Hillary Clinton Needs A New Message, Stat!

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 25, 2014 – 5:47 am

Hillary Clinton has been talking about her wealth—or relative lack thereof—a lot lately, and her responses have done more to raise eyebrows and encourage additional follow up questions than to satisfy the questions and put a close to the issue.

The topic came up during an interview with Diane Sawyer earlier this month, and Secretary Clinton fumbled the answer:

DIANE SAWYER: “It has been reported you’ve made $5 million making speeches, the president’s made more than $100 million.”

HILLARY CLINTON: “Well, if you — you have no reason to remember, but we came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt. We had no money when we got there and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education, you know, it was not easy. Bill has worked really hard and it’s been amazing to me. He’s worked very hard, first of all, we had to pay off all our debts which was, you know, we had to make double the money because of obviously taxes, and pay you have at debts, and get us houses and take care of family members.”

Mrs. Clinton may be right on the facts—but no one is likely to relate the struggle of the average American family to a former U.S. president and first lady exiting the White House with enormous future earning potential.

And did she say houses, plural? That tone-deaf answer is stupefying given that John McCain famously committed the same gaffe (he couldn’t remember how many homes he owned) and that Mitt Romney infamously said his wife drives two Cadillacs.

Hillary Clinton Diane Sawyer

Mrs. Clinton doubled down in an interview with The Guardian this week:

“With her huge personal wealth, how could Clinton possibly hope to be credible on this issue [income inequality] when people see her as part of the problem, not its solution?

“But they don’t see me as part of the problem,” she protests, “because we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off.”

Is she saying that with their millions of dollars, the Clintons aren’t truly well off? That’s a subjective claim. If she’s comparing her family to Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, she has a point. But I’d guess most Americans are comparing her to themselves, not to the Buffetts of the world.

(In fairness, that quote could also be read another way: that she’s saying she is well off, but unlike others in her economic class, her family pays income tax. If that was her intent, the ambiguity of her statement is her responsibility.)

What should Mrs. Clinton say?

She should stop the phony pose of pretending she’s just like the average American. She’s not, and I can’t imagine many potential voters expect her to be. Instead, she should simply say: “My husband and I have done very well financially since Bill left the White House. But I understand firsthand the challenges that families face, and I support policies that will make it easier for them to succeed in this economy.” That’s it.

She should also look at the tape of her husband’s 1992 town hall presidential debate, during which a woman asked: “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn’t, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?”

Mr. Clinton didn’t discuss his own financial situation—even though it was presumably much less impressive at the time. Instead, he discussed his personal experience with people who were hurting and described how his policies would help them.

I wouldn’t be opposed to Mrs. Clinton describing her modest upbringing. But describing their obvious wealth as anything less is a bad strategy destined to backfire.

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

 

 


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The Smear Cycle: Hillary Clinton May Have Brain Damage

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 15, 2014 – 6:02 am

Karl Rove, the former top advisor to President Bush, launched a new smear campaign against Hillary Clinton late last week. Speaking at a conference, Rove brought up Clinton’s 2012 health scare, during which she spent several days in a hospital. From The New York Post:

“Thirty days in the hospital?” Rove said, according to Page Six. “And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.”

The headline of that piece, “Karl Rove: Hillary May Have Brain Damage,” was exactly what Rove sought. That headline triggered many others (American Thinker went with “Might Hillary Clinton Have Suffered a Stroke?”), and forced the story into the mainstream media. Suddenly, outlets including The Washington Post, Politico, Fox News, and MSNBC were talking about Mrs. Clinton’s health. 

Hillary Clinton Leaves Hospital

Here are some facts: Hillary Clinton was not in the hospital for thirty days; she was in the hospital for four, and physicians anticipated a recovery with “no long-term consequences.”

To be clear, there are legitimate questions about Clinton’s health and age. Similar questions have been posed about Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, and John McCain (among others), and it isn’t sexist or ageist to pose such questions.

But Rove’s smear wasn’t a genuine attempt to raise questions about Clinton’s fitness for office. It was a classic Lee Atwater-like tactic intended to damage his party’s most likely opponent. (Atwater, also a former Republican strategist, repented for his brand of scorched-earth politics on his death bed.)

