INQUISITION BY MEDIA
EVERY TIME YOU LOOK INTO A CAMERA OR SPEAK AT AN EVENT, YOUR REPUTATION – AND THAT OF YOUR COMPANY – IS ON THE LINE
DOING MEDIA MAY seem like an extracurricular chore to a senior executive, but its impact can be profound. With more media channels than ever before – and news travelling faster than ever before – dealing with perceptions in the marketplace is often a reality an executive cannot avoid.
Take a step back and analyse. Do you and your organisation have the media skills to flourish, let alone survive, in the full glare of the media spotlight? You may have an insurance policy on your building. It makes sense. But these days you also need to consider an insurance policy on your reputation.
You certainly don’t want to wait for the worst-case scenario of a media crisis to find out you’re sinking rather than swimming. Whatever your company is worth, you don’t want it being put through the media shredder and devalued.
Now you find yourself entering the media training maze. Public relations (PR) is not an exact science, being subject to the whims and flows of the daily news cycle, and the same applies to choosing a media trainer.
Just as your business has its unique set of features, so too do those offering to train you in all-important media skills.
So where to start? Let’s begin at most people’s perception of what media training is all about: the interview.
THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG
“Media training covers a raft of issues and skills, from understanding what constitutes a story and makes news and adjusting key messages to suit an audience, all the way through to being able to manage a news pack at a press conference,” says Rachel Friend, a well-known face on Australian television screens for many years and current director of Media Friendly out of Sydney.
It’s a theme that echoes among leading media trainers. “We generally split our full-day sessions 50-50 on practical and theory,” says Margaret Lawson from Cole Lawson in Brisbane. “Theory covers everything from news values to a day in the life of a journalist and ethical and legal considerations. Quality media training should deliver an understanding of news, as well as practical skills.”
It’s a good point, because every interview you do will be different. Especially so when you consider a radio talkback interview can go for 15 minutes, while radio news may just want a 15-second comment. Further, a television report might only drop a three-second grab into the story – all of which can influence the way you deliver your message.
Did you proactively go to them (via a media release) or did they come to you, seeking comment on something making waves in your industry? Understanding where the media is coming from and what they’re looking for can dictate whether you get the spotlight exposure or your cross-town rival is seen as the authority.
“QUALITY MEDIA TRAINING SHOULD DELIVER AN UNDERSTANDING OF NEWS, AS WELL AS PRACTICAL SKILLS.” – MARGARET LAWSON
Many people undertake media training with a high degree of mistrust of the very people they’re hoping to engage and communicate effectively with – the media. Certainly, journalists can hunt in packs, but having a confrontational and negative attitude may not be the best place to start.
For others, it’s the failure to stay on message during an interview. “You don’t want to say anything to a reporter that you don’t want reported,” notes Channel Ten’s Mark Aiston, who runs Adelaide’s Media Insider. “It can mean that what started out as positive news turns into a negative piece.”
Doug Weller, a former ABC journalist and lecturer who operates Corporate Media Services in Melbourne, agrees. “It often comes down to a lack of preparation, and involves the delivery of jargon and acronyms. It’s sloppy and can show lack of confidence, such as failing to make appropriate eye contact during TV interviews.”
All of which leads us back to the need for media training. But just as the interview isn’t the whole story, being trained up for only one type of situation may not be giving you the full range of skills your organisation deserves. If you invest in media training, look to develop a broad set of skills so that you can talk to positive stories, not just learn about putting out fires.
CRISIS AND FEAR FACTORS
A negative attitude towards the media can actually be amplified by media training. There are organisations that specialise in crisis management courses. If that’s what you’re looking for, fine. But this won’t necessarily equip you to deal with the media in the broadest, most proactive and more positive sense. And not all courses are equal.
In some cases, the operatives can scare you senseless about what can go wrong, complete with cameras in your face from the time you step in the door before an on-screen dissection of everything you’ve done wrong, hour after hour. Then, right at the end, they’ll tell you what you should have been doing. “I know people who have gone along to these sessions and told me it was the worst experience of their lives,” Weller says.
The ability to handle a crisis should certainly be something you’re able to do, but when it comes to choosing a media trainer, think about all the skills you’d like to walk away with. That said, crises are definitely something that loom large in the minds of the trainee. It’s the nightmare of disaster-meets-media that most people fear. What should you do?
Here experts are clear: “Engage the media as quickly as possible,” Weller suggests. “Be honest and open, but don’t feel you need to know everything in a developing situation.” A classic example of this, in practice, was the marathon media performance of then Queensland premier Anna Bligh during the state’s flood crisis of January last year. “We live in a 24/7 news cycle,” Friend says. “The premier regularly updated journalists and the public, sometimes hourly. She was widely praised during this time because she was visible, available and empathetic. In the event of a crisis, it’s imperative the company’s spokesperson is visible and available.”
In terms of your own organisation, who should that person be?
LOOK WHO’S TALKING
There may be more than one media option on offer within your organisation. It could be the CEO, the head of PR or an expert on the topic in question.
So, who should do the interview? As a general rule, if dealing with a crisis it’s a better look to have the leader assume a leadership role.
Fortunately, a crisis is the exception rather than the rule. If the media is coming to you as a result of a media release, you’ve no doubt already nominated the talent available. If, however, it approaches you for comment on a news development, you need to weigh the knowledge of the person you’re considering against their ability to communicate.
Quite frankly, they may know the subject inside out, but if they don’t look or sound sharp it can be counterproductive for your organisation.
A NEW GAME IN TOWN
There’s another important variable you need to consider when it comes to media training, and that’s social media. It is a real game-changer. This is because, in many ways, you’re no longer dealing with the media to get to an audience but directly with the audience itself, and you may find that you need to respond to that audience.
Does your company have a Facebook page? Do you send out Twitter updates to your customers? The rise of the internet has been profound and social media can see messages go worldwide in a click.
Weller suggests applying the “Front Page Rule” to anything your people click out: “If you wouldn’t want to see it looking back at you on the front page, don’t say it – and don’t send it.”