Athlete Fails To “Execute” During Train Wreck Interview

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 22, 2015 – 4:02 am

Russell Westbrook, an All-Star point guard with the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, recently gave an interview that didn’t go so well.

As you’ll see in the clip below, he gave the same defiant answer repeatedly: “Good execution.” He gave that answer even when it didn’t answer the question. And, in a moment of candor that spokespersons occasionally fantasize about, he flat out told one reporter, “I don’t like you.”

Westbrook’s interview seems even stranger in light of the fact that his team won the game—and he had a terrific night.

To see how fans were reacting to Westbrook’s passive-aggressive interviewing approach, I delved into the comments section of several sports websites. It turns out that many fans defended Westbrook. Their argument went as follows: We hate the media, Westbrook gave them a taste of their own medicine, and good for Westbrook for doing so.

I think they’re wrong. Representing your brand well matters whether you’re a corporate vice president, a political candidate, or a professional athlete. And Westbrook made the fundamental error of forgetting that his audience wasn’t the reporter, but the people watching the interview—you know, the fans who pay his salary.

To get another perspective, I contacted a friend of mine, the communications director for a major sports team who deals with top-level athletes every day. He wrote:

“We grow any of the games we work in through young kids, and for them to see this does not help the game…I want players in my room respecting the media and the media respecting the players and the job they do. It is my job to keep that scale as even as possible throughout the season.  Dealing with players, their goal is to make their team and themselves look the best they can, both on and off the field.”

If he had a player interact with a reporter the same way Westbrook did, he would do the following:

“First thing I’m doing is having the conversation with my player as to what set them off to do so. After that talk, I would speak to the writer if I feel it is necessary to make sure they know there is a problem brewing. After that, I judge whether it would be best to bring a writer in to speak to the player one-on-one to talk it out, with everything off the record.”

Russell Westbrook Interview

He also says he wouldn’t have allowed the interview to continue for as long as Westbrook’s:

“I’m cutting it off…immediately, when I see what is going on and not allowing reporters to continue to ask questions. The player wants it to be a spectacle to embarrass the reporter and have people talking about it. The reporter(s) want to keep going because it allows him/her to continue to provoke the same answer which makes the player look ridiculous. So, I’m cutting it off immediately and allowing the reporter to write about me cutting it off if he wants. Then, I’m setting up this meeting between the player and this reporter he supposedly hates to clear this thing before it becomes more and more of a spectacle.” 

And in case you’re still not convinced that athletes should take their media interactions more seriously, these final lines should make them think again:

“From the management side, I’ve seen it happen when the attitudes of players prevents teams from ‘investing’ in them. As important as it is to compete on the playing field/ice/gym, when it comes time to sign a free agent or make a trade, all of these things go into an organization’s evaluation process. Is ‘said player’ worth disrupting the current team?”

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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?

 

From a Crisis Management Perspective, How Did Roger Goodell Do Today?

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July 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 31, 2014 – 6:02 am

A grand jury indicted Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice in March for third-degree aggravated assault. The indictment stems from an incident that took place in February, in which Rice allegedly knocked out his then-fiancée, now wife, Janay Palmer.

The video below, posted by TMZ, appears to show Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator. 

The National Football League announced last week that it would suspend Rice for the first two games of the season—a penalty that many football fans, women, and other humanoids who care about things like not abusing women—found infuriatingly unserious.

For context, the NFL has suspended dozens of players for four games or more for violating the League’s drug policy. Smoke a joint? Miss four games. Knock your soon-to-be-wife out cold? Just two.

Rice’s boss—Baltimore Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh—responded to the controversy last week with a flip tone that only served to inflame the situation:

”There are consequences when you make a mistake like that. I stand behind Ray, he’s a heck of a guy, he’s done everything right since, he makes a mistake, alright? He’s going to have to pay a consequence.”

Calling Rice’s conduct a “mistake” that was committed by a “heck of a guy” was tone-deaf—one wonders if Harbaugh would have given domestic abusers Ike Turner, Charlie Sheen, and Chris Brown the same benefit of the doubt (probably not, unless they could run for a touchdown). But his concluding comment was the reason I named him this month’s worst video media disaster:

”I think it’s good for kids to understand that it works that way, and that’s how it works. That’s how it should be.”

