A local reporter is scheduled to visit your office in a few days to conduct an interview with you.
It’s a critical interview for your company, one that will impact your growth, your reputation, and your bottom line. You prepare for it carefully, huddling with your leadership team and preparing highly memorable media messages that will gain the audience’s attention—and trust. You may even conduct a mock interviewing session to gain comfort when answering challenging questions.
When the interview date arrives, you feel well-prepared. But you forgot one critical fact, one that threatens to undermine all of your efforts. Having a well-trained management team isn’t enough.
Journalists know that many executives and managers have received media training, so they occasionally circumvent the official chain of command in order to speak with a less trained (and more candid) junior staffer. With just a few careless words, those subordinates can undermine all of your media training and carefully plotted communications strategy.
As an example, check out the jaw-dropping words uttered by a young professional in this video:
When reporters visit your office, any interaction they have with employees, interns, and receptionists are considered “on the record.” Unless you reach an agreement otherwise, reporters can use their comments—and they will, especially if the quotes your employees utter are more colorful than anything a well-trained manager said. Therefore, it’s up to you to make sure your staff knows what to do and say when they’re in the presence of reporters.
This article will arm you with six specific things to do next time you’re expecting a visit from a journalist.
1. Assign an Escort
Assign an escort whenever journalists visit your office. That will help prevent reporters from “accidentally getting lost” on the way to the restroom, wandering the hallways, and striking up a conversation with the wrong person.
If the reporter is visiting your office to interview your Chief Executive Officer, for example, you can assign the CEO’s assistant as the escort. But if that assistant hasn’t received media training and isn’t familiar with your company’s main talking points, you might consider assigning an experienced media representative from your communications department instead.
2. Forge an Agreement With The Reporter
To help prevent the problem of “wandering reporters,” some organizations negotiate the terms of the interview prior to the reporter’s visit. You might consider restricting their access to personnel by asking them to agree to speak only with the previously agreed upon subject(s) of the interview.
You can also negotiate what reporters are allowed to film prior to visiting your company. For example, you might ask them not to shoot employees’ computer screens or papers on their desks.
Although many reporters are happy to comply with such terms, some may bristle at your request and disclose those agreements (or requests for those agreements) to their audience.
3. Notify Your Staff
One week before the reporter visits—and again on the day of the visit—send an email to staff alerting them to the impending visit and reminding them of your media policy.
Your media policy might allow only authorized spokespersons to speak to the press, especially when dealing with a hostile reporter or a particularly challenging subject. In those cases, instruct unauthorized employees who are approached by reporters to say that they’re not the best person to answer their questions and offer to connect them with a member of the communications department.
Although that approach may be best in some circumstances, keep in mind that reporters may note in their stories that your employees seemed “nervous” and refused to speak with them. Plus, as a practical matter, it may be difficult to prevent journalists from speaking to someone they encounter in a hallway or common area, especially if the interaction is being filmed (your on-camera intrusion would be noteworthy and could become part of the story).
4. Brief Staff with Key Messages
In some circumstances, it’s better to allow your staff to answer basic questions about their work and your organization. That’s especially true if the reporter doesn’t typically write hostile stories and the focus of the interview with your company is about an uncontroversial topic.
If you plan on allowing your employees to speak with a reporter who approaches them in a hallway or during a tour of the office, you should prepare basic media guidelines for your staff, and provide them with your key messages so they know what the “company line” is.
It’s also a good idea to remind employees to “stay in their lanes.” It’s okay for engineers to discuss the technical details of your company’s new software, for example, but they should refuse questions that are “outside their lanes,” such as those about global marketing strategy.
5. Remind Them to Avoid The “Seven-Second Stray”
Some reporters put their subjects at ease with a warm smile, friendly demeanor, and conversational style. So if you’re going to allow staff to speak with reporters, remind them to avoid the “seven-second stray.”
The “seven-second stray” occurs when a spokesperson who is “on message” for nine minutes and 53 seconds of a ten-minute interview delivers an “off-message” quote that lasts just a few seconds. Journalists recognize those unplanned moments as newsworthy, and often use them in their news stories. So if your employee shares a wacky anecdote, disparages a competitor, or criticizes a management decision, you can bet it will make its way into the segment.
6. Ask Them to Tidy Up
Instruct your staff to remove any confidential or sensitive papers from their desktops and to avoid displaying sensitive documents on their computer screens. Ask them to remove overtly political messages from their work areas (e.g. posters and bumper stickers) that, in some cases, can endanger an organization’s tax-exempt status. You might even ask them to do a little housekeeping to leave a neat appearance.
