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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How Do I Become A Media Trainer?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 29, 2012 – 6:12 am

I recently received a tweet from Heather Harder, a North Carolina college student, who asked: “What should college students interested in media training be doing now to prepare?”

That’s a good question, one I hear not only from college students, but also from other professionals hoping to make a career switch. So in today’s post, I’ll give you my thoughts regarding making your way into our exciting industry.

First, check out my article about how to select a media trainer. It offers 11 tips buyers should consider when shopping around for a trainer – and it will offer you some insights into what I consider to be important qualities in a trainer.

Since media training is not an entry-level job, Heather will need to gain professional experience first.

She can get that experience in one of two places: by working as a journalist or by working with journalists as a public relations representative. Heather should be able to find an entry-level job with a community newspaper, a small radio or television station, or as a staffer in the communications shop of a company or not-for-profit organization.

If she really wants to challenge herself, she should accept a position with an organization in crisis. For example, I recently noticed that the Komen Foundation – which just endured a bruising public relations battle – was hiring a senior communications professional. Although Heather won’t qualify for the senior position, she should keep her eyes out for an entry level position with a similarly scandal-struck group. There’s no better way to learn than being thrown straight into the fire.

Media training requires not only knowledge of the media, but also the ability to teach the information in a way that’s likely to resonate with trainees. So Heather should look for every opportunity to lead workshops, develop session agendas, and coach people. Knowing the facts is one thing; knowing how to teach them is quite another.

There are a few other things Heather can do now. She can write for her college newspaper or write a blog, keeping an eye out for opportunities to analyze the communications skills of public figures. She should read books and blogs written by media trainers. And she should follow a few journalism websites as well, to help make sure she’s getting the broadest perspective possible.

Thanks for the message, Heather. I look forward to hearing great things from you in our industry!

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How To Select A Media Trainer

Written by Brad Phillips on April 6, 2011 – 6:42 am

There are many media training firms out there, and several of them are quite good. But how can you tell the great ones from the mediocre ones?

Today, I present 11 things you should look for when shopping for a media trainer.

There’s always a risk that these lists are purposefully written to exclude every other firm but the firm writing the list. So I’ve challenged myself to write an intellectually honest list that allows many other high-quality firms to meet these criteria as well.

I hope it accomplishes my goal of being an objective list that helps you select the best trainer for your company.

1. Does The Firm “Look” Professional? This is a pretty basic requirement – if the company you’re considering doesn’t have a professional-looking website, you should be concerned. Are there good trainers with lousy websites? Yes, probably. But the firms I respect most have the refined look they should.

2. Do They Have High-Quality References? You’ve probably heard the expression that the best marketing is a happy client. I can think of a dozen firms that all have top-notch client references on their websites, and that’s good news for you. But don’t stop there. Call or email three of their clients. If the trainer is unwilling or unable to provide three quality references, move on.

3. Who Will Be Doing the Training? Larger companies don’t always send the firm’s principal to do your training. That’s not necessarily a problem. But do find out who’s doing the training, how often they train, and get specific references on the trainer, as well as the firm.

4. What Is The Tone of the Workshop? When checking references, ask them to describe the tone of the workshop. I believe good trainers are high on the EQ (emotional intelligence) scale – that they are able to sense the vulnerabilities of the trainees and instantly adjust their training styles to fit the trainees’  needs. Like a good surgeon, a good trainer cuts open a trainee, exposes their vulnerabilities in a safe environment, and sews them up at the end – stronger and better than they were before.

5. Is The Workshop Customized? Media training should be completely customized. For a full-day workshop, we develop numerous questions specific to the organization we’re working with and use examples from the client’s industry. If the firm uses a canned “off-the-shelf” presentation, run the other way.

6. Do They Have Journalism Experience? I worked at both ABC News and CNN. Not surprisingly, I think journalism experience is critical in a good media trainer. But I may surprise you by saying that I’ve encountered media trainers who don’t have journalism experience but are quite good. I’d be a little concerned if the trainer has worked with journalists on the client side for 25 years without ever working in a newsroom – but I wouldn’t exclude them from consideration on that measurement alone.

7. Do They Have Training Experience? I regularly get phone calls from people who just left a journalism career and want to become a media trainer. But almost always, they’ve never run a workshop. Or had experience as a teacher or facilitator. And too many have never done any form of public speaking. Journalism experience is one thing – but if they don’t have extensive experience as an instructor, forget it.

8. Do They Have Industry Experience? Actually, I don’t think this is particularly important. I’m mentioning it anyway since some clients prefer to work with a firm that has experience in their industry. In my experience, too much knowledge can occasionally prevent the trainer from seeing the 35,000-foot level, meaning both trainer and trainee spend too much time in the weeds. Media trainers should be expert in the process of helping spokespersons refine their messages and deliver them well – not necessarily in the content.

9. Do They Offer Post-Training Education? No one can learn everything in a day. What does the firm do to extend the education past the training day? Do they include follow-up phone calls, newsletters, blog articles, videos, and/or other learning opportunities?

10. Do They Have a Blog, a Book, or Regularly-Published Articles? Read everything you can by the firm. If they have a blog, read it. Google them to see their published articles. I have not published a book, but  I’m impressed with those who have – especially those published by third parties. Self-published books are often quite good, but are harder to gauge without reading since they haven’t been automatically blessed with the credibility of an outside publisher. 

11. What Is Their Standing In The Industry? Is the firm a lone wolf or an industry thought leader? Are they a regularly-cited expert source? Do they publish white papers or challenge outdated industry advice? A quick Google search often answers some of these questions. And don’t be afraid to ask the firm to talk about the role they play in the industry.

What have I missed here? Are there other qualities that are important to you when selecting a trainer? Please leave your comments in the section below – and if you’re “in the biz,” please identify yourself as such.

Related: The 21 Most Essential Media Training Links

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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.

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