One Of The Biggest Misconceptions About Media Training

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 8, 2015 – 6:02 am

When I search Twitter for the term “media training,” I frequently come across a tweet that suggests that a celebrity or politician who said something controversial “needs media training.”

In some cases, that’s true. But I’ve often observed that many people reflexively want to send everyone who’s ever uttered a controversial or provocative comment to media training immediately.

Media training isn’t about preventing people from ever expressing an unpopular or controversial view.

OFFENSIVE

I occasionally work with someone who has a deep-seated belief about a controversial topic. We discuss the likely consequences of expressing that belief in the manner the person would like to do so. Sometimes, they’ll modify their approach to make the same point in a way that’s less likely to alienate their audiences. But ultimately, once they understand of the potential consequences, the choice of whether to proceed is theirs.

What’s important, therefore, is that spokespersons understand the potential consequences of saying something unpopular.

From a purely strategic perspective, expressing an unpopular thought isn’t always the wrong decision; in fact, it can be the type of marketing differentiator that allows someone to stand out from their more traditional peers.

Bill Maher, for example, has made a long career out of testing the boundaries of politically correct thought. A comment he made shortly after 9/11 cost him his job on ABC, and recent comments about Muslims prompted a strong backlash. But was the cure for those comments “media training,” or was Maher keenly aware of the potential consequences associated with expressing his views?

 

Comedian Bill Maher

Comedian Bill Maher

 

That said, as a general rule, celebrities (e.g. Bill Maher, Miley Cyrus) and politicians (e.g. Sarah Palin, Chris Christie) have more license to brand themselves as provocative than spokespersons representing a company or organization (e.g. the CEO of Boeing or Johnson & Johnson). 

If you see someone making a controversial comment, think through these five questions before declaring them in need of media training:

  1. 1. Is the spokesperson or public figure fully familiar with the rules of working with the media?
  2. 2. Are they aware of the real and perceived landmines that could await their provocative statements?
  3. 3. Have they fully contemplated the risks of being perceived as a “provocateur” and are they prepared to accept them?
  4. 4. Could they be more effective in their roles if they chose their words and picked their battles more effectively?
  5. 5. Will their words not only potentially threaten their own brands, but hurt the people and brands they’re associated with?

The public figure could probably benefit from media training If any of the answers to questions 1-3 are “no” or the answers to questions 4-5 are “yes.” What do you think? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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The Line Between Rape Prevention Advice And Victim Blaming

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 24, 2015 – 6:02 am

Many university presidents have found themselves in hot water recently for dispensing what they thought of as “common sense” campus safety advice to students. Seemingly innocuous pieces of advice, such as “be careful how much you drink,” are increasingly being perceived as “victim blaming.” 

I’m not an expert in this area, so in an effort to learn more, I spoke with Katherine Hull Fliflet, the vice president of communications for RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

First, you’ll find several examples below of university heads who have become embroiled in controversy due to their comments on sexual assault. 

 

Screen shot taken from Mother Jones website

Screen shot taken from Mother Jones website

 

George Washington University

Last summer, former George Washington University president Stephen Tractenberg was criticized by some students and blogs for saying this:

“Without making the victims responsible for what happens, one of the groups that have to be trained not to drink in excess are women. They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave.”

He later defended his comments by saying:

“You need to educate the men but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to arm your women with the ability to defend themselves…It doesn’t shift the blame, ultimately, but you have to be wise and street smart.”

 

Lincoln University

The president of Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, Robert Jennings, resigned in November after saying the following, as summarized by The Huffington Post:

“Men treat you, treat women, the way women allow us to treat them. We will use you up if you allow us to use you up,” he said, adding that men will “marry the girl with the long dress on.”
 

 

Eckerd College

Donald Eastman, president of Florida’s Eckerd College, wrote the following in an open letter to students and faculty in November:

“You know that these incidents are almost always preceded by consumption, often heavy consumption, of alcohol, often by everyone involved in them…No one’s culture or character or understanding is improved by casual sex.”
 

 

University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department

In an October crime prevention tip sheet, the UW-Madison police department wrote the following, according to the Wisconsin State Journal:

“If you present yourself as easy prey, then expect to attract some wolves…If you make yourself a hard target, one who is aware of their surroundings, you take away two elements of a crime: desirability and opportunity.”

The department quickly revised the tip sheet after being accused of victim blaming.

