Media Training Tip #1: Don’t Talk to the Media Gerard Braud

The title of this article may sound counter-intuitive, so let me explain further. Don’t talk to the media, but to the media’s audience.

Each time you are about to engage with the media, ask yourself, who is the audience and how smart are they? The general rule is that the average person who watches TV news has a 6th-grade education. And, the average person who reads a newspaper reads at an 8th-grade reading level. Those listening to radio news fall into those same ranges.

When you do a media interview, a podcast, send out a news release, or are asked for a quote, you need to be talking to those people and using words and language that those people understand.

Drop all the big words. You don’t win any prizes for being multi-syllabic.

Can the corporate jargon. “Synergistic win-win collaboration” means nothing to anyone but you.

Say goodbye to the government speak and ax the acronyms. Neither your audience nor the media should need to be a code talker to decipher what you are saying.

Imagine you are asked to speak at career day to a 6th-grade class at your local school, what will you say?  In fact, my assignment for you is to call a local school and ask to speak at the next career day. It’s a great exercise.

OK, so the skeptics out there may disagree.

Here are the things I hear from the skeptics:

  • My audience is different.
  • Well I’ll just tell the media what I know. It’s their job to simplify it.
  • I don’t want to dumb it down.
  • What will my peers think?

My answer is bull, more bull, definitely bull and absolutely bull.

If your goal is for the media to get it right, then simplify the information for them. Do their job for them. Do the translation for your audience.

No one wants you to dumb it down and I’m not asking you to dumb it down. I want you to simplify it. There is a difference. I want you to be inclusive. I want you to respect what the audience may or may not already know. Be kind. Help them out.

If you are concerned about how smart you will look to your peers, seldom will your peers be your audience when you do a media interview. Chances are your potential customers are your audience. Doctors should not use technical medical information but should use bedside patient language. Corporate people should not use corporate speak but customer speak.

Research also shows that even people with college degrees and advanced degrees prefer to read at an 8th-grade level. Information overload means they really want to be able to skim and quickly digest everything they have to read, whether it is a newspaper, e-mail, website or memo.

It is your responsibility to communicate in a way that the media’s audience will understand. You have a responsibility to communicate in a way that is easy for the media to understand, digest and repeat.

So our first rule is “don’t talk to the media.” Braud book:CD

In the next media training lesson, we’ll talk about the connection between profit and a media interview.

For the full 29-day online course on media training and 29 secrets you need to know before you open your mouth to a reporter, visit here.

Crisis communications and media training expert Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC is based in New Orleans. Organizations on five continents have relied on him to write their crisis communications plans and to train their spokespeople. He is the author of “Don’t Talk to the Media Until…”

More crisis communications articles:

3 Lessons the Melania Trump Coat Can Teach All Public Relations People

The Biggest Lie in Crisis Communications

4 Steps Every Company Needs to Take in Order to Avoid the Default Spokesperson


Media Training 29: Conclusion

By Gerard Braud

We began this 29 lesson discussion with the admonition, “Don’t talk to the media.” The original admonition was that you speak through the media to your audience and the media’s audience.

But as we conclude, let me take this thought a bit further. We’ve poured out for you 29 lessons of best practices for dealing with the media. These practices are tried and true. They work. Please use them.

If you deviate from any of these lessons, you will likely face consequences that damage you, your reputation and the financial health of your organization, whether it be government, non-profit or corporate.

My mentors and personal business coaches always tell me that if I want to achieve higher successes, I should hang around with and learn from people who have achieved the success I would like to achieve. My personal business coaches are the people I turn to in order to learn skills I don’t currently have, or to coach me through improving certain skills that need improving. My coaches remind me also that just as great athletes and performers practice constantly, so must all of us practice a variety skills in order to be better at them.

Dealing with the media and doing interviews with the media is not easy for most people. Some make it look easy, but those are the ones who have great coaches and who have taken the time to practice on many occasions.

I hope the information in these lessons is useful to you. I encourage you to hire a personal media trainer or coach to take your skills to the next level. Don’t allow yourself to feel embarrassed because you are asking for help and be willing to exercise a degree of humility if you don’t meet your own expectations in the early stages of training. Furthermore, I encourage you to make training and practice a regular part of your professional career. Media training is not something that you put on a list, then check off as completed because you have done it once. Learning the skill of talking to the media requires a commitment to training over many years.

If, on the other hand, you chose not to take the advice that has been so freely shared with you in these lessons, at least take this piece of advice: Don’t talk to the media.

Media Training 28: Speaking Off the Record

By Gerard Braud

Never agree to speak off the record.

This lesson really could end with just that phrase: Never speak off the record.

Speaking off the record has been taboo among the wisest media trainers and public relations sages for decades, but rarely do I teach a media training class in which I don’t get asked if it is okay to speak off of the record. Furthermore, the question is usually asked by someone who thinks speaking off of the record is a good idea.

Let’s go back to 7th grade. Johnny likes Suzie. Johnny confesses to Suzie’s best friend, Mary, that he likes Suzie. Johnny admonishes Mary not to tell anyone. Within an hour the entire 7th grade class knows Johnny likes Suzie.

Now that you are an adult, do you think the rules and practices of confidentiality have changed? They have not.

Speaking off of the record is triggered by either an incentive from the spokesperson or a suggestion from the reporter. It usually happens when the interview reaches an impasse because the spokesperson knows that if he says more, his comments will compromise a relationship or expose confidential information. Sometimes the spokesperson would like the information to be known publicly, but not be associated with him.

