PR Fail: Look Behind You!

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 27, 2015 – 9:45 am

Late last week, New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick and Quarterback Tom Brady (below) tried to take the air out of accusations that they had intentionally deflated game balls during their AFC Championship Game win.

Unfortunately, it looked as if the Patriots’ PR staff didn’t consider the background those two spokespersons would be standing in front of while denying the charge. As both men spoke, an advertisement for Gillette’s “Flexball” razor served as their backdrop, an unfortunate coincidence noted by thousands of people on social media.

(There are two other possible explanations—one, the Patriots were under a legal obligation to use that background, and two, Gillette willingly took the risk to be associated with this controversy in return for the additional exposure.)

Tom Brady Gillette


The Patriots are far from alone in using an ill-considered background. In 2010, for example, MSNBC President Phil Griffin announced his network’s new branding strategy in a self-produced video—while CNN played in the background.

Phil Griffin


Last year, the former U.S. ambassador to Poland, Lee Feinstein, gave an interview to the BBC with what looked to be a sloppy dorm room behind him. I dubbed this “the worst webcam background I’ve ever seen.” 

Lee Feinstein Background


And in one of my all-time favorite clips that readers of this blog have seen before, then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin pardoned a Thanksgiving turkey—while turkeys were being slaughtered behind her.


I gave some advice about choosing the right background in my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need To Know Before Your Next Interview:

“Company representatives might stand on a bustling factory floor to show their business’s vitality. Marine biologists might remove their shoes and deliver an interview from the water’s edge. A health expert discussing the seriousness of diabetes might choose to do an interview from a local hospital’s emergency room.

Your background is even more important during a crisis. As a general rule of thumb, don’t display your logo during a crisis. Why help the audience remember that your brand is associated with bad news? That means you shouldn’t stand in front of any signs, buildings, or awnings that feature your company’s symbol. Also avoid wearing any clothing, caps, or pins that bear your company’s name.”

It’s easy to understand how these things happen: We become so fixated on the messages we want to deliver that we too often forget about the optics. So before your next interview, take a quick glance around you to make sure nothing in the background could conflict with your message.

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Roger Goodell’s Press Conference: Did He Say Enough?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 19, 2014 – 5:12 pm

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell finally faced reporters today in an effort to save his job and quell growing public outrage over his poor handling of a domestic abuse case involving a player.

The Context

The crisis began when this video, showing Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice dragging his fiancée’s unconscious body off an elevator, appeared on TMZ.


Despite seeing that video and confirming directly with Ray Rice that he had hit his fiancée, Goodell decided to suspend him for just two games, far less than many players get for smoking a joint. When TMZ released new video of Rice actually punching her, the public reaction was even more profound.


How Did He Do Today?

Goodell adhered to many crisis communications best practices. Among other things, he:

  1. 1. Apologized directly and unequivocally: “I got it wrong with the Ray Rice matter, and I apologize for that…I let myself down. I let everyone else down.”
  2. 2. Expressed his commitment to make it right: “We have seen too much of the NFL doing wrong. That starts with me…but now I will get it right and do whatever it takes to accomplish that.”
  3. 3. Appointed a third party investigator—former FBI director Robert Mueller—to examine the League’s handling of this situation and make recommendations to strengthen its personal conduct policies.
  4. 4. Partnered with and made significant financial contributions to domestic abuse organizations.
  5. 5. Brought in experts on domestic abuse to help the League improve its policies.
  6. 6. Conveyed a serious tone that made clear that he was chastened by this incident and committed to doing better.

Roger Goodell Press Conference


And Yet…

There are times when checking all of the “Crisis Communications 101” boxes isn’t enough, and when doing many of the right things simply comes too late.

What’s inescapable is that Mr. Goodell is only giving this press conference now because he missed numerous opportunities to do the right thing when he originally had the chance. He appeared to blame the League’s pathetic two-game suspension of Rice on an outdated personal conduct policy written in 2007, as if domestic abuse is a new issue that’s cropped up in the past seven years.

As a result, this entire press conference was reactive, not proactive. It was done out of necessity, not choice, which tends to at least partially undercut even the most sincere statements of apology. 


The Question I’m Still Left Asking

It appears that the NFL, rightfully bruised by this crisis, has finally committed to taking this issue more seriously. But Mr. Goodell failed to answer one critical question during his press conference: Why does he need to be the person to lead the NFL through these changes? Why is this man, who just a few months ago thought that a brutal assault of a woman warranted a mere two-game suspension, the best person to demonstrate the seriousness with which the NFL suddenly treats this topic?