True to the tactic, Rove quickly backed away from his statement and dissembled, claiming he never used the term “brain damage.” (That’s true; he said “traumatic brain injury,” which conveys the same message.) There’s no need for the person who launched the gossip cycle to defend it once people are already talking about it; he can walk away, pretending his hands are clean, while others carry the message for him. 

Statement

Hillary Clinton’s Team Did Something Similar

In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s Senior Campaign Strategist, Mark Penn, appeared on Hardball and repeatedly mentioned the fact that Barack Obama had used cocaine—and he did it in that sleazy political way of pretending that he wasn’t talking about that issue: 

“We’ve made clear that the [unintelligible] related to cocaine use is not something that the campaign was in any way raising.”

Catch that? Penn simultaneously raised the issue of cocaine use, which helped it remain a media story, while disingenuously pretending that his campaign didn’t want to talk about it. (It wasn’t the first time a Clinton confidante employed that strategy; Clinton later apologized.) Joe Trippi, John Edwards’s senior strategist who appeared on Hardball next to Penn, confronted Penn for using that tactic.

(Exchange begins at 3:54)

 

The Smear Cycle

This tactic is used by politicians on both sides of the aisle, and it’s often effective. The smear cycle looks something like this:

Smear Cycle

That cycle is unlikely to change. But at least we can diminish its power by recognizing when it’s unfolding before us.

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Yes Or No, Congressman: Will You Give Up Your Paycheck?

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

Several years ago, I consulted with a major organization regarding a brewing crisis.

My contact—the head of communications—asked me to review the situation and give her my best communications advice. When she called the next day to ask what I had come up with, I uttered two lines that made her gasp: “You don’t have a communications problem. You have a policy problem.” Until her organization’s policy was changed, I said, communications couldn’t solve her problem.

I thought of that story when I saw several members of Congress fumbling a question they should have seen coming from a mile away: “Since federal workers aren’t getting paid, will you give up your paycheck?”

As an example, take a look at this interview from CNN with Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA):

 

Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) told the Omaha World Herald: “I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it. Giving our paycheck away when you still worked and earned it? That’s just not going to fly.”

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), according to The Huffington Post, said: “I think every American should get paid for his or her labor…That includes members of Congress. I didn’t create the shutdown.”

Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) told WTVD-TV: “I need my paycheck. That’s the bottom line.”

According to The Washington Post, at least 137 members of Congress have agreed to donate or refuse their salaries. But that leaves roughly 400 members who are pocketing their paychecks as 800,000 federal workers—and countless other people affected by the shutdown—are unable to pocket theirs.

(On Saturday, the House voted to pay federal workers retroactively when the shutdown ends; that does little to help anxious workers living paycheck to paycheck in the short term.)

This isn’t a communications problem. It’s a policy problem.

There’s no way a communications professional can message this problem successfully. When the people widely perceived as causing the problem are continuing to live their own financial lives unaffected by the shutdown, no amount of spin can help them out of the corner they placed themselves in.

 

These members of Congress remind me of the late hotelier Leona Helmsley, who allegedly quipped: “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”

 

There was an easy way around this.

My personal view is that no member of Congress should be allowed to receive a paycheck during a government shutdown by statute. In lieu of that, they should suspend their own pay or donate it, in full, to charity.

All of that aside, here’s what’s mind-boggling: If this shutdown lasts for two weeks, that represents just under four percent of their pay. If they normally donate four percent or more of their salaries to charity every year anyway, their decision should have been a no-brainer: donate the money they would normally give to charity out of the money they lost during the period of the shutdown.

Doing so would have allowed them to avoid the negative publicity without costing them an extra penny. But the thing is, they weren’t even smart enough to do that. Instead, they publicly insisted on living under their own privileged set of rules and keeping every bit of the taxpayers’ money they felt entitled to.

No wonder Congress has a 10 percent approval rating.

If you enjoyed this article, would you please help me reach a larger audience by sharing it with your social networks? Share buttons are below. Thank you!

a grateful h/t to: Political Wire, Huffington Post, Washington Post, reader Ken Molay


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President Obama’s Latest Syria Surprise

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 1, 2013 – 8:33 pm

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.” – President Barack Obama, August 2012

With those comments—now known as Obama’s “Red Line” remarks—President Obama appeared to remove any ambiguity about his foreign policy. If Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad uses chemical weapons, he seemed to say, we will respond.

