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

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

Lesson 17: What Makes the Media Say Wow! – Commit News

By Gerard Braud

As a reporter, I generally hated going to a news conference or a media event that was about good news. It’s not that I’m opposed to covering good news, it’s just that generally the spokespeople were poorly prepared and the organizers were completely oblivious of the wants, needs and desires of the media.

If you call a news conference or organize a media event, you’d better be prepared to commit news. When someone commits murder, it is usually a pre-meditated act.  Well, good news needs to be pre-meditated as well. You need to commit news.

The litmus test we use in the newsroom is to first ask, “Who cares?” Actually, in most newsrooms everyone curses like sailors, so how we actually phrase the “who cares?” statement is a lot harsher. To pass the litmus test, the answer needs to be that a large portion of our viewing, reading or listening audience care. That’s how news is determined.

Too many good news events fail to meet that basic test of affecting or bettering the lives of a vast number of people in your community. A ribbon cutting is not news. Expanding your facility is not news. The anniversary of when your organization was founded is generally not news. Yet every day, the newsroom is filled with news releases asking the media to cover such events.

It is not news if the event is self-centered and all about how good your organization is. To be news, you must explain how it is good for that broad audience. To quote my wife – it’s not about you. It needs to be about the audience at home watching TV, reading the newspaper or listening to the radio.

For something to be news, you also have to make the media say Wow! That means you need to knock their socks off with a catchy hook, have good quotes and good visuals. Often adding wow means you have good timing and you are able to link your issue or event to something else important in the news. For example, holding a blood drive on a clear sunny day is likely not news, but holding a blood drive to help the victims of a crisis is news. Holding a food drive on a clear, sunny day is likely not news, but holding a food drive to help victims of a major natural disaster is.

I teach a workshop called, “What Makes the Media Say Wow!” My favorite case study in that program is one for a litter clean-up event that I was asked to handle PR for. The event is called Beach Sweep. It is an annual event that organizes thousands of volunteers to fan out along the Louisiana coast to pick up trash that has washed up on the beaches. While the event initially got lots of media attention, after covering the story for several years, media attention had died off.

To add wow I added controversy. In our state legislature there was a huge battle between a group of recreational fishermen and members of the commercial fishing industry. Fishing in Louisiana has a huge economic impact because more seafood is caught in our coastal waters than in any of the lower 48 states. With that said, I called the leaders of the 2 feuding groups and asked if they would both lay their differences aside for one day. I further asked them to call on all of their members to help pick up trash in the coastal waters as they went fishing on Beach Sweep Saturday. They both agreed. I then asked both leaders to act as spokespeople at a media event. These feuding parties standing side by side helped to create the wow I needed.

Next, I needed the event to be visual, so I held it at a boat launch where the fishermen could take reporters out by boat to see the trash problem first hand.

Finally, I provided just enough media training for both spokespeople to teach each a handful of good quotes and how to deflect any probing questions about their ongoing battle in the state legislature. The best quote was crafted by simply asking the fishermen to hold a landing net and to demonstrate how it could be used to pick up trash, while saying, “This landing net is the best tool a fisherman can have this Saturday because you can land a trophy fish and you can use it to pick up trash.” It was what I call a show-and-tell quote. Four TV stations used the same quote, as did one radio station and every newspaper.

I knew going into the event that every reporter was really covering the story hoping to get greater insight on the legislative fight. When asked about the fight, the spokespeople were taught to say, “We’ll talk about that another day. Today we’re here to talk about something that is important to every fisherman, which is to clean up the environment.”

Hence, we committed news, told a story that impacted the economy, every fisherman and everyone who uses the waterways and beaches. That means we had all the pieces of a perfect story. And, to add icing to the cake, every reporter thanked us for making the story so easy to cover because we met their wants, needs and desires by giving them a story with a great hook, great quotes and great visuals.

In summary – be ready to commit news and don’t try to make the news about you, make it about your audience.

In our next lesson, we’ll talk more about how to prepare, media train and practice for an interview being conducted by an investigative reporter.

Lesson 15: How to Structure Media Training

By Gerard Braud

One of the most difficult challenges I have in my job as a media trainer is to get executives to carve out time in their schedule for training. As mentioned in lesson 2, some don’t see the financial benefit. An even greater percentage are afraid of what ever embarrassment they may go through during the training.

Admittedly, it is difficult for high powered people to intentionally put themselves in a vulnerable position.  But media training requires an executive to exercise a little humility and to recognize that training is a great time to learn a new skill or perfect an old skill.

