Media Training 28: Speaking Off the Record

By Gerard Braud

Never agree to speak off the record.

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.

Media Training 24: Death by News Conference

By Gerard Braud

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.


Media Training 23: Selecting the Right Spokesperson

By Gerard Braud

Picking the right spokesperson really depends upon the situation.

Many organizations tend to have two extremes in selecting spokespeople. Some organizations always send out their top PR person while other organizations insist that only the CEO speak.

I endorse neither of these approaches as perfect and will suggest that sometimes the top PR person is a great choice and likewise in some cases the CEO is a great choice.

But in many cases, neither of these people is a good choice.

In fact, if you think back to lesson 12 in which we talk about passing the cynic test, many reporters cynically will think that the PR spokesperson will be too polished, slick and rehearsed, and is therefore serving as a buffer to protect executives who are afraid to talk and who are vulnerable to difficult questions. Conversely, if the cynics see the CEO out front as the spokesperson for certain events, they will assume that the event is more serious because the CEO is having to handle the situation.

As a reporter, I generally wanted to talk to the person closest to the story or issue I was covering. If a hospital has a new procedure to announce, I’d rather speak to a front line doctor than either the PR person or the CEO. If the news report is about a non-profit agency, the best spokesperson for the story might likely be a volunteer. If a company is accused of wrong doing, I’d like to interview the manager who is closet to the issue at hand. If there is a fire and explosion, I’d rather speak to an eye witness or line supervisor.

The closer you can get the reporter to the person closest to the issue or event, the happier they will be.

Of course, this means that when it comes to media training, you need to use the same principle that a great sports team uses. You must train lots of people and build bench strength.

Training deep means managing budgets and calendars such that you can do both primary training and refresher training on a regular budget. Usually, budgeting time and funds is proportionate to the size of your organization. In proposing deep training and budgeting, just remember that the value of a single news story can easily pay for a single media training session. In fact, in most cases, the relative ad value of a single news story is 3 to 9 times greater than the cost of a media training class.

As an example, a 30-second TV commercial during a newscast may cost $4,000 to $5,000, which might also be the cost of a single media training class. However, according to the rules of relative ad value, a 30 second TV news story is considered 3 times more believable than a 30 second advertisement, hence the relative ad value of a 30 second news story could be $12,000 to $15,000. Most news stories run 90 seconds, which could increase the relative ad value of a single TV news story to $36,000 to $45,000 dollars or more. To take it one step further, most towns have one newspaper, 3-5 television stations and multiple news radio stations. Hence, the relative ad value of a news event could easily be worth $300,000 or more, depending upon which city you live in and the price of a 30 second commercial. More modern measurement methods can be even more precise in measuring relative ad value because they calculate the positive and negative nature of the story. The bottom line is that you can easily justify investing funds to train multiple spokespeople based on the positive financial impact it may have. Remember our rule about, “if you could attach a dollar to every word you say, would you make money or lose money.”

Hence, develop bench strength so you can have a large number of spokespeople to send forth and not just the head of PR or the CEO.

As for using the PR person, in Don Henley’s song, “Dirty Laundry,” he speaks of the bubble headed bleach blonde news anchor who comes on at 5 p.m. and how she can tell you about the plane crash with a gleam in her eye. Well the same is true of many PR spokespeople, which makes them not my choice on many occasions as spokespeople.

Regardless of whether news is good or bad, some spokespeople are able to stand before reporters and maintain a bubbly persona as though all is well, even when it isn’t. Their answers are often glib, superficial and poorly rehearsed. I hate that and so do most reporters and that is why many times I don’t want a PR person to be the spokesperson.

At the same time, many CEOs attempt to be too serious, attempt to communicate way too many details and generally look like the world’s biggest grump. I hate spokespeople like that.

The one time when I always want the PR person and the CEO ready to both act as spokespeople is when I write a crisis communications plan for an organization. I generally ask that the PR spokesperson and CEO both be included as spokespeople, along with a host of other executives.