When the discussion reaches an impasse, the reporter might suggest, “Would you be willing to tell me off the record?” Sometimes the spokesperson might initiate the agreement by suggesting, “If I tell you, can we keep it off the record?”

The inference is that once spoken, the reporter will simply sit on the information as though it helps paint a clearer picture of what is perhaps an incomplete story. Don’t believe it. Don’t do it.

A reporter will always, in some way, use the information. Perhaps in their report they’ll say, “confidential sources tell us,” then share the information. Anyone close to the topic can likely do enough deductive reasoning to trace the information back to you, which ultimately damages your reputation. Sometimes the reporter dangles your information in front of another source as an incentive to get the other source to say “on the record” what you would not say “off the record.” To me, it all adds up to bad ethics.

Some individuals will share information off the record as a way to get a reporter to attack an opponent or competitor. This often happens in politics and the corporate world. Again, to me it is bad ethics. If you have charges to level, say them for the entire world to hear and be prepared to back up what you say. If you can’t back it up, you shouldn’t be saying it.

Back in my days in journalism school at Louisiana Tech University, my mentors taught that as a reporter, if someone told you something off of the record, your only choice was to take that information to the grave with you. Using the information to pry information from someone else was unethical. Furthermore, we were taught that as reporters we should not ask anyone to go off the record, because someone else might tell us the same information “on the record.” If someone told us the same information on the record after we first went off the record with a prior source, the prior source might very well think we compromised his trust or confidence.

Speaking off the record creates a bevy of problems and sets the stage for a variety of ethical pitfalls, all of which can be avoided by always speaking only for the record.

Akin to speaking off the record is when a reporter will ask you to speak on background. This infers again that your comments will better help the reporter understand all of the facts, and in many ways infers the reporter will not quote you. It subtly implies confidentiality but really means the reporter will in fact use the information to garner more facts from another source.

I don’t like the vagueness of “speaking on background” and I would advise you to avoid this practice as well.

If you believe something and you have the proof to back it up, then say it. If you can’t prove it or support your position, then hold your tongue.

Let good ethics be your guide.

In our next lesson, I’ll tie up everything with some concluding thoughts.

Media Training 27: Body Language

By Gerard Braud

What you don’t say is often as important or more important than what you do say, when you are talking to a reporter. How you stand, how you act, how you fidget, how you move, how you stutter, how you sit, and where you look, all says a lot about you.

The easiest thing for a reporter to determine in an interview is that you are nervous. When I started my journalism career at the age of 20, I was five-feet-six-and-a-half-inches tall and 124 pounds soaking wet. I did not consider myself intimidating in the least. So why is it that learned people, such as doctors, lawyers, engineers and elected officials got so nervous? Why did they fidget so much? Why did the sweat on their brow line and on their upper lip?

Actions such as sweating are harder to control because they are a result of nervousness. However, if you follow all of the advise in this book, if you hire a good media training coach and if you practice on a regular basis, then your confidence will go up and your nervousness will go down.

Folding and crossing your arms across your chest in an interview is almost always a sign that you are hiding something. If you are crossing your arms because you are cold, a better alternative is to wear warmer clothing. Sales people have long known that a customer with crossed arms will not buy anything form you. In the world of journalism, crossed arms means you are closed off to the premise of the reporter’s question and that you likely are not going to volunteer any information. Your body language may cause the reporter to probe even deeper because they can tell you are trying to hide something. If you are on television, the audience at home will also see this body language and may judge you harshly or relish in your discomfort. Many at home will sense that the reporter has “gotcha.”

Your eyes are the proverbial window to your soul.  I suggest that in daily life you get in the habit of looking people directly in the eye and maintaining an appropriate level of honest eye contact. Traditionally we’re taught that looking someone in the eye is a sign of honestly. Conversely, someone with high anxiety caused by not telling the truth usually has difficulty looking another person in the eye. You’ve likely heard people called “shifty-eyed.” When your eyes shift from side to side it is an obvious sign of anxiety, discomfort, and begins to make the journalist think that you have something to hide. Behavior like this is a perfect example of why role playing with a video camera is so important during media training. You may shift your eyes all the time and never realize it until you see yourself on camera. Reviewing your interview on camera lets you observe the behavior, then lets you work to correct the behavior.

Whether you look up or down and whether you look left or right also says a lot about you and what you are verbalizing, including whether you are “making it up” as you go.

If a right handed person looks up to the right while answering a question, they are generally being creative in crafting their answer and it may be perceived as a lie. If that same right handed person looks up and to their left when answering your question, it is generally perceived that they are recalling actual facts and telling the truth. Looking up is generally associated with questions about things that actually happened, things you saw or people you know.

Looking to the side has some of the same perceptions and generally applies to questions about sounds and things you have heard. Looking down to the left and right is a great deal less about telling a lie and more about feelings and recalling things such as a smell, touch or taste.

A left handed person performs these acts in the opposite direction of a right handed person. One of the classic case studies is former President Bill Clinton, who is left handed. As he made his infamous statement, “I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” he looked up and to the left, an indication that this lefty was a liar.

Other body language for lying includes touching your face, the tip of your nose, rubbing your eyes and covering your mouth. Essentially, these are all telltale signs that you are trying to hide something and hide, perhaps, behind your hand. Covering your mouth, for example, subtly says you don’t want me to see you tell a lie.

How you sit tells us a lot as well. As a rule, never sit in a chair that rocks and swivels. If you do, when you become nervous or uncomfortable, you will likely rock or swivel.