Obama’s advisers were surprised by his choice of words. According to a May New York Times article, the phase “red line” was used “…to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the ‘red line’ came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.”

President Obama Press Conference 2011

His phrase was a classic seven-second stray, albeit one with greater consequences than most. It was unscripted and unplanned, memorable and definite. With those words, Mr. Obama placed himself in a geopolitical box, reducing his number of palatable options.

Fast forward a year to last Friday, when Secretary of State John Kerry offered a rather unambiguous statement: “After a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war,” Kerry said. “Believe me, I am, too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.”

With those words, Kerry sent a strong message on behalf of the Administration: The red line has been crossed, and the United States is prepared to act. Kerry’s message was so clear, in fact, that Saturday’s media coverage reflected the inevitability of military strikes.

 

Washington Post Syria Front Page

 

But then on Saturday afternoon, President Obama changed his mind—or “flinched,” as some pundits called it. During a walk with his chief of staff the evening before (and after Great Britain’s parliament voted down military action), Obama changed his plan. Before ordering military strikes, he would ask Congress to authorize military action against Syria.

His abrupt about-face surprised his senior team once again, confused and angered allies, and potentially emboldened opponents.

Mr. Obama’s handling of this issue leaves him in a dangerous place. If Congress fails to authorize military action, President Obama will either have to follow through on his “red line” threat without legislative approval or respect Congress’s “no” vote and break his promise. If Congress does authorize military action, he may be forced to engage in a military action he appears to be at least somewhat ambivalent about.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing Mr. Obama’s end point. Consulting with Congress might have been the right move all along. But by telegraphing something entirely different—only to change his mind at the last minute—he risks looking indecisive, at best, if not outright rudderless.

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


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This Post May Be Too Complex For You

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 28, 2013 – 8:22 pm

When North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory spoke to an Asheville business group on Monday, he decided to take a shot at the journalists who cover state government.

Defending his economic record to the Council of Independent Business Owners, Mr. McCrory made the following comment, which provoked laughter from the friendly crowd:

“This is too complex for the journalists. They don’t have economics degrees. They’ve not been in business.”

Pat McCrory

That’s the type of unextraordinary anti-media comment politicians make all the time. They’re pieces of red meat that serve as reliable crowd pleasers, particularly for conservative politicians who score points with audiences for running against the mainstream media.

But in this case, a local political reporter decided to get the last laugh. Mark Binker, a reporter for Raleigh-Durham’s WRAL, wrote a cheeky piece for the @NCCapitol website titled “This post may be ‘too complex’ for us to write.” 

Binker waits until his closing lines to exact his full revenge against Governor McCrory:

“It may be worth noting that McCrory’s campaign website says he graduated from ‘Catawba College in Rowan County, where he earned degrees in Education and Political Science.’ There’s no mention of an economics degree.”

Ouch. So, is it a bad idea to knock the media in this manner?

Yes and no. As I’ve written before, the expression “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel” no longer fully applies in the age of social media. Today’s politicians are less dependent on the mainstream press than their predecessors, and can reach their audiences using alternative communications channels.

That’s not to suggest that picking gratuitous fights with the press is wise strategy, but I’d still modify that old expression to “Think hard before arguing with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”

If McCrory made these comments as part of a pre-planned and deliberate messaging strategy, it may have been worth the risk. But if these lines were improvised, he earned a small bit of embarrassing press he could have easily avoided.

A grateful tip of the hat to reader Mike Radionchenko; photo credits Hal Goodtree, Capitol Broadcasting Company

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Anthony Weiner’s New York Times Interview: Did His PR Work?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 10, 2013 – 12:47 pm

This morning, Anthony Weiner’s attempt at a comeback began with a high-profile cover story in The New York Times Magazine.

It’s a fascinating story worth a full read, but one line in the lengthy article is garnering the most attention: “At breakfast, Weiner quickly put all the speculation to rest: he is eyeing the [New York City] mayor’s race.”

Personally, I don’t believe that Mr. Weiner has any place in public life. Not only did he exercise ludicrous judgment by sending lewd texts to strangers—but his deeds came with a hefty price, turning a reliably Democratic district red (his district voted for a Republican to replace him; the district turned blue again earlier this year).

