No, No, No: This Is Not How You Handle A Media Ambush

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 6, 2015 – 5:02 am

Last week, PR Daily and PR Newser covered the story of a St. Louis public information officer named Melanie Streeper, who attempted to thwart a reporter from interviewing her boss by shouting “No, no no!” repeatedly, as cameras rolled.

Local reporter Elliott Davis wanted to ask St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green about her take-home car, which taxpayers are on the hook for to the tune of $26,000. He tried to arrange an interview with Ms. Green but was denied—so he showed up at her office instead.

This post will focus on what Ms. Streeper and her boss should have done—and offer you tips for how you can handle a similar ambush more effectively.

1. Remember That Obstructionism Doesn’t Work

Ms. Streeper’s email to Mr. Davis, which stated, “She will not be speaking about this issue with any reporters,” only intensified his efforts to get her on the record. Even a short statement about the issue sent via email could have reduced the risk of him showing up at her office.


2. Don’t Make The Story Bigger Than It Is

Ms. Streeper’s heated reaction only accomplished one thing: it told the reporter and viewers that she (or her boss) had something to hide. She ignored the first rule of ambush interviews, which is to deny reporters a “money shot” they can use to promote the suddenly sensational encounter.

That’s unfortunate, because Mr. Davis was asking a question that, with even a minimum of media training, should have been easily answerable. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Dozens of appointed city officials and their staff members do get take-home vehicles, records show. Officials say those cars are necessary to keep the city functioning.

Some cities across the nation have begun removing vehicle privileges for elected officials, but they are still common in many places.”

Therefore, all Ms. Green had to do was say:

“Take-home vehicles are part of the overall compensation package for many city officials, because we are often using those cars to drive all over the city to serve our constituents. Take-home vehicles are common for top government officials in many cities. Although I believe that’s fair, the people I serve are welcome to contact my office if they disagree.”

With that, her office would probably get a small trickle of phone calls, and the issue would likely disappear.

Melanie Streeper


3. Make Sure The Boss and Spokesperson Are Coordinated

When confronted, Ms. Green indicated that she didn’t turn down Davis’s original interview request, but only asked to schedule it for a more convenient time. That’s not what her spokesperson’s email said. That means one of three things: Green was lying, she was confused, or her spokesperson went rogue. 


4. Don’t Double Down on a Bad Hand

Even after that dreadful on-air encounter, Ms. Streeper decided to maintain her doomed attempt at control by emailing Mr. Davis this:

“No sit-down will be scheduled until we have all of your questions sent to us.” 

Davis rightly refused those terms and disclosed the request to his audience. And the request itself was silly, because even if a reporter agreed to such terms, he would be able to change his mind while cameras were rolling, rendering the “rules” meaningless.

Again, see point number two above. With even a touch of preparation, such stringent attempts at media management would have been unnecessary.

(In fairness to Ms. Streeper, it’s at least possible that her boss is giving her these ill-conceived marching orders, which she is in the uncomfortable position of implementing.)


5. Lead, If You’re a Leader

Finally, a tip regarding Ms. Green. She should have stopped her spokesperson’s attempt to break up the interview by saying, “It’s okay, Melanie. I got this.”

As an example, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell shut down his media aide when she attempted to discontinue a live interview on Meet the Press.

Don’t less this happen to you! Read 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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The Brian Williams Today Show “Comeback” Interview

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 19, 2015 – 8:10 am

Brian Williams appeared with Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today Show this morning in his first interview since getting caught fabricating stories about past news events.

Although I thought it was a bad idea for Williams to be interviewed by one of his NBC colleagues—which throws into question the independence of the interview—Lauer asked many of the straightforward and tough questions any reporter should. 

Williams came across as a chastened and wounded man—not a broken one—but too often evaded questions with half-answers that didn’t go far enough.

 Brian Williams Today Show

For example, asked how he got so many stories wrong, Williams attempted to compartmentalize where his misstatements (some would say lies) occurred:

“It is clear that after work, when I got out of the building, out of that realm, I used a double standard, I changed, I was sloppy, I said things that weren’t true.”

But it was Williams’s story on NBC Nightly News—about allegedly being shot down on a chopper during the invasion of Iraq—that got him caught. That didn’t happen “after hours” on a late night comedy show, as Williams hoped we might forget—it happened on his signature broadcast. His attempt to segregate his lies solely to extracurricular interviews is inaccurate and unfortunate.

