Media Training: Coaching Tips for Media Interviews A media training guide for today’s executive

Ever notice how the media tends to interview the same experts time and time again? Have you wondered if those executives have better communications staff, take advantage of personal media contacts, or are maybe just plain lucky to get that much free publicity for their interests?

Whatever else those executives have going for them, you can be sure they’ve learned one thing: what the media wants.

An executive who is accessible, quotable and knowledgeable is every reporter’s dream. When reporters find a source like that, from any field, they’re sure to add that executive’s name to their Rolodex and keep him or her there.

Some senior executives so loathe public appearances, they will leave all interaction with the media and indeed the general public, to a paid company spokesperson. Whether that spokesperson is a “hired gun” from a public relations firm, or an internal staff member, the message that person delivers can never be as powerful as the one coming from a senior executive of the company itself. That executive is the one with power to affect change and who can speak with the most authority on any given issue. While the media will air or quote what a spokesperson has to say if they have no other choice, a company spokesperson is never as desirable a “get” for a reporter as a corporate executive on the front lines.

Lack of access and public accountability by senior executives can be a distinct disadvantage especially at times of crisis.

Because there is more to gain for a senior executive who speaks to the public through reporters, there’s more to lose as well. There are scores of examples of the ill-timed remark or emotional outburst devastating personal and corporate reputations in a moment. But for those executives who understand their role in shaping a corporate image, and who can communicate ideas effectively to a reporter, the rewards are great. That’s why media training ought to be a requirement for any senior executive responsible for their company’s reputation and image.

So how do executives cut through the noise and win positive coverage in a much-coveted place in the media spotlight? Here are some tips that media savvy executives already know:

Accessibility counts (a lot): If you’re going to work with the media, you’re going to have to accept that reporters live by the deadline. That means the interview they absolutely must have is the one they need now. If you’re going to accept the interview, accept it immediately. Then you can buy yourself as much time as you can to prepare.

Interview the interviewer: Any legitimate reporter will have no problem answering a few questions before the interview that will help you prepare for it. Ask the reporter what he or she wants you to contribute, who else has been or will be interviewed, and when the reporter’s deadline is.

Know what you want to say: This is called messaging and it’s a vital part of the process of speaking to any reporter. You are not speaking with a reporter just to answer their questions. (Even the reporter doesn’t believe that!) This is your opportunity to deliver a message of your own. Take it!

Less is more: Speaking to reporters requires getting down to the bottom line as quickly, and as quotably, as you can. Deliver the supportive data, facts and backup information after you’re sure you’ve delivered your bottom-line message. Try to make your message as accessible as you can to the greatest number of people (no jargon!)

Practice, practice, and practice: It takes a while to get comfortable with it all, developing messages, reducing your messages to a few well-spoken statements, and staying on message through questions. The more you do it, the better you will get. Start out with as many small, local and friendly outlets and forums as you can. No matter which reporters you speak to, follow the same process.

Enjoy yourself: No, seriously! It’s possible. When you’re confident, it’ll show. Give reporters what they want-access, good quotes and reliable information-and you’ll be accessing opportunities for yourself and your company to tell the world about your story.

Aileen Pincus is a former local and national television reporter and p.r. executive who now leads her own Washington D.C. area firm, training public and private executives in the art of communications..

Selecting A Media Trainer

Is your media trainer qualified? Here’s how to make sure the media training expert you select knows the score.

We hope you’ll select The Pincus Group, of course, but regardless of whom you select for your media training, here are some criteria to help you make the right choice:

 

PICK A MEDIA TRAINER WHO HAS WORKED IN THE MEDIA

Sounds simple enough, but don’t assume your trainer has real world experience. Some so-called “media trainers” have never set foot in a newsroom. Some have backgrounds in public relations, sales, marketing or even entertainment—but if the best experience your trainer has is coming in contact with reporters—find another trainer. Interacting with the media is a ‘full contact’ sport, often with much at stake. There are good, qualified media trainers available: trainers who come to training after a career in journalism. Find one, and you will find a trainer who knows the real story about what you’ll need to deliver a successful, powerful interview.

