Why bother with media training for executives, operational managers or first responders? Well, if you said it, they’ll print it. So, if you don’t understand how to work with journalists, you really can’t expect to have any control over what happens. You also need to know how to manage yourself or you won’t like what happens.
Recognize that journalists perform a valued function in our society. Strive to better understand how and why they do their work. Show them some respect and you will be pleasantly surprised by how it is shared.
You should have media training even if it’s only to protect your reputation. Take a hint from Warren Buffett if you’re not sure whether reputation is important. He tells employees, “We can afford to lose money—even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation—even a shred of reputation.”
This composite story about media training may help. An executive was frustrated by protesters interrupting his major project. At the site entrance, a reporter asked for a comment on the protests. The company’s standard protocol referred reporters to the public relations department. This time the executive was frustrated and didn’t want to wait. He blurted out “sure, there’s been a lot of fake news about this project and I’m tired of you people getting it wrong!”
If you said it, what could go wrong?
The executive assumed that if it worked for politicians it would also work for businesses. He told the reporter about how the protesters were freeloading agitators who were jealous of his company’s success. Then, he named the big banks and politicians who fully supported the project.
“You can’t ever accomplish anything without taking a risk,” he said. “I’m not going to be intimidated by these local hayseeds! Do they seriously think the banks and government are going to value a handful of farmers over the investments of a multi-billion-dollar corporation? They know where their bread is buttered. Progress always has a cost!”
The story wasn’t pretty. He let his anger get the best of him. The story undermined months of careful messaging and efforts to work with the community. Good relations were essential for a plant expected to operate for decades. It was a major setback for the company.
Overnight everyone was talking about the company that didn’t care about people or the communities they harmed. Formerly supportive politicians came out against the project. The banks reevaluated the financing and demanded an extensive community investment and mitigation program from the company. The company’s leverage evaporated.
Why did this happen?
The executive was never media trained. So, he misunderstood how the news media operated. The executive actually thought reporters had to submit their stories for approval by the company before the story could be published. In fact, he assumed his company could control a free press the same way they were able to control approval of ad copy.
So what’s the lesson for those who are more aware of the ground rules for media relations? Simply, you can’t expect others to understand unless you first make the effort to teach them. We can’t assume people understand. We should never be afraid to recommend media training for anyone. There’s always a positive way to do this.
What needs to be corrected?
Provide media training appropriate to the executive’s position. Also, media train anyone talking with reporters. In a small business, one person may be enough. In some large organizations, dozens of people need media training. The most effective combination is often in groups of four to eight people. However, senior executives usually require individualized media training.
This is particularly important for high-level executives. A bad media encounter is disastrous for the executive’s reputation and the company. Every interview is capable of being either a reputation maker or a career-limiting opportunity. Recognizing this, many savvy PR professionals and spokespeople take refresher media training every few years.
Watch this clip of the troubling Tony Hayward comment on May 31, 2010. This shows the risk of being unprepared. The soon to be replaced CEO said “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.” He had started to say he was sorry for the harm caused to so many. That would have been a great message. Instead, the self-centered slip quickly ruined any sympathy that might have existed for him or his company. A knowledgable third party can help you anticipate and correct these flaws.
How to proceed with Media Training
Your crisis communications consultants, PR firm or training contacts can help you arrange media training. Also, many executives appreciate the opportunity to improve their presentation and interview skills. Media training teaches what to expect and the tactics used by participants. You learn to craft and deliver key messages, as well as demonstrate an appropriate attitude. Many trainers use on-camera mock interviews to help executives learn from their own performances.
We turn the session recording over to the executive. With this assurance, you can stretch the learning experience without fearing embarrassment. Often, we schedule the training in a location away from the office, to reduce the risk of interruptions.
The results extend far beyond the media encounter. In fact, media training is an important professional development opportunity. It trains us to stay on message and projects an even more polished presence with top management, boards and stakeholders. In addition to interviews, media training actually prepares executives to articulate and advance the company’s interests in all settings. It’s truly a Win-Win.
By John Ambler