PR TECHNIQUE/MEDIA TRAINING
The answer to fielding
Journalists are wise to media-trained guests
and won’t take fluff for an answer.
Alvin Hattal tells how media training helps you
(Published in PR Week)
Within hours after the president and vice president testified before the 9/11 Commission on April 29, CNN Crossfire hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson showed former National Security Council spokesman P. J. Crowley, now with the Center for American Progress, a clip of President Bush at an April 13 news conference pondering a question about whether he ever made a mistake. This is how the conversation went:
Co-host Tucker Carlson (objecting): “Does it serve America’s interests to make this into some sort of circus?”
Crowley: “Look, the reason we’re having this discussion is because this is the Pinocchio president who has no credibility….”
Carlson: “What does that have to do with my question?”
Crowley: “I wish he had talked about how to best prepare for future attacks….”
Only time constraints ended that exchange. But a more determined generation of journalists are not taking message points for an answer. Fed up with stock answers and stonewalling, they are either trying harder to get beyond prepared statements or going elsewhere for answers and thus denying mistrained spokespersons the opportunity to score with what might have been a good story for their company or organization. Reporters and trainers alike believe it’s time that people who agree to an interview be better prepared for the questions of the savvier crop of media bulldogs.
“For example, says Michael Turko, an investigative reporter for KUSI-TV in San Diego, “we uncovered a story in San Antonio involving a municipal power company called City Public Service that created a private park for its own employees. It surrounded a power plant and was fenced in to keep its employees only. But it was financed at public expense by the rate payers. So I went to interview the public relations director about it. When I asked her why the park, she replied, on camera, “All of our power plants have trees and grass.’
Evasion looks bad
“She looked terrible evading the question. She could have said, ‘We have an outdoor area for our employees—the same ones who are out there in the freezing weather keeping your lights on, who risk their lives when power lines come down and start whipping across the road. These people deserve a place to go with their families.’ That would have headed it off. Half our audience would have said they’re entitled. Instead she got defensive. But we had pictures that showed this to be more like a city park.”
In another interview, a spokesman for San Diego Gas & Electric, which had hundreds of malfunctioning street lights that were on all day during a power crisis, told Turko it wasn’t a big deal because the company’s engineers had told him each bulb used only seven watts. “But before the interview,” said Turko, “I had gotten a ladder, climbed up, taken out one of the bulbs and found it was a 150-watt sodium vapor light.
“I stopped the [taped] interview and didn’t use his response,” says Turko, who is also an attorney. “Because he had been straight with me in the past, I didn’t want to make him look like an idiot.”
Adds Turko, “You have to assume we know a lot more than we’re telling you. We won’t tell you what we know before we interview you. But keep in mind, I have a set time for my story. If I use what you tell me, it leaves less time for your opposition to make their case.”
Know your reporter
Which points up the importance of getting to know your reporter and his or her style. Everyone has a different style, a different emphasis. Do a search online and find out what they’ve said or written.”
David Rose, anchor and managing editor of Good Morning Tristate in Cincinnati, for example, comes at a story from three different angles. “If my guest evades a question during a live interview, I may point up some facts and ask him her to clarify them. If they then still evade my question, I may politely but pointedly ask them why they’re doing so.
“For instance, I did a story in Los Angeles on the cameras that caught city buses running the red light. City officials kept telling me statistics showed no accidents had ever resulted. They stuck to their guns, saying they simply forced the driver to pay the fine if caught. Now, if that were a taped interview and we had more time, I’d have pressed them more.
“But nearly all of my interviews are live, usually for three minutes, so if any guest was not forthcoming, we probably wouldn’t book that person again.”
Seattle Times reporter Jake Batsell advises PR pros to tell their executives, “Don’t be afraid to be candid; it’s OK to deviate from the game plan a little bit and speak your mind.
“What we’re looking for are nuggets and insights that haven’t already been put out for public consumption. If the answer I get sounds familiar or echoes the press release, I won’t use it. I’ll find an industry analyst or expert with a more objective view. If an executive speaks more candidly, that could bump the story from inside the business section to the cover.”
How training helps
Some media trainers, many of whom are former journalists, help their clients understand where media folk are coming from. Derwin Johnson of The Vistance Group, a New York consultancy of experts from both PR and the media, emphasizes the need for spokespersons not only to get their messages out but also to sense where the journalist is going, what the journalist is looking for.
Since journalists “often approach an interview with a negative perspective,” Johnson says, the challenge is to make every statement meaningful, especially on TV, where most sound bites last only seven or eight seconds.
“Number 1,” says Johnson, a former print and broadcast journalist himself, “provide something the reporter has never heard of before. And number two, make it a statement that’s important to the company.
“To do so requires acknowledging what the reporter brings to the interview before you make it clear why you’re on that show. That reporter’s objective is to tell a good story and your nugget of news is to spark a follow-up question based on the information you’ve just given.” So Johnson advises clients “not to sit and wait for questions but to offer up pertinent information, which will meet both your agendas.”
In a series of sessions, Johnson trains clients to condense their messages to less than 15 seconds, especially for live interviews. “The rest is superfluous,” he says, adding that demand for media training, has tripled in the past three years.
Steve Albertini, EVP of Tierney Communications in Philadelphia, tells his clients: “Your job is not just to give the media the answers they want; it’s also to be an advocate for your company. You want to help the media come up with an answer that includes your viewpoint.
“I believe most reporters today know that clients of a certain level of sophistication and size have gone through media training,” says Albertini. “So they probably will use slightly different ways to get them to answer their questions more to the way they want.”
Except for those executives in a crisis who must go on camera, most of Albertini’s clients prepare for possible difficult situations through regular training once every three months or so. He says.
“For those who need to prepare for a scheduled interview in two weeks for, say, The Wall Street Journal, we’ll be working with them every day for a full week. We might also give them a course in PR 101, followed by a progressively more advanced level of media training, including preparation for a crisis. For general training, we can take from three to six at a time, from the PR practitioner to the CEO.”
There’s a basic formula, concludes Albertini, for responses that satisfy both the interviewer and interviewee. Your answer to every question must include a message point plus bonus information,” such as a favorable comment from a third party. Remember it as: A = M+B.”
Be sure of your facts.
Know your reporter’s style.
Be positive and upbeat.
Review your performance.
Answer with more than your talking points.
Give the reporter what he hasn’t heard before.
Be spontaneous; avoid talking in paragraphs.
Help the reporter by volunteering information.
Assume the microphone is always on.
Don’t: offer half truths.
Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know but will find out.
Don’t try to minimize the story.
Don’t underestimate your reporter.
Don’t be confrontational.
Don’t “blow smoke” at the reporter.
Don’t hesitate to go off message when appropriate.
Don’t ask to go off the record.