The “Secret” Media Training School For Republicans

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 26, 2014 – 5:02 am

CNN.com recently ran a fascinating piece about the “GOP’s secret school,” in which candidates learn how to interact with the media. The school is a reaction to the high-profile crises the GOP has inflicted upon itself in recent years—from Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment to Christine O’Donnell’s “I am not a witch” ad—and party officials are determined not to repeat past mistakes. According to the article:

“Since the beginning of 2014, the RNC says it has graduated over 200 operatives and placed many of them as communications directors and press secretaries in Capitol Hill offices and federal campaigns nationwide…[Instructor] Rob Lockwood has also conducted media training boot camps with nearly 1,000 candidates, staff and local political figures in a dozen states.”

It appears that this GOP training class is doing everything right in its effort to improve external communications. There’s good advice here for everyone involved in politics, regardless of party or cause. In this post, I’ll highlight the excerpts that caught my attention most.

 

Media training instructor Rob Lockwood

Media training instructor Rob Lockwood

 

1. Don’t Treat Reporters As Your Enemy

Tim Miller, the executive director of America Rising, says: 

“‘If you treat reporters with hostility, there will be blood….As recently as 2008 and 2010, you would sit in these rooms and it would be somebody from the Lee Atwater era, talking about how the media is your enemy…My talk was about talking the ways to use the 24/7 news cycle and Twitter and social media to your advantage, as well as recognizing the pitfalls.’”

2. Think Twice Before Holding Press Conferences

“’Doing a press conference just to do a press conference doesn’t work anymore,’ Lockwood tells students. ‘It’s an antiquated way of thinking. If you don’t know what you want your headline to be, and think you can go out there and say what you want in five points, and answer none of the questions, that the news reports are going to be about your five points. Nope. The reports will probably be about the five things you didn’t answer.’”

Republican-National-Committee-Logo.jpg

3. Remember That Dull Can Be Good

Lockwood tells his audiences that being a bit dull may be preferable:

“’Don’t use jokes that you’ve never told before … Jay Carney showed everyday that it’s better to be dull than offensive,’ referring to the former White House press secretary who is now a CNN political commentator. ‘Don’t introduce new phrases, like Etch-a-sketch.’”

4. Maintain a Bit of Healthy Paranoia

“’I’d rather have candidates being careful to a fault than, you know, having a fountain of blabber coming out of their mouth that’s not disciplined,’ [RNC Chairman Reince] Priebus says.‘ We are training candidates, training state parties, training operatives to appreciate that communicating isn’t just a free-for-all, natural-born type of activity. People need to be trained and disciplined.’”

5. Don’t Chase Every Story

Although “rapid response” is key to every political communications shop, it doesn’t mean you have to respond to everything:

“As much as the classes focus on the capacity of the web to drive a message, students are urged not to chase every shiny object or micro-story that pops on Twitter.”
 

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A Surprise For People Who Think They Hate Reporters

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 6, 2014 – 12:07 am

I’ve worked with many people who don’t trust or like the media. But one recent group of trainees from a public entity was more emphatic in their hatred of the press than I’d ever encountered before. 

This group constantly felt besieged by a rapacious press corps that couldn’t be satiated, and they believed that reporters were far too busy pursuing their own predetermined agendas to give them a fair shot.

Given the hostility of this group toward the press, I decided to try something different. The result was striking, if not outright shocking.  

Press Conference

Instead of playing the role of reporter (as I usually do in media training sessions), I decided to divide the group in half.

The first group played their usual role of serving as corporate spokespersons. I gave them a scenario to work with, asked them to develop their messages and media strategy, and told them to assign a person who would deliver a press conference.

The second group was tasked with playing the role of reporters during a press conference. I told them that their job was to do everything they could to get the facts the spokesperson was reluctant to offer. I instructed them to get past the spin, challenge evasive responses, and do whatever they could to get to the truth.

The second group took their job seriously. When the press conference began, they were unforgiving of anything that remotely bordered spin. They asked tough follow-up questions, used evidence to contradict some of the spokesperson’s claims, and adopted an almost hostile tone. Frankly, they were tougher than most of the reporters I’ve ever seen at press conferences.

