How Do You Rank On “The Plane Test?”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 11, 2014 – 6:05 am

You’ve just boarded a plane. You arrange your bags, remove your reading material, and say hello to the stranger who will be your seatmate for the next six hours. (For the purposes of this post, let’s assume your strategy isn’t to instantly put on your headphones and tune your neighbors out.)

The person seated next to you begins chatting with you and asks what you do for a living. “I’ve never heard of your company,” he says in response to your answer. “What is it?”

That moment—what I’ve dubbed “the plane test”—is a wonderful opportunity to test your brand messages. If your fellow passenger’s eyes glaze over at your response, you’ll know that your messages need some work. But if it leads to an interested reply and a relevant follow-up question, you’ll know you’re on the right track. 

Your seatmate is a free, one-person focus group. He or she will never know you’re testing different versions of your brand message on them. And you should take advantage of that opportunity every time.

Two Women on a Plane

When asked about their companies, most people deliver an uninspired “what” answer:

“Well, the Association for the Advancement of Arkansas Education is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with 25 employees working in four statewide offices to improve elementary and secondary education in Arkansas.”

By the time you said 501(c)3, your seatmate probably started wishing he had just pressed play on the in-flight movie.

There’s a better technique to describe your company called the “Why + What,” which I elaborated upon in my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need To Know Before Your Next Interview. Here’s an example:

“In Arkansas, we rank 50th in the United States in high school graduation rates. That means our students are among the least prepared in the nation when entering the workforce and the most likely to live in poverty for the rest of their lives. The Association for the Advancement of Arkansas Education is dedicated to changing that and to making sure our students get the high-quality education they need to successfully compete in the global marketplace.”

That answer is more likely to provoke a “wow!” response and prompt a bevy of follow-up questions from your seatmate: Why is Arkansas last? What can you do about it? What, if anything, has been working? Can you really change that trend?

If your company, organization, group, or government agency has developed messages, test them at every opportunity possible. Your “plane test” may occur while you’re in flight, but it may also occur when you’re earthbound at a cocktail reception, your child’s school play, or your local grocery store.

Take advantage of those free, one-person focus groups—and revise your responses until you find the language that regularly produces a “wow.”

Like the blog? Read the book! The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview is available in paperback, for Kindle, and iPad.


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The Dangerous Media Seven-Second Stray

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 8, 2014 – 6:02 am

In the late 1990s, I was a producer for CNN’s Sunday public-affairs program, Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. Because Late Edition aired after all of the other Sunday public-affairs shows, one of my tasks each week was to watch the earlier programs to monitor what politicians were saying. If a politician said something interesting, I’d edit a video clip out of the quote so that Wolf could air it on the show.

I was always on the lookout for a politician saying something off message. Why? Because anything unscripted and off-the-cuff was inherently more interesting than the canned responses we always heard. And in a newsroom, a less scripted response will almost always be deemed more newsworthy.

Years later, I developed a name to describe that phenomenon: “the seven-second stray.” I call it that because if a spokesperson is on message for 59 minutes 53 seconds of an hour-long interview but says something off message for just seven seconds, I can virtually guarantee that the reporter will select that seven-second answer to play over and over again.

The seven-second stray can be deadly. Not only is it often damaging to your reputation, but it drowns out everything else you’ve said, becoming the only quote the audience will remember from your interview.

My choice of the word drown in the previous sentence is intentional. To help our clients avoid committing a seven-second stray, I often use the analogy of a lifeboat. If you’re facing tough questioning, I tell them, your message is your lifeboat. If you keep returning to your message and message supports—stories, statistics, and sound bites—it’s as if you’re swimming to the safety of the closest lifeboat. But if you stray off message, you’re treading water at best—if not drifting farther and farther away from the lifeboat until that inevitable (and entirely predictable) moment when you drown.

Case Study: BP CEO’s Infamous Seven-Second Stray

In April 2010, an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 men and injuring 17 others. For 87 days, oil gushed from the seafloor, washing up on ecologically sensitive shorelines from Texas to Florida. The spill wrecked local economies, leaving tens of thousands of people out of work. Fishermen were left without seafood to sell, hotels were left without guests, and restaurants were left without diners.

British Petroleum, the massive oil conglomerate responsible for the rig, took a daily beating in the press. The bad press had a devastating impact on the company: the oil giant quickly shed half of its worth, a loss of more than $100 billion.

As bad as the crisis was, the spill itself wasn’t responsible for the greatest harm to BP’s reputation. Rather, the company’s inept response, headed by CEO Tony Hayward, significantly deepened the damage. In a televised interview, Mr. Hayward famously quipped:

“There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back.”