Lauer also gave Williams an opportunity to confess to his other misstatements, as NBC News has refused to make its internal investigation public. Williams again evaded the question, only saying that, “What has happened in the past has been torn apart by me and fixed.” I doubt he would take a lying politician’s word for it at that without pushing for more—but Lauer let it go and didn’t press Williams into a more forthright response.

Did Williams do enough to be able to make a comeback in his new role on MSNBC? Time—and ratings—will tell. But as chastened as Williams was—and it was clear he’s felt the impact of this ordeal—he should be making his comeback outside of NBC News, not as one of its highest profile faces of hard news.

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How To Prepare For A Ted Talk | Public Speaking Tips

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 12, 2015 – 12:02 am

Crisis management professional and friend of the blog Melissa Agnes recently delivered her first TEDx Talk.

Her talk, “The Secret to Successful Crisis Management in the 21st Century,” made the case that being proactive during a crisis isn’t enough—but that companies need to be thinking proactively during their day-to-day business operations.

“Crisis management today, in large part, needs to be instinctive rather than solely reactionary,” Melissa says. “This real-time news cycle makes it increasingly difficult for you to get ahead of the story before the story is already ahead of you.”

Therefore, she argues, “Successful crisis management depends on your team’s ability to manage these real-time challenges that this digital landscape presents to us in a crisis while simultaneously actually managing the actual crisis in real time.”

TED Talks (or TEDx Talks, which are independent) are some of the most high-profile talks a professional can ever give. A great TED Talk can catapult an unknown to instant fame, with all of the perks that accompany it: bestselling books, consulting and speaking fees that reach well into the five figures, and widespread industry recognition.

Not all TED or TEDx Talks accomplish that for every speaker. But even if it doesn’t, the mere fact that a speaker delivered such a talk—and survived the test—boosts their professional bona fides. In Melissa’s case, it’s easy to believe that future potential clients coming across her speech during an online search will be impressed by her accomplishment (not to mention her smart advice).

With so much at stake, I was particularly interested in how Melissa prepared for her talk. She generously shared her approach, which strikes me as good advice for anyone preparing for a TED or TEDx Talk.

Melissa Agnes TEDx

Melissa’s Three-Step Approach to Preparing a TED Talk

“For a TED or TEDx Talk, you’re given 18 minutes to discuss ‘an idea worth sharing.’ These 18 minutes are meant to be motivating, inspiring and, hopefully, aspirational for the audience. With only 18 minutes available to you, every second needs to count. Every word, every message needs to be thought out, timed and impactful.

I took a solid three months to prepare for my TEDx talk.


The first of these three months was dedicated to research. In this time, I read three amazing books on the subject and I watched the 20+ most viewed TED talks repeatedly, all with the goal of inspiring myself and learning everything I could about the structure of a great TED talk.


The second month was spent refining my message and developing my speech. To do this, I outlined the stories I wanted to share, the actionable and (hopefully) inspiring message I wanted to leave my audience with and the overall structure of my speech. But a great speech cannot simply be written and delivered. It needs to be rehearsed and tested. For this, I looked to my trusted friends and colleagues for their honest and critical feedback.

For each version of my speech, I would record myself delivering it and send the recording to friends and colleagues that I trust and admire. With every piece of feedback that I received, the speech got better, more refined and more impactful. Quite frankly, the speech wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without their generous help.


With one month left before I was to take the TEDx stage, I dedicated myself to rehearsal. I set time aside to rehearse my speech 3 to 4 times per day, sometimes recording myself and always timing myself to make sure I was able to deliver my message in the allotted 18 minutes.”

Thanks for sharing your approach, Melissa, and congratulations on a terrific presentation.

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Tom Brady: Hero Worship Leads To Lame Crisis Response

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 8, 2015 – 4:02 pm

On Wednesday, a 243-page report found it was “more probable than not” that New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady was “at least generally aware of the inappropriate actions” his team’s staff took to deflate footballs in January’s AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts.

In other words, there’s a better chance than not that Brady is a lying cheater.

Yesterday, Brady gave his first interview since the report’s release as part of a prescheduled interview at Salem State University. If you believed Brady was innocent of the allegations against him before the interview, you might have changed your mind after watching him dodge question after question in a manner that strained credulity. 

Interviewer Jim Gray did his journalistic duty by asking Brady for his reaction to the report. The audience heartily booed every question Gray asked on the matter and enthusiastically applauded every Brady evasion.

Kelly Carlin, George’s daughter, summed up the interview perfectly in a tweet last night:

Kelly Carlin Tweet

I believe the crowd’s hero worship will work against Brady, who relished the audience’s response and hid behind their angry boos to Gray’s fair and necessary questions. Brady’s response may not lose him any diehard fans, but the audience beyond the room—including many people reasonably asking whether Brady is the latest Lance Armstrong, Mark McGwire, or Barry Bonds—were probably not impressed.

