Question: Do You Tape Reporters During Media Interviews?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 20, 2015 – 7:36 pm

I recently received the following email from Christopher Holcroft, an Australian public relations pro. He writes:

“I have found these days more and more journalists who conduct phone interviews are recording them on voice recorders. To ensure there is complete transparency and to keep within my country’s federal laws, I ask the journalist if they are recording. I then ask do they mind if I record for my records.

This recording has now put both the journalist and yourself on the path to a complete record of what was said. Nothing can be mistaken.

Also, if the journalist skews their article/story you have a complete record to seek correction if required. The recording is also great for your bosses as it protects you and what you said versus what the journalist thought you said and reported.

I also encourage all interviewees to bring a voice recorder to media interviews and openly place it on the table next to the journalist so there is no mistake you are also recording the event for truthfulness. This way you can send a copy of the interview to your bosses before the story is aired or published.”

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In my two decades as a journalist and public relations practitioner, I’ve seen three media relations practices that were once largely verboten become acceptable, at least in some circumstances: Asking reporters for their questions in advance, requesting to see a copy of their stories before they run, and recording raw copies of interviews. (To be clear, the first two practices are only acceptable in certain cases, but they’re more common today than they were a decade ago.)

One obvious reason for the apparent increase in taping interviews is technology: Whereas taping once required us to carry a separate piece of equipment (three, actually: the recorder, a cassette, and fresh batteries), smartphones make it easy today for anyone, at any time. I suspect another reason is that social media has gotten us accustomed to living more public lives, so journalists who might have viewed tape recorders as an intrusive irritant a generation ago are more likely to view it as an inevitability today.

I understand the merits of the “record every interview” argument well, and have encountered many clients who employ such a policy. For some clients, particularly those dealing with highly controversial and potentially litigious issues, I agree that keeping an audio or video trail makes sense.

Personally, though, I don’t advise it to our clients as a general practice. Setting a tape recorder on the table immediately creates a climate of mistrust. Therefore, you might reserve its use for times when: you have a reasonable suspicion that the interviewer has an agenda and is not to be trusted; the news outlet is unfavorable toward your work; the topic is of great economic and/or reputational consequence. 

If you do decide to record an interview, make sure you remain on the right side of the law. You can find out if your state requires one- or two-party consent here.

Do You Record Your Interviews With Reporters?

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What are your practices regarding taping media interviews? Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

 

 


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Help A Reader: This Reporter Is Blowing Me Off!

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 29, 2015 – 4:46 pm

A Florida-based PR pro recently wrote in about a situation almost every media relations professional has faced at some point in their career:

“I was introduced to a journalist of a national magazine. My colleague and I sat down with the media person and pitched him what our organization does. He loved our cause and said he would publish a story in his national and local magazine after he visits our events. He couldn’t get enough of the work we do which is a non-profit providing free music training to kids.

I have invited him via email to all of our events and have called him twice. He hasn’t shown up to our events and responds with ‘I’m working on the next issue’ via phone.

I continue to send press releases to his attention. I hear nothing but crickets. I want to give him one more call. But at this point, what can I say? What is appropriate to say to a journalist who’s kind of giving me the run-around?”

Do not disturb with your calls 3

I empathize with this dilemma. In 2002, I traveled to Guyana with a reporter from the Associated Press who was interested in writing about the work being done by the organization I worked for. I planned a trip that had us crisscrossing the country and taking a ferry into Brazil, organized a series of meetings, and spent three full (and pleasant) days with her.

She never wrote the story. I followed up many times. At some point she stopped replying, and shortly thereafter, I gave up. It was a tremendous waste of resources (although I was delighted to see Guyana)— but it’s also part of the media relations game.

In your case, the first thing I’d say is that I wouldn’t take the reporter’s silence personally. It’s entirely possible that he remains as interested in your cause now as the day you met, but has been sidetracked by other stories, demands placed onto him by his editor, or just an unforgiving workload.

