A reporter’s primary obligation is not to you, the spokesperson, but to the story itself. Yes, a journalist owes you an accurate rendering of your quotes and a fair representation of your views, but whether you come out of the story looking good, bad or neutral is not their concern.
That being the case, you might wonder what the purpose is of establishing positive media relations with a reporter?
There are many ways to answer that question, but the one that matters the most when things go wrong is this: When you or your company is suddenly accused of wrongdoing, a reporter who has gotten to know you is more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. They may still write tough pieces about you, but they also may be a bit slower to assume the worst about you or at least be willing to hear what you have to say before forming hard conclusions.
Those lessons all came to mind when I read a recent story by Cathal Kelly, a sports columnist for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. His story is about two professional athletes: retired baseball superstar Frank Thomas and professional hockey player Phil Kessel. Kelly goes into depth about the behavior of both men toward the media—and how their contrasting approaches yielded different results.
The entire story is worth reading; you can read it here.
The following lines grabbed my attention—and although Kelly wrote them with athletes in mind, the same takeaway applies to any public figure, business executive, or spokesperson who interacts with the media. They’re an honest confession of how basic humanity affects coverage, and I’ve found the same dynamic to be true for most of the reporters I’ve interacted with throughout my career.
“There are players I’ve covered for years, talked to many times about all sorts of things. I think I know them, at least a little.
Then one day, we’ll walk past each other in the street, our eyes meet and they don’t recognize me. Not at all.
As media, we are locker-room background – as animate as grease boards and laundry hampers. You can’t remember what you haven’t really seen in the first place.
Then you’ll run into the same guy in a Starbucks lineup on the road and end up talking to each other about nothing. Maybe he’ll see you embracing an old coach of his. Or he’ll wander into an actual human conversation you’re having with the GM about families or movies or a mutual acquaintance.
All of a sudden, and in that instant, you become a real person. And that player never forgets you, sometimes even years later. It’s bizarre, and it happens all the time in this business.
Once that’s happened, you’ll never rip that guy in print. You’ll criticize, but the ripping days are over. He’s not just someone you cover any more. He’s someone you know.
This has very little to do with the job. It’s human nature.”
The difference between being “ripped” and “criticized” can be huge. It can mean the difference between getting fired and keeping your job, a small dip in stock price versus a calamitous one, and a small reputational knock rather than a career-ending one.
And, as Kelly points out, the price of getting on the right side of that line can be small. Sometimes, all it takes is treating the reporter as a person rather than a necessary nuisance.
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One of the most common concerns I hear from potential clients is that the person they want media trained says too much when speaking to reporters.
That’s true of many executives, who like to hold court, and many subject matter experts, who are loathe to leave out any detail.
The spokesperson who says too much gives reporters a greater number of options for potential quotes. I like to think of it this way: A verbose spokesperson is essentially working at a buffet line, serving reporters a little bit of many different dishes. The loquacious spokesperson gives reporters a touch of the pasta, a spot of lamb, a slice of beef tenderloin, a chicken leg, a dollop of potatoes, a few yams, a mound of salad, a spoonful of green beans almondine, a wedge of spinach pie, and a scoop of carrots.
As a result, the reporter may decide to quote something about the green beans even though the beef tenderloin was the spokesperson’s main dish. And whose fault is that?
The more you say, the more you stray
The more a spokesperson says, the more likely it is that they’re straying from their top two or three messages into less pertinent secondary or tertiary messages—if, that is, they’re anywhere near their messages at all.
Some people say too much in an effort to boost their credibility—but they fail to realize that saying too much doesn’t prove how knowledgeable they are; it demonstrates that they’re a bit gluttonous.
Saying too much doesn’t make the reporter’s job any easier, either. Instead of walking away from the interview clear on the spokesperson’s most important points, the reporter is left trying to decipher the mountain of information the spokesperson laid at his or her feet.
A disciplined spokesperson sticks close to their two or three messages and supports them through a combination of stories, anecdotes, case studies, examples, and statistics. They dispense with the buffet line and serve a neatly plated meal—a piece of meat, a nice starch, and a fresh vegetable.
The next time you see one of your spokespersons saying too much, remind them that their buffet line has 12 trays of food available—and that you’re going to insist they remove nine of them from the line.
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Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul has been making headlines recently for his testy media interviews, in which he has scolded, dismissed, and even “shushed” an anchor.
I wrote about one such exchange in February, and he had yet another similar incident on Wednesday with Savannah Guthrie, co-anchor of The Today Show.