As the clip above shows, Goodell tries to answer that by saying that he’s still capable of leading since he has now acknowledged his mistake. That’s a thin rationale, and it’s one that appears at odds with the stance he takes with players. As Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith tweeted: 

Torrey Smith


Will His Press Conference Work?

Goodell’s job today wasn’t to end the crisis but to staunch the bleeding. He might have succeeded in that.

Appearing before cameras—even if his performance was far from perfect—might serve to take some of the air out of this story. He might even get lucky if another non-NFL sports crisis breaks and distracts reporters and fans from the NFL’s problems for a while.

The League’s owners appear to be giving him time to make things right. Based on today’s performance, my hunch is that he’ll hang on as commissioner for a while and that his resignation isn’t imminent. What do you think?


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A Perfect Example Of A Great Press Conference

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 2, 2014 – 12:02 am

Last week, an audio technician for the television program Cops was killed by friendly fire while filming a robbery at a Wendy’s in Omaha, Nebraska. 

The Omaha police chief, Todd Schmaderer, delivered an almost perfect press conference—one that stands in marked contrast to the shameful media interactions in Ferguson, Missouri—that should be studied by PR professionals as a terrific example of how to communicate in crisis.

PR pro Dave Statter, who writes the excellent STATter911 blog (and wrote about this story first), called this “one of the most effective and timely presentations following a police involved shooting I’ve witnessed.” He’s right.

Chief Schmaderer did many things right in this press conference. Below, you’ll find the five things that stood out to me most.


1. He Struck The Perfect Emotional Tone

Chief Schmaderer spoke in human terms throughout the press conference, saying, “It’s as if we lost one of our own…the tears and the hugs that I got when I got to the hospital, I could feel the pain of the officers.”

When asked whether he regretted his decision to allow Cops to film in Omaha, he gave a genuinely reflective answer, one that indicated that he had spent some time agonizing about that question:  “Personally, I’ll have to live with this forever.”

In a particularly classy move, he expressed condolences not only to the Cops production member who was killed, but to the family of the suspect, who was also killed during this incident.

2. He Treated The Media As An Ally

Chief Schmaderer treated the media with complete respect—and in return, the press treated him with complete respect. He also set the rules up front, asking reporters to identify themselves, instructing them to speak loudly enough for the microphones to pick up their questions, and letting them know he intended to begin with local reporters.

When he inadvertently skipped a reporter, he expressed remorse: “I want to make sure the Omaha World-Herald gets a question, I can’t believe I forgot you Maggie, I’m so sorry.”


Omaha Shooting


3. He Was Completely Open

Early in the press conference, the Chief said that, “We are striving for unprecedented transparency in this incident.” He lived up that pledge, giving an extended opening statement filled with specific detail and answering every question directly.

When he was unable to answer a question due to the legal process, he used a technique I call commenting without commenting: “While I can’t show the video—it’s evidence and it’s needed for the Grand Jury—we did provide still photos to show what the officers had encountered to the best of our ability.”

4. He Got In Front Of a Potential Controversy

The suspect who was killed by the officer’s bullet(s) was carrying an Airsoft Gun which, according to Wikipedia, is a replica “designed to be non-lethal.” Chief Schmaderer appeared to be aware that headlines could read something like, “Suspect With Fake Gun Killed By Police,” so he showed photos of that replica gun to make clear that responding officers had no way of knowing whether or not it was real. 

5. He Conveyed a Sense of Complete Competence

Chief Schmaderer’s tone-perfect performance gave me—and likely many other people—confidence that he’s the right person to lead this investigation professionally.

That leads to an important point about crisis press conferences: Press conferences often serve as a proxy for how competent a spokesperson is not only as a communicator, but behind the scenes as a leader. Leaders who are great at the behind the scenes portion of their jobs—but who are not great public communicators—may be perceived as lousy leaders. Chief Schmaderer, on the other hand, earned the benefit of the doubt and, as Dave Statter wrote, will “ultimately have a positive impact on the reputation of the Omaha Police Department.”

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Should You Use A Reporter’s Name During An Interview?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 28, 2014 – 4:02 am

I recently received this email from the communications director for a major league sports team:

“What is your opinion on a speaker (in our case it’s usually the head coach after games) addressing questions by naming each reporter before the answer or finding a spot within the answer to name the questioner? I hear writers talk about it, how it shows the speaker cares about the media or is making an effort to connect with them more than just spewing a quick answer. Do you think a speaker receives better coverage when naming the reporter in his answer than just to answer the question? I’m torn on it because:

1. My head coach will have to learn each reporter’s name (meaning the non-beat writers), and the reporters who cover us change quite often.