My biggest problem with this interview is that his tone was generally unserious. The questions swirling around him go to the center of integrity, honestly, and playing within the rules. Regardless of his guilt or innocence, he treated the cheating allegations with a defiant and casual air instead of as the legacy-tarnishing accusations they are.

Tom Brady Jim Gray 2

Brady should have stepped up and managed the crowd. He would have scored points by encouraging them to listen to Gray’s questions respectfully and giving him a chance to respond to them. He could have said:

“Jim is asking me fair questions, and it’s his job to ask them. So let me do my best to answer them.”

If he didn’t want to answer the questions, he could have said something along the lines of what he did say at one point during the interview:

“I haven’t had time to read the full report yet, and I’d like to have the chance to read it in full before commenting on it.”

Instead, he hid behind a hometown crowd, made a lame joke about his reading skills, and played the victim. And not once did he say he was innocent. All of that leads me to believe that he’s a cheater.

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ESPN Reporter’s Vile Rant And Useless Apology

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 17, 2015 – 12:47 pm

I try to be objective on this blog, but this story makes my blood boil.

Britt McHenry, an ESPN reporter based in Washington, DC, was caught on tape recently berating, belittling, and dehumanizing the cashier at a tow lot. Her vicious, bullying, and entitled rant would make her the perfect cast member for the next installment of the “Mean Girls” film series.

Watch this one for yourself.

Among other gems in her disgusting rant, McHenry said:

“Yep, that’s all you care about is just taking people’s money. With no education, no skill set, just wanted to clarify that.”

“Do you feel good about your job?

“So I can be a college dropout and do the same thing?”

“Maybe if I was missing some teeth they would hire me, huh?”

“Lose some weight, baby girl.”

Making this incident even worse, McHenry had been warned by the clerk that she was on video. If this was the version of McHenry that knew she was being taped, I can’t imagine what she would do if she didn’t. (Editor’s note: This video may have been edited, so it’s possible that warning came after she had already said those things, not before.)

After this video went viral, McHenry took to Twitter to offer a lame and woefully insufficient apology.

Britt McHenry Apology

Sorry, but reacting in such a vulgar way to an ordinary, everyday “intense and stressful moment” doesn’t even come close to being a credible explanation for her actions.

I suspect that, like me, many people will view this video and conclude that McHenry is a person with a vicious streak who is simply sorry because she got caught. And I also suspect that most people will conclude that she’s engaged in similar behavior in the past.

ESPN suspended Ms. McHenry for a week for her actions. One week. As this columnist with USA Today says, ESPN got its weak disciplinary action very, very wrong.

Britt McHenry Wikimedia Commons Keith Allison

What should Ms. McHenry do now?

Although I’d like to continue my rant about Ms. McHenry, I’ll call to my higher angels and offer her some actionable advice instead.

Her reputation will be damaged by this for a long time, and justifiably so, but in order to begin rehabilitating her image, Ms. McHenry has to be much more honest about her flaws. The type of glib de rigueur apology she offered only magnifies her reputation crisis.

I’d suggest something closer to the following as a way of acknowledging the incident in a more honest, forthright, and credible manner:

“There is no excuse for my dehumanizing behavior. I used my privileged position to belittle someone else. I understand that many people who watched this video were horrified by my behavior, and they should be.

I am very sorry to the woman I spoke to in this way. She didn’t deserve it. No one does. But I also understand that apologies alone are insufficient at convincing anybody that I’m not the type of person who thinks this type of behavior is okay. All I can say is that I’m more aware of my inner demons than ever before, will work to fix them, and hope that the way I comport myself in the future will eventually convince people that I’m worthy of their trust.”

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

Photo credit: Keith Allison, Wikimedia Commons

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Bill Cosby: His Scandal, Five Months Later

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 10, 2015 – 5:02 am

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.

Bill Cosby

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.

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Why Social Media Can Make or Break You In Crisis

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 12, 2015 – 4:02 am

This is an excerpt from The Media Training Bible, available in soft cover, for Kindle, and iPad.

Imagine you’re the communications director for Hartown Manufacturing, a midsize company based in California. You’re responsible for all communications in the western United States.

One morning, you arrive at work and log in to your Twitter account. You’re scrolling through the rather dull tweets when you suddenly see one that takes your breath away: “Breaking News: Major Explosion at Salt Lake City Hartown Plant.”

