response can cause the speaker to lose credibility. Cooking star Paula Deen cried during her interview with “Good Morning America,” and many critics lashed out at the tears.


6.  Watch what you wear.
What happens if the news crew shows up on Casual Friday and you’re running around in jeans and a t-shirt? PR professionals and spokespeople need to be camera-ready at a moment’s notice. How do you do it? Always keep an extra set of business clothes at the office.  Skip anything green. Many news outlets use green screen technology to create backgrounds for their story. Any green item will instantly disappear and be replaced with the background image, leaving your speaker as a literal talking head.


You should also avoid wearing white against your face. The color and camera lights will wash out your skin. Patterns can also be difficult on camera because they create the illusion of movement. And no matter how sunny it is outside, never wear sunglasses during an outdoor interview and never allow the camera crew to shoot with the sun shining directly in your speaker’s eyes. Squinting and covered eyes can be perceived as dishonest.

7. Don’t beat yourself up over mistakes.
Despite your best efforts, mistakes will happen. Nothing ever goes 100 percent according to plan, or as Anchorman’s Brian Fantana observed, “They’ve done studies, you know. 60 percent of the time, it works every time.”

There are some things that will be out of your control. I had my own Ron Burgundy moment several years ago while filming of a United Way video. I was working for an agency that helped people with developmental disabilities at the time. The camera crew set up a talking head shot with me at the front of a very long hallway.  Everyone was told to stay out of the hallway during the shot, but a door slowly opened at the very back end. One of the men the agency helped ran out as naked as a jaybird.  He did a quick dance for the camera and then ran back to the room.

No one noticed the dance until the last phase of the editing process. Despite the close-up on my head, you could still see the naked man photo-bombing the background. The camera crew was not very happy about the time and expense they’d incur with a re-shoot, and they ultimately decided the entire scene would be cut. However, I learned a very valuable lesson that day – always check what’s going on in the background.

See point #2. You never know when slaughtered turkeys or naked men will take all the attention away from your key message.

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