Many times in these situations, I’ve observed that the media relations professional and the reporter enter into a brief “push/pull” dynamic that quickly ends the relationship: the PR person keeps calling, emailing, and pressing, and the reporter is repelled by the (perceived) onslaught and backs away.

Tug Of War iStockPhoto PPT

Therefore, I’d suggest avoiding that dynamic by sending him an email that empathizes with his presumably busy workload, gives him control over your future contacts, and offers to make his life easier. Here’s an example:

“Dear Reporter,

I know that you were interested in our work, but I also understand how busy a reporter’s life is. Therefore, I’d like to make sure that I’m available to serve you—but that I don’t become a PR pest. 

How would you like me to keep in touch with you? Do you prefer that I continue sending you our press releases so you can keep up with our work? Should I remove you from the list but send a quick email if a newsworthy event is on the horizon? Should I check in with you, say, next month to see if there’s a clearing in your schedule to resume our conversation?

Please feel free to reply with a short phrase or sentence—there’s no need for a longer email if you’re swimming in work.

Thank you very much, and all the best. 

Brad Phillips”

This doesn’t guarantee a response, of course. But if the reporter does reply, your gentle approach might help invoke the “Reciprocity Principle,” which asserts that since you did something to help him (back off), he might be more inclined to do something for you (prioritize your future contacts). 

Other people use more aggressive media relations strategies than I do, and often to great success. So please regard mine as only one point of view. I’m hoping some readers will offer their own suggestions for you in the comments section. Good luck, and thanks for writing!

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How To Get Reporters To Soften Their Coverage Of You

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 16, 2015 – 2:02 am

A reporter’s primary obligation is not to you, the spokesperson, but to the story itself.  Yes, a  journalist owes you an accurate rendering of your quotes and a fair representation of your views, but whether you come out of the story looking good, bad or neutral is not their concern.

That being the case, you might wonder what the purpose is of establishing positive media relations with a reporter?

There are many ways to answer that question, but the one that matters the most when things go wrong is this: When you or your company is suddenly accused of wrongdoing, a reporter who has gotten to know you is more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. They may still write tough pieces about you, but they also may be a bit slower to assume the worst about you or at least be willing to hear what you have to say before forming hard conclusions.

Cameras at Press Conference

Those lessons all came to mind when I read a recent story by Cathal Kelly, a sports columnist for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. His story is about two professional athletes: retired baseball superstar Frank Thomas and professional hockey player Phil Kessel. Kelly goes into depth about the behavior of both men toward the media—and how their contrasting approaches yielded different results.

The entire story is worth reading; you can read it here.

The following lines grabbed my attention—and although Kelly wrote them with athletes in mind, the same takeaway applies to any public figure, business executive, or spokesperson who interacts with the media. They’re an honest confession of how basic humanity affects coverage, and I’ve found the same dynamic to be true for most of the reporters I’ve interacted with throughout my career.

“There are players I’ve covered for years, talked to many times about all sorts of things. I think I know them, at least a little.

Then one day, we’ll walk past each other in the street, our eyes meet and they don’t recognize me. Not at all.

As media, we are locker-room background – as animate as grease boards and laundry hampers. You can’t remember what you haven’t really seen in the first place.

Then you’ll run into the same guy in a Starbucks lineup on the road and end up talking to each other about nothing. Maybe he’ll see you embracing an old coach of his. Or he’ll wander into an actual human conversation you’re having with the GM about families or movies or a mutual acquaintance.

All of a sudden, and in that instant, you become a real person. And that player never forgets you, sometimes even years later. It’s bizarre, and it happens all the time in this business.

Once that’s happened, you’ll never rip that guy in print. You’ll criticize, but the ripping days are over. He’s not just someone you cover any more. He’s someone you know.

This has very little to do with the job. It’s human nature.”

The difference between being “ripped” and “criticized” can be huge. It can mean the difference between getting fired and keeping your job, a small dip in stock price versus a calamitous one, and a small reputational knock rather than a career-ending one.

And, as Kelly points out, the price of getting on the right side of that line can be small. Sometimes, all it takes is treating the reporter as a person rather than a necessary nuisance.