In order to add “color” to their stories, good reporters pay attention to interesting details within eyesight or earshot. As an example, I know of one executive who decorated his office rather lavishly, largely at taxpayer expense. When a scandal erupted at his organization, reporters were quick to note the expensive rug and antique chair in his office. So before a journalist visits your office, walk through the entire office space, try to see the workspace through the eyes of a skeptical journalist, and make any necessary adjustments.
This article was originally published in the American Management Association’s monthly e-newsletter, Leader’s Edge. Brad Phillips is the author of The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.
In his classic public speaking book, You Are The Message, Roger Ailes defines five ways to respond to a crisis: attack, defend, counterattack, sell, or ignore. That’s the most succinctly articulated crisis communications playbook I’ve ever seen, and it’s a good one.
To complete his list, I’d add two other strategies: deflect and apologize.
In this post, I’ll offer examples of each of the seven responses you might consider offering when a crisis befalls your organization.
1. Attack: “I want to make clear that we have always complied with the law and that these charges are a result of having an overzealous prosecutor who desperately wants to become mayor.”
2. Defend: “We knew this decision would be controversial with some people, but we made it because we felt—and still feel—that it was the right thing to do. In order to serve our customers better for the long-term, we had to make a difficult decision in the short-term.”
3. Counterattack: “Of course our competitor is saying negative things about our new product. They haven’t had a successful product launch in five years, so they’re trying to make people forget about their own dismal track record.”
4. Sell: “I knew this decision would be controversial with some voters, but I made it because I know that voters expect me to make the tough choices. So here’s what I’d ask voters: Even if you disagree with me on this issue, consider whether you want someone in office who is willing to make tough decisions on your behalf instead of just doing things the way they’ve always been done. I hope you do, and if so, I’m your man.”
5. Ignore: “[silence]”
6. Deflect: “This is an issue for the Justice Department. It wouldn’t be appropriate for the White House to comment on this matter.”
7. Apologize: “We got this wrong. I want to personally apologize to all of the people who were affected by this issue, and I want them to know that we are taking immediate steps to make sure this never happens again.”
Like this post? Learn more about crisis communications in my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.
I once watched a libertarian conduct a question and answer session with a group of high school students.
The libertarian began the session by sharing his belief that the federal government should have no role in helping a person who is poor. State governments could help that person if they chose to, but it would be even better for private citizens, charitable organizations, and local communities to band together to help that person instead.
It was clear from the students’ reactions that they had never heard such an idea before, and they didn’t like it. Their questions to the libertarian became increasingly hostile, with one even telling him that she thought he was “selfish.”
The mistake he made that day is a mistake I regularly see spokespersons make—especially those representing ideas or causes.
In this case, the libertarian was so intent on explaining his ideology, that he failed to align his message to his audience at all. Imagine how different he would have been perceived had he started his presentation this way:
“How many of you believe that someone who is poor—a man or woman who can’t afford enough food to eat or sufficient medical care—deserves help?
[Show of hands]
“How many of you think the federal government should help? [Show of hands] “How many of you think charities or religious organizations should help?” [Show of hands] “Anyone believe that people in the community should also donate some money?”
“Well, I think we all agree about something. None of us in this room want that poor man or woman to starve to death. Is that a reasonable conclusion?” [Show of hands or head nods]
“There’s also one place I disagree with some of you. I don’t believe that the federal government should help that person, but that the help should come from community groups, charitable organizations, and private citizens. I’d like to spend some time today sharing my views on why I believe that’s so important.”
That introduction would have changed the entire tenor of his talk. By articulating common ground from the start (“None of us in this room want that poor man or woman to starve to death.”), he would have let the students know that they share a similar hope, even if their solutions might differ.
Instead, he forgot to align his views to those of the audience. And because his views seemed so shocking to the students and challenged their belief systems too much, they shut down and closed him out before he had even begun.
Have you liked my Facebook page yet? If not, please visit www.Facebook.com/MrMediaTraining and click “like” to follow our latest posts!
My husband and I recently attended a wedding during which I was reminded of an important lesson in communications: Ditch the jargon. Always.
In communications training, this is an obvious rule. When you speak in complicated terms, most audiences don’t get the message. Even if the average person could understand it, the more effort he or she has to put into decoding your message, the less chance that person will either remember it or put in the work to understand it in the first place.
However, some of my clients deal with very technical, complicated issues. The primary outlets for which they interview tend to be trade magazines and blogs with the occasional appearance in a more mainstream publication. When I talk about how important it is for them to ditch their jargon, they argue that they are speaking to a more sophisticated customer and don’t want to sound “dumb.” I understand the inclination, but it’s still a bad idea.