That stunningly tone-deaf seven-second stray, which slighted the deceased oil workers and newly unemployed workers, became a symbol of BP’s self-interested focus. Those five telling words, “I’d like my life back,” reinforced an irreversible narrative of a clueless company that just didn’t get it – and just didn’t care.

Mr. Hayward was forced out shortly after the spill ended, but it didn’t matter. The damage to BP had already been done.

This is an excerpt from The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview, available in paperback, for Kindle, and iPad.

 


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Seven Steps To Better Executive Media Training

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 24, 2014 – 12:02 am

Our firm has provided media and presentation training workshops for hundreds of top executives. Although our regular media and presentation training workshops are taught at a high level, executive media training workshops require a few additional considerations.

In this post, I’ll discuss seven key lessons I’ve learned from training top executives for more than a decade. I hope you’ll also add your own lessons learned in the comments section below.

Executive Woman

1. Remember That Executives Often Have Short Attention Spans

That headline may sound like an insult, but it’s not. The very nature of an executive’s job requires them to juggle many tasks simultaneously—and being able to multitask (or, more accurately, “task switch”) efficiently is a critical asset. Therefore, it’s critical to keep as much of the training interactive as possible to keep executives fully engaged. It’s okay to have some lecture, but don’t make it the main focus of the day.

2. Keep The Session Moving

Executives tend to be especially time pressed. Dedicating an entire day (or even a few hours) to media training is a huge investment, and they’ll begin to feel itchy if they don’t feel like they’re using their time wisely. To help keep their attention, I’ve learned to keep the session moving forward instead of lingering too long on a single topic. (The exception to that is if the executive is clearly on the cusp of an “a ha!” moment.) In order to help do that, we use as many teaching techniques as possible. For competitive reasons, I won’t give them all away here—but I will say that lecture and practice are just two of the teaching methods we use to keep the session moving.

3. Deliver Honest, Direct Feedback 

One of the most important roles a trainer plays is the part of trusted advisor. I’ve never felt that the best path to more business with a client was telling them what they wanted to hear. I’m going to be direct—diplomatically and politely so, of course, but still direct—in an effort to help them grow their skills. That approach has regularly led to repeat business, so the evidence suggests that executives crave honest feedback from third parties.

Mature man executive being questioned by journalists.

4. However, Remember They’re Human

Delivering direct feedback requires a deft touch. As trainers, we need to remember that executives are often vulnerable creatures just like the rest of us. A surprising number have admitted to suffering from the “imposter syndrome.” In order to succeed, we must develop trust with our executive clients quickly. One way to do that is to ask relevant diagnostic questions intended to help us learn more about them before leaping into the training—about their fears, concerns, and their communications strengths and weaknesses.

5. Minimize The Number of People In The Room

In many corporate cultures, it works well to conduct a media training with the full leadership team, including the CEO (doing so is often my preference). But for one-on-one trainings, I generally prefer no more than one other person in the room. Why? Because it’s difficult to develop a climate of trust when there are too many people observing the leader in a vulnerable state (being asked challenging questions on camera). I’ve found that executives often admit to me things they wouldn’t admit if too many colleagues were present—and that information is often key to helping the executive improve.

6. Know Your Sources

Savvy executives often ask a lot of questions. One board of trustees for a large medical not-for-profit organization, for example, recently peppered me with numerous questions about my sources (thankfully, I was able to verify all of the behavioral science I cited). Try to avoid making sweeping statements or over-generalizing. That’s always good advice, but it’s particularly important when dealing with people who are likely to question the veracity of your information.

7. Provide An Action Step

At the end of your training session, the executives will almost immediately be confronted by a more pressing demand. Therefore, there’s a danger that all of your great advice will disappear into the ether the moment they step out of the room. To avoid that, give executives an action step they can begin practicing immediately. That step shouldn’t be generic, but chosen specifically based on the things you witnessed during the training session.  

What would you add to this list? Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.


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My Executives Keep Watering Down My Messages. Help!

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 20, 2014 – 9:34 am

I received a phone call recently from a PR professional who is struggling with a frustrating and all-too-common problem.

He read my book and is trying to implement some of the messaging suggestions I wrote about—but he’s running up against executives who are so scared of potentially alienating any stakeholder that they hedge every statement and water down the messages to the point where they’re not even remotely engaging.

He wondered what someone in his position can do when they know the right thing to do but keep getting thwarted by overly cautious colleagues.

The first thing I would share with my executives is this: We know that some forms of communication are more efficient at transferring information from us (the organization) to them (the organization’s audiences) than others.

Red Pen

We know, for example, that:

  • PowerPoint slides full of bullets and text aren’t as efficient at transferring information as well-designed and simple visuals.
  • Sharing data point after data point isn’t as efficient at transferring information as an anecdote that contextualizes that data.