Never do an interview while sitting behind your desk. This is usually a place that is too comfortable and very intimate to you. As a result, you may speak perhaps too bluntly and openly because this is your comfort zone. You need to be honest, but being behind your desk may cause you to let your guard down. Instead of sitting behind your desk, pick two chairs in front of your desk.

Your posture while sitting says a lot. If you cup your hands behind your head, as well as if you lean back while doing this, it indicates that you perhaps feel superior to the person interviewing you. Akin to this, slouching in a chair during an interview could be an indication that you are cavalier, arrogant or feel superior to the interviewer. Many people who are described as “cocky” sit slouched or leaned back in their chairs. During my days on television, we affectionately called these people “cigar smokers” because they looked like the fat-cat, cigar smoking corporate executive made infamous in the black and white movies of the 1940s.

The position of your legs while you sit also says a lot. Women and men tend to have different sitting postures. Women who have been through some degree of etiquette training have been taught to place their feet on the floor and to cross one ankle behind the other. This is always a polished looked. Most women, when crossing their legs cross at the knee. The most common way women cross their legs might be called a scissors cross or inverted V cross, with the left foot pointed right and the right leg pointed left. From the knee, a woman’s feet spread like an inverted letter V. This cross is also generally accepted, but when nervous, most women begin to twist the ankle of the foot that is suspended above the floor. Some may even swing the suspended portion of the leg from their knee to their foot. The more nervous a woman is, the more the leg takes on the appearance of kicking.

Some women cross their legs at the knee, then wrap the upper foot behind their calf. This is a certain sign of being timid, embarrassed or lacking self-confidence. This is never an acceptable posture.

Somewhere between the ankle cross and the inverted V cross, is when a woman crosses her legs at the knees, but tilts both legs in the same direction. For example, if the upper leg is the right leg with the foot pointed toward the left, then the lower leg, which would be the left leg, would also have the foot to the left. In the world of etiquette, this type of leg cross is thought to be the more acceptable of the two ways women generally cross their legs, although etiquette purists say a woman should never cross her legs.

Also, when crossing their legs, women must also consider whether they are wearing pants or a skirt. If a skirt is worn, then the woman must also determine whether she is sending a message of sex appeal or sexiness. Some actresses and news anchors intentionally wear short skirts and sit in a posture designed to exude sex appeal. In the world of television and entertainment, sex sells and sexiness equals ratings, because most women secretly have a desire to be attractive like the woman on television, while most men are attracted to a woman that is more visually appealing. But while sexy may be right for the television anchor or actress, it is not the right look for a female corporate executive.

For men, sitting styles include feet close to one another on the floor with knees spread slightly, feet on the floor with knees spread wider than the feet, one leg on the floor with the ankle of the other leg placed on the knee, and sitting with knees crossed in the same way as described above as the women’s scissors or inverted V style.

The most offensive of these four male seating types is the legs spread wide open, essentially making his genitals the focal point of his posture. Many athletes tend to sit like this in interviews. While such posture might be fine in the locker room, it never works in an interview. The male sitting with his legs wide open sends a message of overconfidence and high superiority. And while that may intentionally or subliminally be the message the male is trying to send, a reporter or television audience may also interpret it as a sign of ignorance or stupidity.

A man crossing one ankle over his knee, almost in the shape of a number 4, is the most common posture for men and is often acceptable in interviews, but it is not without its problems. The exposed sole of your shoe could prove to be an embarrassment, especially if it turns out that a hole has started to develop on the shoe sole below the ball of your foot. Other times, you may have stepped in gum, which leaves a mark on the shoe sole. There are also multi-cultural considerations when a man sits like this. In many Asian and Muslim cultures, exposing the sole of your shoe is a great insult, so think carefully about your audience before sitting like this.

Men older than 40 tend to be more likely to cross their legs at the knee, in the inverted V style, than younger men. From a body language perspective, many people perceive this seating style to be more feminine, especially in younger men, even to the point of being stereotyped as being homosexual. For younger men, such posture may even be perceived as a sign of weakness. For older men, there is sometimes a degree of maturity or wisdom associated with this type of leg crossing. A key indicator of whether this type of leg crossing has a feminine or masculine appearance depends upon how far out and how high up the raised foot is. The closer the raised foot is to the low leg, the more feminine the appearance. The more raised the foot is in relation to the lower leg, the more masculine the appearance. This more raised approach is really a cross between the number 4 style and the inverted V style. One advantage this has to the pure number 4 style is that it points the shoe sole to the floor, shielding under-shoe blemishes and eliminating cultural insensitivity.

For both men and women, the best posture for sitting is to bring your back slightly away from the back of the chair, which also pushes your posterior slightly forward on the seat of the chair. With your body weight shifted forward, it virtually forces your feet to the floor, rather than having your legs crossed. Once your feet are comfortably on the floor, men generally slide one foot slightly more forward than the other. Women will do the same in some cases, but in most cases will now find it more comfortable to cross one foot behind the other. When attempting this style, you should not be sitting on the edge of the chair, but just slightly away from the back of the chair.

This slightly forward seating posture also makes it more possible for you to talk with your hands during an interview. Talking with your hands, especially with your palms in an upward position, is a sign of openness and honesty. It lets you gesture with palms up to the interviewer when directing outward expressions, while gesturing with palms up toward yourself for personal stories or to demonstrate personal accountability.

Among the things never to do with your hands in an interview is to flail them or pass them in front of your face. You should also avoid crossing your hands on your lap. Flailing is an indication that you are somewhat sporadic and lack focus. Crossing your hands over your lap and genitals indicates weakness for men and women. For men, having their hands crossed over their genitals is a big sign of feeling vulnerable.