Take, for example, that recent experience at a friend’s wedding I mentioned above. My husband is an engineer who understands a lot of technical jargon. So when we were chatting at our friend’s wedding with an executive in his same industry who was excited about the implementation of some new technology at his company, my husband started asking him questions about it. Even though this executive oversaw the process, it was no surprise to me when he wasn’t sure what my husband was talking about. He knew the results and he knew why the technology was important for his organization but he didn’t understand the specifics of exactly how it worked.
That can be the case with executives at any company. But clients often tell me that since they mostly speak to niche industry outlets with generally knowledgeable readers, they can use the industry jargon that their readers will understand. That’s a mistake. I tell them it’s still a good idea to speak at a more accessible level in case someone else who may be a potential target audience member or customer is reading the publication as well.
Isn’t it possible that same type of executive from the wedding could be your target customer?
That doesn’t mean dumbing it down, but it does mean simplifying your language and making sure you define acronyms every time you use them. Then, you’ll avoid alienating your target audience–in addition to the people you may not have known were in your audience to begin with.
This is an excerpt fromThe Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview, available in soft cover and all major e-book formats.
In lesson 2, I mentioned that you shouldn’t conduct an interview the moment reporters call. Instead, I advised that you should offer to return their calls promptly, and for you to take at least a few minutes to prepare for the interview before you speak.
But before you hang up from that initial phone call, take a few minutes to “interview” the reporter. Many journalists are willing to share the basics about the stories they’re working on, and any insight they offer will help you better prepare.
Below are eight questions you might consider asking reporters. I typically don’t ask all of these for every interview, since journalists don’t appreciate being grilled. But they’ll probably offer some of this information on their own anyway, so just fill in any gaps by asking the most relevant of these questions:
- 1. Who are you? No, you shouldn’t ask that question verbatim, but collect the basics—their name, the name of the news organization for which they work, and whether they cover a particular topic.
- 2. Can you tell me about the story you’re working on? Keep this question open-ended and remain quiet while the reporter speaks (the more they say, the more you’ll learn). Feel free to ask follow-up questions and to clarify any points you don’t fully understand.
- 3. Are you approaching this story from any particular perspective? Some reporters will bristle if you ask, “What’s your angle?” This question aims to elicit the same information in a more subtle manner.
- 4. Who else are you interviewing? Reporters often play it close to the vest on this one, but it’s worth asking. You’ll be able to get a sense of the story’s tone by learning whether the other sources in the story are friendly or antagonistic toward your cause.
- 5. What’s the format? For print interviews, this question will help you determine whether reporters just need a quick quote from you or whether they’re writing an in-depth piece that will focus extensively on your work. For broadcast interviews, you’ll be able to learn whether the interview will be live, live-to-tape, or edited. For television, you might also ask if the format will be a remote, on-set, or sound-bites interview.
- 6. What do you need from me? Ask the reporter how much time the interview will last and where the reporter wants to conduct the interview. Also, ask if you can provide any press releases, graphics, photos, videos, or other supplementary documents. You can often expand your presence in a news story—and influence the narrative—if the reporter chooses to use your supporting materials.
- 7. Who will be doing the interview? For many radio and television interviews, you will be contacted initially by an off-air producer rather than by an on-air personality. Ask for the name of the person conducting the interview.
- 8. When are you publishing or airing the story? Review the story as soon as it comes out. If it’s a positive story, share it with your online and off-line networks. If it’s a negative story, consider issuing a response or contacting the reporter or editor to discuss the coverage.
One final note: Before an interview, tell reporters how you prefer to be identified. Include your title and company name, and spell your full name. Nothing is worse than seeing your name or company’s name mangled in front of millions of viewers!
Click here for more information about The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.
Many of this blog’s readers are news junkies. So in a slight departure from this blog’s usual content today, I’d like to suggest you bookmark a new website that debuted this week called “Retro Report.”
I really like the promise of this site, because it seeks to correct one of the biggest problems with today’s media. Too often, a story dominates the headlines for a few days and then disappears. But what happens after the story disappears? Did more information about the story emerge? Did it ever get reported? Did the original breaking news coverage get parts of the story wrong or omit a key perspective?
Retro Report, a nonprofit documentary news organization, seeks to tell “the truth now about the big stories then.”
The first Retro Report piece takes viewers back to 1987, when “a barge loaded with New York garbage became a sensational fiasco,” but “ended up fueling the modern recycling movement.” The story was big enough for Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Bob Schieffer to report on at the time. Even Johnny Carson couldn’t resist cracking a joke. Here’s the story:
Publisher Taegan Goddard told me he “hopes that Retro Report can become the Wikipedia for news—the place to go to find out what happened to stories that once dominated the news.”
This looks like a great project. I hope you enjoy it as much as I expect to.
Update: Monday, May 13, 2013: Retro Report posted its newest video today. This one, about the Tailhook military sexual harassment scandal, is also excellent.
