7 Media Training & Spokesperson Lessons from Rand Paul vs. Savannah Guthrie

guthrie paul interviewBy Gerard Braud

The New York Times called me Friday for a comment about Rand Paul’s hostile interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. When the Times starts calling for observations, that means the political season is in full swing. Reporter Alan Rappeport does a great job covering candidates and the things they say in his blog, First Draft. I wasn’t available when he called, but he did get some good insights from my friend and colleague Brad Phillips, who some of you know as Mr. Media Training.

You can learn a lot about your own media interview do’s and don’ts during campaigns, especially the presidential campaigns. We’ll take sometime this week to look at a few lessons.

For all of you who are spokespeople, I encourage you to first watch the NBC Today Show interview. Here are my observations about how it went:

Question one was background. It went smoothly.

Question two was about Iran negotiations. Guthrie tried to interrupt Paul 2:05 into the interview and Paul successfully interrupted to say, “Let me answer the question,” to which she did and the answer by Paul was a good one. However,

Lesson 1: To all spokespeople – the reporter has the right to interrupt you if it appears you are dodging the question. In this case, I think Paul was adding context, which many reporters don’t want to hear.

Lesson 2: Add context when you can. But if you look at the video, Guthrie appears embarrassed by the interruption. That isn’t good for Paul.

Lesson 3: Don’t embarrass a reporter on live television.

Question three was Guthrie at 3:03 into the interview asking Paul about issues that she said he changed his mind about over the years. On her third example at 3:16, Paul interrupts in a way that I believe crossed the line into being combative. Paul feels she is asking a biased question. Guthrie continues despite his talking over her. She completes the question by talking over his interruption, then he, in my opinion, comes across as being condescending as he begins to lecture her on how her question should have been phrased.

Lesson 4: Do not be condescending to a reporter. When a spokesperson reaches this point, things will always get uncomfortable and combative.

Lesson 5: As a spokesperson, you have the right to rephrase a question, but you should not think that lecturing a popular reporter on live television is a wise move.

My suggestion for any spokesperson at a time like this is to allow the reporter to finish their question, then to simply reply, “I cannot agree with the premise of your question.” The spokesperson should then state the facts as he or she believes them to be true.

Instead of the response I suggest, Paul initiates an argument that sounds much like a husband and wife who seem to be debating something that neither has heard correctly.

Lesson 6: When two people speak at the same time like this, neither can hear the other clearly.

From the perspective of control, Paul is completely controlling the interview. However, he is embarrassing Guthrie to the point that the loyal viewers who love and adore her will learn to hate Paul. For Paul, he gained control of the interview’s direction, but at what cost?

Brad Phillips told the New York Times that a spokesperson must remember, “The reporter is the conduit to the audience you want to reach out to.” This echoes the lesson I write about in Chapter 1 of Don’t Talk to the Media Until which is that in an interview, you are not talking to the media, you are talking to the media’s audience.

All of you who serve as spokespeople must walk a fine line when getting combative with a reporter, especially in a live interview on a high profile program like the Today Show.

Lesson 7: Making the media your enemy and being combative usually backfires. Making the media fall in love with you because you give great answers and sound bites always works. Just ask the young Senator from Chicago who ran for President and now sits in the White House. His quotes were always strong and that goes a long way.

The bottom line is that as a spokesperson, you have a right to provide context and to correct errors or misstatements. However, doing it right requires you to remember that, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

Media Speculation Complicates Crisis Communications & Public Relations: Disturbing Media Trend #1

Click image to watch video

Click image to watch video

By Gerard Braud

If your job is to communicate with the media in the form of crisis communications or pro-active public relations for a good-news event, your life and job will become more complicated because of disturbing news media trend #1.

Excessive speculation ranks as disturbing media trend #1. CNN has taken the sin of speculation to an all time high with their 24/7 speculation regarding the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370.

