Smooth talkers

Dealing with reporters is not just for top executives anymore. Media training is becoming a must-have skill throughout companies with rising public profiles.

The Globe and Mail, February 7, 2003   

Media savvy used to be the preserve of relatively few people in most companies. The public relations department knew how to handle reporters, the chief executive officer may have been frequently called on to be a company’s public face, and that was about it.


Helpful media hintsTips for your next media encounter:Read the paper, listen to the news, watch it on television. It can teach you valuable lessons on how to deal — and how not to deal — with the media. Don’t start talking when the reporter first calls, unless all you’re being asked for is a fact or two. If possible, try to find out what he or she needs to know, then promise to call back once you’ve pulled some material together. Then call back, and soon. Not calling reflects poorly on your sincerity and trustworthiness. If you “couldn’t be reached” or “weren’t available for comment,” it looks as though you’re hiding something. Listen. That helps focus your answers as well as making sure you answer what you’re being asked. People will often volunteer information in order to seem friendly and personable, but that can backfire if it’s information you don’t want to see in print. Try to keep your answers short and to the point. Too much information leaves you open to being selectively quoted, which rarely works out well. Don’t assume the reporter is an expert in your field. Avoid jargon or specialized terms. Assume you’re talking to a layperson. It will make you state your messages more clearly and help ensure that you get quoted accurately. There is no such thing as “off the record.” If you think some statements can be off the record when reporters are present, ask Françoise Ducros if her characterization of President George W. Bush as “a moron” fits that description.Now, however, more companies expect everybody in the outfit to know how to effectively get through an encounter with a reporter.


But communicating with the media has to be taught, learned and practiced, so many firms are turning to media coaches for help, to ensure their employees aren’t caught off-guard the next time a reporter calls them unexpectedly.


“People need to be able to talk to the media because sooner or later the media is going to call them,” explains Jane Shapiro, senior vice-president and partner with communications firm Fleishman Hillard. “They need to be clear in communicating a point of view to be part of stories that are going to be written, whether they initiate them or not.”


She says being in a smaller town with fewer media outlets doesn’t make media training any less crucial. “The interview experience is relatively short and quite intense. The better people are prepared for it, the better they’re going to be at achieving their objective, which is to communicate their point of view and get information across.”


Patrick Lenow, director of public relations at IHOP Corp., says the family restaurant chain is aiming to train not just a select few but most of the organization. “It’s becoming a must-have skill,” he says.


“We’re working to provide this training throughout further levels of our organization, so not just our senior executives but other individuals — who might be on the scene first — are prepared if the media seek them out to act as a spokesperson.”


Media coaching professionals say they handle two kinds of assignments: preparation for a planned event such as a new product launch, a change in company direction or an expansion; and the sudden, unplanned emergency, which requires rapid preparation and advice. Ms. Shapiro says that while the unplanned emergency can be more stressful, its lessons often last longer than preparation predicated on hypothetical situations.


But it’s better to go through the training initially, without an immediate crisis, then refresh what you’ve learned if one arises.


Typical media training usually includes practice interviews with the trainer or others from the firm posing as reporters. Expect at least a couple of those in front of a camera, as well as performance critiques.


Trainees will also be interviewed for hypothetical print stories, then see which quotes get used in which ways, and why.


Ideally, they’ll get a fast course in journalism and a look at the challenges reporters face in pulling a story together — the deadlines, the limited time or space in which to tell the story and the likely result of those pressures and limits. All of this helps trainees understand how to articulate their messages so they get through the media “filter” to the audience intact, while still making sure they’re true and sincere.


They should leave the session with a package of material: taped practice interviews, a checklist of important things to remember, some principles for putting a message together, and some performance techniques to refer to when a real reporter calls.


“It’s important that people not be scared or freaked out by the process of answering questions and dealing with the media,” says media trainer and coach Jeff Ansell of Jeff Ansell & Associates.


Ray Mowling of the Council for Biotechnology Information is one of Mr. Ansell’s clients, and he believes that media training is just good business.


“Go through media training if you want to be effective,” he says. “Talking to reporters is a specialized skill which is not natural to everybody. And it’s something that we revisit on at least an annual basis.”


Maxine Druker started the Western Canadian Pediatric AIDS Society to help children living with AIDS and HIV, and knew that media attention would be essential.


But lacking media training, she says the interview process intimidated her. That changed after she enrolled in a course.


“I always had such fear and anxiety before every media interview,” she says. “Now I feel like my fears have been removed and I understand what I need to focus on. I learned to focus on what I know, not what I don’t know. Interviewers will ask me about world statistics . . . or they’ll ask me clinical questions that should be addressed to a doctor.” Her training taught her how to put questioners in touch with people who had the relevant information, and how to steer the interview to questions she could answer.


At the same time, Ms. Druker has learned how to firmly but kindly decline to answer some questions that could jeopardize client confidentiality, as when talking about a program her organization hosts that sends children with AIDS to summer camp. “Sometimes they [reporters] want to get details that would sound good in a story, but they are not things that we can disclose. We need to find a way to tell compelling stories without some of the elements the media might usually have.”


She keeps the central lessons she learned in media training on a card for review before each interview.


Dave Codack, CEO of software company iSTARK, says he always thought that talking to the media was the same as talking to colleagues. His media training made him understand that it was different, that he needed to think before he spoke, especially under pressure.


“If you’re standing in front of someone or in front of a camera, that’s where people make mistakes, scrambling to get something out,” he notes.


Media trainers such as Mr. Ansell, a former reporter and news anchor, stress that having a key message to deliver is important, but that messages crafted as mission statements or articulations of principle don’t work within a news story.


“A lot of messages crafted in the boardroom just don’t cut it,” Mr. Ansell says.


How do you find a good media trainer? Mr. Ansell recommends looking for people who have worked on both sides of the media divide, as sources as well as reporters.


Ms. Shapiro also recommends referrals from colleagues, ideally in a similar business to yours.


A good media trainer will make an effort to find out about your business and its particular challenges. An off-the-rack course may work for the majority of a trainer’s other clients, but not be right for getting your firm’s message across best.


If you retain a public relations firm, people there can usually either provide the training themselves or have coaches they trust, with whom they can set up a session.