Microphones Over White Background

 

The “Aha!” Moment

When the press conference ended, I asked both groups what they were feeling. The group representing the company said they felt exhausted and beaten up. But the group of reporters was pissed. They felt that the company was being evasive, and they resented the company’s lack of candor.

I didn’t have to say anything. My takeaway message seemed to wash over everyone simultaneously: Reporters aren’t always being jerks just to be jerks; sometimes, they just resent that you’re not being straight with them.

That profound realization, which reminded me of the old adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, changed their perspective. Suddenly, they understood how they were complicit in the media’s reaction to their attempts at media management—and they recognized the need to begin doing things differently.

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Say This 10 Times: “I Am Not A Wikipedia Page!”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 22, 2014 – 9:00 pm

“Our company was founded in 1922.”

Whenever I hear a speaker say something like that, I think, Who cares? That piece of information, presented without context, could lead the audience to have one of two reactions:

1. “Wow, they’ve been doing this a long time. They must know what they’re doing.”

2. “Wow, they’re old. I wonder if they’re a traditional company that’s too slow to embrace change.”

I often tell speakers to stop being their company’s Wikipedia page by merely listing factual information. Their job during a presentation isn’t to list facts, but to create a useful context into which those facts fit. 

 

Wikipedia

In the above example, the speaker should have said something closer to this:

“Our company was founded in 1922. Our industry has gone through three major transformations from then to now—and the only reason we’ve been able to continue our growth is because we have the experience to identify and embrace tomorrow’s trends before everyone else.”

Here’s another example. Don’t simply state that you have 18 offices around the world. Instead, infuse that fact with meaning, and say:

“We’re a global events planning company. We can help you plan top-notch events in New York and Los Angeles, but also in Mexico City, Berlin, Mumbai, Johannesburg, and 12 other major international cities. And if you want to plan an event in a city outside of those 18 locations, our closest regional office can successfully plan it for you from there, as we did in 145 cities last year alone.”

As you practice for your next presentation, pay close attention to the moments when you’re verging on becoming a context-free, facts-only presenter. Then, repeat this mantra: “I am not a Wikipedia page!” and add meaning to those facts.

Want more free public speaking tips? Check out our 25 Most Essential Public Speaking Tips.

 


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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 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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The Worst Advice Media Trainers Offer Clients

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 10, 2013 – 12:04 am

A surprising number of our clients share with me a piece of advice they learned from a media trainer somewhere along the line: “Don’t answer the question the reporter asks you. Answer the question you want to answer.”

I’ve met several of my industry peers—and have read articles, blogs, and books from some of those I haven’t—and I’ve yet to encounter a professional media trainer who offers that advice to their clients. So I really don’t know where that bad advice is coming from.

What I do know is that it’s pervasive. Many clients, who work all over the country and have never met one another, have heard that bit of hackery somewhere along the line. And if they take that advice into their interviews, they’re going to create a disaster for themselves.

Not Listening

Perhaps that advice comes from an earlier era, one in which reporters were less likely to air the full raw tape of a spokesperson dodging a question. To the degree that era ever existed, it’s over. Journalists regularly (and rightfully, in my view) shame spokespersons who refuse to answer direct questions by exposing their evasions.

As an example, check out this video of British Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband, who pretends that the journalist is invisible.

Naturally, there may be times when you don’t want to answer a question. Perhaps the reporter is asking you about something off-topic instead of the thing you really want to be speaking about. Maybe a journalist wants to know an embarrassing detail you’d rather not reveal, or about a confidential detail your lawyers have banned you from elaborating upon. (Read more about “Commenting without Commenting” here.)

Even in those moments, it’s almost always better to answer the question directly—and briefly—before transitioning to something else. In some situations, you may even be able to answer the reporter’s query with incomplete sentences and responses in which you don’t cite the subject by name (“DUI” becomes “that issue”), to make your answer more difficult to quote. But answer the question.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say a reporter is asking you about a campaign staffer who was arrested for DUI. You’ve decided not to fire that employee, and you already answered questions directly about his arrest yesterday; every major newspaper, website, and news channel covered the story extensively today. You’re reluctant to continue speaking about it, as your detailed responses will only lead to additional news stories that will take you far off your campaign’s message.