2. It distracts from the answer sometimes. Fans might think, “As a viewer, do I really care that Joe from the local newspaper asked the question? I’m a fan of the team, he should address me too.”


I’ve always been conflicted about this topic for the reasons the emailer stated. In The Media Training Bible, I wrote that:

“Many media trainers teach their trainees to call reporters by their names, arguing that doing so helps forge a warm connection with the interviewer. Perhaps that’s true. But it comes at too high of a price. When you call reporters by name, it makes it clear to the audience that you’re speaking to the reporter, not with them.”

Although I believe that advice is generally sound, does it always apply?

It definitely applies to taped sound bite interviews, in which the person conducting the interview may be a behind-the-scenes producer. If you say that person’s name during the interview, the news station will probably be forced to edit it out—or drop that quote altogether.

But does it apply to a live press conference?

Press Conference Microphones

On one hand, naming reporters might help make the reporter feel valued. Reporters may even want to edit their name into the piece to show that they’re the one who asked the question (and let’s face it—hearing their name may also satisfy their ego).

But on the other hand, if the head coach doesn’t know a few people, it will become abundantly clear to everyone watching that they don’t know the reporter. In addition, reporters from competitive outlets may not want to use otherwise great quotes that name their competitors. Plus, as the emailer suggested, it may interfere with the connection the coach should be making with the viewers and fans outside of the room.

Should This Head Coach Call Reporters By Name?

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The emailer and I would both like to learn from you on this one. Please select an option from the poll above—and leave your more complete thoughts in the comments section below.  


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The 5C’s Of Crisis Communications

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 20, 2014 – 6:02 am

A crisis strikes your company. News helicopters are flying overhead, reporters with camera crews are showing up at your headquarters, and journalists from all over the world begin calling your communications department. 

That scenario might seem dramatic—and admittedly, most corporate crises aren’t quite that sensational—but it happens. When a plane crashes, a factory has a major explosion, or a university has a school shooting, all of those things happen, and more. 

It’s common for executives to deliver a press conference in those situations—and how well they come across during their early press conferences and media interviews is critical to establishing a strong public perception. 

The 5C’s of crisis communications detail the five critical traits all executives and spokespersons must convey during their press conferences and interviews.   

Press Conference Microphones


1. Competence

Early in a crisis—before the facts are known and when company officials are as blindsided as everyone else by the news—it’s easy for an executive to appear flustered, unsure, and tentative. As an example, watch this example of the flustered chairman of a rail company responding to a derailment that killed more than 40 people in Quebec.

The public can’t see how well you perform handling the details of the crisis itself. They can’t watch you delegate roles, see your private meetings, or hear your phone calls. So fairly or not, they will judge your competence based on how well you perform during your time in the media spotlight. Handle a tough press conference with dexterity? You’re deemed competent. Look uneasy before cameras? You’re not.

Lac-Mgantic Press Conference


2. Credibility

There’s one question that drives the public’s perception of an executive or spokesperson more than any other: “Does he or she get it?” Anything that undercuts an executive’s credibility threatens their public image for the rest of the crisis, and possibly forever. In some cases, the best way to gain credibility is to concede, rather than defend, an obvious point.

When BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward declared during the worst oil spill in U.S. history that “the amount of volume of oil…we are putting into [the Gulf of Mexico] is tiny in relation to the total water volume,” the public concluded that he didn’t get it. He should have conceded that it was an environmental disaster and stopped there.

Tony Hayward


3. Commitment

To set the right tone, executives and spokespersons generally need to express (in words or actions) a deep commitment to communicating with any affected stakeholders, the media, and the general public. Doing so ensures that reporters use you as the primary source and helps communicate your commitment to solving the problem (or at least mitigating its effects).

When Carnival Cruises had a PR challenge in February 2013 after an on board fire knocked out water and power, the company’s CEO got credit for showing up when the ship docked and going on board to  apologize to passengers personally. But the company’s commitment to communicating to the passengers themselves was less effective; many complained that the crew didn’t keep them fully informed about the situation.

Carnival Triumph


4. Caring

Little makes the public turn on an executive or public figure in crisis more than someone who’s cavalier toward any victims. As an example, when Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, he took the opportunity to “jokingly” label a former teammate’s wife—who Armstrong had falsely called a liar for years—a “crazy bitch.”

