Focus - Media Training: Avoiding a grilling - Many senior executives may feel that great public speakers are born and not made, but training can create effective company spokespeople and help them conquer their fears. Mary Cowlett reports

For the uninitiated, public speaking can be a daunting experience.

For the uninitiated, public speaking can be a daunting


But when faced with the media, many otherwise capable senior executives

break out into a cold sweat as images of a grilling by Jeremy Paxman or

Anne Robinson swim before their eyes.

A recent survey conducted by The Survey Shop for media training company

The Aziz Corporation reveals that 75 per cent of company directors are

more daunted by public speaking than by any other common business


But while the study shows that 82 per cent of company directors are very

or fairly worried when giving media interviews, over half recognise that

presentation and speaking skills are vital for business success.

Khalid Aziz, chairman of The Aziz Corporation believes that some senior

executives feel that public speaking skills are inherent and cannot be


’It may be that many directors are still labouring under the

misapprehension that great public speakers are born and not made,’ he

says. ’They understand the importance and benefits of effective public

speaking skills, yet are still afraid of the task. This suggests that

few have undertaken measures to address their fears and improve their


So what is it about meeting the media that keeps company directors awake

at night? Why is it such a daunting task?

Certainly many worry about appearing foolish and not representing their

organisation in the best possible light. But Beatrice Hollyer,

consultant and broadcast specialist at Medialink International feels

that people’s fears often go deeper.

’When I first started working with senior executives, I didn’t realise

the depth of people’s hostility to the media,’ she says. ’I assumed that

they wanted to get journalists on side, but actually they tended to be

very anxious to keep them at bay and wanting to baton down the hatches.’

This is not an unusual experience for media trainers, who often spend a

great deal of time persuading spokespeople that Jeremy Paxman-style

interviewing is the exception, not the rule.

There is little doubt that experienced spokespeople look on the likes of

Newsnight and the Today programme as the greatest potential nightmare,

simply because the audience is likely to be stacked with their


But for many unused to the media interview situation, the number one

worry is losing control. People are wary that journalists will misquote

them, or try and trip them up with surprise questions and topics beyond

their area of expertise.

However, with the right training and practice, these fears usually


’After five or six interviews, there comes a point where people realise

that they can control the process and feel comfortable and are then able

to seize the initiative in an interview,’ says Hollyer.

It is not only an issue of confidence - there is also the need to

identify a journalist’s agenda. ’People need to realise that most of the

time they are not there to answer questions, but tell a story,’ says

Hugo Brooke managing director of Media Interviews. He says it is the

spokesperson rather than the journalist who is the expert and adds:

’People have got to be prepared to take the conversation in the right

direction. The journalist won’t mind.’

Indeed, with circulation or ratings figures firmly in mind, most

journalists are on the interviewee’s side, willing them on to deliver

the goods. But as no journalist wants to waste time talking to an

ignorant or boring subject, the key for interviewees is preparation.

’A lot of top people think they don’t need to prepare,’ says Brooke.

’But you’ve got to find angles that are interesting and fresh.’ He

recommends that people rehearse the sound bites they plan to use in

advance. ’People do get paranoid, but if you have your answers clear in

your mind, it almost doesn’t matter what the questions are,’ he says.

’And if you are well-prepared but some of the questions you were

expecting don’t come up, then you will already have given enough

information and got your key messages across,’ he adds.

Jonathan Hemus, director of Countrywide Porter Novelli’s media training

division, Newsreal, recommends spokespeople prepare for an interview by

deciding on three key messages. He says that these should be signposted

with phrases including ’I feel really strongly that ...’ or ’The most

important aspect is ...’ and illustrated with suitable examples. He also

highlights the importance of ’doing your housekeeping first’. ’Have you

asked: what is the deadline? Will the interview be live or recorded? Who

else will be interviewed? When will the article be published or the

interview broadcast?’ he says.

According to most media trainers, this exploratory conversation with a

journalist or researcher is often more important than the interview

itself, helping spokespeople and their PROs to gather their forces


This is the time when PR practitioners, whether agency or in-house, can

really support their spokespeople.

