What I’ve Learned As A Spokesperson: John Barnett

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 17, 2012 – 6:09 am

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in an ongoing series of readers sharing what they’ve learned as media spokespersons. Click here to learn how to submit your own piece. Today’s post comes from John Barnett, a senior communications analyst for Vox Optima.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve only been a spokesperson a few times. The majority of my career has been prepping the spokespeople and media reps to do their jobs well. I’m the wizard behind the curtain.

But in my [mumble-cough-mumble] years of working with media and spokespeople, I can say 90 percent of my media encounters were positive, effective and balanced. But the real secret to helping your spokesperson work effectively with reporters isn’t magic, just simplicity.

Deliver what you promise.

PR pro John Barnett

Here’s what I mean: A few years back (names and places are changed to protect the … well, me) my media team was involved with a large project of intense local, national and international media interest. Smartly so, headquarters created media ground rules supporting transparency, organizational messaging, interviewing opportunities and reasonably unhindered media access. So all’s right with the Universe, right?

Uh, no. Not even close.

Enter our local bosses packing deep-seated distrust of the media and directing entirely different media ground rules. We’ll call them anti-media ground rules.

Watching our spokesperson in the first reporter meeting being forced to tell the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, et al, we were reneging on the ground rules was painful. And a first-year rookie could expect what came next. We got our butts handed to us during the first wave of reporting. And our local leadership got animated phone calls and personal visits from their bosses as reminders of what rules to follow.

Safe to say a new direction was implemented rather quickly, followed by an improved reporting tone and style as we returned to the original ground rules. We just had to deliver. And deliver we did.

Based on that experience (and others), here are six things you should remember when working with the media:

    1. Provide Access as Promised. Few instances justify going back on your word.

    2. Offer Relevant Subject Matter Experts/Spokespeople: They should be lined up and ready to go, on time as promised. That means prepping with media training, providing messaging and background notes, practicing with mock interviews, all without excuses for a late, ill-prepared spokesperson.

    3. Anticipate Media Needs. Prepare digital/hard copy press kits, hold thorough press briefings, and set up reliable communications, connectivity and other support facilities if it’s a long-term event.

    4. Be Flexible. Always build in scheduling cushion for the unknown, running long, etc. That gives the media enough time to “get it right.”

    5. Be Respectful. Remember smaller outlets and new media reporters deserve a fair shake like “the big guys.” Two-way respect is always appreciated, and it doesn’t make you a doormat.

    6. Be Transparent.No comment” is not in a spokesperson’s vocabulary. Even “I don’t know, but will get the answer” is better; just make sure you follow-up.

With an effective team anticipating needs and backing up the public face, your expectation of media reporting should be relatively accurate and fair. But as I experienced, going into a media situation from the adversarial position will never work. As Brad quoted in a previous post, “never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”

It just makes for a bigger story you don’t want.

John Barnett, a senior communications analyst for the national telework public relations company, Vox Optima, has more than 27 years of expertise in public relations consulting, media relations and training, and social media management. John can be reached on Twitter, LinkedIn and by email at john.barnett@voxoptima.com.

Read the five previous entries in this series by John Fitzpatrick, Philip Connolly, Starr Million Baker, Justin Cole, and Julia Stewart. Or better yet, contribute your own piece! Submission rules here.


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Six Ways To Be Funny During A Speech (Without Getting Fired)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 8, 2012 – 6:09 am

Editor’s Note: This guest post was written by Dr. Steve Bedwell, a medical doctor and leadership speaker who uses humor to teach professional development skills to corporate, association, and health care groups.

Here’s the insider secret that comedians don’t want you to know—delivering a line isn’t that difficult. Al Gore, who no one would mistake for a stand-up comic, opens his ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ presentation with a fabulous joke: “My name is Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States of America.” To paraphrase Larry the Cable Guy: “I don’t care what your politics are; that’s funny!” I promise you, if Al Gore can do it, you can do it.

Al Gore’s joke is extremely (and, I suspect, painfully) self-deprecating which is my first tip: Do be self-deprecating. Then, not only will you be seen as somebody with their ego in check, it’s also extremely unlikely that someone will take offense. I open my speech with jokes about being bald: “I don’t need conditioner. I dream of split ends…the very thought of one hair becoming two!”