Generally, in the first hour of a crisis, when information is still limited and most executives are busy managing the crisis at hand, I suggest that the PR spokesperson read what I describe as the “First Critical Statement.” This document lays out the very basics of what is known until more details are available.

Generally, I follow the initial statement one hour later with a more detailed statement delivered by a manager who has more expertise and knowledge about the subject at hand. This is one of the reasons why mid level executives need to be media trained.

Many companies will have sent out their CEO by this point to serve as the point person and lead spokesperson. I do not agree with this approach because I would prefer for the CEO to be leading the crisis team during the crisis. Furthermore, if a company uses a CEO as their spokesperson and the CEO misspeaks, who will come behind the CEO and clean things up if the CEO makes a mistake. Generally, I save the CEO to be the final spokesperson when the crisis is over. It both allows the CEO to clean up after any misstatements by middle managers and it allows the CEO to be portrayed as a leader who was managing the crisis.

Words are important, but you also send signals to the media by whom you select as your spokesperson. Choose wisely.

In our next lesson we’ll discuss the do’s and don’ts of a news conference.

Media Training 21: The Secret to Handling Negative Questions

By Gerard Braud

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.

With that said, I’m going to teach you the secret to answering a negative question. Let me go through the various steps first and then I’ll explain each step.

You must:

• Listen to how the question is phrased.

• Ask yourself, is it a negative question?

• 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.

Media Training 19: Preparing for a Desk Side Visit

By Gerard Braud 

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.

Media Training 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 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.


Media Training 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 suggestions 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.

Basic media training familiarizes 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.



Media Training 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.

Media Training 9: The Myth about 3 Key Messages

By Gerard Braud 

So in the last lesson, we talked about not letting facts get in the way of a good story. The secret is to keep it simple.

When you go through media training (which I enjoy teaching more than anything in the world and I would still do every day even if I won a $200 million dollar lottery)… when you go through media training you are always taught the concept of identifying your “3 Key Messages.”  In other words, what are the 3 most important things you need to communicate during your interview with the reporter?

But what is a key message?

  • Is it a bullet point?
  • Is it a talking point?
  • Is it a set of words that incorporate more spin than truth?
  • Is it a set of verbatim words that incorporate both truth and quotes?

In my world, it is a set of verbatim words that incorporate both truth and quotes. But many media trainers teach only bullet points and talking points.  I call this the myth about 3 key messages.

Let’s put this in the context of a U.S. political candidate in a debate with his or her opponent. The moderator of the debate might ask a question such as, “Please give me your thoughts on education.”

The candidate, whose strategist may have determined that the key messages should only be about energy, the economy and international relations, is left with nothing to say. Hence, the candidate will BS his or her way through 50 seconds of a 60 second answer, then conclude by saying, “education is important and you can get more details on my website.”

That is such bull.

When you give a spokesperson or executive only bullet points and talking points for an interview, you give them license to ad lib. Have you ever seen anyone who can truly ad lib well? They are few and far between. The person who ad libs is doing what? They are winging it. What did we learn in Lesson 2?  When you wing it you crash and burn.

In my world you should start an interview with 3 key areas that you want to talk about. For each of those areas, you should have learned and internalized several pre-written sentences that are also very quotable sentences. Then, each of those 3 areas should have 3 key messages of their own, that are well written, internalized and quotable. And conceivably, each of those 3 key messages will have 3 more messages to go with them.

Think of your conversation as a large live oak tree like you see in the south. Picture that tree with a huge, study trunk and 3 large branches. In my training programs, I teach the executives what I call my tree trunk message, which usually consists of 2 sentences that anchor the entire conversation. These are the first words out of your mouth when the reporter asks the first question. These first two sentences provide context for the conversation you are about to have. Both sentences must be quotable. The first sentence serves virtually as a headline that sums up your organization’s vision, value, mission and belief. The second sentence points to the 3 key areas that the spokesperson is prepared to talk about. The second sentence begins the foreshadowing process that we talked about in lesson 6. It is this type of foreshadowing that will help the reporter develop his next question for you.