Not only is crossing your hands over your genitals an incorrect posture when you are sitting, it is also incorrect when standing. Commonly referred to as the fig leaf position, hands over the genitals for a male, again, is a sign of weakness and vulnerability, as well as weakness for a woman. Many people instinctively cross their hands over their genitals when standing because this is the way they have taken so many group photos from the time they were in grade school. As an adult, it is time for you to learn that this is an old trick used by photographers to get children to stand still and keep their hands to themselves long enough for the photographer to snap the exposure. The trick kept Billy from punching Bobby on the arm while the children were positioned as a group. And from a photo perspective, crossed hands is never good photography.

Also while standing, you should avoid swaying back and forth. This demonstrates the same type of nervousness as swaying or swiveling in a chair. The preferred posture when standing is to have your feet spread slightly or to place your weight on your dominant leg.

Many people are also confused about what to do with their hands during an interview when they are standing. In addition to avoiding the fig leaf position, you should never put your hands in your pockets. Placing your hands on your hips comes naturally for some people, but from a body language perspective it is perceived as a sign of arrogance or superiority. Generally the best default position is to have your hands at your side then raise them between your waist and chest for gesturing. When not gesturing, a good standby position is you have your hands lying one inside the other just above the waist, waiting for the next opportunity to talk with your hands and gesture.

To wrap things up, your words will always be important, but whether the reporter or his audience believes you will depend in part on your body language.

In our next lesson, we’ll answer that age old question, should you speak off the record?

I’ll tell you if you promise not to tell anyone.

Media Training 26: Looks are Important

By Gerard Braud

Looks are important. With just three lessons left to go, I would be remiss not to cover some important basics, such as how to dress for a news conference.

Dress for men has always been easier than dress for women in the world of media. That’s because men’s fashions tend to remain basic such as a coat and tie. About the only thing that changes much is the width of jacket lapels and the width of a tie.

Women, on the other hand, constantly face changing trends in clothing, ranging from sleeve types, to skirt lengths, to neckline styles. All of that is further complicated by shoe styles, hair styles and make-up styles.

As a basic place to begin, if you are in a formal news conference setting, traditional business attire is best. For men that is a business suit with neck tie. For women it is a traditional women’s business blazer with business skirt or business trousers. Both men and women should consider basic colors such as black, charcoal gray and navy blue.

What you wear affects you in two respects. In one respect, you have to consider how the audience perceives you based on your appearance. In another respect, you have to consider how you photograph and whether your wardrobe cooperates with cameras.

From the perception of the audience, consider that while some women look great in a red suit, some audiences may perceive red as the sign of someone who is power hungry. While certain women’s clothing may be trendy and acceptable in a social setting, in a business setting it may be perceived as too provocative. Women are likely to face greater challenges in this arena than men.

From the perspective of being photographed, many photographers complain that white shirts beneath a jacket make it difficult for them to compensate for the lighting on your face. This is less true today than in the past. As a rule, I think that especially for men, a white shirt is great under a business suit. Men have greater leeway with a white shirt than women do because it is broken up with a neck tie. Photographers often advise that a light blue shirt is often best for photography. From a lighting perspective it makes their job easier, but a blue shirt isn’t always as professional looking as a white shirt.

Excessively bright colors, flowery fabrics and fabrics with intricate patterns should always be avoided. They may look great in the mirror, but they look especially bad on television. Such designs tend to glow or create what is called a “moray” or “zebra” effect on television, which becomes a distraction to viewers. Soon the viewer is paying more attention to your glowing wardrobe than they are to your words. I have to leave many of my favorite neck ties home when I’m going to be interviewed for television.

And as for television, standing to be interviewed on television is less of a wardrobe challenge than sitting. While sitting in a news studio you are likely to be seen from your head to your toes. For men that means making sure your shoes are shined and that your socks fully cover your legs. Men should not have a gap of leg showing between the top of their sock and where their pant hem starts. Large men especially need to make sure their suit fits well. Too many men put on weight and don’t buy a new suit. This especially becomes obvious when their jacket doesn’t fit well when they sit. As you practice and media train the day before your interview, you should review your clothing and how it looks on camera.

Women on camera should select a conservative shoe that is not too trendy. Most women on television select to wear a skirt rather than pants. Selecting a skirt means you need to consider where the hem line rides as you sit. You also need to consider whether you have attractive legs on camera, as they are part of your image. Exposed veins and bumps and bruises become a visual distraction, detracting from your words. As fashion trends vary, hosiery may or may not be in style. However, on camera, hosiery is the equivalent to make-up for the legs. Just as foundation and power can cover skin blemishes on your face, hosiery can cover skin blemishes on your legs.

In considering these tips for women, keep in mind that television news anchors are increasingly breaking these trends, wearing trendy shoes, trendy dresses with little or no sleeves and often no hose. Some look downright silly and amateurish. Some can get by, for example, without wearing hosiery because they are still in the 20s and the skin on their legs has not yet betrayed them, as it often does to women beyond the age of 29.

For news events held outside of a news studio or a news conference room, a good rule to follow is to dress for the occasion and location. If you are in a factory, dress as a factory worker might. If you are volunteering at an outdoor charity event, a polo style short sleeve shirt or an appropriate long sleeve shirt with khakis may be appropriate. Both men and women should refrain from wearing shorts at such events. Likewise, don’t wear hats when being interviewed or photographed because the hat brim often shades a portion of your face while leaving another portion in bright sunlight. Such a lighting contrast is especially hard for photographers to deal with.

