Why every spokesperson needs media training
September 11, 2018 • 3 minute read
A few years back I got a panicked call from a marketing director who was concerned about quotes a law firm partner had given to a reporter. She had called the reporter and asked for the entire interview to be scrapped, which made matters worse. The veteran reporter – one known for his old-school journalism ethos – took offense at the request.
By the time I learned of the problem, at least three things had gone wrong: The source had said things he regretted, the marketing director had intervened in the wrong way, and the reporter had gone on the defensive. Fast but diplomatic action was required.
I called the partner to get to the bottom of his concerns. Had he said something that betrayed a client sensitivity? Something that might offend a regulator? No. In a long and wide-ranging interview the topics of discussion had strayed from his areas of expertise and he was concerned the responses he had provided might not be accurate. In short, he was afraid he might look bad.
This particular partner happened to be a very experienced spokesperson who maintained active relationships with many key reporters in his area. So, this was not a case of a rookie mistake. In fact, his comfort level likely worked against him in this instance. He let his guard down as the interview wandered beyond the borders of his experience.
I called the reporter and apologized for the confusion. I explained the situation and that the partner would like to do further research and elaborate on some of his responses. Would it be possible to have a brief follow-up call? The reporter agreed.
Within an hour the two were back on the line for a conversation that both ameliorated the partner’s concerns and provided additional substance and clarity to the reporter. The result was an article that was deeper and more insightful than it would have been if based on just the first interview.
It was a happy outcome, but the entire situation could have been avoided. When I was a reporter, I quickly came to see truth in the concept that everyone needs an editor. While writers often dislike others meddling with their prose, even the best need a second, or third, set of eyes to ensure quality and accuracy.
The same holds true for media spokespeople. No matter how adept or experienced a spokesperson may be, there are almost always holes in their game that could use work. And for new or less experienced spokespeople, learning the rules of the game is essential.
Media training can take many forms. Most often it’s a primer on the process for the uninitiated: how to prepare for, execute and follow up on a media interview, as well as an overview of the current media landscape. Sometimes it’s coaching experienced spokespeople on how to avoid mistakes even media veterans can make.
It can also be highly specific. Training a leader to speak on behalf of a firm instead of providing third-party commentary is a completely different animal. Details like how to avoid negative words in response to even the most pointed questions are critical. Saying something like “it was challenging but it’s not a total disaster” may seem sensible in the course of an interview, for example, but “It’s Not a Total Disaster” could end up being the headline of the story. Mock interviews and on-camera exercises can help spokespeople see how their words can be interpreted and used in ways they did not expect or intend.
Over the course of my career, both as a journalist and in PR, I’ve had the opportunity to be the subject of an interview every so often. Even after conducting thousands of interviews myself (or maybe because of that), I find it awkward to be on the other side of the questions. I often wince a bit when I see my words in print. I know I said what was quoted, but sometimes wish I said it in a different way.
A few years back I went for on-camera training with one of the best trainers in the business. She put me on the spot, asked questions fast and transitioned quickly. When I watched the tape, I gave myself a B, maybe a B-. It was a passable performance, but I saw many things to tighten up — verbal tics, my posture and gestures, the pace of my responses. I’ve worked on those things ever since.
Every writer needs an editor, and every spokesperson needs media training. Even me.