Talk about a PR nightmare. In an impromptu interview with a major national online news outlet, a CEO boasted that he was working with the Department of Justice to prosecute individuals who were illegally using his company's service. The statement, which was picked up by CNET the next day, was just a bluff to scare away freeloaders. Unfortunately, it didn't die online. Instead, a Wall Street Journal reporter pursued his own story about the company's involvement with the Justice Department. It took multiple pleas from the panicked PR team to nip the article in the bud.Media training is just as important for "loose cannon
corporate leaders as it is for mumbling, media-shy, or just plain boring ones. The question is: How can a trainer get an overbearing, overly emotional, egotistical, or unpredictable exec to tone it down?
The first step is getting this leader into training in the first place, which is often a challenge for subordinates not eager to offend their bosses, or for account managers hoping to preserve a client relationship.
Anne Ready, president of Malibu, CA-based independent trainer Ready for Media, advises using flattery. "Remind him or her that all world leaders have had media training,
she says, "and say something like, 'Now that you have reached this level, you have become of interest to the media too.'"
Rather than highlighting a problem and positioning the session as much-needed training, call it an executive briefing, or a rehearsal. "Using the word 'rehearse' implies he or she is already a pro, just brushing up before the game,
advises New York-based media trainer TJ Walker. "It's easier on the ego."
And if the CEO is resisting strongly, try starting with the second-in-command. "When he sees the improvement, the CEO usually comes in for training,
notes Jordan Weinstein, an in-house trainer for Schwartz Communications.
The next decision is whether to hire an independent media trainer or call on the company's PR agency. "The more senior the executive, the fewer people they have around them giving candid feedback,
asserts Boston-based media trainer Beryl Loeb of The Loeb Group. "With our 'outside consultant' status, we are invited to provide critique that would be difficult for someone working internally to deliver."
Agency trainers, like Fleishman-Hillard senior partner and director of media services Morri Berman, believe that simply coming from a different agency department is sufficient to ensure objectivity. "It helps to have the input of colleagues who can fill you in on the client's agenda, and an overview of the industry."
Weber Shandwick Worldwide's former Silicon Valley chair Fred Hoar agrees, especially when dealing with hi-tech CEOs. "If you want a CEO's trust, you need to show that you truly know the market and the technology."
Either way, most sessions begin with an overview of the media and how reporters think. This is especially important with cocky CEOs, who are typically more disdainful or condescending of reporters than afraid of them. "They are more likely to think, 'How can I even share a room with someone who makes less than $40,000 a year?'
says Bay Area-based trainer Joel Drucker.
The start of a session is also the time to establish mutual respect.
"I tell them I'm not here to tell them how great they are, but to make them aware of the potential dangers they face,
says Jeff Cornett of i2 Communication in Kansas City.
Virtually everyone agrees that role-playing and mock interviews are crucial.
The exec is put through a series of drills wherein he or she is asked challenging questions designed to push his or her buttons, or throw them off-track. Then participants view and/or listen to the tapes, and deconstruct the performance. "The key is to limit the verbal critique, and let the videotape speak for itself,
explains Berman. "When they see how they look, the training and motivation for change becomes self-directed."
When providing feedback, "Tell it to them straight,
advises Mary Milla, a VP of media training with WSW. "Executives hate being coddled ... they appreciate advisors who don't sugarcoat difficult news."
In a twist on the role-playing technique, Loeb asks execs to switch places with the session "reporter,
having him or her "ask questions you would want to know if you were working for that media outlet,
an exercise she says helps clients understand how journalists think.
A similar approach can be effective for print interviews too. Hoar says his Silicon Valley firm would bring in a former business reporter to conduct a sample interview, and then have him leave the room to write a story.
"He would return 20 minutes later with the probable story from the client's responses,
he explains. "Or maybe there would be no story at all because the answers were so confusing or boring."
Hoar warns that with overconfident execs, such role-play exercises need to be especially "well crafted,
preferably demonstrating knowledge of the company's industry. "These guys won't suffer fools lightly."
Most media trainers leave execs with at least one or two golden rules.
For Ketchum/CTC principal and EVP of media relations Rob Lanesey, the rule is, "Never, ever do an interview on the spot when a reporter calls you at your desk.
Instead, he says, "Try to find out the topic of the story, the angle, and who else he or she is talking to. Then say, 'Let me call you back.'"
"It's the CEO who thinks he can handle everything who will take these calls in the first place,
adds Lanesey. He recalls the time a client told a reporter at a major tech magazine that "'Company X has created a monster, and it's running amok.' It turns out Company X was a valued partner of his company."
No matter how much training an overeager exec receives, though, they are still prone to human error. Take the case of the well-prepped Renault Communications client who soared through her first on-camera interview for a business news program, successfully deflecting questions about the names of her Fortune 500 customers. However, the happy CEO later saw the show's producer in the green room, and casually let slip some of those "undisclosed clients.
According to Gillian Renault, "the heat of the moment erased from her mind the golden rule: The interview isn't over until you leave the building."
1. Do offer to work one-on-one with a client if fear of embarrassment in front of colleagues seems to be an issue
2. Do position training as "rehearsing
for a specific media interview if that helps convince a resistant executive to get on board
3. Do on-camera interviews, and play back the video for clients to get their own evaluations
1. Don't sugarcoat your feedback from mock interviews. This is the place for the raw truth
2. Don't neglect the vanity factor; many egotistical leaders resist TV interviews out of a fear of looking bad, and respond well to tips for improving their physical appearance on camera
3. Don't be afraid to try a series of shorter sessions if an exec cannot devote a full day.