Media Training 12: Passing the Cynic Test

By Gerard Braud

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Reporters are among the biggest cynics in the world. They doubt everything you tell them and you have to prove everything to them. This is especially true if you are trying to promote a good news story.

I have found over the years that reporters are quick to believe something negative about your organization and slow to believe your positive side of the story. We discussed some of these issues in lesson 5 when we talked about opposition groups and NGOs.

Reporters are always wondering what you are trying to hide and what you are not telling them.

We walk a thin line sometimes, because while I am in favor of always telling the truth, I do agree that there are times when you need to practice the sin of omission. At no time are you obligated to go to confession with a reporter just as you are not obligated to tell a competitor all of your secrets, as we discussed in lesson 2.

As a Catholic, I learned early the virtues of going to Confession. But while we are taught that when you go to Confession in the Church you receive absolution and forgiveness, I can assure you that if you go to confession with a reporter you will go to hell.

I know because there were many days when people went to confession with me, only to end up on the front page of the paper the next morning or leading the newscast that evening.

I have two rules as it relates to passing the cynic tests. The first rule is to write well worded key messages using simple language that everyone can understand. Those key messages need to be void of any flowery words that would be construed as heavy on PR (public relations) or full of BS (the stuff that you find in a pasture near a cow).  PR and BS stink a mile away and cause reporters to become very cynical.

My second rule is what I call the “3 Bucket Rule.”  Imagine three buckets sitting in a row.

  1. In bucket number one I would put all of the positive key messages that I need to say in an interview.
  2. Bucket number 2 would be filled with well worded key messages about a vast number of negative things the reporter may ask me about. I label bucket number 2 as things I will only talk about if asked.
  3. Bucket number 3 will be the smallest bucket and it will contain things that I cannot talk about.
Such issues might be confidential employee information, confidential corporate information, or private medical information. Various laws by various governments may prohibit you from discussing these private details.

As you share the key messages from bucket number one you should be telling a logical story using the reporters own inverted pyramid style. The facts should fall logically into place. At the end of each key message you should create a “cliff hanger,” as we discussed in lesson 6, designed to make the reporter ask you a logical follow up question. This natural progression will make the reporter feel as though you are being open and honest with them, because you are.

Should you be asked something that is in bucket number 2, you will follow the same procedure of giving a well worded, pre-written key message using the inverted pyramid style. The facts should fall logically into place. At the end of each key message you should create a “cliff hanger” that helps the reporter craft a logical question that you can answer. In the process, you should be guiding the reporter back to more of the positive key messages from bucket number one.

In media training classes we teach the technique of block, bridge and hook. This technique traditionally teaches that when you are asked a negative question, you block the negative by bridging to something positive and hooking the reporter with new information. The technique is designed to distract the reporter with perhaps something that is more appealing and has more wow.

The danger with the block, bridge and hook technique is that the redirect or bridge, is so overt that you never answer the reporter’s question and that makes the reporter even more cynical and skeptical. It may actually anger the reporter and cause them to become hostile.

The approach that I teach is to answer the question with a well worded key message, which serves as a “block” because it gives enough information to answer the question without exposing more vulnerabilities. That key message from bucket number 2 is then followed with a bridge back to more positive information, which is then followed by a fact, statistic, story or example that might contain more wow than the line of questioning the reporter was previously persuing.

The block, bridge and hook is a difficult task to teach without actually role playing and it is difficult for me to do true justice to it in this forum. To truly learn the technique you should really schedule a training class with extensive on-camera role playing.

And remember, as we learned in lesson 8, the faster you get to a quote, the faster the interview will end. Make sure your key messages are full of quotes.

In our next lesson we’ll go deeper into crisis communications and examine how those cynical reporters quickly cast a vote of no confidence in you when you don’t respond in a timely manner.


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