 Wisconsin State Journal Rape

 

What Should University Leaders Say? 

First, one thing appears rather obvious in some of the examples above: Any time safety advice is couched in the language of “moral” sexual behavior, it crosses into being broadly perceived as unacceptable victim blaming.

But what about the question of educating students about the potential perils of alcohol abuse as it relates to sexual assault? Wouldn’t it be wise for university presidents to address that issue? “It’s too narrow,” says Ms. Hull Fliflet of RAINN, who argues that putting that much emphasis on a single risk factor diminishes the broader conversation.

“It’s more effective to speak to the student body as a whole about risk reduction for reducing crime on campus in terms of friends having roles to play as opposed to directing the advice to an individual student.”

University leaders can use a RAINN fact sheet called “protecting your friends” to educate students about the need to keep an eye out for their peers in social situations, step in and create a distraction when “a situation doesn’t feel right,” and enlist others as “reinforcements.” As examples, a group of female students can keep an eye on one another, but male students can also look out to make sure their male peers aren’t engaging in potentially risky behavior. 

Another suggestion: Hull Fliflet says it’s critical to communicate this advice in a gender-neutral manner since victims aren’t always women. She also wonders why, as in so many of the examples above, authorities focus on “don’t drink” as their key piece of advice instead of “don’t rape.” More broadly, she argues that university presidents must communicate that they take these issues seriously—and bolster their policies to match their rhetoric.

With so many leaders being singed by touching this hot topic in the wrong way, I suspect that many university heads would rather stay away from this issue altogether. Hull Fliflet says that’s the wrong solution. “This is a real opportunity for a college president to make it clear that all reports of sexual assault will be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly,” she says. “They just need to be honest that their school isn’t immune.”

 

A Few Final Thoughts

University leaders who fail to pay attention to these sensitivities (or go well beyond them, as in some of the examples above) must learn about and remain aware of the potential landmines. My suggestion? Before speaking out on these topics, consult with outside experts, make sure you understand where sensitivities exist, and work collaboratively to develop a set of public safety suggestions that achieve your goals without repelling the very people they’re intended to help.

Please leave your thoughts below. I look forward to learning from you. 

h/t Huffington Post

 


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New York Times Executive Editor Calls Critic An “Asshole”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 11, 2015 – 12:09 pm

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet decided last week not to run images of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons so many people found to be offensive.

Marc Cooper, a journalist and associate professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, disagreed with Baquet’s decision and took to Facebook to register his complaint.

Dean Baquet Facebook

I’m not going to pretend that the word “asshole” is so shocking to our delicate sensibilities as to require an entire blog post. But I would like to make a few other points about this exchange.

First, Mr. Baquet was right that Mr. Cooper looked self-righteous. I suspect that was abundantly clear to many people, so Baquet didn’t need to be so heavy handed in his response to win this exchange. That’s especially true because he made a solid case for his decision not to publish.

According to Dylan Byers of Politico:

“Reached via email, Baquet told POLITICO: ‘Lots of people have disagreed with my decision. Some of them are in The Times. I get that. Mr Cooper’s comment was nasty and arrogant. So I told him what I thought.’

Baquet’s decision to forego running the cartoons that provoked terrorists to raid the offices of Charlie Hebdo, killing 12, have been heavily scrutinized. On Thursday, Baquet said he made his decision primarily because he did not want to insult the paper’s Muslim readers.

“’We have a standard that is pretty simple. We don’t run things that are designed to gratuitously offend,’ Baquet told POLITICO…[I] don’t expect all to agree. But let’s not forget the Muslim family in Brooklyn who read us and is offended by any depiction of what he sees as his prophet. I don’t give a damn about the head of ISIS but I do care about that family and it is arrogant to ignore them.’”

Why didn’t he simply say that in response to Mr. Cooper instead of lapsing into distracting name-calling? 

Whenever a word like “asshole” is used by an executive, it’s almost certain to draw attention. That can be a mixed blessing. If it’s an issue the executive wants to become a big headline but is struggling to find any other way to make newsworthy, name-calling like this can actually be part of a strategic communications plan. I don’t suspect that was the case here.

 

Dean Baquet, photo via Doug Mills, The New York Times

Dean Baquet, photo via Doug Mills, The New York Times

 

Mr. Baquet also seemed to forget another cardinal rule: He should have treated his response as an opportunity to speak directly to other readers who shared Cooper’s position instead of treating it like a personal communication with Mr. Cooper.