I spoke to Alan Rappeport of The New York Times this afternoon about Paul’s media strategy, which I believe is counterproductive. Here’s an excerpt of his story:
“As Mr. Paul is likely to do many more interviews as he seeks the Republican nomination, First Draft checked in with a media coach to see how the Kentucky senator can improve.
‘The advice I would give to him is to always remember the interview is not with the reporter,’ said Brad Phillips, president of Phillips Media Relations. ‘The reporter is the conduit to the audience you want to reach out to.’
Mr. Phillips said candidates and politicians can be successful with an aggressive approach toward the media until it begins to erode their likability. Taking a ‘happy warrior’ approach, smiling more and giving off a warmer vibe, Mr. Phillips said, would behoove Mr. Paul as voters start to pay more attention.
‘If somebody who gives the perception as being peevish were to get the nomination, the historical trend makes clear that person would be running at a disadvantage,’ he said.”
Editor’s Note: A student at North Carolina’s App State recently wrote and asked me a series of questions about Bill Cosby for a case study he’s working on. It’s been almost five months since the Cosby scandal broke, so this feels like a good time to revisit the case with some distance. Here is our Q&A.
1) What do you think of the actions the media has taken against him and the actions he has taken in response to them and the questions regarding the assaults?
The media’s coverage of this case has been predictable. Any star of Cosby’s caliber should expect this level of scrutiny when more than 20 women accuse him of sexual assault and/or rape. For better or worse, people tend to look at the reaction of the person publicly accused to help determine whether or not they believe he is guilty. Cosby’s defensive and bizarre responses have done little to bolster his parsed claims of innocence.
How bizarre has Cosby’s PR approach been? One of his first public statements was to release this video, in which he appeared to be wearing silk pajamas (not the best look for an accused sexual predator) and speaking from an 80s-era telephone.
2) Do you think his strategy so far has been effective?
If we’re defining “effective” as “not in prison,” then yes. If we’re defining it as “career salvaging,” then not even close. You have to remember that we’re talking about a man who was one of the most beloved celebrities of our time. During its peak in the mid-1980s, The Cosby Show was seen by an average of 30 million Americans every week. And although his celebrity has dimmed in recent years, he was on the cusp of a comeback with a new NBC sitcom and a nationally televised stand-up special. Today, he’s playing to half-empty concert venues and trying to manage the hecklers who interrupt his performances.
3) You said in your article that you’ve rarely seen a celebrity fall like this. Does it remind you of any other instances? If so, can he or we learn from that case or is Cosby’s situation unprecedented?
I can’t think of another case that’s analogous. Other people come to mind—Woody Allen, Roman Polanski—but their cases were different, at least in terms of the scale of the accusations. Plus, Cosby’s public identity was built on being a Cliff Huxtable-like figure. The perceived hypocrisy of the actual person versus the person he presented to the public only made this crisis more severe.
4) He’s faced some issues with reporters bringing up the allegations in interviews. Does he have to start turning down interviews or changing his strategy with choosing them? What would be the best way to do that?
Cosby’s representatives can try to make a deal with media outlets—an interview in return for not asking him about the allegations—but it’s hard to see what self-respecting journalist would consent to such an agreement. After watching Cosby’s interviews, like the one he did with Associated Press last November (below), I’d be reluctant to put him in front of the press. He has been unpredictable and has caused himself more harm than good through his public utterances.
5) You mentioned in your article about how you think, if he’s innocent, he should have declared he was innocent instead of choosing the middle ground, “no comment,” area. Do you believe his strategy will change as things go on or has been saying “no comment” for so long, he’s got to continue doing so?
At this point, most members of the public have already made up their minds regarding Cosby’s innocence or guilt. If he is innocent—which seems difficult to believe, if not impossible—saying so at this point is unlikely to change many minds. Public opinion sets fast, which is why it’s critical to address false allegations quickly.
6) If statute of limitations limits any criminal charges/investigation on him, his main opposition is public perception. Do you think he’ll ever escape this or will it continue to be an underlying tone to his career moving forward?
The severity of the charges against Cosby would make it difficult for almost anyone to successfully come back from them. The one factor that can work for scandalized public figures is time. Cosby is 77 years old—and he just doesn’t have enough time left on Earth to benefit from any sort of public rehabilitation.
That may sound harsh, but it also points to one possible, posthumous path to rehabilitation. Cosby’s work—much of which was excellent—will be reevaluated years after his death. His scandal may recede in public consciousness over time, allowing a new generation to enjoy his work without the ugly baggage that surrounds it now.