As a final thought to appearance, yes, it is true that both men and women should wear make-up if you are being interviewed for television. This is especially true if you are in a television studio with harsh lighting. You’ll notice that the news anchors are wearing a ton of make-up. The concept of make-up is often embarrassing to men, but you need to get over it and do it. When in doubt, hire a make-up artist who knows how to do television make-up. Keep in mind there is a big difference between general make-up that a woman may wear daily and how make-up is applied for men and women in a television studio. You may want to go the extra length and test out the make-up during your media training prior to your actual interview.

If you are outside and on television, a little press powder goes a long way to eliminate shine from oily skin. Balding men face an even greater challenge both in the studio and outside in the sun as the skin on their expanding forehead shines.

So in conclusion, in this lesson I’ve likely insulted both balding men and women with varicose veins. Sorry, I mean no offense. I’m just an old truth teller trying to offer you the most professional guidance possible.

In our next lesson, we’ll examine a question I get asked all the time: “Is it safe to speak off the record?”  Well, in the next lesson I’ll answer that question, if you promise not to tell anyone.




Media Training 25: Social Media Training

By Gerard Braud 

The internet, the media on the internet, and the proliferation of self-ordained pundits on the internet, has forever changed the world. So has the proliferation of gadgets that let us rapidly post pictures, comments and video to the web. The ability for the global community to post online comments in countless ways and forums makes the world even more frightening for those trying to manage their reputation. For the sake of discussion here, when I use the term social media, I’m talking about all postings to the internet that allow your reputation to be improved or destroyed, as well as the gadgets that make it all possible.

There are three ways you can get hurt in the world of social media. The first is when your public actions are photographed or video taped, then posted to the web. The second is when your reputation is attacked on social sites and blogs, and the third is when you willingly participate in on-line discussions and do a poor job communicating.

One of my all time favorite videos, posted to the web, is of a county commissioner being hounded by a television reporter. When asked after a public meeting to justify the delay in opening a new county juvenile justice center, the commissioner asks the reporter, “Elliot, do you know that Jesus loves you?” The commissioner then dodges every one of the reporter’s subsequent questions by trying to engage in a discussion about why the reporter should accept Jesus as his personal savior. Regardless of your religious beliefs, the answer is inappropriate because it is not germane to the news report, and by repeating a variation of it as the answer to every question, it only makes the official look more like he is guilty of hiding something.

Prior to the advent of social media tools such as Twitter, and, such buffoonery would have been seen once or twice on the local evening news, the commissioner would have become the butt of some brief local mockery and embarrassment, but within a few days it would all pass. But in the age of social media, millions of people around the world are able to watch the video and laugh at its absurdity on a daily basis. Some will post a link to their own website, or forward a link via e-mails to friends. This is what viral and social media is all about. This video lives forever on the world wide web and so does the commissioner’s embarrassment, mockery and humiliation, as people perpetually forward the video to their network of real friends and online acquaintances.

Situations like this are one of the reasons you should consider Social Media Training.

Social Media Training is a program I pioneered to teach communicators and executives the realities and how their reputations can be damaged by public actions that are either voluntarily, or involuntarily captured, and posted to the web.

More than a few reputations and careers have been destroyed because of what someone says in a presentation to what is perceived as a friendly group. Inevitably, an audience member records the speech or presentation, then either posts a portion of it to the web or gives it directly to the media. Cloaked with an audience of perceived friends, speakers often “cross the line” by their comments, only to face humiliation, embarrassment, and in many cases a long list of apologies and even the loss of their jobs because they thought their comments were made in private and off the record. If you are hosting a social media training class, you may wish to combine it with a presentation skills class.

Social Media Training is also needed before communicators and executives voluntarily attempt to participate in online communities. This is true whether one is responding to a posting made by someone else, or whether you are the one posting to a personal or corporate blog for your organization.

A case in point is a random blog entry I found one day as I prepared to teach a social media seminar. The blog entry was from a top executive from General Motors. The blog entry, posted on an official GM site, featured a photo of the executive. The guy in the photo looked like he was delivering an angry rant on stage at a corporate meeting. His blog entry, likewise, took an angry, rant style with a tone that personified, “I know better than you.”

His comment was a reply to a blog posting critical of GM’s poor gasoline mileage in its Sports Utility Vehicles. Because of how the executive worded his rather pompous response, many more participants in the blog criticized his parsed words and reply, which reflected the official corporate line.

In short, the executive’s poor choice of words was like throwing gasoline on a small fire, turning it into a bigger fire. It didn’t need to be that way.

Executives need to think carefully before they participate in social media and corporate communicators need to think carefully before asking or allowing executives to actively participate in social media.

There are a few basic things communicators and executives should consider in the world of social media:

1. Are you good with traditional media? If you are not good with traditional media, what makes you think you can handle social media?

2. How do you behave in public? Do you realize that every public moment of your life is potentially being photographed or recorded? Your public behavior, what you do and say, who you associate with, and where you are seen in public, can all be posted to the web for the entire world to see.

My basic rules for social media are this:

1) Every rule of media training applies to social media. Every word and how those words are phrased will be carefully scrutinized.

2) Edit what you say constantly to avoid having your comments taken out of context.

3) The rule of ethics is to ask whether you behavior in private is the same as the way you would behave if people were watching you. Congruency of behavior is important.

4) Before jumping into an online blog type discussion, you need to be prepared to use key messages and making sure those key messages have been run through the cynic filter. Bloggers are cynical and brutal.