Few executives label victims that way, but they might communicate their indifference through self-focus. If an executive talks about the way he or she has suffered more than the way the actual victims suffered (see Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back,”) they will be held in low regard or become outright pariahs.



5. Capability

Finally, the public must perceive that the executive is capable of solving the problem. BP’s Tony Hayward failed that test. So did Susan G. Komen Foundation CEO Nancy Brinker. So did Paula Deen. So did Lululemon founder Chip Wilson.

But Jet Blue’s David Neeleman got it exactly right. When Jet Blue faced a media crisis after canceling hundreds of flights and leaving passengers stuck on grounded planes without food or water for many hours in 2007, CEO David Neeleman responded by releasing a  “Passenger Bill of Rights.” That Bill of Rights offered passengers increasing levels of compensation based on the length of their flight delays.

This interview from The Today Show demonstrated his competence, credibility, commitment, caring, and capability.

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Chris Christie’s Marathon Press Conference

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 9, 2014 – 1:00 pm

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie faced reporters today to respond to his administration’s brewing “bridge” scandal.

His press conference was far from perfect. But it was a net positive and a critical first step toward regaining some control of this story.

By delivering a “marathon press conference”—he answered questions for close to two hours—he left an indelible impression of openness and transparency. 

(Click here to catch up on the scandal, in which access to the George Washington Bridge was partially closed as political punishment.)

Chris Christie Bridge Press Conference

Based on his tone—which careened between sad, betrayed, incredulous, exasperated, and bewildered—I believe him. I suspect many others will, as well. When watching a politician respond to a crisis, viewers typically have a gut-level visceral reaction. Christie’s performance will lead to a favorable one for many. 

Beyond his tone, he also took specific action, firing a top aide. Christie made clear that he knew nothing about the bridge incident and has “nothing to hide.”

Still, his press conference was far from perfect. Christie spent far too much time talking about his own grief over the situation (“I’m humiliated by this.” “I am very sad today.”) instead of focusing on the people who were affected by this incident—commuters, parents, school children, and most critically, those who couldn’t receive an emergency response in a timely manner. He spent too much time talking about his own “stages of grief,” and not enough focusing on the New Jersey residents—and others—who his administration let down.

He also used a couple of politically dumb phrases:

  1. Dumb quote one: “I am not a bully.” Statements of denial are a media no-no, as they instantly evoke statements like “I am not a crook” and “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
  2. Dumb quote two: “Mistakes were made.” That passive-language gem has become a cliché for its lack of personal responsibility. In fairness, he took responsibility at several other moments.

He also stood behind a large, triple-sized lectern, putting an unnecessary and unhelpful physical barrier between himself and reporters.

The bottom line is that it’s never an enviable position for a politician to have to stand before reporters and claim that he was clueless about what his top lieutenants were doing. At best, it makes Christie look like a clueless and somewhat feckless manager.

But assuming everything he said in his press conference today was truthful, it was a critical and effective first step that may help Christie keep his 2016 presidential ambitions alive.

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

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July 2013: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 31, 2013 – 12:02 am

More than 40 people were killed earlier this month when a 73-car train filled with oil derailed in Quebec and slammed into downtown Lac-Mégantic.

The accident, Canada’s deadliest in almost 150 years, was horrific—some people sitting in a café, for example, were reportedly burned alive after fleeing, while others jumped from a building’s third floor to escape the inferno.

Edward Burkhardt, the chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways (whose train was responsible for the damage), managed to make matters worse. He waited several days before showing up and giving a press conference—and when he did, he made an even bigger mess of things. 

Lac Megantic Ottawa Citizen

Mr. Burkhardt comes across in this press conference with the analytical nature one might expect from someone in a more technical profession. In so doing, he demonstrates that there is a mile-wide chasm between intelligence and emotional intelligence—and while he might have a lot of the former, it’s clear that he has little of the latter.

This press conference is a good example of what not to do. It’s worth watching in its entirety.

1. It was all about him.

He began the press conference by talking about his own feelings: ”I feel absolutely awful about this. I’m devastated by what’s occurred in this community. I have never been involved in anything remotely approaching this in my whole life.”

That’s not a bad start, but he failed to follow it up with a genuine statement of concern or commitment for the victims and the community. As a result, the inescapable takeaway was that his primary concern was himself, not the victims. (That may or may not be true, but it’s what his communications style reasonably led many people to believe.) The fact that he reportedly hadn’t met with the victims’ families didn’t help. 