Give us a break, Coach. Don’t try to wrap this incident within a virtue. The only lesson you and the league have taught kids is that you will be welcomed back to the game with open arms by your coaches and teammates—and receive millions of dollars in 2014—as long as you sit out for two weeks.

If there’s any lesson here for kids aspiring to become a member of the NFL, it’s that it would be less consequential to beat your wife than it would be to smoke a joint.

John Harbaugh Ray Rice

Here’s an exercise you can do that shows why his response failed: Press play on the two videos above simultaneously. Does Harbaugh’s response seem even remotely congruent with the video of Rice dragging his lover off the elevator? Or does it come across as blithely dismissive?

What should Harbaugh have said? How’s this:

“Domestic abuse is a serious situation, and our team has absolutely no tolerance for it. Ray needs to pay a price for his actions—and he will not be welcome back onto this team until he does. People may debate the severity of his suspension, but what’s not up for debate is that fact that we agree wholeheartedly that he deserves to be punished.”

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

 


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Why You Should Engage With Your Critics

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 26, 2014 – 6:02 am

Back in April, Jimmy Fallon had an amusing segment on The Tonight Show that showed just how quickly fans could turn on a brand—and how quickly they could be won back. When I watched the segment again this week, I realized that it had parallels to our online interactions.

The segment starred Robinson Cano, a baseball star who had played with the New York Yankees for nine seasons until signing a $240 million contract with the Seattle Mariners late last year. 

To diehard Yankees fans, Cano is a traitor who abandoned his team in order to chase a giant paycheck. So when he came back to New York as a Mariner to play against his former team, the locals weren’t exactly happy to see him.

Fallon’s team set up a life-size cardboard box featuring Cano’s image and encouraged Yankees fans to boo him—but the fans didn’t expect the real-life Cano to pop out of the box. Trust me: this is hilarious.

Why did that happen? Why did so many fans boo Cano until he popped out of that box, at which point they wanted to shake his hand and hug him? And more to the point: Doesn’t the same thing happen on social media all the time?

I’ve often found that when people use harsh language to criticize something I’ve written, their tone softens when I engage with them. It’s easy to boo a cardboard box (to post a rant onto my Twitter feed or the comments section of my blog), but it’s harder to boo an actual person (me, when I offer a polite response to their criticism).

Robinson Cano Jimmy Fallon

There are certainly times when this doesn’t work and a response will simply inflame your critics. But in The Media Training Bible, I mentioned a survey that contained some rather surprising results:

“According to a 2011 Harris Interactive study, unhappy customers quickly forgave companies that responded to them. Thirty-three percent of customers who left a negative review on a shopping website ended up posting a positive review after receiving a response, while another 34 percent deleted the original review.”

If you rarely interact with your critics, try it. You don’t have to engage people who are vulgar, who have engaged in name calling, or are clearly online trolls—but if the person seems reasonable enough, you might be happily surprised by your ability to turn them around as quickly as Robinson Cano did his naysayers.

Like the blog? Read the book! The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview is available in paperback, for Kindle, and iPad.


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Donald Sterling’s Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Apology

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 12, 2014 – 3:52 pm

Scroll down for two updates, including a rather jaw-dropping video.

Donald Sterling, the disgraced owner of the L.A. Clippers who was caught making racist remarks on audiotape last month, attempted to apologize during an interview with Anderson Cooper that will air on CNN tonight (excerpts have already been released).

Someone should tell Sterling that apologies are supposed to make things better, not worse.

Sterling, you might remember, instructed his girlfriend not to bring black people to his basketball games. “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” the 80-year-old told his 31-year-old girlfriend. “Do you have to?”

I wouldn’t have advised Mr. Sterling to proceed with the interview in the first place. If he insisted, I would have made clear that he had only one main message: “I said some horrible things, I have some outdated beliefs, and I hurt a lot of people. I am deeply sorry to everyone who I hurt. I will spend every one of my remaining days on this earth trying to be a better man and do some good.”

