New York Times Executive Editor Calls Critic An “Asshole”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 11, 2015 – 12:09 pm

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet decided last week not to run images of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons so many people found to be offensive.

Marc Cooper, a journalist and associate professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, disagreed with Baquet’s decision and took to Facebook to register his complaint.

Dean Baquet Facebook

I’m not going to pretend that the word “asshole” is so shocking to our delicate sensibilities as to require an entire blog post. But I would like to make a few other points about this exchange.

First, Mr. Baquet was right that Mr. Cooper looked self-righteous. I suspect that was abundantly clear to many people, so Baquet didn’t need to be so heavy handed in his response to win this exchange. That’s especially true because he made a solid case for his decision not to publish.

According to Dylan Byers of Politico:

“Reached via email, Baquet told POLITICO: ‘Lots of people have disagreed with my decision. Some of them are in The Times. I get that. Mr Cooper’s comment was nasty and arrogant. So I told him what I thought.’

Baquet’s decision to forego running the cartoons that provoked terrorists to raid the offices of Charlie Hebdo, killing 12, have been heavily scrutinized. On Thursday, Baquet said he made his decision primarily because he did not want to insult the paper’s Muslim readers.

“’We have a standard that is pretty simple. We don’t run things that are designed to gratuitously offend,’ Baquet told POLITICO…[I] don’t expect all to agree. But let’s not forget the Muslim family in Brooklyn who read us and is offended by any depiction of what he sees as his prophet. I don’t give a damn about the head of ISIS but I do care about that family and it is arrogant to ignore them.’”

Why didn’t he simply say that in response to Mr. Cooper instead of lapsing into distracting name-calling? 

Whenever a word like “asshole” is used by an executive, it’s almost certain to draw attention. That can be a mixed blessing. If it’s an issue the executive wants to become a big headline but is struggling to find any other way to make newsworthy, name-calling like this can actually be part of a strategic communications plan. I don’t suspect that was the case here.


Dean Baquet, photo via Doug Mills, The New York Times

Dean Baquet, photo via Doug Mills, The New York Times


Mr. Baquet also seemed to forget another cardinal rule: He should have treated his response as an opportunity to speak directly to other readers who shared Cooper’s position instead of treating it like a personal communication with Mr. Cooper.

Finally, I wonder what message this sends to his newsroom. On one hand, it’s easy to imagine that journalists who work for him deeply appreciate a boss who stands up for their editorial decisions. But on the other hand, I wonder if this gives license to reporters to engage with their critics in a similar manner, something I can’t imagine would be productive.

Baquet should expect criticism for these types of decisions. In my view, he should react to them by making his strongest case — which in this case, he had — and leave the swearing for his critics.

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The Media Interview That Cost A Man $3.5 Million

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 2, 2014 – 6:02 am

Australian rugby player Andrew Fifita recently made a comment that cost him a four-year, $3.5 million contract ($3.2 million U.S.).

The 24-year-old announced that he would be changing teams, from the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks to the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. But before he even put on his new uniform, he expressed disloyalty to his new team. Here’s the story via

“On Friday he let slip in an interview that he wished he’d chosen rugby union [a different league] instead. Then yesterday, the Dogs effectively said fine, forget the whole deal.

Oh, the Bulldogs cited a bunch of legalese. But reading between the lines, they appeared to be saying “You’ve got no loyalty? Then we don’t want you.”

What caught my eye were comments made by his teammate, Paul Gallen, who offered this solution: 

“I think he’s really going to have to be micromanaged, I really think they have to get him some kind of media training or something.”

The columnist agreed:

“Gallen is right. If Fifita doesn’t have any natural humility, he desperately needs a slick professional to drum it into him.”

Both Gallen and the unnamed columnist have a distorted view of media training.

A media trainer’s job is not to “drum” humility into someone. Good practitioners are not slick professionals who attempt to create personality traits where they do not exist (we can help people emphasize traits they do possess). Doing so would be doomed to failure, as the public can usually tell when someone is faking it.

