Tag Archives: media training

3 Signs You’ve Hired a Horrible Media Trainer

1) Tells War Stories. Years ago, when ex-journalists became media trainers they would spend a full day or even two days revealing the mysteries of their craft. The journalist sometimes spent a full morning talking about how great an interviewer he or she was and revealed “behind the scenes” secrets of interviews with famous people.

Sometimes the media trainers would show a funny video from the Bob Newhart show of the affable doctor being cornered with tough questions from a TV host. It was all very entertaining but not very useful.

Clients today are busy people and not as star-struck with the media as they were in the past. A good media trainer today talks about interview objectives, message development and reporters’ agendas and then gets you to practice specific techniques. Most of my sessions are with small groups for a half-day, sometimes with a couple hours of follow up practice at a later date.

2) Tells You to Ignore the Questions. Going straight to a key message and repeating it over and over just doesn’t work anymore. It makes reporters cranky and they might even do something nasty like string all your answers together to make you look foolish. This trick is often used on politicians.

I tell my clients to listen very carefully to the question, answer the essence of it and look for a connection to their own message. I show them ways to appear to be answering the question. Although you can’t ignore the question, that doesn’t mean you have to provide an exhaustive response. Sometimes the easiest way to answer a reporter is with a simple yes or no. It can also sometimes catch them unprepared for their next question.

3) Beats You up With a Tough Interview. The theory used to be that the toughest interview you ever had was in media training and if you could survive that you’d survive anything. Don’t believe it. A media trainer who goes hard core on you right away is just showing off.

Media training should teach you a skill, not replicate an unpleasant experience. People learn when something is hard but accomplishable. If it’s too difficult they shut down and tend to avoid the situation. Of course if it’s too easy they’re not prepared for the tough interview.

Over the years I’ve had many people approach me with trepidation because of a bad previous training experience. A good media trainer should help you understand and practice the techniques and then leave you confident that you can execute them in a real interview.

Once you get the hang of things, a good media trainer will definitely turn up the heat but never give you more than you can handle. Unless you’re being arrogant.

 

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Why PR People Hate Reporters

My last post was written for journalists, to explain why the head of a company might not be inclined to drop everything to do a media interview (Hey You Reporters, Get off my Lawn). I remember from my days as a journalist thinking that everyone, including the CEO, had an obligation to answer my questions.

I also remember the many calls from cheery-voiced PR flacks who actually did want me to interview their CEO so that they could promote some new product or service. Often I was rude. A journalist’s day is always busy and I felt I needed to get on with the real news.

So, now that I’ve switched sides this is an apology of sorts to those cheery-voiced flacks and a wake-up call for smug journalists who like to torment anyone in public relations. They may have to phone you to pitch a story but that doesn’t mean they have to like you. In fact, here are six reasons why PR people hate reporters;

  1. Reporters won’t return calls for a good news story but they scream bloody murder if PR people don’t call back immediately during a crisis.
  2. Reporters never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
  3. Reporters will interview any crackpot who voices a contrary opinion even if an overwhelming majority is in favour of something.
  4. A PR person might spend the entire day lining up interviews and the Reporter will cancel at the last minute without so much as an apology. But if something happens a day later, the Reporter expects the PR person to set up the interviews again.
  5. Reporters never do a follow up story when a problem has been fixed.
  6. If a PR person tells a Reporter something off the record, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s off the record. Reporters often print the information anyway and might even use the PR person’s name if it will make a better story.

Over to you, my PR colleagues – did I leave anything out? And I’m happy to give equal time to any reporter who wants to make a rebuttal.

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Hey You Reporters, Get off my Lawn! Why the CEO Won’t Talk to You.

When I was a journalist, I pretty much believed that everyone had an obligation to answer my questions. In the grand tradition of 60 Minutes, people were assumed to be guilty unless they could come out of an interview unscathed. Back then, mainstream media was a major conduit to a company’s stakeholders so, like it or not, CEO’s often had to put themselves under the media spotlight. But things have changed. Now, there are many more ways to connect with stakeholders. And frankly, reporters just aren’t as scary as they used to be.

