The media love their gadgets. They also love promoting their gadgets.
At KSLA 12 in Shreveport, Louisiana, LifeEye12 was our mother ship. That is why I laughed so hard when the opening scene of the movie Anchorman shows Ron Burgundy stepping out of his helicopter. I’m not, however, laughing at CNN’s disgraceful coverage of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama.
Disgraceful, I say, because of CNN’s coverage of their drone video of an empty bridge.
Flashback to the 1970’s and 80’s — a news helicopter was the epitomy of status and the gadget of all news gadgets. At KSLA, it was
so important for us to mention and show the helicopter that I was almost fired as weekend anchor because I failed to show our anchorman landing in LifeEye12 at a local festival. Silly newsman and journalist Gerard Braud thought it was more important to report on the four different stories involving fatalities that day than to feature our helicopter. CNN is the latest sinner. CNN is using a drone and they are supporting my premise of the media making it all about them. (See Chapter 3 of my book Don’t Talk to the Media Until…)
Jon Stewart did a brilliant job of calling out CNN for their excessive coverage of the fact that they were using a drone to photograph the Edmund Pettus Bridge, even though there were no people on the bridge. If you haven’t seen it, watch this clip four minutes in. He calls out their sin better than I can even dream to.
Click to watch video
The lesson for all of you is that each day it becomes harder to get the media’s attention. CNN would rather spend valuable airtime talking about themselves and their drone than reporting on the issues of the day. And because media copy media, you can expect to see valuable airtime on your local television station wasted as your local media praise themselves for buying, owning, and using the same toy that all of us have access to.
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Consider option 3: Should a Variety of People Should Serve as Your Media Spokespeople?
A subject matter expert, with proper media training, can be a great spokesperson. In fact, an expert in the subject is often the most credible with the media and the audience.
Numerous people should be media trained as spokespeople, with each ready to go when called upon.
In a crisis, the PR person should speak during the first hour of the crisis, as explained in our previous article. By the end of the second hour of the crisis, a subject matter expert should serve as the spokesperson. If needed, the subject matter expert can remain the spokesperson if the crisis is ongoing. The final news briefing of the day may be the best time to feature the CEO as spokesperson, as explained in our previous article.
Think of your spokesperson selection process the way sports teams operate. You have stars and strong people on the bench, ready to step in as needed.
Media training helps identify your star players and secondary players. Most of all, never let anyone speak without intense training. Media play hardball. Don’t send out an untrained person with little league skills.
Train your CEO. Train your PR expert. Train multiple subject matter experts. The number of experts you train is based on the type of organization you represent. A hospital, for example, could have multiple doctors from multiple fields, as well as one or two nurses. An electric company could train multiple supervisors and line workers, as well as someone who is an energy conservation expert.
The key to effective media training is to help these subject matter experts learn to put their daily jargon aside and learn to speak at a level that a sixth grader could understand. This is especially true for persons with an analytical mind, who have a propensity to focus on tiny, technical details, rather than focusing on the big pictures.
Who will be your media spokesperson?
About the author: Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC (Jared Bro) is a media training and crisis communications plan expert. He has helped organizations on 5 continents. Braud is the author of Don’t Talk to the Media Until… 29 Secrets You Need to Know Before You Open Your Mouth to a Reporter. www.braudcommunications.com
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“Fixing” people like Lynch is what I’ve done behind the scenes for organizations since 1996. People are dumbfounded when they find out I make a living by training people to be comfortable when talking to the media. But as a former reporter who has witnessed people say dumb things to me on too many days, I decided there were things I could share to help people get comfortable and say the right thing to a reporter.
Here’s what I’ve learned…
A situation like Lynch’s requires much more than a Washington, D.C. or New York City spin doctor who wants to throw out their conventional “three key messages.” They usually provide lessons on how to stay on message and how to bridge back to their messages if a reporter gets you off track.
Many executives will confess secrets to me in confidence during media interview training. These confessions help me work through issues, such as past speech impediments, being an introvert, or having a personality based upon humility rather than bragging.
The rules for athletes, from professional football players to golfers, are the same.
Here are 5 tips:
#1 Invest time and money
Investing time and money to learn these skills is money well spent. The first question I ask of each trainee in my media training classes is, “If you could attach a dollar to every word you say, would you make money or lose money?” In fact, Chapter 2 of my book, Don’t Talk to the Media, Until…, is called The Big If. It addresses the value of a good or bad interview. The NFL obviously sees an interview as being worth at least $100,000. I wish corporations fined their executives each time one of them dodged a media interview.
