Lesson 18: Practicing for the Big Negative News Story

By Gerard Braud


So far we’ve discussed what an ordinary media training program includes and we’ve discussed the need to practice before every interview. But if you are being interviewed about a negative issue by an investigative reporter or a major publication or network news magazine, you need more than your average media training and quick practice session. You need to prepare as though you are going to war.

There are two main steps you need to take:

• Your PR or communications team needs to become the investigative reporter

• You need to train until you know the answer to every question.

Let me explain what I mean.

When I’m asked to prepare someone for such an interview, we usually have one to two weeks to prepare. Major publications and networks often spend weeks and months working on a story.

Preparation includes numerous phone calls with the reporter or producer to find out exactly what their story is about and what they want to know.  Reporters are very coy and really don’t want to tell you too much about the story. Ideally, they want to catch you off guard because they think you will be more honest if they catch you unprepared. In most cases reporters are very vague.

If you are a retailer, for example, the reporter may tell you they are doing a story about computers, when really the story centers on allegations of questionable behavior by your computer sales team. If you are with a non-profit, they may tell you the story is about donations and how the money is used, when the real story is about high executive compensation and justifying a 6 figure salary funded by donations. If you are with a government agency, the reporter may tell you the story is about helping tax payers, when the real story is about a long list of tax payer complaints.

The first rule you should apply is to look in the mirror and to realize that the good Lord gave you 2 ears and 1 mouth and that you should use them in that proportion. In other words, you should be asking the reporters more questions than you answer. You need to learn to ask them probing questions about the possible report, then stop talking and start listening. Listen for not just what they say, but what they don’t say. You must become an expert in reading between the lines.

Among the questions you should ask are:

• Tell me a little about the genesis of the story?

• Is the story about something that we do well or something that you think we could do better?

• Ultimately, what do you want your audience to take away from the story?

• Who else have you talked to?

• What have those people told you so far?

I have a total of 3 pages of questions like these that I provide privately to my clients. It would be a disservice to print them here and tip our hand to the media.

After you ask the question, sit back and listen. Too many people think they need to do all the talking when dealing with a reporter. In this case, you want the reporter to do all the talking. And on the topic of talking, be aware that even though you may be doing advance work for the primary spokesperson, everything you say can be used in the final news report.

After doing exhaustive questioning of the reporter, the next step is for you to write the story the way you think the reporter would write the story at this very moment in time, based on what they said and didn’t say. Be brutally honest, cynical and sarcastic as you write the story. Next, share the story with your executive team to get their attention and commitment to do whatever it takes to fight the good fight, including more research by a team of people, designating a spokesperson, and a full commitment from the spokesperson to clear his or her calendar for media training.

With the executive team you should then pick apart the story to separate fact from fiction and perception from reality. Quickly identify where the reporter is off base in his or her assumptions. Identify the source of the story and what you know about the person or persons who may have given the story idea to the reporter, as well as what you know about the other people the reporter has already interviewed.

Next, develop a long list of questions that you think the reporter might ask. Do not be kind in crafting these questions. Make them very direct.

After that you’ll need to research the true answers to each question, gather background material to support your position, then begin writing answers to every question. The answers must all be quotable and written in the key message tree style that I described in lesson 9.

Media training for this type of interview may take 1 or 2 days. Generally such training will include a 45 minute role playing interview recorded on video, followed by an extensive critique and then more long interviews. This goes on non-stop until we’ve flushed out every question and until the spokesperson has perfected every answer. Remember, this is serious stuff that could affect your business and your bottom line.

Often I run into cynics who say you can’t possibly know every question you’ll be asked, nor can you know all the answers. I beg to differ with them. I have and you can.  In fact, the greatest compliment I get from clients after their interview is, “Gerard, you nailed it.”

You can nail it too.

If you get in a jam, you can always send an e-mail to me and track me down at www.braudcommunicaton.com

In our next lesson we’ll examine media training for a desk side visit.

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