’You can avoid potential disasters such as sending a spokesperson along

for what they think is a three-minute interview, which in reality turns

out to be a 20-minute phone-in with the general public,’ says James

Murray, head of PR at National Savings. His department quashes many

senior executives’ potential qualms by doing the homework up front and

ensuring that company spokespeople are not ambushed by surprise


Murray also has responsibility for judging which company spokesperson is

most suited to a particular subject, media, or format. ’For example if

it’s a mid-morning or drive-time radio show where a spokesperson needs

to engage directly, then we use somebody who is able to use a

conversational style rather than a corporate voice,’ he says.

And while media training is an ideal opportunity to uncover people’s

strengths across broadcast and print, it is vital that PR people match

spokespeople to the likely audience. ’Organisations need to choose

appropriate spokespeople and ensure that their style as well as the

messages match the media outlet,’ says Lucy Tilbury, managing director

of broadcast PR specialist Bulletin International.

Tour operator Airtours has recognised that the best spokespeople aren’t

necessarily the obvious ones. The company recently made Anita McErlean

its group director of communications (PR Week, 9 June). Before joining

Airtours in 1993 as sales director she had no communications experience

but Airtours soon realised that her strong communications skills made

her perfect for a spokesperson’s role.

It is also up to the PR team to ensure that spokespeople are not just

reacting, but also setting the news agenda by seeking out


After all, if handled correctly, the majority of interviews are a free

showcase. ’Nearly all of the interviews our clients undertake are an

opportunity that we have sold to a journalist on their behalf,’ says

Jackie Harris, account director and head of media training at corporate

and consumer relations specialist Noiseworks. ’And because we’ve asked

the journalist to come to us, spokespeople tend to relax.’

PR teams also have an important role to play now that they are likely to

be handling a number of clients whose directors may be smart and

eager, but media virgins. specialist Mantra uses working

journalists to train their clients.

’Delivery is everything and media training is paramount as there is so

much competition for stories from new economy businesses,’ says director

Debbie Wosskow.

But dealing successfully with the media can often involve playing down

the negative side of events. At the end of last year, CPN helped a

client who had caused an environmental threat to an area near one of its


’In this situation a charismatic leader may have been too gung-ho about

the whole thing,’ says Hemus. ’Instead we used the quality and

operations director who was genuinely able to show emotion and

demonstrate real concern over what had happened,’ he adds.

And the implications of using a spokesperson who is not the right fit

for the job, can extend far beyond a poor personal performance,

affecting corporate reputation and more. In a crisis situation, the

ability to take control and keep the media on side is vital.

For those unused to the role of spokesperson, live television seems to

hold the greatest fears, because of its immediacy and people’s doubts

about being publicly humiliated or appearing foolish. But according to

most media trainers, the live broadcast is often the safest form of

media interview, offering an opportunity for spokespeople to state their

case on a powerful platform with few filters.

’Live TV is the least risky, because the camera can’t lie,’ says


’Anything recorded is potentially dangerous because of the possibilities

of errors creeping in,’ adds Brooke. In addition, unlike press

interviews in particular, live TV offers little scope for journalistic


But the greatest fear for senior executives operating on the global

stage is not the interview itself, but a lack of in-depth understanding

of local media landscapes. Over the past 18 months, Simon Scott,

director of financial media at Edelman PR Worldwide in London, has set

up a media training module with this problem in mind. ’For instance CNBC

in London has a deliberate policy of ensuring presenters are focused on

European issues rather than the US,’ he explains. ’So it’s a case of

people saying ’tell me more about this programme,’ and helping them

understand where a programme fits into an overall pattern.’

Undoubtedly, speaking to the media does require someone with a sharp

mind, who can react quickly and switch between listening and statement

mode. Some senior executives make better public performers than others

and not everybody will shine across all media or interview formats.

But as Brooke says: ’There is an element of individual talent involved

and some definitely have a natural flair. But anyone can do it well, if

they take the time to learn.’