Well, that would have been the sensible approach. Instead, Mr. Sterling dug an even deeper hole for himself, offering the worst high-profile public apology since Paula Deen. Here are a few things he did wrong:

1. He Played The Victim

Mr. Sterling blamed his ex-girlfriend for “baiting” him into making his comments: “I don’t know why the girl had me say those things.” Sorry to break it to you, Mr. Sterling, but she didn’t. She may have been laying a trap for you—but you voluntarily jumped into it and created a mess of your own making. If you don’t think racist thoughts, no trap can make you suddenly spout them.

2. He Offered a Conditional Apology

When asked whether he had apologized to Magic Johnson (Sterling had instructed his girlfriend not to bring him to basketball games), Sterling said, “If I said anything wrong, I’m sorry.” If? There’s no redemption without confession. He’s clueless.

Donald Sterling Anderson Cooper

3. He Attacked Magic Johnson…Again!

Out of everything in the interview excerpts, Sterling’s comments about a target of his original invective—Magic Johnson—was absolutely jaw-dropping: “Has he done everything he could to help minorities? I don’t think so…I just don’t think he is a good example for the children of Los Angeles.” What Mr. Sterling thinks he can gain by attacking a widely respected African American man is baffling. With those comments, Sterling reinforced his image as an out-of-touch man clinging to long-buried ideas. 

4. He’s Aiming For The Wrong Audience

Sterling is right that the team owners will ultimately cast the vote that decides his fate: “The people who are going to decide my fate, I think, are not the media, not the player’s union, but the NBA [owners].” But he seems not to understand that their votes will be swayed, in large measure, by public and player sentiment. It’s probably too late to sway them anyway—but slighting critical stakeholders will only add 500 pounds to his already Herculean lift.

A JAW-DROPPING UPDATE: May 12, 2014, 8:42 p.m.

It turns out that CNN didn’t include the most jaw-dropping moment of the interview in the advance excerpts. Speaking about why he believed Magic Johnson isn’t a role model for kids, Donald Sterling said: “That he would go do what he did and get AIDS, I mean, come on.” (Remember: that was in 1991.)

Sterling’s dismissive sneering toward Magic Johnson didn’t end there. He blasted Johnson by saying, “He acts so holy. I mean, he made love to every girl in every city in America, and he has AIDS.” He culminated that rant by accusing Johnson of not doing enough to help the black community: “He doesn’t do anything.”

Sterling then said something incredibly inflammatory, claiming that Jews lend money to other Jews to develop businesses but that African Americans d0n’t do the same. “Jews, when they get successful, they will help their people. And some of the African Americans, maybe I’ll get in trouble again, they don’t want to help anybody.” (That was something he said voluntarily in an interview apologizing for racism!) To top things off, Sterling accused Anderson Cooper of being a bigger racist than he is.

In writing this blog for four years, I’ve never seen someone blow an apology this badly.

In being a professional media trainer for more than a decade, I’ve never seen someone blow an apology this badly.

There’s no amount of hyperbole that could overstate how awful this was. If Mr. Sterling thought this interview was going to rehabilitate him, he’s delusional.

UPDATE: May 12, 2014, 9:16 p.m.

I have a feeling that media trainers and crisis communications professionals will be dissecting this interview for years. But one other critical takeaway can be drawn now.

Sterling’s goal for this interview should have been to apologize sincerely and unreservedly to everyone he hurt. That’s it. There can be no forgiveness before contrition.

Instead, Sterling’s lack of discipline allowed personal animus to rule the day. Magic Johnson was tangential to this story. Yes, Donald Sterling said on tape that he didn’t want Magic Johnson coming to his games —but all Sterling had to do now was say, “That was a dumb thing to say, and I’m sorry.”

Sometimes people scoff at the idea of PR pros or attorneys sitting in with clients during these types of interviews. Sterling didn’t have one. Their value likely seems a lot clearer now.

What did you think of this interview? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Review: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s Press Conference

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 29, 2014 – 2:53 pm

That’s leadership.

Adam Silver, who became NBA commissioner just three months ago, was handed a major controversy when L.A. Clippers team owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape late last week making racist comments. 

(You can catch up on the story here.)  