5) Sometimes the best response to a blog posting is to ask a question. Rather than attacking a blogger for their point of view, simply ask them to further explain their point of view. Sometimes a blogger will back down as they are unable to defend their position. Sometimes other bloggers will come to your rescue with responses that match your point of view.

6) Orwell predicted that by 1984 Big Brother would be watching everything you do. Orwell was off by 20 years, because by 2004 the ability for everything you do to be watched had become a reality. Big Brother is now everyone else in the global society.

In our next lesson, we’ll return to more to the traditional setting of a news conference and look at your appearance in a news conference.

Media Training 24: Death by News Conference

By Gerard Braud

Many reporters fear what I often call “death by news conference.”

In lesson 17 we discussed the concept of committing news as a premeditated act. Reporters hate to cover news conferences for two main reasons. The first reason is because usually there are way too many spokespeople saying little if anything newsworthy, and secondly, because the location and setup are so poorly managed that it makes for a bad visual setting, especially for television.

Over the years I’ve witnessed three main approaches to news conferences. There is the news conference held in a conference room or pressroom; there is the news conference held outside under a tent; and then there is the news conference that I would describe as a show and tell event.

I like show and tell events the most. I hate outside under a tent events. The conference room or pressroom events vary.

What I like best about the show and tell events is that they are more visual. In lesson 17 I describe a media event that was held at a boat launch. The spokespeople did dockside interviews; then we put the spokespeople in boats with reporters, where the spokespeople were trained to deliver key quotes while in the boat and especially while on camera.

When planning a show and tell event, location and logistics are critical. And because these events may be outside, you need to consider weather forecasts and what your contingency plans are if you are sacked by inclement weather. Some show and tell events may be inside a factory or distribution facility. In these locations, sound and lighting may become problematic. If it is too noisy, reporters may not be able to hear the spokesperson and the background noise will be problematic for both radio and television crews trying to record audio. If the facility is dimly lit, has too much florescent lighting or a mix of both ceiling lighting and sunlight through doors and windows, photographers for television and print may have difficulty getting the images they need without adding their own complicated lighting to the mix.

My suggestion is that when planning a show and tell event, hire both audio and lighting experts to assist with the planning to make sure you meet the needs of news crews.

Under a tent events tend to follow ground breakings. A ground breaking is not news, yet many executives continue to think it is news. Usually the ground breaking is preceded or followed by a news conference under a white tent, in which the top executive serves as key spokesperson and master of ceremonies, and includes a thank you to every person under the sun (or under the tent). Then the executive turns the microphone over to an army of politicians who will do anything to get on camera. To add insult to injury, usually the tent shades the spokespeople and the daylight behind the spokespeople creates what photographers describe as a back lighting nightmare. Bright sunlight behind a spokesperson makes their face look dark. It is nearly impossible to add enough light to compensate for the bright sunlight. The problem gets even worse when the spokesperson has dark skin.

A few other notes about these ground breaking events. Most are really geared toward an internal audience of close associates who need to receive a thank you. That is not news and don’t ever believe the media will include that in the news. Additionally, know that many reporters go to these events only because they need to ask a politician a question about another issue they are covering. That politician can often overshadow your event, and in many cases, will create a negative association that you should avoid.

As we move inside to the pressroom or conference room event, we face two extremes. One extreme is the blank wall seen behind the spokesperson, and the other extreme is the attempt to place logos either on the lectern (podium) or behind the speaker. Logos are designed to create greater awareness of your organization and brand. As a rule, when there is bad news to discuss you do not want your logo seen anywhere. Conversely, when there is good news to share, the best option is to have a series of small logos on a wall size, non-reflective banner behind the spokesperson. Professional sports teams usually do this well, combining their logo with that of a corporate sponsor. Of course, before sponsoring any organization and splashing your logo behind a spokesperson, you should consider whether you really want to be strategically associated with that organization. If the team wins, you win. If the team loses, do you lose by association?

Government agencies tend to fall into a unique situation with their briefing rooms. The White House and Pentagon are good models to follow, with a blue curtain behind the spokesperson and a lectern logo.

When hosting a full-blown news conference, consider hiring an audiovisual company to provide professional lighting and audio. Professional lighting will keep the media from having to set up their own lights, which can be very harsh and make the spokesperson look bad. Professional audio means that one microphone can be placed on the lectern, with a single audio cable running to a multi-box where the television and radio crews will set up. Each news crew then takes their audio from the multi-box, eliminating the need for news crews to place their microphones, microphone stands and massive microphone logos on the speaker’s lectern. When a lectern is crowded with microphones, three things happen: often the speaker has no place for his or her notes; the speaker attempts to adjust one microphone, causing an avalanche of falling microphones; or as the first news crew gets bored, they attempt to remove their microphone while the spokesperson is still speaking, breaking the spokesperson’s concentration.

So, to recap – commit news, make the event visual and consider the needs of the media when it comes to location, sound and lighting.

In our next lesson, we’ll discuss Social Media Training and how the internet should affect your behavior.


Media Training 23: Selecting the Right Spokesperson

By Gerard Braud

Picking the right spokesperson really depends upon the situation.

Many organizations tend to have two extremes in selecting spokespeople. Some organizations always send out their top PR person while other organizations insist that only the CEO speak.

I endorse neither of these approaches as perfect and will suggest that sometimes the top PR person is a great choice and likewise in some cases the CEO is a great choice.

But in many cases, neither of these people is a good choice.

In fact, if you think back to lesson 12 in which we talk about passing the cynic test, many reporters cynically will think that the PR spokesperson will be too polished, slick and rehearsed, and is therefore serving as a buffer to protect executives who are afraid to talk and who are vulnerable to difficult questions. Conversely, if the cynics see the CEO out front as the spokesperson for certain events, they will assume that the event is more serious because the CEO is having to handle the situation.