Finally, I wonder what message this sends to his newsroom. On one hand, it’s easy to imagine that journalists who work for him deeply appreciate a boss who stands up for their editorial decisions. But on the other hand, I wonder if this gives license to reporters to engage with their critics in a similar manner, something I can’t imagine would be productive.

Baquet should expect criticism for these types of decisions. In my view, he should react to them by making his strongest case — which in this case, he had — and leave the swearing for his critics.

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Should Working Journalists Also Be Media Trainers?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 9, 2015 – 5:02 am

According to The Toronto Star, a Toronto news anchor has been suspended due to concerns about a possible conflict of interest:

“Global Television news anchor Leslie Roberts has been suspended from the network after a Toronto Star investigation found he is secretly the part owner of a small public relations firm whose clients — lawyers, small businesses and others — appear on his show.

Roberts helps clients with pitches and media training and has tweeted positive comments about some of the clients to his 20,000 followers on Twitter. In one instance, during a morning show on which supermarket shopping was being discussed, he blurted out the name of one of his firm’s clients and suggested viewers “check it out.” At no time did he disclose to viewers his connection to the companies or his public relations firm: BuzzPR.”

“‘At Global News we take matters of journalistic integrity very seriously,’ Global spokesperson Rishma Govani told the Star. ‘Mr. Roberts has been suspended from his duties indefinitely as we conduct a full investigation into this matter.’”

The Star presented its findings to Roberts early this week. Roberts said he had done nothing wrong but would resign from BuzzPR, the public relations firm he owns with a partner.”

Leslie Roberts

This post isn’t specifically about Mr. Roberts. Instead, I want to use this incident as a launching pad to a broader question: Should working journalists simultaneously serve clients as media trainers?

That’s not a theoretical question. I’m aware of firms who boast that their media trainers are working journalists. (I’m not disparaging those firms—at least one I know of that employs working journalists has a terrific reputation.)

From a client perspective, I can see the advantage of working with someone who’s still in the game. But how about from a journalism ethics perspective?

I suppose there are some exceptions for journalists who don’t train clients who fall within their coverage area. A sports reporter who trains a lifestyle expert, for example, probably wouldn’t raise too many flags—although I wonder if even that comes at too great a risk to the public perception of their journalistic neutrality.

But a general interest reporter who might be called upon to report on one of the people or businesses he or she has trained? How is that even remotely appropriate?

UPDATE: JANUARY 17, 2015

Mr. Roberts has resigned from Global Television. In a resignation letter, he wrote:

“I am resigning my position as News Anchor and Executive Editor of Global Toronto effective immediately. I regret the circumstances, specifically a failure to disclose information, which led to this outcome.

Over the past 15 years, I have worked within a news organization and among colleagues who are the best in the business. For that privilege, I will always be grateful.

Sincerely,

Leslie Roberts”

 


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The Toledo Blade’s Cheap Shot About Interview Prep

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 18, 2013 – 1:52 pm

Anita Lopez, a Democratic mayoral candidate in Toledo, Ohio, likes to prepare carefully for her media interviews. She requires her staff to ask questions of reporters before any interview and to complete a form containing details about the story.

So far, I’m on board. That’s a rather typical media strategy, and it’s the kind of responsible due diligence that any smart candidate would employ. But The Toledo Blade suggests she’s going overboard:

“Among the information Ms. Lopez wants in advance is a list of the reporter’s questions; if anyone already has been interviewed; who else will be interviewed; what the other sources said to the reporter; if she can use visuals, and if the reporter is knowledgeable.”

Anita Lopez

In The Media Training Bible, I warn spokespersons dealing with hard news reporters to avoid asking for questions in advance—and Ms. Lopez shouldn’t insist on questions as a pre-condition for an interview. But the rest of her interview prep looks like the type of typical media relations policy that many businesses, organizations, and candidates employ as a standard operating procedure. 

(Here are eight questions to ask before every interview. And here is Ms. Lopez’s form.)

Although that may seem obstructionist, there are legitimate reasons for requesting information in advance. Knowing a reporter’s focus can help a candidate find key statistics or details that may not be top of mind, give the candidate warning that the reporter is on an unwarranted fishing expedition, and prevent them from committing the type of “gotcha” moment that sells newspapers but destroys reputations.