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.
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?
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. Is the spokesperson or public figure fully familiar with the rules of working with the media?
- 2. Are they aware of the real and perceived landmines that could await their provocative statements?
- 3. Have they fully contemplated the risks of being perceived as a “provocateur” and are they prepared to accept them?
- 4. Could they be more effective in their roles if they chose their words and picked their battles more effectively?
- 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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During a recent presentation training workshop, I discussed the best practices for PowerPoint design.
As usual, I made the case that words and bullets are ineffective mechanisms through which to transfer knowledge to an audience. Instead, I told the audience, well-designed visuals do more to make your points memorable than bullet points ever could.
To reinforce my point, I showed several examples of my “before and after” slides. (Those slides are proprietary, but these sample slides will give you a good idea of the approach I take.)
After making my impassioned case for cleaner slides, one woman in the audience—a lawyer who lectures about copyright law—raised her hand. She said, “I like what your slides look like, but there’s just no way we can do that here. Our content doesn’t work for those types of visual slides.”
I noticed that she had a rather large printout of her slides in front of her, so I asked her to flip to any random slide in her deck. She turned to a page that looked like this:
“See what I mean?” she said. “There’s not a creative way to do that.”
I asked her to tell me what point she wanted to make while showing that slide. “I want people to realize that those are four different things—and that obtaining legal clearance from only one of those parties may not be sufficient.”
I asked the audience to give me a moment to try to come up with something better. For the first several seconds of silence, I’ll admit that I was stumped—and as the seconds ticked away, I got increasingly nervous that I’d have to concede defeat.
Suddenly, I had an idea. I whipped out my iPhone and did a quick Google search. I got the facts I needed, turned back to the audience, and announced:
“The best slide you could show to make this point is to show no slide at all!”
Then, I pressed play on the song I had queued up on my phone, Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. The audience looked a bit confused as the song’s opening bass line kicked in, but I had their attention. Then, I said:
“Michael Jackson wrote and performed this song. But he didn’t produce it. Quincy Jones was the producer of this track. And Epic Records, a division of Sony, is the record label. If you want to use this song and think that all you’d have to do is clear it with Michael Jackson—or, in this case, his estate—you could set yourself up for serious legal risk.”
Without much prompting, she agreed that would be a much more effective approach. And it didn’t require a single bullet point.
If she had still wanted to use a slide, she could have shown a full-screen still from the Billie Jean video, an image of the 45 (remember those?), or just a shot of Michael Jackson. She could have embedded the audio into the slide, pressed play, and allowed the audience to wonder what her point was for a few seconds before delivering it.
With enough thought, there is almost always a better way to make your on-message visuals more memorable. And sometimes, you might find that your creative thought eliminates the need for a slide altogether.
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This post is by Christina Mozaffari, vice president for Phillips Media Relations.
Social media is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there’s an expectation that we maximize the amazing tools available to us to interact personally with customers and people we want to influence. However, these personal interactions also create plenty of room to get into trouble, and your tweets, posts, and comments never disappear.
Now, there’s even more reason to be cautious of what you say online. Last week, Politico Playbook mentioned a new opposition research firm called Shield Political Research. Its selling point? They analyze political staffers’ online media presence. From the company’s website:
“Many of the men and women who will staff and lead campaigns this cycle are from a generation in which virtually their entire adult lives —for better or worse —are reflected on social media accounts.
Shield will examine these social media accounts—Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, among other sites—and flag any potential sources of trouble, including questionable photos, comments, tweets, ‘likes’ or followed feeds.
Our methods go beyond simple searching, using triangulation, archived pages and social-web analysis to guarantee we capture a full picture of the staffer’s social media footprint.”
Frankly, I’m surprised it took this long for somebody to advertise the service specifically for political staffs, because staffers’ social media accounts have caused trouble in the past for countless politicians.
Take, for example, when a Facebook photo was discovered of then President-elect Barack Obama’s speechwriter, Jon Favreau, partying with and groping a cardboard cutout of the woman who would be the administration’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. While Favreau wasn’t fired, the photo certainly provided an unwanted distraction for the new administration and gave the impression the soon-to-be president’s inner circle might not be ready for primetime.
Politicians aren’t the only ones bitten by the offensive social media bug. Last month, a part-time Yankees ticket salesman was fired for tweeting vulgar comments about Curt Schilling’s daughter, and earlier this year, a Texas teen was fired before she even started her job for cursing and complaining about the work on Twitter.