So here are some suggestion whether you are the executive who needs to be trained or whether it’s your job to convince an executive that he or she need media training.

Everyone needs to understand up front that the day needs to be fun and that they need to be ready to laugh at themselves and their mistakes. Making mistakes is part of learning, i.e. you learn from your mistakes.

Just the same, I try to create a safety zone for the student. If the person being trained is the CEO I prefer that we are the only two people in the room. At a minimum we can expect the class to take 4 hours. And as a sign of good faith, I always promise to destroy the video tape that we used to record mock interviews during the training.

If it basic media training to familiarize an executive with the concept of media interviews, I’ll generally conduct 3 interviews during the course of the training. The first interview is a simple baseline interview. It let’s me gage the executive’s natural skills and personality type. I’ll determine quickly if the student is prone to give too many details, for example. I’ll also test their ability to stay on topic or whether they are easily distracted and get off topic easily.

The interview is recorded on video so it can be played back, evaluated and critiqued, even if you are practicing for a print interview.

I’ll then introduce the concept of using key messages to stay on topic and control the interview, then we will do a second interview on camera, followed by another evaluation.

My third interview begins to introduce negative questions and is designed to teach the concept of blocking a negative question by bridging back to one of the key messages and then hooking the reporter with new information.

I conclude the training with four things. First I let the student destroy the video tape as promised, secondly I give the student instructions that in order to truly master the skill they must begin using key messages every day in ordinary conversations. Thirdly, I tell them they must role play with someone before every interview. Even if you only have 5 minutes, you need to get your head in the game and your mouth in gear. Finally, I let them know that media training is not a one time event in life, but something that requires practice and more training. Hopefully top executives understand the concept of having personal success and life coaches. I suggest an ongoing approach to media training with a refresher course taught ever 6-12 months.

For groups of vice presidents, managers and directors, the choice is yours as to whether you offer them a private 4 hour training, or whether you combine them into small groups for a full day of training. It is my personal preference to have no more than 4 people in a full day training program. When you add additional people you may need to add a second video camera and interviewer in order to complete all 3 role playing interviews in the allotted time.

In some cases, clients will ask for a training program to familiarize large groups with media training and the do’s and don’ts of media interviews. Such classes are possible. I’ve conducted programs with hundreds of people in the room. You can teach them all of the same lessons you would in a small media training class, but you are obviously unable to do personal role playing interviews  with everyone. Generally I’ll bring a volunteer to the stage to show everyone how an interview should be conducted. Then I ask the audience members to partner with the person next to them to conduct an interview. The audience members each take a turn to ask questions and to answer questions. Then I lead them through the process of giving each other an evaluation.

Finally, one way to get hesitant executives to train is to incorporate presentation training into the program. Many of the skills used to make a good presentation are some of the same skills used in an interview.

I always remind my students that Michael Jordan did not become the best basketball player of his day after a single practice, nor did Tiger Woods become a great golfer after taking a class at a Putt-Putt course. Likewise, to truly master the skill of being interviewed, you have to practice on a regular basis and find a coach and trainer who is a good match for your organization.

In our next lesson we will look at the big difference a little practice makes.

Lessons 14: Reporters Like to Speculate

By Gerard Braud

What’s the worst that could happen? How much worse could it get? But what if… ? Oh, those great “what if” questions.

Reporters love the what if question. Why?

Well, reporters lover a great story and sometimes the story doesn’t materialize the way they hoped it would. Remember all the lessons on selfishness that we discussed in lesson 3? Well all of that comes to fruition and is personified by the what if question.

Such questions indicate that the reporter is as disappointed as a 4-year-old who was hoping you would stop to buy them ice cream, but you didn’t.

Beware of reporters who ask you to speculate because you are heading into very dangerous territory. If you do speculate, you’ve made the story bigger than what it is.

The most important phrase you can use when addressing such questions is to say, “I couldn’t speculate on the, but what I can tell you is…”

Another variation of that answer is to say, “It would be inappropriate for me to speculate on that, but what I can tell you is…”

Such answers apply the block, bridge and hook technique we discussed in lesson 12. In this case you block their speculations right up front with the phase, “It would be inappropriate for me to speculate…” , then the phase, “but what I can tell you is…” should bridge of redirect the reporter back to one of your key messages and one of the facts that you have previously confirmed. Ideally you should create an additional hook that keeps the reporter from asking another speculative question as a follow up. But the most important thing that you are doing is immediately putting an end to the speculation and sticking to the facts.

Akin to this is when a reporter will ask you to speak for someone else. The proper response should be, “I can’t speak for them, but what I can tell you is…”  You then use the same block, bridge and hook techniques we discussed previously.

