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Q&A on People Matters: Whitney Foard Small

With extensive experience in different sectors across diverse regions worldwide, Senior Associate Whitney Small is a steadfast partner for CS&A clients, helping them perform at their best as they navigate crisis and communications challenges.


Tell us a bit about what you are doing at CS&A. I conduct high-level crisis leadership training and exercises, crisis communication training and coaching, and advise clients on risk and crisis mitigation. I also contribute to developing our proprietary software solutions, which help support our clients before, during or after a crisis.


Your vast experience training people has exposed you to many cultures. What have you found to be the best way to prepare for training people in a culture entirely different from your own (Western) culture? Read. Read widely, read deeply. History is just as important as current events and an even better way to understand national characteristics. But culture can also vary greatly with regionalism, as can language. That makes getting to know the participants as individuals even more important: their backgrounds, their experiences and their thinking preferences. These factors matter greatly in successful training.


How necessary is media training? It is obvious to all that if you work with media as a spokesperson or in media relations, media training is an absolute necessity. What is not apparent to many is how transferable media skills are to other areas. I have been so pleased over the years as I watch trainees apply their media skills to investor and analyst relations, as well as government relations. I have even had a few admit to using their media skills for negotiations with their children!


What do you see as the most common mistake a company makes when communicating to the media in a crisis? It comes down to Goldilocks and her porridge. Too cold? No. Too Hot? No. How to get it just right? Companies need to aim for that, and the ingredients for the right porridge are truth, empathy, and timing. A commitment to these ingredients will guide companies well.


What have you found to be the primary consideration when running media training for global companies doing business in countries with authoritative regimes where media is typically state-owned? There are two parts to preparing for media training in countries where media is state-owned or self-censored. The first is to have a very good understanding of the historical context of the issues you are dealing with and the players involved. Stakeholder mapping plays a crucial role in message development and deployment. The second is to remember that state-owned or self-censoring media is simply one channel for getting the message out. The work you do for media relations can also be applied to more direct channels in government, business, and community relations.


If you had to choose between living in an age with social media or without, what would you choose and why? Social media is awful and wonderful. We know what is awful and need to guard against making it worse. But it also gives people an opportunity to grow communities and interests across borders, both real and imagined. And that gives companies a chance to communicate with key stakeholders freely and directly.


What is the most surprising thing you have experienced in a training session? Today, many companies are placing an emphasis on DEI: diversity, equity and inclusion. DEI can manifest itself differently around the world, though most often, it is in terms of race and gender. The surprise and delight I get from watching truly diverse teams come together and perform at cutting-edge levels is the realization that this level of performance comes from not just gender and race. It also comes from a wonderful mix of experience, education, and socio-economic backgrounds.


In today’s digital world, people can access vast amounts of information, making it even more difficult for companies to deal with a crisis. Especially given the risks of misinformation or false news. Is there any way to recast this uncertain situation as an opportunity? We need to consider the channels that information travels through, whether it is misinformation, disinformation, or fake news. These channels and their competitors also allow companies to communicate directly to stakeholders and other critical audiences, often without the compromise that media channels may demand. While not easy, the opportunity is there, and it is important not to be discouraged.


What is the most noticeable change you’ve seen as a trainer since the pandemic? What a great question! The most noticeable change is how little change there has been. People adapted very well, and many were grateful to be able to continue training online during the pandemic. But it remains true that being able to come together and work in person is still the best way to start and build a high-performance crisis management team.


Now for something that is not related to work: if you had one day free of commitments, what would you do with those 24 hours? A free 24 hours?! Start with a long walk with my pug, Tiberius. A game of croquet if the weather is good, and billiards if not. A few hours of work on my latest film script or total procrastination with a great book or the newest movie. Whip up a batch of mapo tofu for dinner and crawl into bed for a full night’s sleep, grateful for the day.


 

Whitney Foard Small is a Senior Associate of CS&A based in the US. She has vast experience in crisis communication and management across industry sectors and has worked with Fortune 500 executives globally. Her career spans the full spectrum of public affairs and she is an accomplished media/spokesperson trainer.


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