What can you learn from this?
1. Your organization needs a social media policy.
If you don’t have one, create one, sooner rather than later. Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, urges companies to be thorough and detailed when it comes to developing the policy. She wrote:
“Be specific about what constitutes racism, sexism or harassment so people know what could get them fired. Get your HR, legal and communications people involved in creating the policy.”
2. Make sure your employees know that nothing in their social media world is private.
That little disclaimer line, “Tweets/posts reflect my personal opinion and not that of my employer” are meaningless.
3. Know your rights as an employer.
Can you fire somebody for inappropriate tweets? The National Labor Relations Board has weighed in on the topic and the law can be tricky. According to legal information site HG.org:
“Workers can vocalize, either in person or via social media, their sentiments and concerns regarding an employer without fear of losing their job… but only if they are discussing these concerns with other workers… If it is just one person vocalizing their own personal frustrations, it is not concerted, it is just complaining, and a firing is legal.”
So while being active on social media can be beneficial, Dietrich sums up what should be your guiding principle smartly, writing, “Don’t ever put something online you wouldn’t want your boss, grandma, kids or customers to see.”
Christina Mozaffari, a former journalist with NBC News, is the vice president for Phillips Media Relations.
Indiana’s new “religious freedom” law is exactly that to its supporters—but it’s an anti-gay discrimination law to its detractors.
Governor Mike Pence, who signed the bill into law last week, has been on the defensive since then, facing both an in-state and out-of-state backlash. Indianapolis-based Angie’s List put a major construction project on hold, and Salesforce.com, the State of Connecticut, and the City of Seattle are all forbidding official travel to the state, among others.
That backlash prompted Gov. Pence to appear on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos on Sunday.
First, in fairness, Mr. Pence did a lot right. He was clearly prepared for this interview, knew his talking points, and—even though I disagree with his position—defended it well, at least at moments.
He used an advanced media training technique I’ve written about before called “It’s Not This, It’s That” by arguing that the law he signed isn’t about discrimination, but religious liberty. That was a reasonable technique to use, and it would have been the same one I would have suggested had I trained him.
So why am I naming him the worst video media disaster of the month? Because you can’t refuse to answer a yes-no question six times—about a core question surrounding the law—and also maintain your credibility. His refusal to answer the same question that many times made his unstated answer plainly obvious.
Here are the six “yes-no” questions that Mr. Pence refused to answer:
“This is a yes or no question. Is Advance Indiana right when they say florists in Indiana can refuse to serve a gay couple in Indiana without fear of punishment?
“Yes or no. If a florist in Indiana refuses to serve a gay couple at their wedding, is that legal now in Indiana?”
“One of your supporters who was talking about the bill…said it would protect a Christian florist against any kind of punishment. Is that true or not?”
“Does that mean that Christians who want to refuse service—or people of any other faith—want to refuse service to gays and lesbians, that it’s now legal in the State of Indiana? That’s a simple yes or no question.”
“Final yes or no question, Governor. Do you think it should be legal in the state of Indiana to discriminate against gays and lesbians?”
“Yes or no. Should it be legal to discriminate against gays or lesbians?”
Pence was particularly squirmy during those last two questions. And his refusal to offer a flat “NO!” made it clear that he does believe it should be legal to deny service to gays and lesbians. (If that’s not the case, he could have easily offered a straightforward answer.) And he did offer many declarative answers elsewhere in the interview. On the question of whether it was a mistake to sign the law, for example, Pence offered a direct “Absolutely not.”
After the first one or two “yes or no” questions, Pence needed to offer a direct response. That doesn’t mean he had to use the words “yes” or “no,” but rather that he had address the topic in a more head-on manner. For example, he could have said:
“Let’s talk about that for a moment, George. If a person of faith believes that homosexuality is wrong, should the state force him or her to design a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage? Or a flower arrangement? Or provide a banquet hall? That’s not an easy black-or-white question for many people to answer, and it’s one that people in my state and many other states have struggled with.”
On Tuesday morning, Pence quickly called a press conference to announce that he was working with the state legislature to clarify that no one could be denied service due to their sexual orientation—and, in so doing, finally offered a direct answer to the question he refused to answer six times on Sunday. During that defensive press conference, he admitted that he could have “handled Sunday’s interview better.”
The bottom line? If you have to call a press conference to clean up a bad media interview during the biggest political crisis of your career, you have a self-imposed media disaster on your hands.