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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Do You Have To Be a Parent To Be A Parenting Expert?

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on April 7, 2013 – 5:02 am

As my husband rocks our 5-month-old daughter back and forth in his arms to give me some time to catch up on work, I can’t help but think about Frank Bruni’s column in last Sunday’s New York Times.

Mr. Bruni has a lot to say about today’s parents. He’s “confounded by the boundless fretting, as if ushering kids into adulthood were some newfangled sorcery dependent on a slew of child-rearing books and a bevy of child-rearing blogs.” He says we’re too permissive, we bargain with kids, and we give them too many choices.

Whether you agree or disagree with Mr. Bruni, his argument is hurt by one glaring fact: He’s not a parent.

Frank Bruni

 

Until he knows the awesome responsibility and love that goes into raising a child, the constant worrying about his or her future and the – let’s face it – fear of failure, Mr. Bruni is really in no position to criticize today’s parents. His attempt at mitigating that fact by mentioning the time he spends with his many nieces and nephews just doesn’t suffice.

Mr. Bruni’s column raises an important question for PR professionals trying to identify the right spokesperson: How credible is the person as a spokesperson? For example, are non-parents the best people to deliver messages about parenting? Are men the best messengers to deliver messages about women? Are Democrats the best envoys to deliver messages about what they see as necessary changes within the Republican Party?

Take, for example, last year’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on religious liberty and contraceptive coverage. In a hearing that was incredibly important to health care for women, the first of two groups to testify that day consisted of all men. As a result, three Democrats walked out of the hearing, Planned Parenthood circulated a photo of the all-male panel and the Democrats’ narrative that Republicans are insensitive to women’s causes was furthered.

 

Planned Parenthood distributed this photo of an all-male panel

 

Choosing the right messenger can make or break your reputation, as Brad wrote in this blog post and in The Media Training Bible. The same principle applies when your organization deals with sensitive issues. Don’t let the corporate hierarchy be the sole determinant of who the right organizational spokesperson is. If your CEO isn’t the best person to speak on a specific issue, find someone lower on the food chain who will appear more credible to the public.

Do you share my view or do you think I’ve gotten it wrong? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. In the meantime, please follow me on Twitter @PMRChristina. 

Christina Mozaffari is the vice president of the Washington, DC office for Phillips Media Relations.

Photo credit: Earl Wilson/ The New York Times

 


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I’m Back! (And A Tale From The Hospital)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 4, 2013 – 6:02 am

I’m back!

After taking two blissful weeks off to get to know my newborn son, I’m slowly catching up with emails, the blog, and other office duties. Thanks once again to the wonderful guest bloggers who helped me hold down the fort here in my absence. I hope you’ll scroll down and read some of their wonderful work.

My wife and I had a wonderful experience at the hospital, where the physicians, nurses, and other personnel did a great job of helping our new family get acclimated (and cope with some unexpected health challenges, which have fortunately been resolved).

But there was one bump in the road that threatened to undermine our entire hospital experience. 

 

Me and our little nugget

 

On our first morning post-delivery, an audiologist came into our room to administer a state-mandated hearing test. She struggled to attach the sensors onto our barely 17-hour-old son, who squirmed throughout most of the test.

As I watched the computer monitors give real-time results during the test, I noticed that his score was reading low. He needed 350 to pass—and he was hovering in the low 100s. What, exactly, were those numbers measuring, I asked the tech? She couldn’t answer. She was clueless, only reiterating that “350 was passing.” 

That’s when the tech sent us into a panic. She asked, “Has he been crying a lot?” “Not really,” I answered, “Why do you ask?” “Because I learned in the graduate school class I’m taking that when a baby doesn’t cry a lot, it’s a bad sign.”

I thought my normally mild-mannered wife was going to strangle her. This tech clearly had no idea what she was talking about (newborns are usually quiet in the first 24 hours, we later learned), and she was unable to define what she meant by “bad sign.” Did she mean our son was going to be deaf? Have severe developmental problems? Autism? Again, she had no clue. Given that she wasn’t a physician or registered nurse, she shouldn’t have offered uninformed, unhelpful, and unclear speculation about the problems our son may or may not have had.

I barely slept that night. I spent the evening Googling message boards about the implications of not passing an initial hearing test. Some websites said newborns fail them all the time since their amniotic fluid hasn’t cleared; other parents discussed life with their hearing-impaired children.

Our son’s hearing was retested the next day. He passed.

You might say that this tech was particularly insensitive, or oblivious, or poorly trained. She may have been a combination of all three. But how many times have you encountered someone similar, someone in a position to offer reassurance who instead makes you feel more agitated due to their poor word choices?

It seemed to me that this experience is the perfect example of why even non-media spokespersons need media training (or even more tailored interpersonal communications training). I’m guessing that the tech would be surprised that her carelessness affected us so much. And with some basic training about what she should say to a patient and what she shouldn’t, this situation could have been avoided.

It’s good to be back! Thank you so much for being a loyal reader. 


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What My Local Cupcake Shop Teaches You About Messaging

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 14, 2013 – 6:02 am

There’s a cute little cupcake shop on our town’s main street.

The store’s décor is welcoming and whimsical. The walls are painted bright pink, and the stools are shaped like something you might see in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.

My wife and I have passed the shop many times, each time looking longingly through the store window at the display cases, filled with cupcakes lined up in perfect rows—banana cream cupcakes next to chocolate ganache cupcakes next to peanut butter and jelly cupcakes.

We finally stopped in last week. And something the clerk said instantly removed the shop’s magic and made us unlikely to return.

When we entered the shop, I noticed that the store also sold brownies, my favorite. I asked the clerk if the brownies were also homemade, to which she said:

“Nothing in the store is homemade. We get it all delivered.”

With those 11 deflating words, nothing in the shop looked as cute anymore. And for the first time, I noticed that the shop smelled like nothing—it didn’t smell badly, but it also didn’t smell like baked goods. I purchased the brownie, ate it without enthusiasm, and decided to support a different store next time instead.

As we walked away, my wife remarked how different it would have been if the clerk had said something like this:

“We have an exclusive relationship with an award-winning bakery, and we’re the only store in our city that carries them. Our bakery makes 25 types of cupcakes for us every day, and they deliver them fresh every morning.”

We might have still been a little disappointed, but at least that type of response would have preserved some of the shop’s magic for us.

As readers of this blog know, I hate the word “spin.” So this incident serves as a perfect example of the difference between spin and smart strategic communications. Assuming for a moment that both of the quotes above are true, then neither is spin. But only the second message is smart and strategic—and therefore effective.

Is your executive team long overdue for a media training session? Please contact us to learn more about our customized media training workshops.


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My Appearance On “The Crisis Show”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 13, 2013 – 6:02 am

I appeared on “The Crisis Show” with host Rich Klein on Wednesday night to discuss three of the week’s biggest crisis communications issues:

- The New York City ferry accident

- The Allstate “Hurricane Sandy” ad that infuriated a local resident 

- An invitation sent to families of the victims of the Aurora, Colorado shooting

Rich was even kind enough to allow me to discuss The Media Training Bible for a few minutes. Hope you enjoy our conversation.

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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.

    Brad Phillips

    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.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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