As a reporter, I generally wanted to talk to the person closest to the story or issue I was covering. If a hospital has a new procedure to announce, I’d rather speak to a front line doctor than either the PR person or the CEO. If the news report is about a non-profit agency, the best spokesperson for the story might likely be a volunteer. If a company is accused of wrong doing, I’d like to interview the manager who is closet to the issue at hand. If there is a fire and explosion, I’d rather speak to an eye witness or line supervisor.

The closer you can get the reporter to the person closest to the issue or event, the happier they will be.

Of course, this means that when it comes to media training, you need to use the same principle that a great sports team uses. You must train lots of people and build bench strength.

Training deep means managing budgets and calendars such that you can do both primary training and refresher training on a regular budget. Usually, budgeting time and funds is proportionate to the size of your organization. In proposing deep training and budgeting, just remember that the value of a single news story can easily pay for a single media training session. In fact, in most cases, the relative ad value of a single news story is 3 to 9 times greater than the cost of a media training class.

As an example, a 30-second TV commercial during a newscast may cost $4,000 to $5,000, which might also be the cost of a single media training class. However, according to the rules of relative ad value, a 30 second TV news story is considered 3 times more believable than a 30 second advertisement, hence the relative ad value of a 30 second news story could be $12,000 to $15,000. Most news stories run 90 seconds, which could increase the relative ad value of a single TV news story to $36,000 to $45,000 dollars or more. To take it one step further, most towns have one newspaper, 3-5 television stations and multiple news radio stations. Hence, the relative ad value of a news event could easily be worth $300,000 or more, depending upon which city you live in and the price of a 30 second commercial. More modern measurement methods can be even more precise in measuring relative ad value because they calculate the positive and negative nature of the story. The bottom line is that you can easily justify investing funds to train multiple spokespeople based on the positive financial impact it may have. Remember our rule about, “if you could attach a dollar to every word you say, would you make money or lose money.”

Hence, develop bench strength so you can have a large number of spokespeople to send forth and not just the head of PR or the CEO.

As for using the PR person, in Don Henley’s song, “Dirty Laundry,” he speaks of the bubble headed bleach blonde news anchor who comes on at 5 p.m. and how she can tell you about the plane crash with a gleam in her eye. Well the same is true of many PR spokespeople, which makes them not my choice on many occasions as spokespeople.

Regardless of whether news is good or bad, some spokespeople are able to stand before reporters and maintain a bubbly persona as though all is well, even when it isn’t. Their answers are often glib, superficial and poorly rehearsed. I hate that and so do most reporters and that is why many times I don’t want a PR person to be the spokesperson.

At the same time, many CEOs attempt to be too serious, attempt to communicate way too many details and generally look like the world’s biggest grump. I hate spokespeople like that.

The one time when I always want the PR person and the CEO ready to both act as spokespeople is when I write a crisis communications plan for an organization. I generally ask that the PR spokesperson and CEO both be included as spokespeople, along with a host of other executives.

Generally, in the first hour of a crisis, when information is still limited and most executives are busy managing the crisis at hand, I suggest that the PR spokesperson read what I describe as the “First Critical Statement.” This document lays out the very basics of what is known until more details are available.

Generally, I follow the initial statement one hour later with a more detailed statement delivered by a manager who has more expertise and knowledge about the subject at hand. This is one of the reasons why mid level executives need to be media trained.

Many companies will have sent out their CEO by this point to serve as the point person and lead spokesperson. I do not agree with this approach because I would prefer for the CEO to be leading the crisis team during the crisis. Furthermore, if a company uses a CEO as their spokesperson and the CEO misspeaks, who will come behind the CEO and clean things up if the CEO makes a mistake. Generally, I save the CEO to be the final spokesperson when the crisis is over. It both allows the CEO to clean up after any misstatements by middle managers and it allows the CEO to be portrayed as a leader who was managing the crisis.

Words are important, but you also send signals to the media by whom you select as your spokesperson. Choose wisely.

In our next lesson we’ll discuss the do’s and don’ts of a news conference.

Media Training 22: The Power of Passion

By Gerard Braud

Few things are as underestimated in a media interview as the passion a spokesperson conveys.

In lesson #8 we talked about why the facts don’t matter and how to create great quotes. If you learn to combine great quotes with passion you not only insure your quote gets used in a news story, but you can also dominate and control the direction of the news story.

Too often in the world of spin, “truthiness” quotes are developed that spokespeople memorize, rather than internalize. Hence the spokesperson sounds stiff and rehearsed when they deliver the quote.

A quote that is internalized and delivered with believability and passion gets used in a news story every time.

The best role model that I have for the power of passion is to study the behavior and media tactics of protesters and activist groups. One activist can say more in 4 seconds than all the facts a detail-oriented person can say in four hours.

The example that comes to mind most for me is the night I was covering a public hearing in which a multinational company wanted to build a chemical plant in the rural industrial community.

In this community, a vigilant group of environmental activists was working to convince the community that the proposed chemical plant would belch out so much pollution that it would essentially kill everyone with cancer. And although many residents believed the activist, an ever larger number of people believed that the plastics plant would bring much needed jobs to the rural area and help boost the area’s tax base.

The hearing was held in a rural courthouse and began with testimony by engineers from the company and environmental experts representing the state’s department of environmental quality.

For several hours, engineers and scientists presented data on why the plant could be built and operated safely. It was excruciatingly painful to sit there for hours listening to the monotone drones of these experts as they moved through their boring PowerPoint slides.