Regardless of my personal feelings about Mr. Weiner, my goal in this post is to analyze the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of his first detailed public confessional from a PR perspective.

Let’s start with the good. In some ways, Mr. Weiner appears to “get it” and displays remorse—particularly regarding how his behavior affected his wife, Huma Abedin (a top aide to Hillary Clinton). The reporter noted two times when Weiner cried during the interview; in once incident, she recounted:

“He paused and took a deep breath and started to cry. ‘She’s given. . . .’ He stopped again, could barely get the words out. ‘She’s given me another chance. And I am very grateful for that. And I’m trying to make sure I get it right.’

Weiner says he’s been in therapy since resigning his post, and he seems to be making a real effort at both understanding and modifying his behavior.

He also benefits from his wife’s forgiveness. Unlike other spurned political wives who have famously stood by their men at press conferences during their moments of humiliation, Ms. Abedin didn’t. But she willingly participated in this interview, titled “Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin’s Post-Scandal Playbook.” If they didn’t look like a solid team two years ago, they sure do now.

But in many other ways, Weiner strikes me as a man who is still very much in the process of trying to figure things out—and who still has a long way to go.

I’ve been right in making those types of judgments about Weiner before. On June 2, 2011—in the early days of the Weiner scandal—I wrote on this blog, “I can’t shake the feeling that his actions are consistent with those of a man who doesn’t want his wife to learn what he’s been up to.” In this interview, Weiner confirmed my analysis, saying, “I lied to her. The lies to everyone else were primarily because I wanted to keep it from her.”

The photo that made Anthony Weiner infamous

 

Weiner blames his reckless behavior on his need to be liked, saying:

“’There just wasn’t much of me who was smart enough, sensitive enough, in touch with my own things, understanding enough about the disrespect and how dishonorable it was to be doing that. It didn’t seem to occupy a real space in my feelings…‘I wasn’t really thinking. What does this mean that I’m doing this? Is this risky behavior? Is this smart behavior? To me, it was just another way to feed this notion that I want to be liked and admired.’”

That quote, in addition to others, leaves me with the inescapable conclusion that he’s still trying to figure it all out. On a human level, that’s appropriate, and I respect that he’s doing some hard work in therapy. But on a political level, that’s just not good enough. Until he can more accurately diagnose and account for his own motivations, he’s not ready to be entrusted with the second act the public so often grants to politicians.

Plus, there’s this “pass the buck” gem, about Twitter:

“If it wasn’t 2011 and it didn’t exist, it’s not like I would have gone out cruising bars or something like that. It was just something that technology made possible and it became possible for me to do stupid things. I mean, the thing I did, and the damage that I did, not only hadn’t it been done before, but it wasn’t possible to do it before.”

So without Twitter, his reckless behavior wouldn’t have emerged in other ways? Unlikely.

Then again, a potential run for NYC mayor may not be about trying to win the race. As one pundit said:

“Is this about winning?” asks the political adviser. “Or is this an attempt to get the scandal off the books? Then the next time he runs for something, he can say: ‘You know what? We talked about that last time. Aren’t we beyond that?’

And that might be the most brilliant PR strategy of all.

What do you think? Can Anthony Weiner’s political career be resurrected? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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What Do Political Reporters Want?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on December 4, 2012 – 6:02 am

I’ve spent the past two years following politics more closely than most other people.

I’ve watched and written about every Republican primary debate (20 in all), both political conventions, and the three presidential debates. I’ve read hundreds of polls. I’ve spent hundreds of hours on Twitter following the latest political news and gossip shared by Washington reporters.

And after investing all of those hours in the 2012 election, I’m left with one unanswered question: Are the political press making life impossible for political candidates by demanding two almost completely incompatible traits?

On one hand, the political press reward authenticity, knocking candidates who don’t live up to their standards of “authentic.” They mocked Mitt Romney’s awkward attempts at playing the common man, such as when he told a group of unemployed voters that he, too, was unemployed. In earlier elections, they scoffed as John Edwards, an advocate for people in poverty, paid $400 for a haircut, just as they laughed at the patrician John Kerry for going duck hunting shortly before the 2004 election.

Politicians viewed as more authentic, meanwhile, make the political press swoon. Think about the fawning coverage John McCain earned during his first presidential run in 2000 while speaking to reporters on his bus, “The Straight Talk Express.” Or the admiring coverage the self-possessed Barack Obama received in 2008.