The flight disappeared from radar on March 8, 2014 and has never been found as of the day of this writing. That didn’t stop CNN from calling upon every third party expert in the world to get their opinion on why the plane may have disappeared, where the plane may have disappeared, and why absolutely no trace of the aircraft has ever been found.

The speculation included junk floating in the water near China, junk floating in the water near Vietnam, and debris west of Australia.  There was also speculation that the aircraft was either commandeered by the pilot or hijacked and flown to a remote airstrip where the passengers might be alive and held hostage.

FOX news covers MalaysiaAs a former journalist, I’ll share with you that in newsroom lingo, when a spectacular news event happens, it is not uncommon for the news director to proclaim to all in the newsroom, “We want to ‘own’ this story people!”

CNN clearly set out to devote more time to this story than any of their competitors. But there is a big gamble when going all-in on such a story. If there is no reasonable conclusion within a reasonable amount of time, the news media outlet is trapped. CNN had to decide if they would taper off their coverage or continue to go all in with the 24/7 speculation game. Unfortunately for anyone who watches CNN, the network decided to for-go coverage on most anything else in the world, in favor of non-stop speculation.

As a journalist and as someone who has reported for CNN, this relentless speculation fell below any standards of journalism I was ever taught. It was so absurd that I reached the point of feeling embarrassed for the anchors and the network.

Often another news event will happen that gives the media an opportunity to gracefully exit their excessive coverage. For example, on March 29, 2014, when Los Angeles experienced a 4.1 earthquake, which killed no one and injured no one.

(As a side note, I FaceTimed with my daughter in New Zealand and watched her screen bounce with great frequency as she experienced an earthquake. We immediately went online to see where the quake was centered and watched continuous aftershocks, all of which exceeded the single 4.1 earthquake in LA.)

Rather than giving the story a simple mention commensurate with a minor quake, CNN launched into yet another round of speculation news coverage. This time the story centered on whether LA was going to experience a big quake, capable of causing mass destruction, injury and death.

Really CNN? You didn’t need a 4.1 quake to speculate on that. Heck, everyday you could speculate about a quake rocking California.

BREAKING NEWS CNNMeanwhile, days later, on April 2, 2014, a big quake really did hit, this time in Chile. This massive quake measured 8.2, it killed five, injured others and caused massive destruction of buildings and a tidal wave. Yet the Chilean quake barely stayed in the news cycle.

Furthermore, while CNN went all in on the Malaysian Airlines 370 story, sending their top anchors to report from Malaysia and Australia, they sent no anchors to cover the massive destruction and chaos in Chile.

The frightening aspect of CNN’s relentless speculation is that often what happens at the network level trickles down to the local TV stations. Television news consultants seldom have an original idea. Rather, they watch what some other television news outlet does and they simply copy it.

This trend toward speculation can have a serious impact on corporations, non-profit organizations, and government agencies that experience a crisis. It also has significant impact on the people in public relations who must communicate reactively in a crisis and those who must communicate pro-actively when trying to get media coverage for good news events they wish to promote.

On the reactive side of crisis communications and public relations, should your company, non-profit or government agency fall prey to a crisis, it may be harder than ever to manage and communicate about your crisis.

This disturbing trend of speculation means you will spend more time than ever before responding to and reacting to rumors. Not only must you constantly slap the media on the wrist, but, in the case of Malaysia Airlines 370, if you are the company featured in the news reports, you must intensify your communications to your customer and family member audiences. The media and their speculation inflame your stakeholder audiences, causing greater mental anguish and emotional hostility.

Conversely, if you are a public relations person trying to get positive coverage for a news event during a period of time when the media is in excessive speculation mode about another entities’, your chances of getting good news coverage dissipates. In fact, your chances are almost zero that you could get any sort of news coverage.

The bottom line is for those of you who are professional communicators, the world of communications has gotten a great deal darker and harder because of the disturbing trend of excessive speculation.

To watch “7 Disturbing News Media Trends and How You Can Combat Them” On Demand Click here