 

DON’T PICK A MEDIA TRAINER WHO HAS ONLY WORKED IN THE MEDIA

Finding a media trainer with real media experience is essential, but don’t stop there. Your trainer simply has to have experience working on the other side of the fence to be truly effective. That’s because reporters are famously unconcerned about the consequences of their stories. Contrary to popular opinion, the vast majority are not advocates and simply don’t care whether you’re harmed or helped as a result of their story. As the interviewee, of course, you care a great deal. That’s why it’s important to be sure your media coach understands both worlds, the media’s perspective and yours, as the subject of media interest. Find a trainer with at least some experience in advocacy communications, either as a spokesperson or in some other role. You want a trainer with knowledge of the practical tools of media interaction: messaging and positioning. Don’t engage a media trainer who has never dealt with those tools or with the aftermath of a media interview gone wrong.

 

BIGGER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER

The largest public relations and management training firms say they offer media training in their portfolio of services. They do, after a fashion. Media training is a special expertise however and one few large firms invest in. If you choose a big firm, make sure you check the credentials of the person slated to do your training. Dig deep to assure yourself the trainer is a seasoned media professional—someone with advocacy and media experience—not just a member of the account team or a trainer who has only watched reporters at work.

 

EXPERIENCE COUNTS, BUT NOT ALL EXPERIENCE COUNTS EQUALLY

Look for a media trainer who is a good match for your specific needs. If you’re preparing for print interviews only, a media trainer with experience limited to the broadcast media won’t be the best choice. If television interviews are on your agenda, make sure your trainer understands that TV reporters aren’t just print reporters who use pictures. If you’re playing in the big leagues, don’t assume your trainer understands the very rough and tumble world of the major markets. Find a trainer with the expertise you need for the types of media encounters you specifically want to prepare for: from small markets to the majors, from trade papers to general interest. ASK if your trainer is experienced in preparing for live remotes as well as taped interviews, ambush interviews as well as press conferences.

 

FIND A MEDIA TRAINER YOU CAN TRUST AND THEN TRUST THEM

If dealing with the media were easy, there’d be no need for media trainers. In reality, even those who interact with the media regularly can get into trouble over something they said or didn’t say to a reporter. It takes time and effort to move from basic techniques to the delivery of really powerful, effective interviews and the confidence to know the difference. Stay away from any media coach who promises you’ll be ready to take on “60 Minutes” after an hour of their “coaching”. If you don’t have internal staff to help keep you on track with new skills, make sure your trainer is available for follow-up help. An effective trainer builds confidence through positive reinforcement and honest and direct feedback. He or she has to be experienced enough to identify your needs, and confident enough to guide you toward real improvement. A good media trainer is like a good reporter: professional, tough, and fair (even if you hope they’re not staying for dinner).

 

CHECK FOR RESULTS

This is not an academic exercise: results count. Ask for references. Choose a media trainer the way you’d choose your doctor—do some homework. After all, this is the professional who will help you maintain the health of your reputation and the success of your career.

Aileen Pincus is a former local and national television reporter and p.r. executive who now leads her own Washington D.C. area firm, training public and private executives in the art of communications..

The Messenger: Friend or Foe in a Crisis? Why Executives Who Should Know Better, Get It Wrong

The media make a tempting target for those in crisis.

When gaffe-prone Pennsylvania Governor Rendell found himself in the middle of a firestorm of his own making, his immediate response was to blame the media.

Rendell claimed he’d been taken “out of context” after telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial board many white voters in Pennsylvania were “not ready to vote” for an African American for president. The Associated Press then picked up the story, giving it national attention. Constituents were angry at Rendell for portraying them as small-minded bigots,while those in Hillary Clinton’s camp felt Rendell had further stoked the simmering race issue. (Rendell was an early Clinton supporter before backing Obama).

Instead of issuing a forthright apology, Rendell gave one exasperated interview after another, blaming the media for essentially repeating his words. His spokesperson added fuel by saying Rendell was “just being realistic.” (Obama carried Pennsylvania handily, with women voters giving Obama a whopping 18% margin).

