Media training is an essential tool in the protection and promotion of brand and reputation. It is the cornerstone of any PR campaign. If you’ve got something great going on – a new product or service, strong annual figures, lots of new jobs up for grabs – then you won’t want to keep it a secret. You and your communications team should already know what you want to say – and who you want to say it to.
But sometimes a crisis hits, and your hand is forced. When something goes wrong, the media is quick to act, and how do you respond?
When brand and reputation are on the line, it’s vital to get it right. So if you find yourself in front of the microphones, there is, as with all industries, good and bad practice.
Here are five classic media training mistakes to avoid, and to consider when you’re on air or a crisis hits.
Stick to The Message
Most businesses tend to have “key messages”, a series of beautifully turned phrases to cover every aspect of the business crisis you are facing. These have emerged as the final act of a huge briefing document prepared by your Public Relations professionals. This document takes the form of If This Is the Question, This Is the Answer. Don’t get me wrong, this is a valuable process to go through. But it’s not a workable document in the heat of the media exchange. And even the Key Message can also be not fit for purpose. It is not acceptable to put yourself in front of the microphones and simple Stick to The Message. The parrot like repetition of the Key Message doesn’t work anymore because the audience needs some acknowledgement that a question has at least been addressed, if not actually and directly answered.
Here is the question, here is my response (not answer) is a much better way of approaching a media interview. So, from the Briefing Document you should identify a couple of themes you want to bring to the interview. These may be as simple as 1) I need to apologise to customers/stakeholders etc 2) a credible plan for taking the next step forwards. Themes are different from key messages. Themes are big ideas. And these allow you to keep your responses fresh by adding a single reason to believe you behind each response. Keep repeating the same Key Messages the audience will consider you evasive. Keep working a couple of big ideas through each response and the audience will be reassured.
Never say sorry
Saying sorry is not the same as admitting guilt. You don’t have to say sorry, but you should express genuine regret when something has gone wrong. There is not one recorded incidence of a law suit following a CEO expressing regret in a media interview when something has gone wrong. On the other hand, the examples of corporate reputation being destroyed by Never Saying Sorry are legion. BP gulf oil spill, no expression of being sorry it happened. For months. Oh dear. Thomas Cook where the children died from carbon monoxide poisoning in one of their rental properties. No apology until after the inquest. Do not try to defend the indefensible.
Emphasise the positive
Take care with this one. Don’t emphasise past success. You’re up there in front of the microphones for a reason… something has gone wrong. It may be that you’ve run a perfectly good business for many, many years. But when something has gone wrong, that’s not the time to say so. Sorry about the train crash, but look, punctuality of service is up year on year. A ludicrous example for the sake of illustration. No matter how tempting it is, when you’re up there, don’t emphasise your previously excellent business performance. If sales are down this year, I don’t care if that’s come off the back of ten year’s or record sales. Emphasise the positive looking forwards is a different matter. Sales are down, yes but this is our plan going forwards. Better.
Keep it corporate
Nope. Keep it personal. Let’s just say that a product you have manufactured/sold/installed has killed the user. You don’t know why. If you’re up there in front of the microphones I need to know, as a member of the audience, that you actually do care. What you say must be personal and from the heart. If you don’t sound like you personally care, the audience will instantly think you don’t. And once they think you don’t it’ll be near impossible to shift them from that view. Here are various possible responses.
The personal: First of all, let me say sorry to the family of X. Something has clearly gone wrong. We don’t know exactly what yet, but no-one wants to get to the bottom of what happened here more than I do. I am leading the inquiry and I will find out what happened.
Nearly personal: Everyone here at Acme Corporation is deeply saddened by what happened and I know the team at Acme are working hard to find out what happened. Blah.
Corporate: Here at Acme safety is our number one priority. Corporate cliché and a classic Stick to The Message mistake.
You have more control in a recorded interview
Nope. This couldn’t be more wrong. This is a technical matter, rather than a matter of content like the four previous points. Recorded interviews have one advantage. If you are talking drivel, you can stop the interview and start your answer again. That’s it. That’s your one advantage. But here are the disadvantages. Recorded interviews can go on. And on. And on. Giving you much more scope to say something you perhaps didn’t want to. And the journalist has full editorial control. You ‘give’ an interview. The journalist will pick and choose the bits which best suits them. And out of an interview of half an hour you might get just 15 minutes on air.
Live interviews, well, that’s the place to be. If you or your corporate spokesperson is comfortable then always – always – go live. They are the shortest interviews you give – never really more than a couple of minutes. So, easier to navigate a safe passage through. You’ll get more used – all of it in fact! And you seize back editorial control – what you say goes past the journalist and straight to the audience.
Andrew Ogden is the managing director of Broadcast Media Services, prior to which he was a newspaper, radio and television reporter.