Since crossing over to the dark side, I have worked with dozens of CEO’s to help them through both positive and negative media interviews. Less than a handful looked forward to the experience. A lot of my work is crisis communications and, contrary to conventional wisdom, presenting the CEO for a public flogging by the media is not always the best course of action.

So this post is for journalists, here are five good reasons why the CEO may not want to talk to you;

  • It’s not free publicity. Reporters who think they are doing the CEO a favour by publicizing the company don’t understand marketing or public relations. Publicity is the distribution of a controlled message with measurable results. Unless it’s a start-up company with no track record, an ad hoc story isn’t of much value. The CEO doesn’t know which clip you’ll use or what context you’ll put it in which can be dangerous so he’ll probably hire someone like me to help develop messages and practice delivering them as answers to your questions. If you take a strange angle or misunderstand the business, there will be more work to communicate the real message to stakeholders. So your interview is anything but free publicity.
  • It’s someone else’s job. You may think the buck stops on the CEO’s desk and in most respects it does. But companies have executive teams and it’s quite possible that someone else is better able to answer your questions. Although it might be fun for the reporter, no one in the company wants the CEO to look foolish and that can happen if he didn’t have daily involvement in the issue you’re asking about. There is also an implied importance attached to an issue when the CEO speaks and his availability (or lack of) may be a strategic decision. During a crisis, it may not be appropriate for the CEO to be the first to comment because that could make the situation appear more serious than it really is.
  • You’ll get it wrong. You frequently do, much more than you realize. That’s understandable because there are very few beat reporters any more. Reporters might report on forestry, aerospace technology and the ballet all in one week. Your job is to simplify the story for a broad audience. Your generalizations may work for your readers or viewers but sometimes they have different implications for an industry audience. Your reporting errors may not be grievous enough for the CEO to demand a correction but they might be enough to affect the credibility of the company. I once knew a business reporter who complained about having to deal with “icky numbers”. Those numbers mean a lot to the CEO.
  • Someone else is listening. Companies have competitors as do media outlets. A newspaper or TV station won’t phone its rival to discuss their main story that night so why would you expect a CEO to spill all of his or her secrets? Even general cover footage in a company plant can give competitors clues that might have major impact down the road. That’s why we often provide handout photos or video. The CEO might be in complex negotiations that his competitors are unaware of. There could be layoffs coming, restructuring or a major contract in the works. Companies time such announcements very carefully and don’t want details revealed inadvertently during an interview. Your scoop of leaked information lasts about a day but the repercussions for the CEO go on for a while.
  • CEO’s have bosses too. They report to Boards of Directors, investors and shareholders. They also need to comply with sometimes strict and complex regulatory regimes set out by various governing bodies. A publically-traded company, for example, has to follow strict disclosure guidelines when it reveals any information that would affect its share price. And then there’s performance. A CEO needs to project confidence and leadership while reporters are often just trying to trip him up. If the reporter holds all the cards and there is more to lose than to win, why would a CEO talk to the media?

Over to you reporters, want to give me five good reasons why a CEO should talk to you?

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Four Ways to be a Better Consultant

A few years ago I was asked to speak to a firm about how they could better interact with their clients. Just recently I came across my speaking notes and the advice is just as valid now as it was then.

  1. Leave Your Ego at the Door

As an ex-journalist this one was hard for me. But good consulting is not about trying to impress the client with your knowledge and experience. Don’t keep selling after you’ve made the sale. It’s not about saying something smart and – most importantly – it’s not about how you would do it. It’s about how the client can do it and your job is to make that happen.

