Preparing for the media face-off

Media fragmentation has led to more opportunities to interview corporate executives.

Media fragmentation has led to more opportunities to interview corporate executives.

Bill Novelli was a legend in PR when he stepped away from Porter Novelli and into the public service arena, first at CARE, then as founder of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and now as CEO of AARP.

But Novelli quickly found there was a difference between coaching and counseling executives on media relations and actually being in the media spotlight. "I had moved from Porter Novelli to CARE as the first step in my public service career, and there I did media interviews," he recalls. "I realized that I needed to practice better what I had been preaching when I was in PR. When I went on to start the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, additional media training was in order. And finally, here at AARP, the same need applies."

Novelli now ensures that everyone at the AARP who speaks on behalf of the organization get media trained, adding that all of those people have welcomed the experience.

The AARP is not alone. Media-training companies are booming these days, thanks in no small part to the growth in new outlets in recent years. "There is such an influx of different kinds of media beyond broadcast and print that the opportunities for interviews are snowballing very rapidly," notes Laura Hall Knapp, director of PR for the Phoenix-based integrated marketing and communications firm Off Madison Ave. "That ends up driving a lot more companies to seek out media training."

And it's not just a handful of top executives who are going through the media-training process. "A lot of clients recognize that people across the spectrum of the company will encounter the media at some point," says Thomas Barritt, partner and head of Ketchum's communications training and crisis network, adding that while a number of these media opportunities are still the typical sit-down between an executive and a journalist, there are many other situations with which executives must be apprised. "We recently media trained a client who was appearing on reality TV, and in that case, it wasn't interacting with a reporter, it was interacting with the director and the participants in the show," says Barritt.

"Media training is now becoming a right of passage for every savvy executive who wants to see his or her career continue up the ladder," adds TJ Walker, president of Media Training Worldwide. "It's shifted away from something that executives used to be very secretive about to something where it is embarrassing now if you don't have it."

That doesn't mean the wariness many executives have about the press has gone away. "The generation of people I'm dealing with now in training is savvier, but attitudes persist in regard to how the press operates and the fact that some reporters seem to have an agenda," says Mitchell Friedman, a San Francisco-based PR/media-training consultant.

"I trained one executive, and the minute we got down to work, he said, 'I guess it's time for my root canal,'" adds Steve Dunlop, president of New York-based Dunlop Media. "The only way to get beyond that is to show these executives that reporters are just human beings, and therefore, there's always the ability for some rapport and to get your viewpoint across in an interview."

Executives going into media training today are being asked to commit to much more than a one-day process. "A comprehensive one-time training session can give a client the basics," explains Knapp. "But a lot of companies are asking for ongoing spot follow-ups because practice really does make perfect and also because their message is evolving, and each new message is viewed as an opportunity to work on their delivery."

Thanks to the Internet and other new technologies, a lot of these follow-up tutorials and performance critiques can now be done virtually, either though webcast or phone operations where a number of people from the same company can call in and go through similar phone interview rehearsals to make sure everyone's delivering the same messages.

But nothing can replicate the experience of going on the hot seat for a live, one-on-one interview. And thanks to video webcasts - as well as the proliferation of cable outlets - more interviews are being done in live formats where the executive's delivery and appearance are as important as the content.

"We always train for television because that is the most difficult interview situation a client is going to experience," says David Schull, managing director of California for Euro RSCG Life PR. "If they're prepared for that, then all the other interviews are going to be easy.

Because video can be so unforgiving, it can bring out the insecurities of even the most dynamic industry titan, which is why Walker stresses the importance of bringing in outside specialists to prepare executives for broadcast appearances. "I've had to tell clients they've got to get rid of a bad toupee, and that's not something they want to hear from somebody down the hall they see every day," he says.

Technique tips


Focus on TV. Getting execs trained for live broadcast will make handling other interview formats easier by comparison

Look to outside specialists for media training, not only for fresh perspectives, but also because execs may be more likely to talk about what makes them uncertain in interviews

Practice what you preach - comms pros should also go through regular training


Make media training only a one-day experience. Look for programs that will allow execs to hone their media skills on an ongoing basis

Make the reporter an enemy. Media training should reinforce the belief that there are no bad questions; only bad answers

Forget the content. Even the most articulate and telegenic executive still needs to have something valuable to say

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