Similarly, we know that trying to communicate during media interviews with carefully wordsmithed phrases full of hedged, cautious language isn’t nearly as efficient as transferring information in the form of tightly constructed and more memorable media sound bites.

The executives may be pleased that their messages have been cobbled together through a pleasing process that allowed the input of a dozen board members—but that focus-grouped message will sound like it’s been cobbled together by a dozen people.

Their Caution Comes With a Cost

The executives should know that their caution may come at a cost of more media coverage, possibly resulting in fewer customers, donors, or members. I’m not suggesting that executives should take reckless risks, but rather that they carefully consider the consequences of their caution. Their preference for risk-free language may be costing them more than the rewards effective media appearances would bestow upon them.

Looking at similar organizations may also help. If other organizations in the same space have more media success, it’s worth assessing whether their less cautious approach is part of the reason. Presenting executives with such evidence can often be persuasive.

Have you experienced this problem? What advice would you offer this PR pro? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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The One Small Adjustment That Changed Everything

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 15, 2014 – 6:02 am

I recently media trained a well-regarded executive.

Off camera, this client was funny, warm, and engaging. But her first on-camera interview was terrible. While answering my questions, she appeared stiff and restrained, bordering on unlikeable. As I sat listening to her answers, I thought, “How in the world am I going to help her improve?”

After we stopped recording, I mentioned to her that although she had all of these wonderful traits in person, I wasn’t seeing them come across during the interview. I asked what was holding her back.

She told me that she had been told by a previous boss that she has too much personality—and, over time, she’s learned to dial back her performance in order to be taken more seriously. (In my experience, this has been a recurring theme with many more women than men.) 

Dragging

I asked her to do another interview with me—but this time, to be the person she truly is, the one that hasn’t been criticized or critiqued in the past. I wanted the unrestrained version of her, the one that goes out to dinner with her closest friends.

Guess what? Freed of her self-defeating internal monologue, she delivered a great on-camera interview in the second round. Even better, she actually enjoyed the experience after I gave her permission to be herself.

Like many of our trainees, advice she had received from someone earlier in her life—in this case, a former boss—had killed some of her spark.

If you’ve ever been given advice from a supervisor, friend, partner, media or presentation coach, or anyone else that isn’t sitting right with you, question it. Don’t dismiss it entirely; there’s always a chance they could be right. But allow for the possibility that you know something about yourself that the other person simply doesn’t know.

And remember: There’s no one model for what a spokesperson should look like, other than themselves at their best. Spokespersons can succeed as communicators whether they’re quiet and shy or personable and high energy. So to this client’s former boss, I say this: personable people can be taken seriously.

Like the blog? Read the book! The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview is available in paperback, for Kindle, and iPad.

 

 


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Five Ways To Respond To Bad Press Before The Story Runs

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 1, 2014 – 6:02 am

This is an excerpt from my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview. 

Although this section has dealt exclusively with crisis communications, it’s important to note that not all bad press results from a crisis. Sometimes, a reporter gets a key fact wrong, a columnist takes an unfavorable view of your political stance, or an arts critic disapproves of your museum’s new exhibit.

Lessons 91 and 92 will help you respond to negative media coverage that doesn’t result from a full-fledged crisis but that has the potential to negatively affect your brand. This lesson focuses on how to respond to bad press before the story runs.

You can’t always respond to stories before publication, since some run without reporters contacting you in advance. But reporters will often ask for your perspective before the story runs, and their questions may make it clear to you that they’ve drawn incorrect impressions. If you think you’re about to be the recipient of bad press, consider these five actions.

1. Detail the errors

Make a list of the reporter’s errors and explain why the story is wrong. Provide the reporter with the accurate information and cite your sources.

2. Ask to meet with the reporter

Little is more disarming than a spokesperson who asks to meet in person. It sends a message that you have nothing to hide and may make reporters reconsider their perspectives.

3. Take it up a notch

If you’re getting nowhere with the reporter, speak with his or her boss. That person bears greater responsibility for running accurate stories.

4. Get your lawyers involved

You may be able to get a story delayed, revised, or killed if you can demonstrate to the news organization that it is factually incorrect and could lead to a costly lawsuit.

5. Beat the press

In extreme cases, you might consider releasing your story before the reporter can. That may mean offering the story to a competing (and fairer) journalist or releasing it through your own social media channels. By beating the journalist to the story, you’ll be able to get your version of events out first and help control the narrative. But beware: If you pursue this strategy, the reporter may punish you in future coverage.

Tread carefully when considering lawsuits against news organizations, since legal cases often attract more headlines and keep damaging information in the headlines that much longer.

Gavel

Can You Sue a News Organization for an Incorrect Story?