Now consider the case of another chief executive in trouble, former Governor Rob Blagojevich. Blagojevich launched a national tour, hoping a media appeal would save him from impeachment on charges of abuse of power. While media outlets from the Today Show to MSNBC were more than happy to accommodate the flamboyant politician with air time, the results only worsened public perceptions. The media tour finally culminating in David Lettermen telling the hapless pol to his audience’s delight: “You know, the more you repeated your innocence, the more I said to myself, ‘oh this guy is guilty.’”

Both Rendell and Blagojevich made a classic mistake in trying to use the media for their own ends. The media is neither friend nor foe—and cannot be a reliable foil or life preserver for those in crisis. Both politicians would have benefited from following the first rule of crisis communications, and one that can be followed regardless of one’s standing in the media: When in a hole, stop digging. To that I’d add: and don’t expect the media to do anything but keep an eye on which way you shovel.

Aileen Pincus is a former local and national television reporter and senior Senate Staff, now a leading executive communication coach, training corporate, government and non-profit executives in the art of communication.
www.thepincusgroup.com

Crisis Communication Gone Wrong

The John Edwards Lesson Of Career Implosion – And What You Can Learn From It

Let’s start with the obvious. Even in these cynical times, it’s safe to say that conducting an extramarital affair is not an action we associate with “good character.” When that “someone” is a nationally known public official, a man who sought to lead the nation as a vice-presidential and later presidential candidate, you’ve got the ingredients for a major scandal. Now add a loyal and highly-respected wife who happens to be waging a public battle against cancer – and campaigning for her husband while the affair is taking place. Mix in a textbook failure in crisis communications once the scandal breaks, and you’ve got the makings of a career-ending implosion.

Not so fast, say the cynics. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had a strong enough following to launch a presidential run, even after an admitted affair and some questionable behavior toward a seriously ill first wife. And of course, there’s the “comeback kid” himself, former President Bill Clinton, still on the national and international stage after denials, admissions and endless humiliating details of marital infidelity. Aren’t we now just too jaded, too sophisticated, to let a mere sexual dalliance destroy a political career? Not when you’ve done as poor a job of crisis communications as John Edwards has in the wake of this scandal. If there was any hope of him rising from these ashes, I’ll submit Edwards himself has ended it. So what are the lessons John Edwards failed to learn?

  1. When you’re in a hole: Stop digging. This is both the most obvious and the most difficult rule for those in crisis to follow. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, people often do what Edwards did initially: issue denials, avoid questions, send up smoke-screens and shift blame. These are the tools of a child and eventually, they will be recognized as such. No matter how unsophisticated you regard your audience, don’t build your response around the assumption they’ll remain ignorant.
  2. Bad news will come out. Get it out yourself. What realistic hope did Edwards have that the story of infidelity would just go away? In retrospect, none. The delay between when the tabloids first reported the story and when it was picked up by the mainstream media outlets was due to lack of proof, not lack of interest. Eventually, Edwards was forced to admit the affair, but in failing to get ahead of the burgeoning scandal, he lost all credibility.
  3. Know Your Vulnerability. Edwards staked a claim as a moral candidate, one whose family was the central focus of his life. He even criticized President Clinton over the Lewinsky affair, particularly for the pain it brought to the Clinton’s family. Further, in discussing his wife’s personal battle with cancer, Edwards claimed that a political figure’s personal life was indeed fair territory for voters to explore in determining a candidate’s character. That weakened Edwards’ claims to privacy and made his refusal to answer questions hypocritical. If nothing else, all of those who feel aggrieved by the actions should be acknowledged.
  4. Learn what an apology is and is not. Even some of the most loyal of Edwards’ supporters read his statement of apology as worse than inadequate. In a disastrous performance, Edwards made claim to being “99% honest” because he had admitted the affair to his wife, while denying it to everyone else. Edwards strikingly made a point of noting his wife’s cancer had been in “remission” when he began the affair as though that lessened its impact, and laid blame for the affair on the unaccustomed attention he’d received as a national figure. By failing to acknowledge any broader implications of his behavior other than the banal admission of a “serious error in judgment,” and by refusing to acknowledge what this might say about his own character, Edwards missed any final opportunity to stem the bleeding.

Crises are never easy, and it’s more difficult to see them clearly the closer you are to them. That’s exactly why judgments are so immediate and so harsh when one fails to handle oneself well in a crisis. People think they see a person’s real character – or lack of it – when they are under fire. And they just might be right.