Global issues

- Dalai Lama - uses humour in the face of conflict; talks with passion;

understands and cares for the spiritual and the practical.

- Nelson Mandela - has a vision that has seen him through years of


Understands his people and connects with his audience wherever they


- Sir Crispin Tickell - explorer, ambassador and now chancellor at

Newcastle University. Witty and intelligent man who understands the

global environment.

Makes complex sciences accessible and inspirational to everyone.

- David Shephard - Wildlife artist who converts his observations into

compelling stories of the destruction of animals and environments.

Leaves his audience wanting to get involved.


- Menzies Campbell - prepares speeches and interviews well. Appears

open, concerned and straightforward. Keeps on message and produces

excellent soundbites. Not swayed by headlines and says what he thinks is


- Mo Mowlam - a powerful speaker who delivers messages in a common sense

way, helped by sparkling sense of humour. Can seem slightly domineering

- but content of messages is solid and relevant to the audience.


- Lenny Henry - Brilliant at playing with audience’s emotional


Superb timing and excellent use of language. Works to raise awareness of

issues in Third World countries, motivating the audience to take


Corporate Spokespeople

- Tony Woodhouse - TGWU spokesman on the car industry whose speeches to

workers before BMW’s sale of Rover and Ford’s closure of Dagenham were

inspirational. Uses blunt language and supports his message with good

body movement. Speaks with a passion that shows he cares.

- Bodil Eriksson - corporate communications director of Volvo Cars in

Sweden. Straightforward with a smile which shows she is speaking from

the heart. Messages are simple and delivered with flair and


This list was complied by Warwick Partington, managing director of Media

Training Masterclasses


Even the most seasoned speakers often suffer from a serious case of the

jitters when confronted by a large or well-informed audience. So faced

with the prospect of a media interview or a press conference, what can

you do to ensure that you stay calm, take everything in your stride and

show your organisation in the best possible light?

’It is important that trainees are placed as spokespeople as quickly

after the training as possible, so they practice what has been learnt

while it is still fresh,’ says Lucy Tilbury, managing director of

Bulletin International. In addition, she advises keeping a ’media kit’

to hand, full of basics such as deodorant, spare clothing and

fact-checking phone numbers.

It is also vital that speakers rehearse and get a feel for the turns of

phrase they plan to use, so that in the face of mounting panic, the

right words still tumble out. This can be especially important for

interviewees conversing in something other than their mother tongue.

Simon Scott, director of financial media at Edelman PR Worldwide London,

tells the horror story of a German client going through his paces for an

interview to be conducted in English. ’He kept on using the word

’eliminate’, when talking about redundancy,’ he says. ’We had to explain

that this was not appropriate.’

To combat nerves for novice TV interviewees, Khalid Aziz, chairman of

The Aziz Corporation, recommends avoiding going into a studio if at all

possible. ’It’s much better to conduct an interview on your own

premises, especially if it’s your first time,’ he says.

But if you do find yourself in the green room contemplating 60 seconds

with Anne Robinson, Aziz warns against engaging in distracting chit-chat

with others, steadying nerves with alcohol or combating boredom with

vats of coffee. ’Stay in a calm situation and practice relaxation

techniques such as deep breathing,’ he says.

In a broadcast situation it is also important not to look or sound

nervous to the audience. Things to avoid include jiggling around in a

swivel chair, darting eyes and fiddling with uncomfortable clothing.

Yvonne Delahaye at Savoy Hill Training also stresses the physical side:

’The physical aspect of presenting is as important as the content and

structure. Learn some simple relaxation techniques, with correct

breathing, really helps to put you in control. Your heart rate slows

down and your mind becomes clearer and more focused, so the changes can

be really dramatic.’

’I always tell people to think of it as a conversation at a cosy dinner

party, where you don’t know everybody.’ says Beatrice Hollyer,

consultant at Medialink International. ’That means you hit the right

tone by being livelier and friendlier than usual, go to a bit of trouble

to explain things, and are always thinking of the other person and how

they perceive you,’ she concludes.

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