We can only be successful when working with somewhat self-aware people who have a desire to change. If Fifita is not naturally humble, I would never try an approach intended to make him fake humility.

What would I do? I’d focus on helping him reduce the likelihood of a future “seven-second stray.” I would try to accomplish that by invoking his competitive spirit and analogizing his public comments to rugby. Every time he prevents himself from making a potentially controversial comment, he should award himself a point. Every time he makes one, he should view it as voluntarily allowing the other team to score.

That’s it. No drumming false humility into him. But by getting him to be as competitive with the use of his words as he is during play, it might serve the same purpose—he’d learn to bite his tongue more often, which might result in him genuinely appearing more humble. And it wouldn’t take a “slick” professional to help him do it.

That’s my take. What’s yours? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. 

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The Statistic Communications “Experts” Keep Getting Wrong

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 21, 2013 – 6:02 am

In dozens of books and hundreds of articles, you’ll find media trainers, presentation coaches, and communications experts offering a startling statistic:

Only 7 percent of the way someone forms an impression of you comes from your words! The remaining portion comes from your voice (38 percent) and your body language (55 percent)!

There’s only one problem: Those statistics are wrong. Completely wrong.

Their root comes from a 1960s study by a UCLA professor named Dr. Albert Mehrabian. But Mehrabian never intended for his research to be used—or misused—that way.


This slide is fascinating. It’s also completely wrong.


Mehrabian’s study was very limited in scope—it looked only at single words, focused solely on positive or negative feelings, and didn’t include men—and yet, I see articles at least once a week touting these numbers as gospel, as if they have much broader implications than they actually do.

Had these communications “experts” taken the time to look at the original research (or simply look at Dr. Mehrabian’s Wikipedia page, which debunks this myth), they wouldn’t have made this mistake. So I can only conclude that communications professionals who use this data are ignorant,  lazy, or willfully misusing this data to sound smarter than they are.

As an example, I came across a video from Stanford Business Professor Deborah Gruenfeld last week. I saw the video because it was a “Sponsored Post” on Twitter. The link led me to a YouTube video, which had this in the video description:

“When people want to make an impression, most think a lot about what they want to say. Stanford Business Professor Deborah Gruenfeld cautions you to think twice about that approach. The factors influencing how people see you are surprising: Words account for 7% of what they take away, while body language counts for 55%.”


In the video, Gruenfeld says:

“When people are forming an impression of you, what you say accounts for only seven percent of what they come away with.”


Creativity Works, a U.K.-based communications firm, produced this video called “Busting the Mehrabian Myth.” It’s a well-produced (and humorous) video. UPDATE: Several readers have correctly pointed out that this video goes too far in the opposite direction, prioritizing words over delivery. That, too, is wrong — the right balance of words and delivery is highly contextual, and it’s too reductionist to say that one generally matters more than the other.

Have thoughts about body language and the Mehrabian Myth? Please leave them in the comments section below.

The PowerPoint slide in this post comes from the Presentation Zen website; to their credit, they acknowledged that this graphic isn’t quite right.

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The Toledo Blade’s Cheap Shot About Interview Prep

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 18, 2013 – 1:52 pm

Anita Lopez, a Democratic mayoral candidate in Toledo, Ohio, likes to prepare carefully for her media interviews. She requires her staff to ask questions of reporters before any interview and to complete a form containing details about the story.

So far, I’m on board. That’s a rather typical media strategy, and it’s the kind of responsible due diligence that any smart candidate would employ. But The Toledo Blade suggests she’s going overboard:

“Among the information Ms. Lopez wants in advance is a list of the reporter’s questions; if anyone already has been interviewed; who else will be interviewed; what the other sources said to the reporter; if she can use visuals, and if the reporter is knowledgeable.”

Anita Lopez

In The Media Training Bible, I warn spokespersons dealing with hard news reporters to avoid asking for questions in advance—and Ms. Lopez shouldn’t insist on questions as a pre-condition for an interview. But the rest of her interview prep looks like the type of typical media relations policy that many businesses, organizations, and candidates employ as a standard operating procedure. 