Several hours into this hearing it was time for me, the reporter, to exit the courthouse, head out to my live truck and begin editing my story for the 10 p.m. news. I knew it was going to be a difficult story to write because I really didn’t have any good quotes.

As my photographer and I began to gather our equipment and head to the door, a member of GreenPeace came rushing up to me. He said, “Gerard, you can’t leave yet, we haven’t had a chance to speak.”

I assured him that I would tell both sides of the story and that I was willing to interview him or another representative of the opposition if they would just step outside of the hearing room with me.

“Just give us 5 more minutes,” he pleaded.

Curious, I agreed to stay in the hearing room 5 more minutes.

As the engineer at the podium continued to drone on in monotone fashion, the activist stood, walked to the podium, delivered a thundering fist pounding to the podium and shouted, “This hearing is a sham and we are out of here!” With that, all of the opponents stood up and walked out of the hearing room. Wow!

With that, I had my quote to finish telling the story. In just 4 seconds, the activist said more than the official corporate and government experts said in several hours. All of those technical facts did not matter.

The quote from the activist summed up all of the frustration of the people they represented. Most of all, they passionately conveyed their beliefs. Although the scientist, engineers and experts may have high belief in the facts they presented, they were unable to present them with any passion.  And while the protestors could be challenged on whether the hearing was really a sham, they successfully summed up and encapsulated their feelings.

The lesson here is that when you create those great quotes, internalize them, then add emotion and passion to make them stand out and become memorable. When you do, you take control of not only the quote, but of the entire story.

In our next lesson we’ll discuss ways to select the right spokesperson for your organization.

Media Training 21: The Secret to Handling Negative Questions

By Gerard Braud

Most questions from most reporters are negative. News in general tends to be negative because it is usually about serious change or a disaster. I wish news wasn’t negative, but I spent 15 years in the business trying to change that and couldn’t. Then I’ve spent every year since 1994 trying to change it and I haven’t made any progress.

With that said, I’m going to teach you the secret to answering a negative question. Let me go through the various steps first and then I’ll explain each step.

You must:

• Listen to how the question is phrased.

• Ask yourself, is it a negative question?

• If so, realize you are not obligated to directly answer the negative question.

• Determine if the negative question can be phrased in a more positive manner.

• If it can, mentally ask yourself the positive question.

• Then, answer the question using a positive answer that responds to the positive question.

Of course, the time you have to do this is a nanosecond. But much like internalizing key messages is done through daily repetition, this skill set must also be practiced in daily conversation.

Let’s break it down using an actual case study. In the late 1990’s, a chemical company wanted to build a $700 million dollar facility in the industrial corridor along the Mississippi River about 40 miles upstream from New Orleans.

Ten year’s earlier, as a reporter I covered a Green Peace anti-pollution campaign along the river and nicknamed the area, “Cancer Alley.”  During a 2 week period of protesting, they convinced many people that cancer rates in the area were high and that the cancer was caused by chemical plants.

Scientific proof, however, indicated that cancer rates in the area were no higher than anywhere else in the world. However, mortality rates, especially from lung cancer, were high. That was because smoking rates were high, especially among the poor, who had no health insurance and were generally diagnosed with cancer after it was very advanced.

With that background, imagine the task of trying to build a new chemical plant in “cancer alley.” Despite the jobs it would create and the economic impact, opposition groups were quick to allege that if built, the chemical plant would be a cancer causing polluter.

The turning point in this story came in a news interview where a television reporter asked the company spokesman, “Will this plant pollute?” His answer was, “Well, yes. We have permits from the state of Louisiana to produce caustic chlorine, EDC, VCM and PVC and those permits are essentially a license to pollute.”

There are so many sins committed in this one quote, but let’s stay on task and examine the question first.

Was the question negative? Yes.

What was the question behind the question? It was, “when you build this chemical plant, will it pollute and kill everyone with cancer?”

The spokesperson essentially said yes, the company will kill everyone with cancer and that they had a license to kill.

Could there be a positive version to this same negative question? Sure, a more positive question would have been, “the people in the community are afraid your chemical plant will cause cancer. What assurances can you give them that you can operate in a safe manner?”

Do you see the difference between that question and the original question? Do you see how both questions are essentially asking the same thing?

The proper positive answer should have been, “In order for us to receive permits from the state and federal government, we must promise to be protective of human health and the environment. Let me tell you how we plan to do that…”

In addition to not answering the question in a positive manner, the spokesperson committed a whole host of sins. The sad thing about the original answer is the spokesperson was attempting to be honest, but in the end he was actually telling more of a lie than he was telling the truth. He was honest to a fault. Everything we do as humans causes pollution, from driving our car to flushing the toilet. And while there are always some emissions from chemical plants, much of the $700 million dollar price tag would be pollution controls.

Additionally, because the spokesman’s personality type was geared toward being a details person, he began listing the chemicals the company would make by name. To the average person in the audience with a 6th grade education, it was frightening jargon, equal to telling the audience he would be making “ethyl methyl death.”

I’m going to guess the spokesperson did not practice before the interview. What’s sad is I know he went through media training. I was not his trainer but I observed the class as one of the pioneers of media training worked with him.

Finally, I am sure the spokesman did not attach a dollar to every word that came out of his mouth, because the $700 million dollar plant was never built and his quote was one of the main reasons.

To learn how to answer negative questions in a positive manner, you have to practice this skill daily as you practice your key messages.

In our next lesson we’ll examine the role passion plays in media relations.