The Blade also knocks Lopez for using “bridging” statements. That’s a cheap shot. Those statements are used by virtually every experienced spokesperson in the country. Perhaps you don’t think politicians should use them—but singling her out for their use is journalistic hackery.

 

A portion of Ms. Lopez’ media interview form

 

But the most ridiculous comment in the piece goes to Independent Councilman D. Michael Collins, who maintains that the truest response is “one that is extemporaneous.” Any experienced public figure should know the hazards of making it up while you go along: just ask Todd “legitimate rape” Akin, Mitt “47 percent” Romney, or Barack “cling to their guns and religion” Obama. According to his logic, no one should ever practice a speech again.

The bottom line is that it’s a good idea to prepare for interviews in advance. Perhaps it requires a defter touch than the one Ms. Lopez has been using. But many parts of The Blade’s piece feel like a highly selective singling out.

Of course, this is a bit less defensible.

A grateful top o’ the hat to Political Wire and reader Josh Spaulding.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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The Worst Advice Media Trainers Offer Clients

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 10, 2013 – 12:04 am

A surprising number of our clients share with me a piece of advice they learned from a media trainer somewhere along the line: “Don’t answer the question the reporter asks you. Answer the question you want to answer.”

I’ve met several of my industry peers—and have read articles, blogs, and books from some of those I haven’t—and I’ve yet to encounter a professional media trainer who offers that advice to their clients. So I really don’t know where that bad advice is coming from.

What I do know is that it’s pervasive. Many clients, who work all over the country and have never met one another, have heard that bit of hackery somewhere along the line. And if they take that advice into their interviews, they’re going to create a disaster for themselves.

Not Listening

Perhaps that advice comes from an earlier era, one in which reporters were less likely to air the full raw tape of a spokesperson dodging a question. To the degree that era ever existed, it’s over. Journalists regularly (and rightfully, in my view) shame spokespersons who refuse to answer direct questions by exposing their evasions.

As an example, check out this video of British Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband, who pretends that the journalist is invisible.

Naturally, there may be times when you don’t want to answer a question. Perhaps the reporter is asking you about something off-topic instead of the thing you really want to be speaking about. Maybe a journalist wants to know an embarrassing detail you’d rather not reveal, or about a confidential detail your lawyers have banned you from elaborating upon. (Read more about “Commenting without Commenting” here.)

Even in those moments, it’s almost always better to answer the question directly—and briefly—before transitioning to something else. In some situations, you may even be able to answer the reporter’s query with incomplete sentences and responses in which you don’t cite the subject by name (“DUI” becomes “that issue”), to make your answer more difficult to quote. But answer the question.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say a reporter is asking you about a campaign staffer who was arrested for DUI. You’ve decided not to fire that employee, and you already answered questions directly about his arrest yesterday; every major newspaper, website, and news channel covered the story extensively today. You’re reluctant to continue speaking about it, as your detailed responses will only lead to additional news stories that will take you far off your campaign’s message.

Reporter: “A lot of people in the media are asking why you didn’t fire Bob Smith yesterday? You’ve been speaking about the need for personal responsibility throughout this campaign, and your refusal to fire him seems to contradict your message.”

You: “You know, I addressed that question and several others on this topic yesterday. My answers haven’t changed, and there’s nothing new to add. Many members of the press have already spent a full day covering that story in detail. Given that we only have three weeks left in this campaign, I’m going to spend today speaking about the important issues voters consistently tell us they care about most.”

That answer doesn’t share any new information. It doesn’t give reporters any juicy quotes to add to their news story. But it does address the specific question that was asked.

So ignore that pervasive but pernicious piece of advice. A direct question deserves a direct answer—even if it’s not the direct answer the reporter hopes to hear.

Learn more about the best ways to answer media questions in The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.


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Newspapers Are Banning Email Interviews. Should You?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 11, 2013 – 2:00 pm

Reporters for the college newspaper The Daily Princetonian are no longer allowed to conduct interviews through email. Neither are reporters for The Stanford Daily or The Oracle, the University of South Florida’s paper.

What’s behind this seemingly urgent push for “no email interview” policies? To find out, writer Mark Lisheron wrote a thoughtful and well-researched piece for the April issue of the American Journalism Review. (Disclosure: I’m quoted in the article.)