2. He showed up too late. 

At the very beginning of the press conference, he perseverated over the question of why he hadn’t shown up sooner. “Frankly, it was easier [remaining in my office] than running around here with a cell phone in my hand and trying to do it from here.”

That may be true—but he seems completely oblivious to the fact that being present and exhibiting genuine compassion for victims is a necessary component of modern day crisis communications. In fact, he shockingly told one reporter, “I’m not a communications professional. I’m a manager,” as if competent management doesn’t require competent communications. (Plus, he was the Vice President of Marketing for Chicago and North Western Transportation, where he presumably needed to know something about communications.)

3. He talked business.

Burkhardt talked about insurance. He also talked about bankruptcy, future plans for the railroad, claims, and a key customer. None of that was appropriate. His responses should have maintained a laser-like focus on the victims: “There will be a time and place to discuss the financial impact of this incident on our company. Right now, nothing is more important than putting plans in place to make sure these families and this community are taken care of.”

4. He disrespected the community.

Incredibly, Mr. Burkhardt tried to assume the “victim’s” mantle, telling reporters:

“I thought people would respond to my willingness to come there…I mean, they were screaming about how I took three days to get there…People wanted to throw stones at me. I showed up and they threw stones. But that doesn’t accomplish anything.”

Those comments lead inevitably to point number five…

5. He looked like a jerk.

Mr. Burkhardt was condescending toward the press, even turning sarcastic when he asked one reporter, “Were you here a few minutes ago when I answered that?”

Given his demeanor, I question his decision to give a full press conference. He might have done better in a one-on-one format (particularly with print reporters who wouldn’t have shown video of his non-empathetic tone). He needed to say something, but I wonder whether a more able communicator within his company should have done the longer press conference. That’s not preferable in a crisis of this magnitude, but in this case, it might have been a more sound decision.

The lowest point came when he engaged in a pathetic attempt at wit. When one reporter asked, “How much are you worth?” Burkhardt responded, “A whole lot less than I was on Saturday.” In terms of summing up his self-focused tone, that quip was perhaps his most telling remark of all.

Photo Credit: Ottawa Citizen

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The Right Way To Run A Press Conference (Video)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 9, 2013 – 6:01 am

It’s easy to find an example of a spokesperson getting a press conference all wrong. It’s less common—and worth noting—when someone gets it exactly right. One such example occurred after Saturday’s plane crash in San Francisco.

Deborah Hersman, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), faced cameras shortly after the accident to discuss how her agency would handle its investigation. During the first half of her short briefing, Ms. Hersman delivered the information reporters needed to file their stories; during the second half, she took three questions.

Watch this video. It offers spokespersons everywhere a wonderful example of the right way to run a press conference during a crisis.

The Briefing

I was struck by how slowly and deliberately Ms. Hersman spoke. Her controlled pace not only gave reporters sufficient time to jot down notes, but conveyed a strong impression of a person who possessed the confidence and competence to manage the situation.

Ms. Hersman packed a lot of critical information into just two minutes. Her efficiency as a spokesperson leads me to believe that she’d be equally as efficient when leading an investigation.

One small detail: She should tie her hair back better before future outdoor press conferences. I know that’s superficial, but it was impossible not to notice her wrestling with her hair on the windy day. Many commenters in YouTube’s comments section—rarely a beacon of civil conversation—also noted the distraction.

Deborah Hersman NTSB

The Questions

Ms. Hersman took three questions. For each, she repeated the question back, which ensured that every microphone picked it up. She kept her answers short, which limited the number of quotes reporters could run.

Typically, I recommend that spokespersons announce in advance the number of questions they plan to take or the number of minutes available for the question period. Doing so prevents spokespersons from looking like they’re running away when the questions get tough (since they’ve announced their intention to take a specific number of questions in advance, they’re just following through on what they said they’d do).

Ms. Hersman didn’t do that. But it didn’t matter. After taking two questions, she confidently said, “One more question.” How did she make it work when so many others don’t? Because her tone was one of utter confidence throughout the entire briefing, and no one watching the video could reasonably conclude that she was running away from tough questioning. Even the manner in which she walked away showed a woman in complete control. 

That’s really the key word with this entire press conference: control. She controlled her own tone, controlled her message, and yes, even controlled the assembled press corps. 

A grateful tip o’ the hat to Dave Statter of the fabulous Statter911 blog.


You’ll find more tips about the best way to manage a press conference in my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.

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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.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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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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