Thursday, March 26, 2015

I'm not the Shell Answer Man

Getting gasoline for your car years ago was a real adventure.  I mean, remember when you could get free glasses or other give aways when you got a fill up?  Or when someone would offer to check your oil when you pulled up to the pump? Or give you a road map? And, just what the heck was Fire Chief gasoline?
You see!  It was a real deal! 
Well while those were awesome memories, another great promotion was the Shell Answer Man. Shell gasoline stations would offer quick informational pamphlets on different driving hazards and automotive maintenance issues. Heck, they even put these spots on TV from the mid 1960s through 1990.

These crazy things were so prevalent, when someone would ask me a question there was no way I could possibly know the answer to, I would frequently respond, "What the heck do I look like? The Shell Answer Man?"

As a PIO, there are many time when we believe that we have to be as smart as the Shell Answer Man and know everything about every topic. Unfortunately, that gut reaction can be totally wrong. There are many things that we don't know about personally. Some questions I have heard throughout the years include:
  • How long is the incubation period for Eastern Equine Encephalitis? 
  • When was the last time this area flooded?
  • How many cubic yards of concrete will be needed to finish this project?
  • What were the findings of the last engineering study done on this bridge?
Now, I may know a lot. And, I often times can make my two sons believe I know everything, but the reality is I often don't know the answer. Since I don't want to leave the reporter hanging, I can take one of two paths.

First, I can try to become an instant expert on the topic. And, yeah, in about an hour with some frantic research, I can get together a quick fact sheet that can give the basics. But, once the reporter wants to go into more detail, I am sunk.

Or, probably a much more intelligent response would be to find a subject matter expert and have him or her answer the questions. This works so much better in many instances because the subject matter expert typically has years of study and experience with the topic, and can draw upon that knowledge to round out the topic.

News conference at Emory University after Ebola patient Kent Brantly was released after he was disease free
More importantly, the subject matter expert usually has a title or wears a uniform that adds credibility to the message. Having a person in a business suit talking about a raging fire in the background doesn't quite have the visual impact of a Fire Rescue Captain in bunker gear on scene in much the same way that you would be less likely to take financial advice from a person in shorts and a T-Shirt by a skate park than one in business attire in an office

It's a mind trick that our brain plays with us called the appeal to authority. If someone looks the part, the viewer's brain tends to more readily accept the information as factual. While this can lead to logical fallacies, it does help guide the messaging you are providing to help reinforce the message.

As you might guess, it's important to coach the subject matter expert on how to craft soundbites, handle tough questions and stick to approved, verified information.

If you can do that, you will have thousands of miles of happy media relations!

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

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