Not every client or employee is equipped to deal with the media on an intimate level. When I was a journalist, public relations contacts would sometimes sit in on interviews I conducted with company executives. In most cases, the public relations department was there to lend support — as either a confidant, or a source of additional information. In other cases, however, it was clear that the executive needed his hand held because he could not handle on-the-fly questioning alone. But media training can help clients and company employees prepare for encounters from journalists and interviewers.
Simple role-playing games where the public relations consultant acts as the journalist can be helpful, allowing a client or employee to understand how her answers can shape the interview, positively or negatively. By utilizing media training sessions, public relations pros can get an understanding of which clients and employees are ready to act as public spokespeople for the company, and who should stay the heck away from the media.
A few years ago, I was contracted by a company to put together some media training sessions. To prepare, I had the company’s in-house public relations staff send me over about three months worth of press clips. I also did my own research, acting as if I was still journalist preparing to write a story. When time came to conduct the media training sessions, I started with the chief executive officer, a veteran executive, but someone who did not have a lot of experience dealing with the media.
In my first role-playing game, I acted as a reporter for a trade publication, hurling questions about the company’s technology at the CEO. It was obvious that he could speak for hours about technology and his company’s products. For my second role-playing game, I acted as a reporter for a financial news publication. I played hardball, asking the CEO why the company consistently missed earnings estimates it had provided for investors, and why gross margins at the company were contracting while his competitor’s were expanding.
The chief executive officer performed horrendously, not only going off-topic, but giving inaccurate answers. When corrected, he stared at me blank-faced, not understanding the discrepancy in our information. After our second role-playing game, the CEO turned to me and said, “OK, now I know why we’re spending the money on this.”
I ended up conducting media training sessions with six executives, and in the end, the public relations staff deemed only four worthy of being public spokespeople for the company. One executive who did not make the cut rambled incessantly about perceived slights against the company from the media, and he constantly painted himself into a corner with his answers.
Handling the media is not something that comes easy to most people. It takes not only a quick mind, but also a restrained tongue. Too often interview subjects will answer questions without listening. More often, they will go on tangents, forcing the interviewer to “get tough” to bring an interview back on track.
Through media training and common sense PR people can ensure that clients and employees understand how to handle the media, and they can get a good idea of who should not be anywhere near a journalist. Ignoring these concepts, and letting just anyone loose on the media, is asking for a public relations disaster.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.