(Here are eight questions to ask before every interview. And here is Ms. Lopez’s form.)

Although that may seem obstructionist, there are legitimate reasons for requesting information in advance. Knowing a reporter’s focus can help a candidate find key statistics or details that may not be top of mind, give the candidate warning that the reporter is on an unwarranted fishing expedition, and prevent them from committing the type of “gotcha” moment that sells newspapers but destroys reputations.

The Blade also knocks Lopez for using “bridging” statements. That’s a cheap shot. Those statements are used by virtually every experienced spokesperson in the country. Perhaps you don’t think politicians should use them—but singling her out for their use is journalistic hackery.


A portion of Ms. Lopez’ media interview form


But the most ridiculous comment in the piece goes to Independent Councilman D. Michael Collins, who maintains that the truest response is “one that is extemporaneous.” Any experienced public figure should know the hazards of making it up while you go along: just ask Todd “legitimate rape” Akin, Mitt “47 percent” Romney, or Barack “cling to their guns and religion” Obama. According to his logic, no one should ever practice a speech again.

The bottom line is that it’s a good idea to prepare for interviews in advance. Perhaps it requires a defter touch than the one Ms. Lopez has been using. But many parts of The Blade’s piece feel like a highly selective singling out.

Of course, this is a bit less defensible.

A grateful top o’ the hat to Political Wire and reader Josh Spaulding.

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

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Newspapers Are Banning Email Interviews. Should You?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 11, 2013 – 2:00 pm

Reporters for the college newspaper The Daily Princetonian are no longer allowed to conduct interviews through email. Neither are reporters for The Stanford Daily or The Oracle, the University of South Florida’s paper.

What’s behind this seemingly urgent push for “no email interview” policies? To find out, writer Mark Lisheron wrote a thoughtful and well-researched piece for the April issue of the American Journalism Review. (Disclosure: I’m quoted in the article.)


Unsurprisingly, his investigation revealed deep passions on both sides of the debate. Supporters of the email ban argued their side thusly, as summarized by Lisheron:

“E-mail deprives the reporter of all of the sensory advantages of the other interview styles. Facial expressions, gestures, posture. The sound and the cadence of the voice. The emphasis on words or phrases. The pauses.

As fast and convenient as they are, e-mail interviews are never really conducted in real time. The timing of the response, the allowance for measured and edited replies create an artificiality readers recognize.”

The then-editor of The Daily Princetonian, Henry Rome, explained his decision to ban email interviews by writing:

“Interviews are meant to be genuine, spontaneous conversations that allow a reporter to gain a greater understanding of a source’s perspective. However, the use of the email interview — and its widespread presence in our News articles — has resulted in stories filled with stilted, manicured quotes that often hide any real meaning and make it extremely difficult for reporters to ask follow-up questions or build relationships with sources.”

On the other side of the debate are those who make the case for email interviews. One past president of the National Information Officers Association said this, as summarized by Lisheron:

“Reporters, he says, have no inherent right to a statement from him. He reserves the right to ask for questions in writing and provide answers in writing, usually through e-mail.

Departments like his are trying harder to control the message, not because they are deceptive and evil, but because relationships with the media have changed.”

And another public information officer told him that getting questions in writing is:

“…not only a way to form more complete and accurate answers, but to be better able to parry inquiries designed to elicit specific responses.”

So who’s right? Both sides have a point, and the truth is somewhere in the middle. Like anything else (say, PowerPoint slides) the problem is less with the tool itself than with the way that tool gets used. That said, far too many spokespersons rely on email. They think they’re maintaining control by only offering written statements—and sometimes they are—but too often, they’re unnecessarily undermining their relationships with the press.

You can read more about my view on this issue in my article called “Three Reasons to Interview by Phone Instead of Email.”

I hope you’ll read Mark’s excellent article in full. You can find it here. And please leave your thoughts on this topic in the comments section below.

