PR TECHNIQUE: When the media faces the media

Familiarity with news-gathering counts little when the tables turn and reporters take the questions. Matthew Creamer looks at how to media-train the media.

Familiarity with news-gathering counts little when the tables turn and reporters take the questions. Matthew Creamer looks at how to media-train the media.

With partnerships between news organizations proliferating, more and more journalists are being called upon to describe their scoops, promote their publications, and lend expert insight in interviews with other media outlets. But just because reporters know how to get, and tell, a story, it doesn't mean they're as sure-footed when it comes to facing another reporter's questions. And their perspective can often challenge media trainers used to working with corporate types. The principles are the same for both types of clients: First, figure out what you want to say; then, decide how to say it. "Regardless of who you are and what the issue is, you always have to ask yourself, 'How do I want to come across?' or 'What do I want to be projecting?'" says Jeff Ansell, president of Jeff Ansell & Associates. But for reporters, the training process can be quite different. Familiarity with the news-gathering process doesn't necessarily translate into success when a journalist becomes the source; a strong sense of confidence in one's media savvy can often be misplaced. "It's very easy for a journalist to put their foot in their mouth," Ansell says, "because they're expert at asking questions, but not expert at answering them." This can extend to a journalist's ability to get out the message. "The number-one problem most journalists have is that they don't know how to deliver a sizzling sound byte," says TJ Walker, founder of TJ Walker Media. "They know it when they hear it, when it comes to interviewing people, but they don't know how to package it and spit it out." This is a problem that can result when journalists work outside the medium to which they are acclimated - for example, when a print journalist is doing a broadcast interview. "Each medium has its own grammar. The reality is, a print editor may be lousy TV; a great writer may be pathetic at delivering a sound byte," Walker says. "People in the media are so used to being on one side of the fence, even though they're interviewing people on the other side, it's still an alien world for them. A good media trainer really opens up that world and puts them on the other side." Through training sessions, messaging strategies are honed; nuances like body language and facial expressions and the importance of looking directly into the camera are brought home. Some long-held views need to be unlearned, such as a print journalist's disdain for the cliche. Though often considered a sign of bad writing, cliches can work well in a broadcast. In short, say media trainers, journalists must get used to having the tables turned. "The biggest challenge is to familiarize them with the various types of questioning styles and how to incorporate the techniques learned into answering the questions," says Mela Stevens, president of 823 Productions. "For example, turning negatives into positives." Stevens says it's often evident from watching a news segment who has been trained. Magazine editors are typically more polished and, thus, more successful at promoting not only their publications but specific issues and articles. Newspaper reporters, on the other hand, "know their topics, but they're stiffer and more off-the-cuff," she says. Reporters, in contrast to executives practiced at communicating with stakeholders, often enter with strong preconceptions about media training. These may stem from hostility to learning what's essentially a PR technique, a fear of appearing too slick, or, for those accustomed to working in print, a fear of sitting in front of a camera, say media trainers. "It's frightening," Stevens says. "The first step is to get them comfortable. The second is to be clear on why you're sitting there, why are you doing this interview, what message points you're trying to get across. Once that's outlined, it's about practicing question and answer, question and answer." ----- Training day What really goes on at a media training session? Hill & Knowlton put PRWeek reporter Matthew Creamer through his paces Ordinarily, it would pain me to see my trade so brutally reduced to a list of categories, like Machine Gunner and Dart Thrower - terms coined to describe a reporter's questioning style. But if anything, I was ambivalent about being part of a profession that could be so calculating, so tricky, so...mean. I was halfway through the training session. I'd already been strafed, and I was pretty certain there was a dart or two sticking out of my back. I'd been through a mock interview where Jeff Mangum, VP for H&K's media communications practice, played a USA Today media reporter writing a piece about PRWeek. In a plush conference room at the agency's headquarters, I watched the videotape, a sadly indelible record of my squirmings and stammerings. "I would recommend you not repeat negative words," said Vickee Jordan Adams, SVP and director of US media communications. "And you should say the name of the magazine more often. It was good you didn't repeat 'lapdog' though." Clearly, if I could be saved from a lifetime of media unfriendliness, anyone could. While I'm not quite ready for a one-on-one with Tim Russert, the three-hour session with Adams and Mangum demonstrated some of the finer points about the logistics of scheduling an interview, about messaging, about body language and about facial expressions in front of the camera. By the third of three on-camera interviews, I felt - and Adams agreed - that I had made some progress. The main lesson was simple: prepare what I want to say and then say it, regardless of the question. But I needed the live practice and subsequent video embarrassments to bring it home. Russert's bookers haven't called yet, but I've already had occasion to put the knowledge to use, with a young reporter friend caught up in a scandal at one of the nation's larger and more important news outlets. Besieged by media reporters smelling blood, he called me for advice. I told him to write down his message points beforehand, to schedule the interviews for a time when he was comfortable, and to answer only those questions he could. As a result, his quotes were smart and he looked good. It's not quite the same as bailing out a Fortune 500 CEO, but Mangum and Adams can take satisfaction in knowing they helped prevent the pillorying of this young journalist. Even if they couldn't get me to say the name of my own magazine.

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