No matter what industry you work in, it’s crucial to know what you’ll say if the phone rings and it’s a reporter on the other side. Because if, say, The Wall Street Journal is on the line, you’ve got a huge opportunity for positive brand exposure on the one hand…and the chance to misspeak and create an irreversible PR disaster on the other.
If it sounds like the stakes are high, that’s because they are. The good news is, as with any skill, the foundations of good communication can be taught, practiced, and perfected. With professional media training, you can successfully arm yourself and your team members with proven tactics for effectively communicating with the media and achieving positive results.
In my years in the PR industry, I’ve had the opportunity to provide media training to countless executives and spokespeople, and it’s one of my favorite aspects of my job — equipping clients with tools to convey their message in a succinct, powerful and accessible way. That’s valuable stuff for any executive, no matter what their level of experience with media interviews.
As we’ve continued to evolve our media training tactics at Caliber to meet the needs of C-level executives and frontline team members, I’ve found there are five key media training tips every interviewee should know:
1. Practice, practice, practice — and do your research.
Be sure you know your company’s story — your elevator pitch, so to speak — backward and forward before you hop on the phone. Also, consider the topic of the interview, conduct background research on the topic and try to anticipate any questions the reporter might ask you. Decide what your best answers would be, and repeat those responses to yourself until you know them verbatim.
2. Have a plan for if/when something goes wrong.
In a perfect world, every interview would go smoothly every time. Alas, we do not live in a perfect world and it is critical to be prepared for those times when a crisis communications plan is needed. Having a plan gives you the benefit of calm and rational foresight as opposed to the in-the-moment pressure that is all too easy to feed into. Any good crisis plan anticipates the top three or four issues that could arise that would constitute a true crisis for a given company and sets out a clear and actionable framework – including statements for the media – that are proactive, not reactive, and ready to go.
3. Assume everything is on the record.
It’s just safer that way. If you absolutely have to tease information that isn’t public knowledge yet, make it crystal clear that it is off the record for the time being. And if the outlet is big enough, and seems interested in the information, maybe even offer them an exclusive on the topic as long as they don’t release prior to your specified embargo date. This is risky, but I’ve seen it pan out for people. That said, I definitely wouldn’t recommend this strategy with any information that you legally can’t share with the public yet, just in case.
4. Make yourself available to the media — they’re always on a deadline, and if you won’t help them meet it, they’ll find someone who will.
From a PR standpoint, there’s nothing sadder than missing out on an opportunity to have your company featured positively in a news story because you couldn’t commit to an interview in the near future or, worse, had to cancel last minute. To avoid this issue, try to make meeting with the media a priority on your calendar — consider it above other meetings that don’t have an immediate impact on the bottom line. Also, consider designating two or three people, other than yourself, who are capable of speaking on the company’s behalf so that there are more schedules for a reporter to find availability within – build that bench of spokespeople.
5. If you don’t know an exact answer, don’t make something up.
As laid out in point #3, assume everything is on the record so if you don’t have an answer, don’t pull one out of thin air. That inaccuracy may very well be the quote that makes it into print. Instead, offer to follow up with the reporter with the requested information after the interview (if you know you’ll be able to supply some specifics). Or let the reporter know that, while the question is a good one, it’s not information you have on hand and instead offer an insight or fact you can speak to with certainty. The important thing during the interview is to keep the conversation flowing – to overcome doubt and manifest confidence.
These tips served as the foundation for a panel I hosted with Wall Street Journal editor and reporter, Ben DiPietro, at the SCCE Annual Compliance and Ethics Institute Conference last year.
And we’ll be doing it all again this year, with Kitty Holt, Ethics and Compliance Officer of Plan International USA, joining Ben and me for an interactive media training session. We’ll walk through real-world examples through role-playing, explore some common media pitfalls and ways to avoid them, share even more key tips on how to handle interactions with the media and, like any good panel, wrap up with a little audience Q&A time.
The panel will take place from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Monday, October 16, 2017, at the SCCE conference in Las Vegas. If you’ll be in town, come see what it’s all about. If you can’t make it but are interested in media training for your company, don’t hesitate to contact me so we can set up a custom-tailored session for your team.