Reporter: “A lot of people in the media are asking why you didn’t fire Bob Smith yesterday? You’ve been speaking about the need for personal responsibility throughout this campaign, and your refusal to fire him seems to contradict your message.”

You: “You know, I addressed that question and several others on this topic yesterday. My answers haven’t changed, and there’s nothing new to add. Many members of the press have already spent a full day covering that story in detail. Given that we only have three weeks left in this campaign, I’m going to spend today speaking about the important issues voters consistently tell us they care about most.”

That answer doesn’t share any new information. It doesn’t give reporters any juicy quotes to add to their news story. But it does address the specific question that was asked.

So ignore that pervasive but pernicious piece of advice. A direct question deserves a direct answer—even if it’s not the direct answer the reporter hopes to hear.

Learn more about the best ways to answer media questions in The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.


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What Horror Stories Teach You About Media Interviews

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on December 19, 2012 – 6:02 am

When Harvard’s Center for Media and Public Affairs studied the average length of a sound bite in 2000, they found that the typical television quote lasted just 7.3 seconds. It’s probably even shorter today. And that’s down from 42 seconds in 1968. (PDF of study here.)

Since most of us speak an average of two or three words per second, that translates to a measly 18 words per quote.

Many spokespersons complain that they couldn’t possibly say anything of meaning in that short time period. And they’re right—it’s a major challenge. But it is possible.

I recently saw a tweet that contained the “world’s shortest horror story.” It read:

“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”

Those 17 words send chills down my spine. If you’re like me, you probably created a strong mental picture of the room, how the man was sitting, and the terror he felt when he heard that unexpected knock. With just 17 words, this story elicits a strong visceral reaction.

That tweet made me think of another terrifying line, this one from the 1979 classic horror movie, “When a Stranger Calls.” You may remember the set up to that film: a babysitter is alone in a house with the young children she’s looking after. She keeps getting threatening phone calls. She calls the police, who ask her to keep the caller on the line when he phones again to allow them to trace the origin of the call. She complies. After the police trace it, they call the babysitter back and say:

“We’ve traced the call. It’s coming from inside the house.”

I saw that movie as a teenager. And whenever I’m alone in my house and hear a strange sound, I’m reminded of those 10 terrifying words.

So next time someone tells you it’s impossible to say something of meaning in just 7.3 seconds, remember the lesson from those horror stories. Sometimes, the most evocative ideas require the fewest words.

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The Ten Best Media Training Quotes Ever (Part Two)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 15, 2011 – 6:36 am

Last year, I wrote an article with ten of my favorite media training quotes of all time. I expected that it would appeal to a very limited audience – but I wanted to post it anyway since I’m a word nerd who appreciates a well-delivered line. 

To my great surprise, that article has become of this blog’s most popular posts ever. So today, I’m updating the list with another ten of my favorite media training quotes of all time. Enjoy!

MESSAGE DEVELOPMENT QUOTES

  1. 1. “Everything should be as simple as possible but no simpler.” – Albert Einstein (paraphrased from   a longer quote)
  2. 2. "The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out." – Voltaire, French Enlightenment writer
  3. 3. “Brevity is the best recommendation of speech, whether in a senator or an orator.” – Marcus Tulius Cicero, Roman orator

Cicero advised speakers to be brief

MEDIA INTERVIEWING QUOTES

  1. 4. "It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear." – Red Auerbach, Legendary Boston Celtics coach
  2. 5. "No man ever listened himself out of a job." – Calvin Coolidge
  3. 6. “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.” – Friedrich Nietzsche German philosopher

Celtics Coach and President Red Auerbach, Photo Credit: Basketballphoto.com

CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS QUOTES

  1. 7. “In time of crisis people want to know that you care, more than they care what you know” – Attributed to Will Rogers, American comedian, among others
  2. 8. “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
  3. 9. “There can’t be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” – Henry Kissinger
  4. 10. “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters — one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” – John F. Kennedy

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Related: The Ten Best Media Training Quotes Ever

Related: The Best Media Training Quotes Ever (Part Three)

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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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