Dr. Steve Bedwell

Tip Two: Don’t ever target members of the audience. This holds true even if the audience member is “afflicted” in the same way as you. For me hair loss is comedy gold. However, it really bugs some of the bald guys in my audiences, so I focus the hair loss jokes on myself. (If you ever see me speak you’ll notice that I’m having fun with members of the audience within a “sitcom” type situation that I’ve created and never at their expense.)

Tip Three: In a similar way, don’t target demographic groups unless they are your audience’s common enemy. For example, when I speak to doctors, malpractice lawyers are a great target. Be careful here though, one caustic line can ruin a wonderful presentation and be the thing people remember about you. You need your mental filter set at “if in doubt, don’t say it.” So, where might your funnies come from? Great question, which brings me to my next tip…

Tip Four: Let the audience write jokes for you. During one speech, I was about to swallow a four-foot long modeling balloon (don’t ask) and explained that I needed some encouragement. In reply, a woman at the back of the room shouted out: “Steve, you’re very handsome!” I’ve used Lisa’s hilarious response in every speech since that day…not only is it funny, it’s self-deprecating.

Tip Five: Let the audience tell you what’s funny. No one, not even a hugely experienced comic, can tell you if something is going to be funny before you present it to an audience. So, if an audience laughs at something you say, that’s a comedy gift—don’t let it go to waste. For example, back when I honed material at comedy clubs, I happened to mention that I lived in Kentucky. This juxtaposition of my British accent and the state I called home was apparently hilarious and got a huge (and completely unexpected) response.

Finally, tip six, don’t set yourself up for failure. Never say: “Here’s a funny story…” Or “I heard this joke about…” A while back I was introduced as “The medical doctor who’ll make you laugh out loud every fifteen seconds.” I could feel the audience setting their watches!

You can learn more about Steve’s professional and leadership development programs at http://www.mindcapital.com/.

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What I’ve Learned As A Spokesperson: Justin Cole

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 13, 2012 – 6:08 am

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in an ongoing series of readers sharing what they’ve learned as media spokespersons. Click here to learn more about how to submit your own piece for the “What I’ve Learned as a Media Spokesperson” series. Today’s post comes from Justin Cole, a senior communications analyst for Vox Optima, a national telework public relations company.

For most people, being a spokesperson is not a natural skill. It takes practice, preparation and careful consideration. But it has always been my experience that when a culture of communication is part of an organization’s mindset, its members will be ready to seize any media opportunities when they arise.

Mindless talking heads spouting out communication rhetoric doesn’t cut it. When speaking with the media, the best results come from prepared communicators. People who think about being on the record every day, in every encounter, with employees, constituents, customers, and, of course, the media, are the ones who succeed.

PR pro Justin Cole

When a crisis happens to an organization other than your own, practice what you would say if you found yourself in their situation. Communication is like a sport – if you don’t practice it every day, you won’t hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning when you need it the most.

Let me explain.

Throughout my career as a media spokesman, and later as media relations trainer, I lived and died by the Golden Rules of Media Relations:

  1. 1. “No comment” never, ever works. Don’t use it. You might as well admit to the Kennedy assassination while you’re at it, because you look guilty. And scared. And neither one is a good thing to be in our line of work.
  2. 2. A yes or no question never gets a yes or no answer. Each question you receive is an opportunity to tell your story; never pass up an opportunity to tell your story!

As I took off my spokesperson training wheels, I developed a couple of rules of my own that I now use when mentoring senior executives and company spokespeople:

  1. Prepare three key messages you’d want to communicate with 30 seconds of free, prime-time network TV airtime. Practice your elevator speech!
  2. Reporters are not your friends. Don’t let today’s friendly conversation become tomorrow’s headline. Remember, you’re always on the record!

No comment has the same effect on reporters as confessing to the Kennedy assassination, argues Cole

Every leader or professional communicator should have three key messages in their hip pocket every day. Armed with those, communication opportunities will appear all over the place. Add in some practice and you’re prepared for a successful scheduled or spur-of-the-moment media interview.

Practice is the only way to stay off of Brad’s wonderful “best media disasters of …” posts.

Don’t be afraid of bad news. Open, honest, and forthright information at the earliest opportunity is the quickest way to establish yourself as a credible and knowledgeable source. With today’s instantaneous news media, preparation for media events should now be a regular part of your day. With the proper prep work, your messages will be clear, promote support for the issue you are representing, and deliver a ‘win’ for everyone in the organization.