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Is “Blame The Media” A Good PR Strategy?

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on March 4, 2015 – 9:18 am

This post was written by Christina Mozaffari, vice president of Phillips Media Relations and a former NBC News producer. 

I’ve always bristled at the “blame the media” public relations strategy.

Plenty of politicians and public figures have used the strategy, sometimes with great success (here’s President Obama, Bill Cosby, and Chris Christie). It’s also probably fair to say my dislike for the strategy is largely due to my own bias as a former reporter.

That said, Frank Bruni’s column in The New York Times last weekend addressing the successes and failures in political reporting—including so-called “gotcha” questions—was spot-on. In it, he admitted the media have some significant faults in covering politics, but that politicians still have a lot of responsibility for the coverage they receive. His last line perfectly summed up the issue:

“…when candidates bemoan and disparage the media’s omnipresence and hypervigilance… remember this, too: When they’re harping about our shortcomings, they’re first and foremost trying to cover up their own.”

Cameras at Press Conference

As an example, Wisconsin governor and potential presidential candidate Scott Walker recently criticized the media after punting on fairly easy and unsurprising questions surrounding his beliefs on evolution and President Obama’s religion. While Walker’s strategy may help him in the primaries with conservatives who distrust the mainstream media, it’s not enough to work in a general election in which you have to win voters in the middle. The actual questions didn’t get Walker into trouble; rather, it was his refusal to answer them in a straightforward manner.

The media are far from perfect. There are certainly many mainstream outlets with clear biases on both sides. However, when the coverage goes wrong, more often than not, the blame lies with the public figure.

Scott Walker Obama Christina

So, when faced with biased reporters, what should you do? These rules of thumb may not apply to the most aggressive cases, but tend to serve most spokesperson well.

  1. 1. Know your “enemy.” It’s your responsibility to know, as best you can, the reporter’s work and point of view. All it typically takes is a quick Google search and a few minutes to read the reporter’s previous work. If you know what you’re walking into, you’ll be better equipped to handle it.
  2. 2. Be the bigger person. It’s your job to stay cool. Let your audience decide on the bias of the reporter, particularly if it’s a live audience and the audience can see the full exchange. If the audience believes you’re being bullied and you manage to handle the reporter’s biased questions with openness and class, you will come off looking better.
  3. 3. Ask yourself if you really need to do this interview. In general, participating in interviews when you know a story is going to be written about you or your organization is smart. Having your voice in a story, even if it’s an aggressive story, keeps you present in your own coverage and helps to avoid that damaging line, “We reached out to Organization X and they had no comment.” That said, if you truly believe you have no chance at getting fair treatment in an interview, there’s no rule that says you have to do it.

What do you think? Is blaming the media a lame cover-up or smart strategy? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Reader Email: Is It Ethical To Circumvent A Reporter?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 3, 2015 – 3:02 am

A reader from South Africa recently asked:

“I wish to check with you on the ethics of publishing a media response to more than the persons that enquired. This is in a case of apparent collusion between members of the political opposition and the media.”

My answer is yes, absolutely. Based on your question, I’d say that “ethics” aren’t a factor here. If you were refusing to speak to any reporters, particularly about matters that concern the public interest, you might be entering into an unethical situation—but speaking to more reporters is different.  

That said, I still wouldn’t go down that path, at least not as a first step.

Mean Interviewer

The goal of media relations is to try to establish positive (or at least not negative) relationships with reporters. So the first question I’d ask you is whether you’ve done everything in your power to build a better relationship with the news organization? For example, have you taken these seven steps? Or, if you’re being falsely accused of something you haven’t done, have you considered these three options?

If you have—and you have strong reason to believe that the news organization is “colluding” with the political opposition—then yes, it is an acceptable practice to issue a response to numerous news outlets simultaneously and/or through your own websites and social media sites.