Aileen Pincus is a former local and national television reporter and senior Senate Staff, now a leading executive communication coach, training corporate, government and non-profit executives in the art of communication.
www.thepincusgroup.com

Crisis Communications Done Right: How Jet Blue will weather the storm

Think hard. When was the last time you remember the chief executive officer an American company admitting publicly and repeatedly to getting it wrong? “Humiliated and mortified” is how Jet Blue’s founder and chief executive described his reaction to the NY Times. “Painful to watch” David Neeleman admitted on the Today Show. “Sorry and embarrassed” was how the full page ads of apology in New York, Boston and DC put it.

The discount airline, a favorite of parents and fidgety flyers everywhere for its individualized TV monitors, comfortable seats and customer-friendly staff, is in the throes of the worst crisis in its 8 year history. An ice storm forced the cancellation of more than one-thousand flights in under a week, leaving an endless stream of angry passengers in its wake. In one case, passengers were held inside planes at NY’s Kennedy airport for over 10 hours.

In hindsight, the same gritty determination to avoid cancellation of flights seemed little more than short-sighted mismanagement to the casual observer. “Weakness in the system” hardly seemed to describe the disruption caused by a not particularly unusual winter ice storm.

And yet, there was Jet Blue’s Neeleman, letting the pain and embarrassment of his company’s failure show in a public way, and promising earnestly to do better. His brief mea culpa tour couldn’t have been easy, but it was exactly the right thing to do.

Meanwhile, because Jet Blue’s headquarters were close by, extra airline personnel were quickly brought to JFK airport to help. It turned out they could do little but serve as a target for passenger frustration, but like their CEO, Jet Blue’s workers didn’t shirk from that unpleasant duty.

Contrast that with United Airline’s reaction to its cancelled flights the same week. No statements of wrong-doing or even a bother with full explanations. No vouchers, refunds, apologies or promises to get it right. The only move United was quick about was in announcing it would honor all those missed Jet Blue reservations.

Jet Blue’s crisis response won’t satisfy everyone, particularly those travelers who were most inconvenienced. It does however serve an important purpose in allowing the airline to turn the focus from the mistakes to their attempts to rectify those mistakes.

Jet Blue has to be careful, of course, that no more damage be done to their already tarnished reputation as the most customer-friendly airline. They will have to show a stronger airline emerging: customers will have to get those refunds and vouchers, flights really will have to be redirected, and communications improved. But Needham’s performance I’d predict will now become a case study in crisis communications done right. The top three lessons his performance teaches:

  • 1. NEVER UNDERESTMATE THE POWER OF AN APOLOGY Anyone watching or reading could have no doubt this was a man personally invested in his company’s reputation. Neeleman didn’t shirk from tough questions. He didn’t send someone out to speak for him. He didn’t make excuses and he refused to lay blame elsewhere. True, Jet Blue’s website was hardly forthright, burying the news deep inside. Nonetheless, customers, potential customers, employees and investors got a very public and refreshing look at how a real leader behaves under pressure. That’s the kind of performance that breeds loyalty from all stakeholders.
  • 2. ACT NOW OR FOREVER HOLD YOUR ‘PIECES’ I’m betting Neeleman heard strong advice to say nothing publicly, at least not before a whole lot of highly important people were consulted and then consulted again. Any admission of culpability the conventional wisdom says will only wind up costing you more. Not only did Neeleman speak out, he did so quickly and, I’d submit, courageously. (How many chief executives these days agree to unscripted interviews with national reporters during a time of crisis?)
  • 3. DEFINE THE FIX JetBlue’s Bill of Rights for passengers may have been chiefly designed to dissuade lawmakers from imposing more regulations on the industry, but that doesn’t negate its impact. It is still a strong statement of the company’s intent to do right.

Jet Blue’s crisis of confidence isn’t over by any means, but this is one corporation intent on showing it deserves another chance.

Aileen Pincus is a former local and national television reporter and senior Senate Staff, now a leading executive communication coach, training corporate, government and non-profit executives in the art of communication.
www.thepincusgroup.com