Once upon a time, "PR land" citizens had actual journalistic experience. That changed as communications schools flourished, turning out thousands who entered PR with diplomas in hand.
Lacking "field experience" in the news business, these newcomers now rely on agency media departments or senior personnel, many of whom have become instant arbiters of what makes news.
That's second-best. Who better should know an account's needs, strengths, and weaknesses than a savvy account executive who is in constant touch with a client?
My media decisions are simple: The responsibility to keep clients happy is mine when I manage or play a senior role on accounts. I've always insisted (and have at Arthur Solomon Communications) on having significant input on all media-related decisions.
Yes, media training is important, but its value is lessened when the same formula is used for all clients. I use media training as a first step. I conduct my own sessions, based both on my pre-interview discussions with reporters and producers, and the hundreds of interviews I have arranged and attended.
I conclude with my ABC rule of media preparation - Always Be Candid. Here's what I tell clients:
Don't be afraid of the interview. The great majority of reporters are not out to harm you. They just want a story that will satisfy their editors.
News outlets are not happy about running corrections due to inaccurate data. Reporters hate being misled or lied to, and don't like having their stories needing correction through no fault of their own.
Don't "wing it." Come prepared with notes on the topic. And use them. (Yes, even on television. The reporter uses notes; so can you.) If you don't know the answer to a question, tell the reporter that you'll get back with an answer. It's also OK to tell a reporter that some information is proprietary; you're not in a court of law.
Don't answer if you are not sure of a reporter's question. Always ask for a clarification. Reporters are not limited to asking questions on topics from pre-interview background material or from pre-interview training sessions or pre-interviews with producers. Know especially that if a reporter makes a statement that you do not agree with, say so immediately. Remaining quiet may give the impression that you agree.
Nothing is ever off the record. A reporter putting away a notebook or turning off a tape recorder does not mean the interview is over, and that you can say anything without it being used; one should be especially careful during taped TV interviews. (I try to avoid them.) Prior to the interview being aired, it will be edited and have a reporter's lead-in added. One rule I try to get clients to live by is that nothing is ever off-the-record.
I remind them of Yogi Berra's "It's never over 'till it's over" quote, and stress that what you tell a reporter on the way to the washroom, over a post-interview drink, in the elevator, or while sharing a cab may end up in the story. (In fact, it's never over until the media says it's over, even after the story has run. Remember the follow-up story.)
It is extremely important to have a confident client going into an interview, so bolster the client's self-assurance. "You're the expert. You know more about the subject than the interviewer," is my standing line prior to the interview.
Nothing is more important than making a client feel confident before an interview. That's my golden rule.
Arthur Solomon is a PR consultant. He is a former journalist and Burson-Marsteller SVP.