If the news organization complains, you can explain your rationale for circumventing them. Doing so may give you another opportunity to heal your relationship with them (you can offer to respond to their answers directly in the future in return for fairer coverage). Notice that I said “fairer” coverage, not “favorable” coverage. You still may not like all of the stories published by the media outlet—a reporter’s job isn’t to make you happy—but if their reporting is reasonably accurate, it may represent a meaningful improvement upon your current situation.

Of course, circumventing an individual reporter by responding to everyone at once could make your current relationship with that journalist even worse, which can lead to more hostile coverage against you. That’s why you should think carefully about whether you’ve truly done everything you can to improve your relationship with them.

Finally, you might also approach a competing news organization or media ombudsman-type to pitch the idea of running a story about their competitor’s inaccurate reporting. Some news organizations relish the idea of fact checking a competitor; here in the U.S., for example, it’s common to see Fox News questioning reporting on MSNBC, and vice versa.

Thanks for your email, and good luck in managing this situation!

Do you have a question you’d like to see answered on the blog? Please send an email to Contact@MrMediaTraining.com.


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The 16 Things Reporters Find Newsworthy

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on December 2, 2014 – 8:38 pm

Editor’s note: Three years ago, I published a post containing 11 things that journalists find newsworthy. Since then, many readers have added their thoughts to mine—so today, this list becomes the 16 things reporters consider newsworthy.

If you’ve ever pitched a story idea to a reporter by phone, you know how hard it can be to succeed.

When reporters say “no,” the person pitching them on the other end of the phone often protests, “But this issue is so important!” They’re probably right. But there’s a big difference between what you consider important and what the reporter considers newsworthy.

As an example, more than 35 million people are living with HIV worldwide. That’s an important story. But in the eyes of reporters, that story will be no more important tomorrow than it is today—unless something happens related to HIV today. If physicians discover a new vaccine or a drug company pledges to provide free drugs to one million HIV patients in Africa, the “important” issue will suddenly become “newsworthy.”

As a spokesperson, it’s important for you to understand what reporters consider newsworthy. You can often propel your story from important to newsworthy just by highlighting a different angle.

News

So take out that story you’re about to pitch and see which of the following 16 elements it has (hopefully it has several). If you’re not prioritizing those elements enough, turn them into your lead!

1. Conflict: Reporters are professional storytellers, and good stories contain conflict. If you disagree with a competitor’s approach, for example, you’re more likely to receive coverage than if you agree.

2. Local: Most news organizations cover a specific geographic range. A newspaper in Iowa may report on a local charity event, but is unlikely to report on a new condo development in Florida (unless a well-known Iowa entrepreneur is the development’s lead investor).

3. Incident: Anything that goes wrong has the potential to become newsworthy, such as an industrial explosion, a car crash, or a school shooting.

4. Extremes or superlatives: Reporters love extremes or superlatives: the first, the last, the best, the worst, the biggest, the smallest. If your story contains one, highlighting it will usually make it more newsworthy.

5. New: It’s no coincidence that the word “news” contains the word “new.” News stories have to answer the question, “why now?” Stories that don’t are considered “old news”—or worse, “no news”—and usually receive little coverage.

6. Clickable: This is a new category, spawned by the popularity of news and entertainment websites such as BuzzFeed and Upworthy. Because they depend upon clicks to draw readers, and thus advertisers, they’re more likely to run your story if it helps them attract a large audience. Think in terms of provocative, highly emotional, and downright weird stories, images, and videos.

7. Timely and Relevant: Timely stories, often about an upcoming event, are often considered newsworthy, as are stories relevant to the news organization’s specialty. An upcoming hearing at your local statehouse about a topic that affects the state’s senior citizens, for example, is a good example—and the story will be of greater interest to a news organization that covers local politics than one that doesn’t.

8. News You Can Use: Reader Fletcher Doyle, a former journalist, recommended this category. He writes: “Tell me something that will help my readers, and tell me how it will help them.” For example, if a local Department of Motor Vehicles introduces a new auto registration process that helps drivers avoid standing in line for two hours, local outlets might be interested in the story.

9. Scandal: The Congressman who hides money in his freezer, the hedge fund manager who rips off his clients, and the music mogul who murders his companion are almost guaranteed to be deemed newsworthy.