When the tapes became public on Saturday, many people were quick to react. Players demanded Sterling’s exit from the league, fans expressed outrage, and sponsors canceled their contracts with the Clippers.

Adam Silver

All eyes turned to the NBA commissioner, wondering how he would handle the situation. The commissioner pledged to take action swiftly—and he did. He worked quickly to authenticate the tapes and gain the support of other league owners.

And this afternoon, he banned Mr. Sterling from the NBA for life.

That may have seemed like an obvious decision to make, but it was more complicated than it appeared. For example, Dallas Mavericks Owner Mark Cuban seemed to oppose a lifetime ban due to the “slippery slope” such a precedent would set. Other critics also wondered if the comments—which were made in private to a romantic partner—should have led to his removal as a team owner.

I understand those concerns, but I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the NBA’s handling of this incident. The League’s crisis management worked, and the NBA did almost everything right in terms of communicating with the press. The press conference itself was also handled well: A press handler, presumably an NBA staffer, selected the questioners and counted down when they would take only two more questions. Press conferences rarely run as smoothly.

I was particularly impressed by Silver’s reaction when a reporter asked him if he felt any special pain since he, like Sterling, is Jewish. I made a decision as a human being, Silver said, refusing to wallow in his personal feelings and make this incident about him. 

Silver was handed a high-profile test that would determine whether or not he would establish himself as a leader. He passed with flying colors.

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

 


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April 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 27, 2014 – 11:34 am

Don’t bring black people to my basketball games.

That’s the message 80-year-old Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling allegedly delivered to his 20-something girlfriend on a tape that was leaked on the gossip website TMZ yesterday. Among other statements, the man on the tape, purportedly Sterling, says:

It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?” 

“You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want.  The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”

“Don’t put [NBA legend Magic Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me.  And don’t bring him to my games.”

Clippers Owner Donald Sterling to GF – Don’t Bring Black People to My Games, Including Magic Johnson – Watch More Celebrity Videos or Subscribe

 

I use the term “allegedly” because the tape hasn’t been formally authenticated as of this writing. But Sterling’s weak response, released to TMZ by the Clippers organization, suggests he’s guilty as charged:

“We have heard the tape on TMZ Sports.  We do not know if it is legitimate or if it has been altered.”

The statement goes on … “We do know that the woman on the tape — who we believe released it to TMZ Sports — is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the Sterling family, alleging that she embezzled more than $1.8 million, who told Mr. Sterling that she would ‘get even.’”

And the statement goes on, “Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings. It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life.”

And there’s this: “He feels terrible that such sentiments are being attributed to him and apologizes to anyone who might have been hurt by them.”

That’s not even close to a denial.

If he hadn’t uttered racist sentiments, it would have been easy to state that the tape was illegitimate. The only way the legitimacy of the tape could even be called into question is if it was possible that Sterling had uttered such statements. Sterling’s non-denial reminds me of Anthony Weiner’s ridiculous non-denial, in which he said he couldn’t say “with certitude” that a lewd tweet was of him in his underwear.

The organization’s attempt to question the motives of the leaker is even more pathetic given that it wasn’t accompanied by a strong denial. This is a mushy statement, bordering on a smear, that is unlikely to give an iota of comfort to even Sterling’s most ardent supporters.

Donald Sterling

In our media training courses, executives often ask how they can avoid being the victims of furtively taped conversations. My answer? You can’t. Your job is to avoid saying incendiary things that can be used against you, even in conversations you regard as private. In this case, Sterling may have been set up by his much younger girlfriend—but Sterling is solely to blame for the consequences, as no one forced him to share such racist views.

That leads to the cost of this mistake. Many people in the NBA are already calling for Sterling to lose his team. Given the NBA’s constitution, that may not be easy (a long suspension that essentially removes day-to-day control from Sterling may be more likely). But there are many other ways for Sterling to pay for this mistake—through fan boycotts, players who refuse to play for the Clippers, and diminished brand equity and reputation.

Assuming this tape will be authenticated, Sterling will have turned himself into a pariah who will go down in the annals of sports history alongside other infamous bigots including Marge Schott, Jimmy The Greek, and Al Campanis.

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


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The Media Interview That Cost A Man $3.5 Million

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The columnist agreed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • 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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