Justin Cole, a senior communications analyst for the public relations company Vox Optima, has more than 10 years of expertise in defense industry, international and national public relations consulting, crisis and strategic communication planning, media relations, media training, and reputation and branding management. Justin can be reached by email at justin.cole@voxoptima.com.

Submit your own article for the “What I’ve Learned as a Spokesperson” series! Details here.


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What I’ve Learned As A Spokesperson: Starr Million Baker

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 2, 2012 – 6:12 am

Editor’s Note: This is the third in an ongoing series of readers sharing what they’ve learned as media spokespersons. Would you like to submit your own article? Click here to learn more about how to submit a piece for the “What I’ve Learned as a Media Spokesperson” series. Today’s post is by Starr Million Baker, owner and president of INK Public Relations.

As an agency owner I’ve had the opportunity to serve on both sides of the spokesperson fence – speaking on behalf of my own business and those of my clients, and training my clients to speak to the media themselves. Working with the media can be a “you win some, you lose some” situation. But if you want to win more than you lose, do these three things:

1. Be Real: I cannot stress enough – use real language. Don’t speak in the jargon of your industry. Even if you’re speaking to a reporter that covers your industry it’s just, well, boring. Have you ever seen a quote that describes the process for making dog food? No, and you never will – stuff like that goes into the “background” file in the reporter’s head, if it even makes it that far.

PR pro Starr Million Baker

To get quoted you have to be interesting: include analogies, bold words, emotion, examples. Think about it this way – a reporter is supposed to be objective, so he can’t say “this is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” but you can (well, I wouldn’t actually recommend being that over-the-top as it will come across insincere – seriously, what is better than sliced bread? – but you get my drift).

2. Be Prepared: I had a client once who, simply put, was better in the afternoon. After he warmed up, he had more energy, better analogies and examples – he was a better storyteller and presenter of his information.

Frankly, he sucked when he wasn’t prepared.

Knowing this, we scheduled media interviews for the afternoon and we prepped with him verbally (I played reporter, he played himself) prior to the meeting. When he was prepared, his interview-to-coverage ratio was easily 80 percent. When not prepared, he was literally never quoted. Know your audience, know what you want to say, and spend time thinking about (or talking about) how (see point above) you’ll say it.

When not prepared, you’ll slip into the jargon that you know like an old sweater on a cold day. You’re also more likely to not have the information you need for the angle the reporter is taking, or to share false information as you try to "wing it."

3. Be In Control: The best advice a media trainer once gave me, and that I pass on to all of my clients, is this: media interviews are presentations, NOT conversations. This isn’t intrapersonal communication, folks – nodding along as a reporter asks a question denotes agreement, not the usual “I hear ya” you might convey in a conversation among friends.

You are in control of what comes out of your mouth, so know what you want to say (see a trend here?), and stick to it. Sure, answer the question that was asked (briefly), but don’t let a question lead you off on a tangent – get back to your point.

More times than not, speaking with the media is one of the best things you’ll ever do – for your company, your product or service, your client. And don’t let a bad experience taint your view of the process – after all, you have as much of a role in creating that experience as the reporter. Be real, be prepared, be in control, and you’ll win.

Starr Million Baker, APR, is the owner and president of INK Public Relations, an Austin-based boutique public relations firm. She has been in PR since childhood, and has been getting paid for it for 17 years.

Submit your own article for the “What I’ve Learned as a Spokesperson” series! Details here.


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What I’ve Learned As A Media Spokesperson: Philip Connolly

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 6, 2012 – 3:35 pm

Editor’s Note: This is the second in an ongoing series of readers sharing what they’ve learned as media spokespersons. Would you like to submit your own article? Click here to learn more about how to submit a piece for the “What I’ve Learned as a Media Spokesperson” series.

Two experiences from my post-journalism career in corporate communications at Shell, Glaxo and Sanofi.

Firstly, sometimes you have to help your interviewee find his or her motivation. 

The big, highly-regulated, companies I worked for could be inward-looking and not very consumer focused. So when I suggested “how about talking to this journalist?” the answer would be “Why should I? If I do a good job people will just think I’m looking for a new position, if I do a bad job people will criticise – there’s nothing in it for me.” 

London-based communications consultant Philip Connolly

In those circumstances, I was ready with the benefits of engaging with the media that would work for the individual concerned.