Next, I write 2 more sentences for each of those 3 large branches that grow from the tree trunk. Can you visualize this large oak with 3 large branches? The sentences must again be highly quotable. These sentences add a few more overarching facts and point to other important areas that you may want to talk about. Again, you are foreshadowing other areas that you are prepared to talk about.

Again, this is a technique that I usually take half a day to teach in my “Kick-Butt Key Messages” workshop. But if you can visualize a tree with a large trunk and 3 large branches, you begin to understand how the conversation grows. Then add 3 limbs to each of the large branches. Then add 3 twigs to each of the limbs. Then add 3 leaves to each of the twigs. Draw it out if necessary to fully visualize the tree. Ultimately, just as a tree sprouts limbs, twigs and leaves, your conversation needs to sprout additional sentences with slightly more detail.

In our visualization, the leaves represent great detail while the tree trunk and 3 branches symbolize very basic facts.

If you invest time to populate your tree with verbatim, quotable sentences that you internalize, your next interview will be the easiest interview ever.

Basically, your populated tree has created a full conversation and an interview should be a conversation. It should tell a story.

Additionally, our tree analogy has prepared us to tell our story in the inverted pyramid style – the same style reporters use when they write.

Is this easy? No.

Does it take preparation? Absolutely.

How much preparation? An interview is as important as any business deal. If you could attach a dollar to every word that comes out of your mouth, would you make money or lose money?

Bottom line – know what you want to say, know it verbatim, and be prepared to tell a story.

In our next lesson I’ll ask you the question I ask often when I talk to people who use lots of jargon, corporate speak and acronyms. The question is, “What does that mean?”

Media Training 8: The Facts Don’t Matter

By Gerard Braud

One day, as a joke in the newsroom, I uttered the phrase, “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.” We all laughed. A colleague was pushing for a story to make the evening news, but there were lots of holes in the story and I (who in lesson 3 emphasized that it’s all about me) wanted my story to be the lead story. I won and got the lead story. The colleague’s story was killed.

Over the years we used the joke several times daily just to raze each other. But then we began to realize that way too much of what made the news at our TV station and at those of our competitors, made the news regardless of the facts. Ultimately, it was one of the reasons I left the news business after a great 15-year ride.

But let’s be honest. How many news stories are filled with facts? The truth is, not a lot.  Newspaper stories will always have more details than TV and radio news reports. But TV stories, especially, are driven by visual images. The example that I always use is that if the story is about a brown cow, I need video of a brown cow. If I have no video of a brown cow, I can’t put the story on the evening news.

Another example I always use is the mixed metaphor that says, “If a tree falls in the woods and it is not on video, is it news?”

When I used to cover hurricanes in the ‘80s and ‘90s I was always upset when I didn’t have video of something blowing away. I needed the visual on video to tell the story.

I laughed a few years ago when there was a news report about a landslide in Japan. A highway traffic camera captured trees sliding down the side of a hill. It was only news because there was dramatic video. Trust me, as a guy who has worked around the world and extensively in the Pacific rim, there are landslides all over the world every day. This one happened to be captured on video and therefore became news.

As I mentioned in lesson 4, a print reporter will likely write only a 12-20 sentence synopsis, a radio reporter is only writing 6-8 sentences and a TV reporter is only writing 10-12 sentences.

The average person tries to give way, way, way too many facts in a news interview. Take this comment with a grain of salt, but the reporter doesn’t really care about you or the facts. Sure, they seem interested in you, but their report is more important to them personally than your facts.

A news report is a puzzle. Certain pieces must fit exactly together. In a TV report, quotes make up 1/3rd of the story. The lead and the conclusion together make up 1/3rd of the story. I don’t want to burst your bubble, but can you guess how much room we have in the story for your facts? In a TV news report, that equals 4 sentences. In a print report that equals 8-12 sentences.

If there is no room in the story for a bunch of facts, why would you spend so much time giving lots of facts to the reporter?

So, in conclusion for this lesson… don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.

In our next lesson we’ll explore the media training myth about 3 key messages