Media Training - The answer to fielding hardball questions

Many journalists are wise to the overly media-trained interviewee and won't take fluff for an answer. Alvin Hattal explores how media training has adapted to the times

Many journalists are wise to the overly media-trained interviewee and won't take fluff for an answer. Alvin Hattal explores how media training has adapted to the times

Within hours of the President and Vice President testifying in front of the 9/11 Commission on April 29, CNN Crossfire co-host Paul Begala 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 ran:

Co-host Tucker Carlson (objecting): "Does it serve America's interests to make this into some sort of circus?"

Crowley: "Look, the reason we are 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 prepare for future attacks..."

Carlson: "But answer the question. Is this good or bad? [Crosstalk follows.] You're not going to answer it, are you, that it's bad to have the commissioners yapping about their partisan...?" [More crosstalk.]

Crowley: "If the White House was really interested in getting to the bottom of 9/11, rather than getting re-elected..."

Carlson: "I give up."

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 either are trying harder to get beyond prepared statements or are going elsewhere for answers and thus denying mistrained spokespersons the opportunity to score with what might have been a good story for their company. Reporters and trainers alike believe it's time that people who agree to an interview be better prepared for the questions of the current, savvier crop of media bulldogs.

"For example," says Michael Turko, an investigative reporter for KUSI-TV in San Diego, "when I asked a spokesman for San Diego Gas & Electric during a station interview why hundreds of malfunctioning street lights were on all day during a power crisis, he told me it wasn't a big deal because the company's engineers had told him each bulb used only seven watts. But before the interview, I had gotten on 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."

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," says Batsell, "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 a more objective view. If an executive speaks candidly, that could bump the story from inside the business section to the cover."

Media trainers - many of whom are many former journalists - help their clients understand where media folk are now coming from. Derwin Johnson, a founding principal 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, and what he or she 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 television, where most sound bites last only seven or eight seconds. The secret?

"Number one," says Johnson, himself a former print and broadcast journalist, "provide something that the reporter has never heard 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 bit of news is to spark a follow-up question based on the information you've just given. So don't sit and wait for questions; instead, offer up pertinent information. That 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 the 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," continues 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, 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 media training, we can take from three to six at a time, from the PR practitioner to the CEO."

There is a basic formula, concludes Albertini, for responses that satisfy both the interviewer and interviewee. "Your answer to every question," he explains, "must include a message point plus some bonus information. Remember it as: A=M+B."

Technique tips

Do study the reporter's style very closely

Do provide the reporter with information he or she hasn't heard before

Do be spontaneous; avoid talking in paragraphs

Don't offer half-truths

Don't try to minimize the story

Don't ask to go off the record unless there is no alternative

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