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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Hazards of loose lips

March 1, 2004
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It’s prime time for politics, what with Democratic presidential primaries, the national conventions this summer, and the fall race for the White House. Which puts media coaches in high demand — born-again reporters and others who train candidates in the tricks of the trade, how to turn interviews into message platforms. Media-savvy coaches have Web sites all over the Internet.

After reading an article on how everyone from politicians to athletes to executives has been schooled in the art of dancing around questions, it struck me that safety and health pros should be privy to this training, too. But instead of fencing with reporters, which safety and health pros rarely do, substitute encounters with hostile plant managers, exacting VPs, struggling owners, bottom-line accountants and heat-seeking attorneys. Instead of learning how to survive an interview, the focus would be on making your points, or at least surviving, through budget meetings, cross-examinations, and debriefings.

Catch the missteps

For instance, see if you can pick out the missteps the safety and health manager makes in this imaginary, but fairly typical, dance, er, meeting, with an executive:

“Sorry I’m late. I was eating lunch when you called.”

“You have some tuna fish on your tie.”

“Oops. And this Goofy tie is one of my favorites. My daughter gave it to me…”

“Listen, how did we almost blow the roof off the plant this morning?”

“Well, we’re still investigating, but my best guess is it looks like we had a dust explosion.”

“Dust explosion? How the heck does dust explode?”

“Historically, the first recorded incidence of a dust explosion was at an Italian flour mill in 1785, although it was almost certainly not the first to occur. They are very common in the grain industry. We’ll have dust explosions as long as we’re eating sandwiches.”

“But how did ours occur this morning?”

“I heard a couple of the guys say that powder from one of our resins had been piling up around that production line that’s been giving us fits. Somehow the dust dispersed in the atmosphere in a particle size distribution conducive to flame propagation.”

“Flame what?”

“Probably a spark from the repair work being done.”

“Aren’t our people trained to recognize dust hazards? What about housekeeping? What am I going to tell the mayor? Did we violate OSHA standards? What do I pay you for, anyway?”

“Ah, maybe you can tell the mayor that around 50 dust explosions are reported every year. Small deflagrations. Building detonations. These things seem to be happening more. Maintenance cuts, probably. What can you do? It’s a lousy economy, we all know that. Budgets are tight.”

“I’m supposed to tell the mayor it was the economy’s fault?”

“Well, there is no OSHA standard for handling flammable dust in a factory. What do you want me to do? You try to find guidelines. There’s not a lot out there. Even the Chemical Safety Board says the dangers of explosive dust are not well known. I’m only one person…”

“OK. Take a deep breath. Now how are you going to fix this so it doesn’t happen again? And stop looking at your shoes when you talk.”

12 tips

According to tips and recommendations from various media coaches, here’s where our safety manager could have done a better job:

1 - Arrive on time.

2 - Check a mirror on the way in. Appearance counts.

3 - Limit the small talk. Know when it’s appropriate.

4 - Don’t wing it. Don’t speculate. Stick to the facts. If all the facts aren’t in yet, say so.

5 - Don’t preach or lecture. Even though you’re the expert and he’s not, don’t be another condescending know-it-all.

6 - Don’t trade in rumors and hearsay. Stick to the facts you know, no matter how much pressure you’re under to come up with an answer.

7 - Go light on jargon.

8 - When peppered with rapid-fire questions, a pregnant pause is OK before responding.

9 - Don’t make excuses. Be honest.

10 - If being honest means setting the record straight, do so. If a previous audit noted dust accumulations and no action was taken, don’t wait for someone else to make the point.

11 - Stay cool, no matter how hot it gets. Easier said than done, sure. One media trainer suggests taking a bathroom break, if that helps break the tension.

12 - Maintain that eye contact. Confidence counts.

Transferable skills

Come to think of it, these kinds of communication tips have almost universal application. Appropriate for job interviews, depositions, performance reviews, shareholder meetings, OSHA inspection closing conferences. Teenagers could use coaching before coming in late and trying to dance past a sleepy parent at the door. Limit the small talk. No excuses. Eye contact, though, is too much to expect.

I came across one more tip — the post-session critique. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill put it this way: “When I’ve known I was right and I was not able to win (apropos a teenager or rejected job applicant), I look at myself to try to figure out how I could have made a more persuasive case… It is a much more rewarding thing to try to figure out how you can improve your own persuasiveness and assembly of facts than to blame other people for making stupid decisions.”

After all, that would put a lot of coaches out of business.

— Dave Johnson, Editor

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