PR TECHNIQUE MEDIA TRAINING: Polishing the media skills of corporates - The days are long gone when a CEO could hide behind a PR head. John Frank reports on prepping business clients to face the press

Bill Patterson has made people cry and been physically attacked while doing it. Mary Balice has been known to ambush people when she does it. No, Patterson and Balice aren't Marine drill instructors cracking the whip on new recruits. They're media trainers, preparing execs for facing the press, analysts, shareholders and employees.

Bill Patterson has made people cry and been physically attacked while doing it. Mary Balice has been known to ambush people when she does it. No, Patterson and Balice aren't Marine drill instructors cracking the whip on new recruits. They're media trainers, preparing execs for facing the press, analysts, shareholders and employees.

Bill Patterson has made people cry and been physically attacked while doing it. Mary Balice has been known to ambush people when she does it. No, Patterson and Balice aren't Marine drill instructors cracking the whip on new recruits. They're media trainers, preparing execs for facing the press, analysts, shareholders and employees.

The rash of corporate crises this year is a stark reminder that companies could unexpectedly find reporters camped at their doorsteps. Companies need spokespeople who are prepared to handle such media encounters. That means media training for anyone - up to and including CEOs - likely to be called upon by the press.

But CEOs should not necessarily be the first person a company puts forward to the press. Often, someone else might be more familiar with a given topic or closer to a developing situation, experts note.

Some CEOs also are not very good at appearing caring, concerned or sincere. 'We've definitely had people come in and see that their CEO should not be their spokesperson,' says Balice, VP of training with MSI Strategic Communications Training Center in Chicago.

But when a major issue or crisis erupts, whether charismatic or not, CEOs need to step forward. The public has come to expect to hear from the person at the top in such situations. 'Your CEO should be your main voice on major issues,' contends Anne Gunning, a VP with Kearns & West in DC. Yet, she says a CEO 'could be an incredible visionary but not great at sharing information with journalists.' Enter media training.

Media training can take place in as little as half a day for execs too busy for anything else, although trainers often advise full-day sessions.

Group sessions for several executives can be arranged at prices ranging from dollars 2,500 to dollars 7,000 a day, depending on the number of people involved and length of sessions. Regular refresher courses also are recommended to keep up with changing media trends and techniques.

Training also raises people's comfort levels in front of the camera, reporters or even shareholders or industry analysts. One secret is speaking in short, declarative sentences - the sound bite - that easily can be run on the nightly news.

'We teach 10-second sound bites,' says Patterson. A typical broadcast interview could stretch to two hours, yet only 12-20 seconds might air, he estimates. The average length of an exec's air time today is about eight seconds, or four sentences.

Indeed, one of the first principles of media training is to teach executives not merely to answer questions, but to convey key company messages.

'I teach people to respond to questions,' emphasizes Patterson. Agrees Oppel, MD with Fairchild/Oppel, a Texas-based media consulting division of Publicis Dialog: 'If you're going somewhere just to answer questions, don't go, take a cold shower instead.'

Jon Rosen, founder of New York-based Impact Communications, advises his corporate pupils to go into every interview with an agenda to convey.

That means researching the viewing audience and developing critical messages to get across.

CEOs going to an interview should be asking, 'what are you trying to accomplish,' agrees Gunning. Too many corporate execs look on press encounters as the equivalent of testifying in a trial. Media training works to change that attitude as well as to address hostile feelings toward reporters doing the questioning.

'So many people come in thinking reporters are just out to get them,' warns Balice. But the reality is that most of the time 'what the media is looking for is a good quote,' says Oppel.

Oppel, like other media trainers, includes mock interviews in his training sessions. And one of the important lessons he conveys to CEOs in such interviews is that it's okay to tell a reporter you don't know the answer to a question. CEOs too often think they have to be able to answer every question about their company. That's a practical impossibility given the size of many corporations today. Giving an incorrect answer can come back to haunt a CEO. 'Teach them to have the courage to say 'I don't know,'' advises Oppel. CEOs should feel comfortable bringing along other execs to answers questions the CEO might not be able to handle.

Oppel also teaches his students to speak up if they're feeling physically uncomfortable in an interview setting. It's okay, for example, to ask to move if the sun or bright lights are shining in your eyes making it difficult to see.

Balice, in her training, discusses other appearance basics for TV interviews such as where to look (at a reporter if one is present, at the camera if the interview is a satellite remote). Talking to a blank screen or camera is not easy, and many experts encourage the CEO to think of the interview in those circumstances as a telephone interview. She also makes sure students understand the meaning of basic journalism terms, such as 'off the record,' and how to use them. Rosen stresses that a company exec should never become visibly angry with a reporter or try to tell a journalist how to conduct an interview.

Answers should be direct and honest, but media training also can help execs understand which questions they shouldn't answer. It's okay to say you can't answer questions on personal issues, competitive or legal matters, says Oppel.

Not every CEO is willing to admit needing media training. But Balice has some advice for internal PR people trying to coax their CEOs to get such help. Simply sit them down in front of a camera and ask some questions.

'A lot of people come in with 'I don't think you have anything to teach me,'' she says. But when they see how they look on tape, 'it's powerful,' she says. Hopefully powerful enough to keep them from being unprepared to meet the press without media training.



DOS AND DON'TS

DO

1. Have several key messages to convey

2. Give short, quotable answers

3. Be honest and direct

4. Say you don't know an answer if that's the case and bring along other execs who can address areas you're not familiar with

5. Understand what reporters are after and how to behave in an interview



DON'T

1. Get angry or hostile

2. Continue an interview if you're physically uncomfortable; instead ask to move or have lights, etc. moved to deal with the discomfort involved

3. Go into an interview unprepared on key topics or ramble off the subject at hand.





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