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.

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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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How Long Should Your Media Answers Be?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 25, 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. 

If you’ve ever been deposed in a legal case, your attorney probably instructed you to answer questions using the fewest number of words possible. In a legal setting, saying too much can come back to haunt you. So when you’re asked if you know what time it is during a deposition, the correct answer isn’t “half past one,” but “yes.”

No wonder attorneys often make the worst media guests. They end their answers abruptly, leaving the audience to wonder why their answers sound so artificially clipped and carefully parsed.

The attorneys who bring their best legal advice to media interviews—“Say only what you have to say, then stop”—are missing one critical ingredient. Unlike legal depositions, media interviews represent an opportunity to advocate more fully for your product or idea.

The proper advice is this: “Say what you have to say, briefly advocate for your product or idea, and then stop.” You can advocate using a combination of your messages, message supports, and/or a call to action.

As you read earlier, the average quote from media spokespersons on evening newscasts is just 7.3 seconds, an average of 18 words. But that doesn’t mean you need to answer every question in 7.3 seconds. Sure, it’s helpful if your answers are short and tight. But it’s even more important to ensure that each of your sentences expresses a complete thought and can stand on its own. That way, it doesn’t matter which sentence a reporter chooses—if everything you say reflects one of your main messages, a message support, or a call to action, then anything the reporter prints will be “on message.”

For example, you may remember this answer from a few lessons ago:

I would remind people that more than 18,000 women of childbearing age in Pennsylvania live at least 100 miles from the closest obstetrician, which places them at great risk. Having your doctor an hour away is like keeping your Band- Aids at a friend’s house—they’re useless when you need them most. It’s a life-threatening situation, and something has to change.”

That answer contains three sentences, but it doesn’t matter which of them the reporter chooses to quote. Any of the three would serve as an on-message response.

That doesn’t mean you have license to drone on. Aim to keep your answers to no more than about 30 seconds in length. But you’re allowed to give a more complete answer than you would be advised to deliver at trial.

Case Study: Bill Clinton Goes on Johnny Carson

Before he ran for president in 1992, Bill Clinton was best known for his 1988 nominating speech at the Democratic National Convention, which droned on for an hour.

Viewers who saw the speech all those years ago probably don’t remember a word he said, but they likely remember the television cutaways showing delegates of his own party nodding off. And they probably remember the restless crowd cheering when he finally uttered the words, “And in conclusion.”

A few nights later, Mr. Clinton appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Carson’s first question? “So, Governor, how are you?” Without pausing, Carson reached under his desk, pulled out an hourglass, and turned it upside down.

The audience roared.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, please check out my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.

 


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Interviews Aren’t A Dance: Don’t Let The Reporter Lead

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 9, 2014 – 6:02 am

Wikipedia tells us that “in partner dancing, the two dancers are sometimes not equal. One takes the Lead and the other is the Follow.” As you might have expected, gender often plays a role:

“The Lead (conventionally the male in a mixed-sex couple) is responsible for choosing appropriate steps to suit the music (if it is an improvised dance), and leading the Follow by using subtle signals to complete the chosen steps smoothly and safely.”

The majority of interview subjects approach media interviews as a dance. In their view—conscious or not—the reporter leads the dance through his or her questioning while the interviewee gamely goes in whichever conversational direction the journalist decides.

But good media interviews are not a dance. You are equal to reporters—not a companion who follows their lead.

dance

We see this dynamic in our training sessions often. We might begin with a short lecture about the importance of remaining on message—and for the first few practice interview questions we ask the trainees, they remember to transition back to their main points.

But within a few questions, they forget about their messages entirely and just start answering our questions. We, the reporters, are leading the dance again, and the trainee has abandoned their interview strategy entirely.

It’s easy to understand why that happens. In everyday conversation, we have a more natural give and take, with each party switching turns taking the lead and follow roles. If someone asks us a question, we answer the question.

But media interviews aren’t conversations. They are strategic forms of communication intended to reach and appeal to a specific target audience. Spokespersons who forget that—and who lapse back into conversation mode—are turning the lead role back over to the reporter, voluntarily surrendering their right to be an equal.

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How Podcasts Are Changing Your Job As A Spokesperson

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

Let’s say you’ve been invited to be a guest on a local radio show for a 30-minute segment.

The show airs weekdays at 6pm, so you know that many people will be tuning in during their commutes home. Some will get in their cars a few minutes after your interview begins, others will get home before it ends, and others will take a phone call from their child halfway through.

Since you can’t count on having the audience’s rapt attention for the full half-hour, you need to get your main messages out numerous times. If you don’t—say you only get them out at the beginning of the interview—you’re going to miss all of those people who tuned in while your interview was in progress.

The challenge is to repeat your main themes without being redundant. Ideally, you’ll repeat your main ideas throughout the interview to reach the people who only hear portions of it, but in different ways so you don’t wear out the people who have been tuned in the entire time. (A few years ago, I published a free series to help you do that and expanded upon that technique in my book, The Media Training Bible.)

Listen to the music in a car

But lately, I’ve noticed that there’s one big hole in my advice. Many people listen to “radio” broadcasts in the form of podcasts. And people who listen to podcasts tend to do so chronologically—from beginning to end. If they start listening to the podcast in their car and reach their destination before it ends, they’ll resume the podcast from the spot at which they left off.

By listening to the “radio” from beginning to end, podcast listeners have changed the rules.

For podcast-only interviews, unlike terrestrial radio interviews, you can assume that the listeners heard your message at the beginning of the interview. I’d still advise you to prepare for interviews in the same way and repeat your major themes—in the forms of messages, stories, statistics, and sound bites—throughout the interview.

But for podcasts, you can use a somewhat lighter touch than you would for more traditional terrestrial radio, where the “drop-in/drop-out rates” are of more significance for you as a spokesperson.

Podcasts

Practically speaking, what does that mean? Well, let’s assume that you repeated your main message five times (using slightly different words) in your 30-minute terrestrial radio interview. For a podcast, you might only repeat it two or three times and increase your diversity of stories and statistics to reinforce the same basic themes.

Finally, it’s true that some shows (NPR’s programming, for example) air on both terrestrial radio and in the form of downloaded podcasts. In those cases, I tend to strike a balance somewhere in between the two, but err slightly on the side of messaging for terrestrial radio.

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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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