  1. Ask Questions Before Giving Answers

If you are at all good at what you do it doesn’t take much information to understand the problem and start to see a possible solution. There are two things wrong with that. The client may not tell you everything right away. Careful questioning will often reveal pertinent details that the client thought were not important. Also, more and more I find that text-book solutions don’t always fit real life problems. Find out as much information as you can and, whenever possible, take time to think about the client’s situation before recommending action.

  1. Sometimes, the Client is Right

As consultants we need to be as persuasive as possible with our advice BUT if the client chooses another path then it becomes our job is to make that path work (see tip number one). My expertise is in communication, coaching and reputation management, not business so I have to recognize there may be other factors that affect what the client is able to do. I also strive to be open to good ideas no matter which side of the boardroom table they come from.

  1. Better, Not Best

If you were building a house you wouldn’t keep messing with the foundation while the drywall was going in. By that I mean you must know when to move on and stop revisiting the same issues. Accept the decided course of action even if you believe it’s not the best and try to make it work. If you do performance coaching, as I do, you must also understand when to switch from Teaching to Training. I work my clients to high standards but when they are about to do a speech or an interview I am most concerned with instilling confidence.

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Does Media Training Need a Face Lift?

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.

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Media Training and the 24-Second News Cycle

When I left the so-called mainstream media I did what many ex-reporters did, I became a media trainer. For my colleagues still in the business it was only half-jokingly seen as a betrayal. You’ve crossed over to the “dark side” they would say, you’re selling secrets to the enemy.

Of course after a few years of newsroom layoffs and budget cuts, I heard less criticism and more requests for information about how to go about becoming a media trainer. To many mortgage-bearing journalists, the “dark side” is looking a lot brighter these days.

But the interesting thing is that I don’t do as much media training as I used to. I do a lot more public speaking coaching and presentation training and I do something known as message training which helps clients focus in on the key attributes of their business.

When there were fewer media outlets, the media represented one of the “black arts”. People who wanted to sell a story had no idea how to approach reporters and people caught up in a crisis had no understanding of why they were being hit by a tsunami of media coverage. That’s all changed.

A substantial increase in the number of media outlets in the last 20 years has made it easier than ever to find the specific audience needed to advance your company or your cause. And the internet has opened up a whole new world of opportunities to reach an audience. You might get a million hits on YouTube before your local newspaper (with its couple hundred thousand readers) even knows who you are.

On the other hand, more than ever, bad news goes around the world before good news has a chance to get its shoes on. The immediacy of social media has turned a 24-hour news cycle into a 24-second news cycle. That has made it more important to have messages in place and a communication plan ready before a crisis happens.

One reason that reporters are not as scary as they used to be is that everyone is a reporter now. Video from cell phones and citizen reports from the field are common practice in the media. And, of course, anyone with an internet connection is a blogger.

That’s why I don’t bother my clients with the mechanics of modern journalism. The basics of message training go beyond whatever medium will be reporting the issue.

To survive a 24-second news cycle, you’d better be able to tell your whole story in that amount of time or less.

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A Better Way to be a Better Communicator

They say you should do something a thousand times if you want to become an expert at it. I’ve always found that number a little intimidating. In fact, I think it often stops people from practicing even once. In our time-starved world, we settle for getting by over getting better.

In the past 15 years or so, I’ve trained more than a thousand people on how to be interviewed by the media. After as few as three or four practice interviews every one of them has shown improvement. Those who get some experience and then more practice sessions notice another incremental increase in their ability. The same holds true for clients who have worked to become better public speakers.

Many people who are not very good at giving interviews or speaking publically avoid those situations by retreating behind their lack of experience. They measure their own performance against the best and then conclude that they don’t have time to take the thousand steps needed to master the skills.

But no one is immune from the need for strong communications skills. Gardeners are in the media promoting their craft as often as men in suits and almost every job begins with an interview.

With just a small amount of effort, you can greatly improve your communications proficiency. It’s useful to study people who give great speeches and interviews but don’t be intimidated by them. Remember that other long-time saying;

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

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