10. David vs. Goliath: In many stories, there is a “big guy” and a “little guy.” Since the media often view their role as being the protector of the exploited, the little guy usually receives more sympathetic coverage.

11. Incompetence: The corporate executive, politician, or celebrity who can’t seem to get it right will almost always draw the critical eye of the press.

12. Surprising: Stories with an unexpected hook are candy to reporters. If your study discovers that fried foods have previously undiscovered health benefits, you can bet the media will lavish your work with coverage. That story, incidentally, would also make me very happy.

13. Hypocrisy: Say you’re an anti-gay rights politician who gets caught with a gay lover. Or the president of an animal shelter who’s caught abusing animals. There are few stories as delicious to reporters as powerful people betraying their own publicly-stated positions—and they’re almost guaranteed to remain in the headlines for several days or weeks.

14. Emotion: Reader William Runge added a category he called “heartstrings.” Juliet C. agreed, pointing out that many stories are neither surprising nor new—but that by digging deeper, you can often uncover a story worth telling. For example, imagine you released a new product two years ago. It’s no longer “news”—but if you’ve just learned of someone using the product in an unexpected, potentially life-altering way (e.g. a technology product that unexpectedly helped a hearing impaired child hear for the first time), reporters will eagerly share the news.

15. Milestones: Reader Susan Pepperdine suggested this category, pointing out that “the seven billionth baby on Earth” was newsworthy, but “the baby born just before seven billion and the next one after were not newsworthy.” Some anniversaries are inconsequential—few journalists care that your business just celebrated its 35th anniversary—but others, such as 9/11, will be noteworthy for decades to come.

16. Narrative Extenders: This new category is most often seen in politics. For example, a small political gaffe might not normally receive much attention—unless it’s committed by someone with a long history of committing gaffes. Or perhaps a politician with a bullying streak gives a sarcastic answer to a constituent, confirming the “bully” narrative the media had already established about that person.

What have I missed? Please add your thoughts to the comments section below.

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Can You Say “I’m Not Here To Talk About That Topic?”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 13, 2014 – 3:02 am

Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, made some controversial comments about Muslims during one of his recent programs, during which he had a well-publicized debate with one of his guests, actor Ben Affleck.

A few days later, Maher was scheduled to give an interview to a reporter from Salon about a different topic—his “Flip a District” campaign—but the writer understandably wanted to ask Maher about his “spat” with Affleck. Maher made clear he didn’t want to talk about that; here are three excerpts from the interview:

“Yeah, let’s leave that for a while. I’ve said enough about that.”

“You know, I don’t want to talk about this. You just said we’re not going to talk about this and now we’re talking about it.”

“I’ll tell you something interesting — and then I am going to get off the subject because we’re here to talk about “Flip a District,” was my understanding.”

Ben Affleck

Maher’s responses made me think about a question we hear a lot during our media training sessions: What should I do if I’m asked a question about a topic I wasn’t originally booked to speak about? Do I have to answer it, or can I insist on speaking only about the topic we agreed to discuss in advance? 

 

In that situation, you have a few options:

1. Answer The Question

This is often the best option, particularly if the question is one that the audience would expect you to be able to answer. Deflecting a straightforward question that deserves a straightforward response often plays like this infamous 2008 interview, in which Sarah Palin refused to name the newspapers she reads.

 

2. Give a Short Response, Then Transition Away From It

Maher used this approach, reminding the reporter that he had agreed to speak about a specific topic and insisting that they keep to the ground rules. He provided a short answer to the questions about his controversial comments, then moved away from them.

This approach can work for more experienced spokespersons—Maher used it well—but it requires a deft touch to avoid being portrayed as evasive. But there’s one problem with this approach: By giving even a short response about his controversial comments, Maher allowed Salon to run the exact headline he didn’t want: “EXCLUSIVE: Bill Maher on Islam spat with Ben Affleck: ‘We’re liberals! We’re not crazy tea-baggers.’”