If you’re the target of an inaccurate news story, you may be able to sue the offending news organization. The information below comes from Erik M. Pelton & Associates, a law firm specializing in intellectual property and social media issues.

Libel and slander are legal terms for injuring another party by making harmful misstatements. Libel relates to statements made in print or online; slander applies to oral statements. Both are difficult to establish in the U.S., where the person suing has the burden of proof. Claims are easier to prove in many other countries, since the person accused of libel or slander has to prove that the disputed statement is true.

In order win a lawsuit in the U.S., the statement must have been negligently made and resulted in harm to the person defamed. Public figures have an even higher threshold to meet, and must show the person making the statement knew it to be false or had a reckless disregard for the truth.

To avoid being sued yourself, be sure that any negative statements you make about a specific individual or business are accurate—or are clearly identified as your opinion.

Click here for more information about The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.


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How To Be Kind To Yourself When Reviewing Your Tapes

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 19, 2014 – 6:02 am

Little relaxes me more than cooking (usually on the weekends). I’m an enthusiastic cook, and I’ve become pretty decent over the past few years.

Sometimes after making dinner for me and my wife, I critique my own cooking. “It needed more acid, perhaps a touch of lemon,” I might say, or “I should have boiled the potatoes a bit longer before pan frying them,” or “It wasn’t flavorful enough. I wish I had added more curry.”

My wife always responded to my self-critiques by telling me how great the dinner was. In her typically kind way, she didn’t want me to feel badly about a meal that was generally good.

It took her a long time—several years—to realize that I wasn’t being hard on myself. I knew the food I had served was good. I wasn’t beating myself up. I was just commenting analytically, without any self-judgment, about something I knew I could do better.

Man Cooking Cheg

My hope is that you’ll approach your self-evaluations of your performances during media interviews and speeches in the same manner.

Now, I know: If you’re like many of our clients, you may find it far too painful to ever listen to your radio interviews or watch tapes of your speeches or television interviews. I get it. But that’s a mistake. As uncomfortable as the experience may be, do it anyway.

Analyze what worked and what didn’t. Be completely honest with yourself, but try to prevent yourself from making sharply critical observations about your very being.

I looked so stupid there!” should become “I need to work on my transitions from unexpected questions.”

“I sounded so boring!” should become “I’m going to do some vocal exercises to learn how to expand my range.”

“I have a double chin!” should become “I should read some blog posts about how to dress in a more flattering manner for my body shape.”

It took me a long time to listen to and watch my own performances without cringing. But I’m glad I forced myself to do so, as I’ve learned a lot from my imperfections along the way.

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Is This Man’s Tie An Unnecessary Distraction?

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on March 14, 2014 – 11:40 pm

Editor’s Note: This post, related to the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, is meant only to address what we can learn from one of the commentators involved in the coverage. For more about the crisis management aspect of this story, this article and this article are good places to start.

I’m hardly a fashionista. In fact, with a 16-month-old daughter and a second child on the way, I consider a non-work day in which I manage to wear clean jeans a victory.

That said, I am a media trainer, and part of teaching people about presenting themselves in interviews, panel discussions, and speeches is how to, well, present themselves.

In general, when trainees ask me what they should wear to an interview, I tell them they should always look clean-cut, of course, but to also think about the person they’re trying to reach and the situation. For example, it can be off-putting and out-of-touch to see an emergency official at a disaster scene in a suit and tie. Conversely, it would be strange to see a Wall Street executive appear on TV in a wrinkled t-shirt.

Take Greg Feith, for example, the former NTSB investigator who has been the go-to guest for NBC and MSNBC’s coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.

Greg Feith Tie

His insight into this tragic and disturbing story is incredibly valuable. His experience is relevant, and I’ve found what he’s been saying to be well thought-out and responsible given the all the unanswered questions in this story.

The problem is, I have to close my eyes when he speaks to hear a word he’s saying.

He wears a suit on-air, but his loud, outdated, and busily-patterned ties are a huge distraction from the important information he’s trying to communicate.

Greg Feith Tie 2

This isn’t to say you have to wear brand-new, high-fashion clothes for your television interviews. In fact, for some, a funky tie or a signature piece of jewelry is part of their charm. I once interviewed a gentleman who ran the school bus service in a California town. His tie had – you guessed it – a school bus print on it. That tie reflected his character and was appropriate for the story.

However, in this situation, with 239 passengers and crew members likely dead, muted garb is the rule. His bright tie doesn’t reflect the gravity of this story and introduces an unnecessary distraction to his otherwise solid appearances.

What do you think? Do Mr. Feith’s colorful ties distract from his content? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Christina Mozaffari tweets at @PMRChristina.

 

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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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