Secondly, multi-tasking in broadcast interviews requires more mental agility than I possess.  I gave up worrying about nuances that insiders back in the office would pick up on; I learned to do the best I can in telling a simple story that made the agreed points for the benefit of the listening or viewing public. 

Doing one thing well works for me better than doing two or three things O.K.

Philip Connolly is a communications consultant based just north of London. He can be reached via email at philip@philipconnollycommunicatons.com.

Submit your own article for the “What I’ve Learned as a Spokesperson” series. Details here.


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What I’ve Learned As A Spokesperson: John Fitzpatrick

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 24, 2012 – 6:12 am

Editor’s Note: This is the first in an ongoing series of readers sharing what they’ve learned as media spokespersons. Would you like to submit your own article? Click here to learn more about how to submit a piece for the “What I’ve Learned as a Media Spokesperson” series.

Earlier in my career, I was a spokesman for the rail industry, to include both freight and passenger trains.

The day after an Amtrak train crashed, I was conducting a live remote interview for one of the cable networks. As the remote producer put the IFB in my ear, I could hear the segment producer during the commercial break prepping the anchor for my interview…and she obviously did not realize I was already on the line. She gave the anchor the particulars on the crash then teed up my interview. She said I was there to defend the industry’s safety record and that – while I was making that point – they’d cut to dramatic video of the train cars on their side, scattered down the tracks.

Clearly my defense of the industry via spoken word was about to be undercut with broadcast video that suggested otherwise.

Rather than get defensive or combative on air, what I ended up doing was flipping the video on its head. When the anchor asked me the obvious safety question, I made two points. First, I noted there was dramatic video of the train cars but then observed that no passengers were seriously injured – a testament to the safe design of those train cars despite how they might look on TV. Second, I said that while this was a serious incident, it also stood out as a news item because such crashes are extremely rare and passenger deaths are even rarer.

John Fitzpatrick

What I learned here were a few things. To be credible, you sometimes must concede an obvious point – but that does not mean you must concede on your overall message. The crash was dramatic and it would have been silly of me to suggest otherwise. That, however, is a far cry from conceding the industry is unsafe – which it is not.

Also, when it comes to TV (especially when you are remote and can’t see what they are airing), anticipate the video. Of course they were going to show dramatic video, so that was no surprise. I was prepared even if they hadn’t mistakenly confirmed it to me in advance. Finally, it’s ironic that a media training lesson we all remind our clients was lost on the news media itself in this case: the microphone is always on.

John F. Fitzpatrick is a senior partner with Stratacomm. He tweets at @FitzFiles.

Submit your own article for the “What I’ve Learned as a Spokesperson” series. Details here.


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Accepting Submissions: What I’ve Learned As Spokesperson

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 22, 2012 – 6:12 am

I’m pleased to announce a new feature that will allow readers to learn from one another. Plus, it will give you an opportunity to gain some free publicity!

What have you learned about being a media spokesperson? Have you:

  1. Learned a vital lesson as a result of making a big mistake while speaking to a reporter?
  2. Remembered a piece of advice from a mentor that has served you well throughout your media interviews?
  3. Come to any conclusions about being a media spokesperson as a result of years of trial and error?

Whether you’re a new spokesperson who’s still learning the ropes or a veteran who’s teaching others, I’d love to hear what you’ve learned in your role as a media spokesperson.

Over the next few months, I’ll publish many of your responses as standalone articles on the blog.

Here are the submission details:

  1. Please write an article that runs between 300-500 words. You can write about any of the topics suggested above, or anything else that fits beneath the headline, “What I’ve Learned as a Media Spokesperson.”
  2. Please focus on one or two specific things you’ve learned in your role as a media spokesperson. Specific anecdotes are encouraged, but not required.
  3. Provide your name, title, organization, how long you’ve worked as a communicator, a link to your website or blog, and a head shot.
  4. Email your articles to Contact@MrMediaTraining.com (please do not leave it in the comments section).
  5. Your article must be exclusive to the Mr. Media Training Blog.
  6. There is no submission deadline, but the first submissions received will be among the first published.

This is the first time I’m opening up the blog to submissions from readers, and I’m very much looking forward to reading your work, learning from you, and sharing your work with others! And please share this link with others who might want to submit a post.

As always, thank you very much for reading. Now, get writing!

Here’s a terrific sample of a guest post, from PR pro John Fitzpatrick.

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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.

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