Comment

Unsurprisingly, his investigation revealed deep passions on both sides of the debate. Supporters of the email ban argued their side thusly, as summarized by Lisheron:

“E-mail deprives the reporter of all of the sensory advantages of the other interview styles. Facial expressions, gestures, posture. The sound and the cadence of the voice. The emphasis on words or phrases. The pauses.

As fast and convenient as they are, e-mail interviews are never really conducted in real time. The timing of the response, the allowance for measured and edited replies create an artificiality readers recognize.”

The then-editor of The Daily Princetonian, Henry Rome, explained his decision to ban email interviews by writing:

“Interviews are meant to be genuine, spontaneous conversations that allow a reporter to gain a greater understanding of a source’s perspective. However, the use of the email interview — and its widespread presence in our News articles — has resulted in stories filled with stilted, manicured quotes that often hide any real meaning and make it extremely difficult for reporters to ask follow-up questions or build relationships with sources.”

On the other side of the debate are those who make the case for email interviews. One past president of the National Information Officers Association said this, as summarized by Lisheron:

“Reporters, he says, have no inherent right to a statement from him. He reserves the right to ask for questions in writing and provide answers in writing, usually through e-mail.

Departments like his are trying harder to control the message, not because they are deceptive and evil, but because relationships with the media have changed.”

And another public information officer told him that getting questions in writing is:

“…not only a way to form more complete and accurate answers, but to be better able to parry inquiries designed to elicit specific responses.”

So who’s right? Both sides have a point, and the truth is somewhere in the middle. Like anything else (say, PowerPoint slides) the problem is less with the tool itself than with the way that tool gets used. That said, far too many spokespersons rely on email. They think they’re maintaining control by only offering written statements—and sometimes they are—but too often, they’re unnecessarily undermining their relationships with the press.

You can read more about my view on this issue in my article called “Three Reasons to Interview by Phone Instead of Email.”

I hope you’ll read Mark’s excellent article in full. You can find it here. And please leave your thoughts on this topic in the comments section below.


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Facebook COO’s Hard Sell On The Daily Show

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 9, 2013 – 6:02 am

Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, recently appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to promote her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will To Lead.

Ms. Sandberg had many terrific communications traits. She made an articulate and persuasive case, used her body language to reinforce her verbal points, and laughed heartily at Mr. Stewart’s jokes.

And yet…

Something about her interview bothered me. I wanted to like her and agreed with every point she made—but I had a difficult time connecting with her. It took me a week and three viewings of her segment to figure out why.

 

If you can’t view this video on your mobile device, click here

First, and perhaps most glaringly, she oversold her book. In a six-minute segment, she mentioned Lean In five times (Jon Stewart also mentioned it at the beginning and end of the segment; the name of the book also appeared in a giant on-set graphic, an on-screen book graphic, and a lower third graphic).

In total, viewers saw or heard Lean In no fewer than 10 times in six minutes. 

It may surprise you that a media trainer who encourages people to remain on message was chagrined by that. But there’s a fine line between selling and over-selling, between being on message and over-messaged.

Mentioning her book title a couple of times would have been fine. But her continual mentions had the effect of pulling me out of her interview and reminding me that she was there to pitch a product, which compromised my ability to relate with her. Perhaps part of that wasn’t just the repetition—it may have just been that Ms. Sandberg didn’t pull it off without sounding a bit forced.

Lean In

That leads me to my second point. Sandberg sounded a bit too rehearsed. And that’s a shame, because she did a lot of things right. Her anecdotes were tight and effective (e.g. “Pretty like Mommy” t-shirts, her friend’s five-year-old daughter), and her sound bites were great (e.g. “Men still run the world. And I’m not sure that’s going that well.”)

If I was working with her, I’d advise her to stop trying to deliver her lines as she rehearsed them and to start delivering them like she was talking to an elderly neighbor or a high school friend instead. From her less rehearsed moments in this interview, she appeared to have that ability. She should use it more often. She should be going for “real,” not “polished.”

The bottom line? Ms. Sandberg did a great job with the precision of her words, but didn’t do as well in terms of relating with the audience. (I’ve written more about that common challenge here.) The good news for Sandberg is that she’s really, really close. And with a little more work, she can do a better job of making that all-elusive audience connection.

If Facebook doesn’t shut down my account after writing this story, please stay in touch with me at www.Facebook.com/MrMediaTraining.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

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