Within minutes, dozens of people are tweeting about it, spreading rumors along the way. Some eyewitnesses claim they’ve seen ambulances pulling away with dozens of victims. One claims a plant supervisor has been killed. You call a colleague who works at the plant who tells you that no one knows whether anybody was badly hurt—and that no ambulances have arrived yet.

You immediately post that accurate information to Hartown’s social media pages. Journalists who follow your feeds see your posts and decide against reporting any of the rumors they’ve read about possible injuries or deaths until you confirm them.

That type of scenario is commonplace in the age of social media, and it underscores three important truths:

  1. 1. The public and the press may learn of a crisis affecting your company through their social media networks before you even know there’s a problem.
  2. 2. People will begin discussing (and speculating about) your crisis before you’ve had time to obtain the facts.
  3. 3. You need to use your social media channels to immediately correct misinformation and establish yourself as a primary source of accurate information.

Most reporters now use social media as an essential tool of crisis reporting. As Jane Jordan-Meier reported in The Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management, “Two journalists I spoke with saw Twitter as the new police scanner.” You can no longer afford to relegate social media to being of secondary importance.

Communicate through your social media networks as quickly as possible, ideally within half an hour of learning about an incident. You can include links to lengthier statements and additional resources in your posts.

There’s one additional way to help manage a crisis using social media: be engaged with your social networks before a crisis strikes. You’ll need fans to defend your integrity when something goes wrong, and few people are more credible than the unaffiliated third parties who voluntarily vouch for you.

Case Study: Domino’s Pizza and a Disgusting Video

In 2009, an employee of a North Carolina Domino’s franchise filmed a coworker sticking cheese up his nose before appearing to send the food out for delivery. The two workers uploaded the video to YouTube, where it quickly racked up a million views. Television anchors showed the disgusting clip on their newscasts and customers stopped ordering pizza.

Company president Patrick Doyle waited two days before finally responding. He issued a two-minute YouTube apology, in which he appeared genuinely pained by the incident. He was deservedly given credit by many crisis management professionals for releasing the heartfelt video— but most suggested that he waited too long and incurred unnecessary financial and reputational damage by waiting 48 hours.

Mr. Doyle’s response was noteworthy for one additional reason: it was the first time a major company president used YouTube as the primary method of responding to a crisis.

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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Was Hillary Clinton’s Email Press Conference Effective?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 10, 2015 – 5:27 pm

Hillary Clinton faced reporters for 20 minutes this afternoon to answer questions about the personal email account she used while serving as Secretary of State.

Secretary Clinton repeatedly came back to the same talking points: She had operated within the rules of the State Department and opted to use a personal account (and her own server) due to the convenience of carrying one phone instead of two.

But a key question continues to hang in the air, and today’s press conference did little to answer it: If Clinton’s team decided which emails to keep and which to delete, how can anyone know whether something work-related but embarrassing was deleted?

Clinton answered that, in part, by saying that State Department rules make it incumbent upon the employee to differentiate between personal and professional emails.

But Clinton also said she wouldn’t allow an independent investigator to review the content on her server—and that it wouldn’t matter anyway, because she recently deleted all of her personal emails on topics such as her daughter’s wedding and mother’s funeral.

That, more than anything, strikes me as odd. Other than preventing other people from ever being able to see them, why delete those emails? Could she not have reached an agreement with a trusted third-party—such as a reporter or respected former government official—to review the personal emails with a guarantee of confidentiality for all emails that truly contained no work-related content?

It’s possible that Clinton’s experienced team considered and rejected that idea, calculating that the potential risk of those emails becoming public was greater than the risk of being perceived as secretive.

Several people pointed out to me that her body language—specifically her lack of eye contact—was telling. I noticed her lack of eye contact too, but due to “Othello’s Error,” am reluctant to speculate on its cause. What seemed obvious, though, is that she didn’t exactly forge a warm connection with her interrogators. 

Hillary Clinton Email Press Conference

Just like Mitt Romney found out after his refusal to release several years’ worth of tax returns, narratives can be difficult things to reverse. In 2012, I wrote the following for Politico:

“Mitt Romney has already lost the tax debate. By not releasing additional returns, he has allowed his opposition to paint the worst case scenario onto him — that there are years he failed to pay any taxes whatsoever.”

Clinton is fortunate that it’s early in the campaign. This story is unlikely to stop her seemingly inevitable march to the Democratic nomination. But she must know that any future stories appearing to confirm a lack of transparency will take hold—and that her Republican opponents will be doing everything possible to exploit that. 

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


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  • About Mr. Media Training

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

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

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

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

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    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.

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