But on the other hand, the political press spills barrels of ink on every “gaffe” committed by a politician or candidate. I’m not talking here about a particularly stupid remark that deservedly ends a political career (think “legitimate rape” or “Macaca”), but the types of gaffes (“I like being able to fire people,” “If you have a business, you didn’t build that”) that receive days’ worth of coverage, knocking the candidates who say them badly off script.

So which is it? Do the press want candidates to be authentic, meaning that candidates will be more “real” but occasionally imprecise, or do they place a higher value on candidates who avoid gaffes, even if it means they appear more scripted?

Whether it’s reasonable or not, they clearly want both. And as a result, that means that candidates have to perform a high-wire act that few human beings—never mind politicians—can live up to.

Think it’s easy? Imagine trying to be truly yourself while discussing policy and having cameras capture every public moment over a two-year period. Do you think you could avoid saying anything embarrassing during that time, when you’re not only stressed but suffering from chronic sleep deprivation?

As a media trainer, I place a high value on authenticity. I wish public figures could live a life without being so constantly on guard. But in a media environment in which a single media moment is all it takes to destroy a career, I’d be committing professional malpractice if I didn’t teach spokespersons how to avoid such gaffes.

Oftentimes, that means they need to show a little less of themselves and stick to their talking points.

And that’s a shame for all of us.

This post originally ran on the Politix website.  Brad Phillips is author of the forthcoming book The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.


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The Right Speech Formula For Winning Political Campaigns

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 22, 2012 – 11:13 am

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post was written by Ben Donahower, an experienced campaign operative and award-winning Toastmaster.

Politicians – and their campaigns – too often overlook their audiences. But campaigns that strategically think about to whom the candidate is speaking, and when, get the most value out of political speeches. So how should candidates plan their speeches throughout a campaign?

The best game plan for political speeches follows the campaign plan. Winning campaign plans start with voter outreach among likely supporters, transition to neutral voters, and finally return to the candidate’s base.

Political speeches should follow the same pattern because they reinforce campaign phone banks and canvasses and because it’s a formula for giving the right speech, at the right time, when the candidate has the right skills.

THE RIGHT SPEECH

A persuasive speech takes time. Candidates can use friendly audiences as a proving ground for introductions, key points, conclusions, and more subtle elements of a stump speech. A candidate’s base is a forgiving audience, so it’s a perfect group to experiment on without fear of the political consequences.

AT THE RIGHT TIME

Timing is critical on a political campaign. Campaigns should use early speeches to define the candidate and the opponent, and to detail the policies that the candidate will focus on or implement when elected. Unlike the persuasive speeches given to undecided voters over the course of most of the campaign, these early speeches are best suited for voters sympathetic to the cause. As Election Day approaches, the message on the stump changes to getting out the vote. Who is the candidate speaking to when the message is to show up at the polls on Election Day? Supporters, of course!

THE RIGHT SPEAKING SKILLS

Public speaking skills come with practice, and practice comes in two forms: preparation and delivery. This audience strategy helps reinforce public speaking skills like these: Brevity: All other things being equal, a short speech is better than a long speech. Candidates are often speaking at events where they are one of many speakers. In these cases, it’s especially important to be respectful of the time allotted and voters will thank you for it! Speech speed: Early political speeches from candidates usually have a dangerous combination of nervousness and enthusiasm, which manifests itself in very fast speeches. These tips on handling a fear of public speaking will help slow candidates down and so will practicing pauses. The most important the point, the longer the pause. Storytelling: The single most important technique to engage the audience in a stump speech is to tell a story, especially about an individual. Stories are incredibly persuasive without having to speak in terms that alienate people, they are memorable, and they imply more than the sum of the words.

THE AUDIENCE STRATEGY THAT WORKS

Finally, if there is one thing that can throw a wrench in a speech, it’s nerves. Speech-destroying nervousness is relative to the size and type of the audience. Sequentially speaking to supporters, then undecideds, and back to supporters prepares candidates for gradually more nerve racking audiences while complementing the field plan and other moving parts of the campaign.

Ben Donahower is an experienced campaign operative and award-winning Toastmaster. Connect with Ben on his website, Campaign Trail Yard Signs.

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