When you’re giving a speech, is it okay to embellish your humorous anecdotes to make sure they don’t land with a thud?
James C. Humes, author of the popular public speaking book Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln, says yes. He argues that humor, when delivered in the third person, can take the audience out of the moment. He writes:
“When you start by saying ‘this salesman’ or ‘this psychiatrist,’ you have already signaled the audience that this is a joke—something that didn’t really happen—and you have already lost them. Lead them by the hand into your story by saying, for example: ‘An old woman in the town I grew up in’ or ‘A lawyer I know once had a client walk in…’”
Humes believes that such stretches of the truth can be considered “humor license,” similar to the “dramatic license” audiences grant to stage actors. During a speech, Humes writes, “You’re not under oath…don’t worry about stretching the truth.”
But is he right? Is stretching the truth during a humorous anecdote a reasonable use of “license,” or is it simply a lie that could threaten a speaker’s credibility?
If “lie” seems like a strong word, consider this piece of advice from Humes: “Once you repeat it a few times in your own style, you begin to believe that it really did happen.”
A quick anecdote (and I swear, this one is true). During my presentations, I used to tell a story about “a client in Georgia.” The client didn’t really exist—it was a composite of several different clients. But after my presentations, a few people came up to me and asked me who that client was. It made me feel dishonest. Since then, I’ve made it clear to audiences that the “client” is a fictional example. And you know what? The story hasn’t lost any of its zip.
Humes is a former speechwriter for five presidents. The men he served—Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford among them—served in an era that allowed more license for humorous anecdotes. Today’s politicians have their speeches fact checked, blogged and tweeted about, and dissected for accuracy by opposition researchers. The license Humes recommends may not be fully dead, but it’s dying. And it could come with a great risk to people’s reputations as straight shooters.
My suggestion? Know your audience. Assess whether “humor license” would be well-received or place your reputation in the hands of nefarious opponents and journalists looking for a sexy headline. And don’t take it at face value that audiences will automatically grant you humor license.
Today’s post looks at three recent media events that are worthy of mention.
1. Congressional Candidate Mark Sanford Plays Deaf
Remember Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina Governor who had to resign as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, after admitting he was having an affair with an Argentinian woman? You may recall that he infamously went missing from his gubernatorial post—even his aides had no clue where he was—and that he claimed he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail,” a unique metaphor for “sleeping with your mistress.”
Well, he’s trying to become a congressman from South Carolina, and his opponent asked him about his indiscretions during a recent debate. Here’s the exchange:
Sanford declined to respond to the charge, and continued his answer as if he really didn’t hear his opponent. By pretending he didn’t hear the question, Sanford only served to create more headlines that reminded people of his misdeeds. He should have offered a nonheadline-worthy answer instead, such as: “I’ve already discussed that matter in detail, and I think the people of this district are much more interested in hearing about how my leadership would be better for their lives…”
2. President Obama on Syria
Last August, President Obama declared during a news conference that, “Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons [in Syria] would cross a ‘red line’ and ‘change my calculus,’” according to The New York Times.
The phrase “red line” appears to have been improvised, according to aides who had attended strategy meetings about Syria. The phase was used “…to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the ‘red line’ came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.”
“’What the president said in August was unscripted,’” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the ‘nuance got completely dropped.’”
It appears as if the President uttered a seven-second stray, one of those phrases that can define an administration—or at least its foreign policy. Mr. Obama should have known better than to use such loaded language in a press conference, which reminds me of President Bush’s dangerous “Bring ‘em on” quip.
The two words “red line” may haunt him. As The Times said in its lead paragraph, Mr. Obama “now finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.”
3. American Kennel Club In The Doghouse
A couple of readers sent me this recent clip from The Today Show about the American Kennel Club (AKC). The group’s inspection program has come under fire recently, with accusations that several AKC-registered operations are mistreating, malnourishing, and abusing dogs.
Those are the kinds of accusations that can destroy an organization’s reputation—so you’d think that the AKC would have been ready to respond. But watch the AKC’s Communications Director, Lisa Peterson, in action:
She lacked answers to basic questions and looked defensive, likely reassuring few viewers. When asked how many inspectors the AKC has, she said nine. When asked whether that was enough, she avoided the question by unhelpfully saying, “That’s the number that we have.”
She failed to set an adequate frame. She should have repeatedly said something such as: “All of us here are passionate about dogs, and we’re disgusted by these reports. Most of our AKC-registered breeders are as passionate as we are, but we will do everything in our power to make sure that no AKC-registered breeder can ever get away with this type of mistreatment again.”
Join us in New York City on July 8-9, 2013 for our two-day message development, media and crisis training workshop! Early registration discount ends May 31, 2013. Click here for more information.