One more lesson we should also address here is how to handle the reporter that misstates certain key facts in their question.

It has been my experience that most spokespeople try to gingerly work their way back to a key message and the correct facts without every clearly telling the reporter they are wrong. Well my friends, that seldom works.

If a reporter misstates a fact in their question you have permission to stop them dead in their tracks if necessary and say, “I’m sorry, but you misstated a key fact in your question.” At that time you should give them the correct fact. Another variation is to use the phrase, “I can’t agree with the premise of your questions.”

Over the years many spokespeople have confessed to me that they are afraid that such an approach could be perceived by the reporter as hostile. I personally think you can do it without being hostile. In fact, I have found that the dynamics of the interview or news conference will change in your favor because the reporter sees that you are in charge and that you are holding them accountable. The reporter will not only choose their words more carefully in the remainder of the interview, but they will also choose their words more carefully when writing their script.

Ultimately you must realize that you are in charge of the interview. Don’t relinquish control to the reporter.

In our next lesson we’ll examine how a spokesperson can get the most out of a media training class.

Lesson 13: The Vote of Confidence or No Confidence

By Gerard Braud

In lesson 11 we discussed the fact that when there is an industrial accident and a spokesperson does not appear in a timely manner, reporters often go looking for facts and quotes from other people, such as the ones with no teeth who live in trailers.

Something else happens, which also ties into lesson 5 on bias.

When a reporter arrives on the scene of a disaster or crisis they immediately began sizing up the situation and deciding whether they have confidence in you or no confidence. I often like it to the European parliaments that will cast a vote of confidence or no confidence in the Prime Minister.

If disaster strikes and no one is around to tell the reporter what is going on, the reporter will cast a vote of “no confidence” in you.

The result is ugly. They question whether you have your act together. They question whether the situation is potentially more dangerous that it actually is. I remember thinking as a reporter, standing outside of a burning chemical plant, “These people don’t have their act together. This is going to get uglier before it gets better. We’re all going to die.”

As a result my cynic filter, as discussed in lesson 12, would be set off and bias would begin to creep into my report. In a live report you might here the cynicism in the tone of my voice or hear a tone that sounds sarcastic. Additionally, the words I put in my script would become slightly more inflammatory.

If I was forced to go for an extended period of time without official information from the company involved, then anger would begin to creep in. I had editors and managers yelling at me wanting me to deliver the facts and no one from the company was actually helping me. Remember in lesson 3 we discussed the fact that it is about me. And when you don’t help men that is also when I would head out to the local neighborhood to begin asking neighbors what happened, whether they were afraid and what their opinion was of the company.

This is when I would usually hear comments such as, “They have explosions over there all the time,” “There’s no telling what’s in the air,” “I’m afraid to live here,” “My eyes are watering and my throat is scratchy,” and my all time favorite quote, “It blowed up real good.” (Yes, I actually had someone tell me that on camera one day.)

Sometimes the no confidence factor went even higher when a security guard would show up and tell us to turn off our TV camera, even when we are standing legally on public property. I’d always make sure we showed the security guard on the evening news because his actions or words clearly said this company had something to hide.

The ugliness of no confidence continues because when the official spokesperson finally comes forward, the reporter’s question will be far more negative, sarcastic and downright lethal.

As a corporate coach and trainer I understand that perhaps no one came out to speak to me when I was a reporter because everyone in the facility was busy fighting the fire. But let’s be honest. I don’t care. One person needs to be designated as spokesperson. It is part of your corporate responsibility to have a well trained and well qualified spokesperson, just as it is your corporate responsibility to have a well trained and well qualified team of emergency responders to fight the fire.

On the other hand, if I arrived on the scene of a burning factory and was met promptly by a courteous spokesperson with only the most basic facts, my confidence in the company went up astronomically. I immediately thought, “wow, these people have their act together.” That would make me cut them some slack and grant them some forgiveness. The questions to the spokesperson were much kinder and gentler. The tone of my voice in the live report was more fair. Sarcasm was removed from my delivery. Additionally, because I had facts and quotes from an official source, I had less need to knock on doors in the neighboring community to ask ill informed eye witnesses what they saw, heard and feared.

So in summary, be ready to have your spokesperson on the scene quickly with a well worded statement as part of your crisis communications plan, as we discussed in lesson 11.

In our next lesson we’ll look at how to deal with reporters who want you to speculate.

Lesson 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. In bucket number one I would put all of the positive key messages that I need to say in an interview. 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. 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.