 

3. Confront The Reporter

In a 2012 Republican primary debate, Newt Gingrich was asked about accusations that he had asked his second wife for an open marriage. He deemed the question out of bounds—we’re here to talk about serious issues, and you’re asking me about a personal relationship—and went on the offensive.

Gingrich used this approach brilliantly, but he also deployed it in front of a supportive audience that shared his dislike of the media. Generally speaking, this is a high-wire act that few people pull off well. 

 

 

4. Refuse to Answer The Question

Here’s where things get really tricky: Let’s say you agreed with a reporter in advance that the interview would be limited to a specific topic. When the interview begins, the journalist breaks his or her promise. Cameras are roiling. Do you refuse to answer it, perhaps reminding the reporter of your agreement, even if doing so risks making you look evasive to the audience? 

The answer is “it depends”—on the context, the topic, the format, and the spokesperson. This option is risky, and in my experience, only a small percentage of spokespersons have the media savvy and personal qualities to pull this off well. But assuming you do refuse to accept the question, keep these two things in mind:

First, make sure your tone doesn’t convey even a whiff of defensiveness.

Second, you can refuse to answer the question with a response like one of these:

“I’m not here to discuss that topic today. I want the focus to be squarely on our new product, and I’m aware that if I comment on anything but that, the headlines won’t be about the product. So let’s get back to that…”

“You know, Janet, I’m surprised you would ask me that. Before we began this interview, we agreed that you would ask me only about this project, and now you’ve broken that promise. I’m happy to do this interview with you if we focus it on this project, which is so important to so many people. But if you insist on breaking your commitment, you’ll leave me little choice but to end this interview.”

The second option is similar to “confront the reporter” approach, but with one key difference—whereas Gingrich still proceeded to answer the question, the spokesperson in this example didn’t.

 

Final Thought

This post focused on what you can do during the interview itself. But you can also help reduce the need for saying “I’m not here to talk about that topic” by negotiating the ground rules before the interview, and you can register a complaint after the interview (and disclose that breach to your audiences through your blog and social media feeds) if the reporter breaks them.

 

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A Surprise For People Who Think They Hate Reporters

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 6, 2014 – 12:07 am

I’ve worked with many people who don’t trust or like the media. But one recent group of trainees from a public entity was more emphatic in their hatred of the press than I’d ever encountered before. 

This group constantly felt besieged by a rapacious press corps that couldn’t be satiated, and they believed that reporters were far too busy pursuing their own predetermined agendas to give them a fair shot.

Given the hostility of this group toward the press, I decided to try something different. The result was striking, if not outright shocking.  

Press Conference

Instead of playing the role of reporter (as I usually do in media training sessions), I decided to divide the group in half.

The first group played their usual role of serving as corporate spokespersons. I gave them a scenario to work with, asked them to develop their messages and media strategy, and told them to assign a person who would deliver a press conference.

The second group was tasked with playing the role of reporters during a press conference. I told them that their job was to do everything they could to get the facts the spokesperson was reluctant to offer. I instructed them to get past the spin, challenge evasive responses, and do whatever they could to get to the truth.

The second group took their job seriously. When the press conference began, they were unforgiving of anything that remotely bordered spin. They asked tough follow-up questions, used evidence to contradict some of the spokesperson’s claims, and adopted an almost hostile tone. Frankly, they were tougher than most of the reporters I’ve ever seen at press conferences.

Microphones Over White Background

 

The “Aha!” Moment

When the press conference ended, I asked both groups what they were feeling. The group representing the company said they felt exhausted and beaten up. But the group of reporters was pissed. They felt that the company was being evasive, and they resented the company’s lack of candor.

I didn’t have to say anything. My takeaway message seemed to wash over everyone simultaneously: Reporters aren’t always being jerks just to be jerks; sometimes, they just resent that you’re not being straight with them.

That profound realization, which reminded me of the old adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, changed their perspective. Suddenly, they understood how they were complicit in the media’s reaction to their attempts at media management—and they recognized the need to begin doing things differently.

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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  • 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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