Media training – for life not just crises

Part of my regular morning routine is to mentally critique the performance of an interviewee on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. I’m more than aware I do this from a position of comfort. It’s much easier to play critic than guest.

Occasionally, there is the high-profile interview that will set the news agenda or the car-crash that gives lots of crisis experts the opportunity to pick over what went wrong (see Matthew Willis’s blog on the Dangers of the Armchair Crisis Expert).

All very entertaining, but I’m more interested in analysing how the occasional corporate guest gets on. The unknown who has just a few minutes to connect with the show’s listeners to get their message across. Perhaps the launch of an exciting new product or initiative, the ‘expert’ talking through latest research, or someone lobbying for a rare change in legislation. The guest who needs to work to win over both audience and the producers.

It’s not an option for Today to blacklist a senior politician however badly they come across, but they can make a mental note to use another corporate spokesperson, economist, accountant or lawyer in the future if the one currently on hasn’t added value.

It goes without saying that some form of coaching is crucial. The problem, in my view, is that media training starts from a position of defence. Too often courses focus on keeping out of trouble – rarely telling the seasoned executive something they don’t already know and knocking the confidence from the first timer.  But the vast majority of interviews (including those on the Today Programme) aren’t like this. They are an opportunity. To put it into context, how many executives would enter a conference or other networking opportunity with their main goal being not to mess up?

Corporate communication has evolved. Companies are expected to be publishers, thought leaders, advocates, leaders in their communities and lobbyists, creating more corporate spokespeople. With so much investment in this kind of content, we need to ensure that leaders can articulate the organisation’s position in any situation. Media training needs to combine with presentation coaching to help executives build confidence in their message – regardless of the audience.

Training – not to mention natural ability – helps shape great communicators although these are rarely made in a day. However, there a few simple steps to take:

Integrate media training into the corporate communications plan
Identify the spokespeople who will be leading the campaign and make media and message training an integral part of the campaign plan, not something that’s done the day before The Big Interview. It need not be the expensive studio scenario.  For many, smartphones can do just as good a job of assessing things like body language and verbal ticks.

Consider splitting media training from message training/rehearsal
In non-crises situations, media training is about introducing executives to the way the media works, how they can build relationships with journalists, how to approach the more casual meet and greet, and the role of the communications/press team. Message rehearsal should be used to prepare for a specific situation. Trying to do everything at once can overwhelm.

Be aware of the pitfalls of media opportunities, but don’t let them dominate
Media training which starts with what could go wrong immediately – with some fun examples of executives who messed up – puts people in defence mode.  The training should build confidence in the message and then look at how to deal with difficult situations.

Rehearse, refine, rehearse and rehearse again
In my experience, the most valuable part of any media or message training is when the executive gets to practice their message delivery. Going through a real-life interview scenario, working out what sounds right, what doesn’t, and how to weave in strong messages is far better preparation than any Paxman-style practice interview.

Be honest
Too often an executive will come out of a media interview relieved they didn’t cause a major disaster. It’s the comms person’s role to provide honest feedback on whether they got their message and / or call-to-action across and the interviewee’s role to listen to that without trying to offload any blame. It’s always worth remembering too the journalist or broadcaster’s main role is to get a story and not to promote an individual or brand. There is little to be gained by blaming the journalist for an interview that didn’t go so well.

Build relationships long term
This is obvious as part of a media relations strategy, but less so in the context of media training. However, investing long-term (including thorough preparation for interview with a trade or specialist publication, participating in corporate videos or Facebook live chats and even building a strong personal social media profile) will help establish a good foundation and provide many future opportunities.

This approach means that when the ‘Big Opportunity’ comes your way – whether it’s a flagship broadcast event or a presentation to 1,000+ employees – you are far more prepared than if you’d just spent the day before in last minute media training.  And – if they are like me – your audience will notice the difference.

Image by Kushagra Kevat.