Many organisations will end up in the public eye and have to handle the media. Ensuring spokespeople are trained to deal with the hack pack is wise if PR disasters are to be avoided.
Media trainer Ray Hatley recalls when one of his clients, a multinational chemical distributor, was responsible for spilling a tanker-load of an extremely caustic chemical into a tributary of the Thames. When the local authority won a record fine in the courts, the media began clamouring for interviews.
Fortunately the company spokesman had been trained to handle the media. “The spokesman was sincere,” says Hatley. “His messages and personal remorse were patently honest and it was clear the company had done everything in its power to make sure this was a one-off event. Effectively, he reduced the weight of the story to the point where it no longer offered any sensationalist opportunities.”
It could all have been so different. Brooke Clarke, managing director at PR company Mandate Communications, recalls an example where it did go wrong: “A few years ago, Topman’s marketing director referred to the brand’s core customers as hooligans who wore their first suit to a job interview or court appearance. It did little for the company’s reputation or sales.”
And who can forget Gerald Ratner’s 1991 comment that one of his jewellery products was “total crap” and “cheaper than a prawn sandwich”? It ruined the company.
Media training can help a company avoid a catastrophe, and help it take advantage of opportunities the media creates. Sonia Saxton, managing director of training company Saxton Partners, says media training has opened new doors for her business. “I have already secured a part on BBC One’s Look North, and on BBC Radio. These openings are brilliant for my business.”
Yet many senior executives remain resistant to the idea. Some prefer to ignore the media altogether. This is a high-risk policy in today’s media-saturated world, where “no comment” is widely viewed as an admission of guilt, and where a negative story in even the smallest trade publication can rapidly grow and destroy a company’s reputation.
Training is important
Others believe they are above this type of training. However, talking to the media requires specific skills and knowledge. Regardless of how senior or how experienced a person is in business, if they know how the media works, what journalists want and how to talk to them, they will have more successful interviews.
Journalists conduct interviews every day – any executive who has not been media-trained is, in effect, an amateur taking on a professional. They might be naturally gifted and get away with it once or twice, but in the end they will miss opportunities or, worse, say something to damage the company’s reputation.
Jonathan Margolis, director of communications consultancy 93½, has run media training for Vodafone, BT and Alfred Dunhill among others. He says: “Even though everyone consumes media on an hourly basis, it’s amazing how few truly get it. When they see competitors getting great press, they put it down to luck or even corruption. In fact it just boils down to taking the time to see how the media works.”
For 30 years, Andrew Harvey presented television news on BBC and ITN. He now runs a media training company and says: “Anyone who deals directly with the media should have training, whether [they’re a] chief executive or a member of the press office team. At any level, the wrong response can cause serious damage to an organisation.”
However, it is essential to get the right person to deliver the training. Lindsay Williams, consultant at The Media Coach, says: “Choosing a media trainer is not easy. It is a fragmented industry. You need someone who can clearly and succinctly explain the journalists’ world but who also has some insight into the world of PR. Many journalists know very little about PR.
“Most media trainers come from a broadcast background, which makes them confident and entertaining, but they may not be the most appropriate if you are trying to prepare people for trade press interviews. Personal recommendation is probably the best way to find a trainer. But, however you do it, you will help get the best out of a session if you brief the trainer in detail, providing press cuttings and a list of the tough questions that might come up.”
What should media training include?
Some media trainers focus on preparation, advising spokespeople to rehearse their lines in advance. But a growing number of trainers are dropping this rigid approach. Kevin Read, managing director of communications consultancy Bell Pottinger Business & Brand, says: “A mental scramble for a pre-prepared answer is a clumsy process and will often come across as lacking in spontaneity.
“Far better to coach potential spokespeople on what their story should be and to look at the core components of the narrative. This gives a more natural feeling and allows an interviewee to frame answers in a more easygoing and personal way.”
The training should also help delegates to understand what the journalist wants from the interview, stress the importance of avoiding jargon, and show them how to bridge from a question to the message they want to convey.
About half of the time should be spent on role play, to build their confidence.