#2 This isn’t your main job
For athletes and executives alike, doing media interviews is NOT your primary job and is NOT what you are an expert in. We get it. But like it or not, it IS part of your job. Like anything else in life that you have to do, you should do it well. Football players should understand they need an expert media training coach, just like each player needs a coach (or coaches) to help them be a better player. Rather than turning to an expert in media training, many rely on their agents for interview coaching. These agents have never been reporters and truly do not understand the complexities of the media and the best ways to master an interview.
#3 Is it too late now to fix this?
Preparation is the key to success. Football teams get to the Super Bowl when they start practicing in the off-season and continue to practice daily. Lynch should have invested significant time and money to fix his issues during the off-season. Trying to fix it the week of the Super Bowl is crazy. He should have addressed this a year ago when the NFL first levied their fines.
#4 Is there a way to simplify media interviews?
Yes. Simplifying what you want to say before an interview is the correct way to succeed. It is better than just standing there in front of a barrage of reporters asking mindless questions. Keep in mind, that at Super Bowl media day, the media just get stupid, by asking mindless questions and trying to pull stunts and gags. The dumb media represent the NFL’s acknowledgement that they want as much free press as humanly possible. I’d rather see reporters at media day be vetted so that only serious sports reporters are asking serious sports questions to serious athletes.
#5 Think like a reporter
Regardless of the type of media you face, the interview process can be simplified. It begins by thinking like a reporter. Each reporter is looking for a headline, a synopsis sentence, and a good quote.
If that is what the reporters want, the players should each be coached and ready to speak just like that: Give the headline, give a synopsis of what you want to talk about, then give a quote.
Is this easy?
No, not really. It is really hard work to make something simple, which is why you should seek out an expert coach to help you.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
• 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.
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If you are a big organization, occasionally a reporter from a major media outlet will call and ask for permission to do a “desk side visit.”
Be careful. These can be deadly.
A desk side visit is when a reporter wants to come by the office, not to write a particular story, but to visit with key executives and get to know them. Most often the reporter will be with a major newspaper or magazine and usually the reporter has recently been assigned to cover all stories related to your company, non-profit, agency or business sector.
While it is true that the reporter wants to get to know you, the entire time they are with you they are taking notes that will be filed away and used as story ideas at a later time.
The big danger occurs when PR people get excited that a reporter wants to visit and when the executives let their guard down and enter into too many friendly, candid conversations with the reporter.
Take a guess what everyone needs to do before participating in a desk side visit? You guessed it… they need to go through media training.
I have seen an enormous number of executives go to confession with reporters during desk side visits, only to see their own words come back to haunt them months later in a report they didn’t even know the reporter was writing. Do you remember what I said about going to confession in lesson 12? I said if you go to confession with a reporter you’ll go straight to hell.
So what should media training look like for a desk side visit?
First, the communications team needs to haul out all of the company’s key messages and dust them off to make sure they are current. Ideally, the communications team should have a deep library of key messages with more written each time a new issue arises.
Next, you need to segregate your key messages according to the 3 bucket rule that we discussed in lesson 12. That means you need to identify the key messages that you must to say, which is bucket number 1. Then in bucket number 2 you will find the answers, or key messages, that you will use only if you are asked about certain issues. Then in bucket number 3 you will have things that you cannot talk about at all.
Because people have an overwhelming compulsion to be honest, many people immediately begin telling reporters negative things that are usually kept in bucket number 2. I call this “opening the door.” Once you open the door, you’ve invited the reporter to enter and ask you many more questions. You have in essence opened Pandora’s Box and closing it is nearly impossible.
Many executives assume that everything in a desk side visit is “off the record.” It is not. Everything is on the record. And for the sake of clarity, never ever think that anything is off the record with a reporter. In fact, if a reporter ever invites you to speak off the record, you should refuse to do so. What you say to the reporter will always get traced back to you.
Likewise, be aware of reporters who ask you to speak on “background.” This means they want you to tell them facts, but they promise not to quote you or attribute the facts to you. Again, the people you are talking about will be able to figure out that it was you who was trashing them.
When done correctly, a desk side visit can be a great way to create a positive perception about you and your company. In lesson 13 we talked about passing the vote of confidence or no confidence with a reporter. A desk side visit is a great way to pass the test of confidence.
Finally, if the desk side visit goes well, key executives may want to call the reporter from time to time to share tips about trends in your industry. Their purpose should never be to have the reporter write about you or your organization, but to establish yourself as a trusted expert and source. Your goal is also to establish a true relationship with a reporter. That’s why, after all, they call it media relations.
Ultimately, that relationship will pay off in the future and make it much harder for the reporter to write scathing or negative stories about you or your organization. There is a lot to be said for relationships.
In summary, a desk side visit could be your worst nightmare or it could turn out to be your best friend
In our next lesson we’ll examine how you can best internalize all those key messages we’ve been talking about.
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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.
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