OP-ED: Avoiding the most common pitfalls of spokespeople

Of the hundreds of executives, celebrities, athletes, and doctors who attended Ketchum's Communications Training Network over the past year, a few distinct types of media trainee emerged.

Of the hundreds of executives, celebrities, athletes, and doctors who attended Ketchum's Communications Training Network over the past year, a few distinct types of media trainee emerged.

Here's the top ten (in no particular order):

The Street Fighter. The one who believes being combative offers the best way to handle a difficult reporter. He or she can fall prey to the journalist, let him control the interview, and fail to deliver the key messages. When Teresa Heinz Kerry told a reporter at the Democratic National Convention to "shove it," the focus shifted from the promotion of a presidential nominee to the aggressiveness of a potential first lady. Remember that the reporter is your conduit to the audience. Always avoid a debate or dogfight with the journalist.

The Winger. This person has no time to prepare - and in many cases doesn't feel a need to. So he "wings it," trusting that his smarts will save the day once again. It doesn't - and shouldn't - work that way during a media interview. The stakes are too high. One unprepared interview can destroy the reputation of a person and his company. Even if you're crunched for time, take at least a few minutes to prepare.

The "Um, Like, You Know"-er. Because so many of us are uncomfortable with silence during a conversation, we fill those quiet moments. Immediately. With whatever nonsense might dribble off our tongues, such as, "Uh, I mean, like, well, you know, I guess, um, you know...." Yeah. I know. Even the smoothest, most confident communicator occasionally uses verbal crutches. A few weeks ago, The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, perhaps flustered to have John Kerry as a guest, asked him, referring to the senator's critics, "When - when - uh, uh - these guys - were you surprised at all that - they went [unintelligible] - that they - that they - that they?" A few deep breaths and some pauses in place of the "uhs" and "that theys" would have made a world of difference.

The Teller. Not the one at the bank, but the one who tells, rather than shows. He tells the journalist what he or his company has accomplished, but doesn't use concrete examples to back it up. That's a message without a proof point and one that lacks credibility.

The Negative Repeater. He falls into the trap of repeating the reporter's negative language, thus making it his own. After pulling The Reagans miniseries from CBS, the network's chairman, Les Moonves, said: "It was a moral decision, not an economic or political one." So, I'm thinking it was an economic or political decision. Never repeat the negative. Simply deny the allegation without repeating the negative words so they won't be attributed to you, and then bridge to your message. (Reporter's likely question in this case: "Was the decision an economic or political one?" The proper response: "Oh, absolutely not. In fact, it was a moral one. Let me explain...").

The Jargonizer. "Our interactive, turnkey, best-of-breed solutions are scalable, robust, and mission-critical." Oh, yes, I agree wholeheartedly. The Jargonizer is so comfortable with business-speak in the workplace that she can't help but use it in an interview setting as well, confounding reporters and audiences. Remember the three Cs: clear, concise, and compelling.

The Joker. Either through nerves or hubris, this interviewee uses humor (if you can call it that) to pepper the interaction. Unless you're Will Ferrell or Jack Black, wit is a rare, natural trait; comedy will likely get you into trouble. Consider Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Last July, during an address to the European Parliament, he remarked that a German lawmaker in that chamber would be perfect for a movie role as a concentration camp guard. While Mr. Berlusconi said it was clearly taken as a joke, subsequent news reports held otherwise. It's just not worth it.

The Footliner. This spokesperson hits her messages after first telling - in excruciating detail - the background story. Both the reporter and audience will inevitably get lost and oh-so bored. Reporters are trained to look for the lead or headline. So construct each message the same way reporters assemble their stories: Start with the lead, then tell how you got there.

The Evader. She hears a question and answers another without acknowledging the initial question. Wasn't there someone last year on the Today show (Condoleezza Rice) who was asked to comment on the lack of WMDs found in Iraq but instead robotically repeated, "Saddam Hussein was a dangerous man in a dangerous part of the world..."? Always acknowledge the reporter's question before transitioning to your message.

The Yes-or-no-er. Is this list finally over? Yes. Is that a good way to answer a question? No.

  • Dan Broden is VP of Ketchum's Communications Training Network.

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