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Facebook COO’s Hard Sell On The Daily Show

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 9, 2013 – 6:02 am

Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, recently appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to promote her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will To Lead.

Ms. Sandberg had many terrific communications traits. She made an articulate and persuasive case, used her body language to reinforce her verbal points, and laughed heartily at Mr. Stewart’s jokes.

And yet…

Something about her interview bothered me. I wanted to like her and agreed with every point she made—but I had a difficult time connecting with her. It took me a week and three viewings of her segment to figure out why.


If you can’t view this video on your mobile device, click here

First, and perhaps most glaringly, she oversold her book. In a six-minute segment, she mentioned Lean In five times (Jon Stewart also mentioned it at the beginning and end of the segment; the name of the book also appeared in a giant on-set graphic, an on-screen book graphic, and a lower third graphic).

In total, viewers saw or heard Lean In no fewer than 10 times in six minutes. 

It may surprise you that a media trainer who encourages people to remain on message was chagrined by that. But there’s a fine line between selling and over-selling, between being on message and over-messaged.

Mentioning her book title a couple of times would have been fine. But her continual mentions had the effect of pulling me out of her interview and reminding me that she was there to pitch a product, which compromised my ability to relate with her. Perhaps part of that wasn’t just the repetition—it may have just been that Ms. Sandberg didn’t pull it off without sounding a bit forced.

Lean In

That leads me to my second point. Sandberg sounded a bit too rehearsed. And that’s a shame, because she did a lot of things right. Her anecdotes were tight and effective (e.g. “Pretty like Mommy” t-shirts, her friend’s five-year-old daughter), and her sound bites were great (e.g. “Men still run the world. And I’m not sure that’s going that well.”)

If I was working with her, I’d advise her to stop trying to deliver her lines as she rehearsed them and to start delivering them like she was talking to an elderly neighbor or a high school friend instead. From her less rehearsed moments in this interview, she appeared to have that ability. She should use it more often. She should be going for “real,” not “polished.”

The bottom line? Ms. Sandberg did a great job with the precision of her words, but didn’t do as well in terms of relating with the audience. (I’ve written more about that common challenge here.) The good news for Sandberg is that she’s really, really close. And with a little more work, she can do a better job of making that all-elusive audience connection.

If Facebook doesn’t shut down my account after writing this story, please stay in touch with me at

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What My Local Cupcake Shop Teaches You About Messaging

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 14, 2013 – 6:02 am

There’s a cute little cupcake shop on our town’s main street.

The store’s décor is welcoming and whimsical. The walls are painted bright pink, and the stools are shaped like something you might see in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.

My wife and I have passed the shop many times, each time looking longingly through the store window at the display cases, filled with cupcakes lined up in perfect rows—banana cream cupcakes next to chocolate ganache cupcakes next to peanut butter and jelly cupcakes.

We finally stopped in last week. And something the clerk said instantly removed the shop’s magic and made us unlikely to return.

When we entered the shop, I noticed that the store also sold brownies, my favorite. I asked the clerk if the brownies were also homemade, to which she said:

“Nothing in the store is homemade. We get it all delivered.”

With those 11 deflating words, nothing in the shop looked as cute anymore. And for the first time, I noticed that the shop smelled like nothing—it didn’t smell badly, but it also didn’t smell like baked goods. I purchased the brownie, ate it without enthusiasm, and decided to support a different store next time instead.

As we walked away, my wife remarked how different it would have been if the clerk had said something like this:

“We have an exclusive relationship with an award-winning bakery, and we’re the only store in our city that carries them. Our bakery makes 25 types of cupcakes for us every day, and they deliver them fresh every morning.”

We might have still been a little disappointed, but at least that type of response would have preserved some of the shop’s magic for us.

As readers of this blog know, I hate the word “spin.” So this incident serves as a perfect example of the difference between spin and smart strategic communications. Assuming for a moment that both of the quotes above are true, then neither is spin. But only the second message is smart and strategic—and therefore effective.

Is your executive team long overdue for a media training session? Please contact us to learn more about our customized media training workshops.

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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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  • 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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