I was chatting with a national newspaper reporter this week and a familiar topic came up. “I hate it,” she told me, “when people keep answering with the same phrase, no matter what question I ask of them.”
We were talking, of course, about media training. I had confessed to moving to the dark side after years of being a print and broadcast journalist. Her complaint was well-founded and I believe it reflects what public relations people have been saying for years. Stick to your key message is the refrain and I’ve used it myself while training clients. It’s become so ingrained that I heard someone interviewed on the radio the other day begin their answer with “My key message is . . .”
I still believe that, in times of crisis, sticking to a tight script is the wiser course. Reporters are always more interested in conflict that conciliation and a slip of the tongue that fans the flames is great news. Never let the facts interfere with a good story, is a long time reporter credo.
The question, I suppose, is whether we have gone too far in suggesting that every answer be pre-conceived and vetted by the executive committee. I still tell my clients to think about what they want to say before an interview and often that means engaging in a tug of wits with the reporter. But I also suggest they respond to questions before introducing the key message. That doesn’t mean blindly following the reporter’s agenda as to where the story is going. An interview should be a dialogue and you have as much right to set its course as the reporter.
The mistake most people make is that rather than respond to a question they set out to exhaustively answer it. That leads to follow up questions and then suddenly the interview is over and you haven’t had a chance to state what’s on your mind. When the story comes out, it doesn’t accurately represent your point of view.
Reporters, to some extent, have brought key messaging on themselves by not trying harder to capsulate the views of the people they interview. It’s easier (and makes a better story) when you have one person in favour of something and another person opposed to it. Subtleties and nuances make a story more difficult to tell so many journalists default to “he said, she said” reporting.
On the other hand, it’s easier and safer to memorize a key message than debate with someone who ultimately decides which parts of your story make it to air or to print. Maybe it’s time we step up our game and move media training from key messaging to persuasive dialogue.