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Train Your Managers to Handle the Media

This month I had a chance to speak with the pro's of Media Training, executives of two top Canadian companies who specialize in it. Today's managers need to learn to skillfully manage media relations. An unskilled manager who responds poorly to a media inquiry can do a lot of damage to a company. On the other hand, someone who is skilled could turn a potential negative report into a positive public relations experience.

Roger Davies, CEO of McLuhan & Davies Communications, has been in this field for 25 years. His firm originated as a partnership between himself and the son of Marshall McLuhan, the famous media guru, and 10 years ago he bought the firm from his partner. Today McLuhan & Davies offers communications training in 23 countries through active affiliates and in foreign languages with their proprietary "Think on Your Feet" and "Writing Dynamics" seminars.

I asked Roger what is the biggest mistake most managers make in dealing with the media.

"The worst thing you can do", he says, "is to be non responsive or to say "No comment". You must be perceived as being cooperative. The next thing is to recognize your own skill set. Are you better verbally or expressing yourself in writing? If you're better in writing then ask the journalist to either give you a list of questions or email."

Timing is also important.

"Promise to get back to them promptly. Rule #1 is to ask what their deadline is since journalists have a perspective of having to produce results within a tight deadline. Many managers don't realize that the best interviews result when an interviewee provides some succinct information ahead of the interview in the form of clear statements. Journalists usually respond well to this."

"You have to think about what is the message you're trying to get across and ensure it's your message and not the journalists. This is your opportunity to control the interview without putting the journalist off. You need to answer with structure and clear thought. If you keep your sentences short you're more likely to keep it accurate. If the sentence is too long the journalist will be obliged to cut and edit the sentence. This rules applies to television as well."

"The training program we most recommend is "Think on Your Feet" which trains people to get to the point and be remembered. We use the "capsule of persuasion concept". Day 1 is theory and practise, Day 2 is on-the-job application. Trainees practice questions and answers that cover 3 different scenarios, preparation with time, with less time and with no time."

"An example could go something like this: You've downsized and 25 people from the community have been let go from their jobs. If you frame the answer with time-based structure for example with a past, present, and future perscpective, the result might be "In the past we've been a major employer in the community, currently there are economic challenges which require that take action to reduce costs. As a result of this, in the future we're confident we can grow the business in different areas and we're committed to this community in the long term."

John Miers is Chairman of Black Isle Consultants, a private company that delivers presentation skills and media skills development. He teaches executives and managers effective speaking and how to speak with media. John's sage advice is, "Every time you communicate you need to focus on communication. We teach people to take an approach where people remember them afterwards."

"With sound media or over the telephone, you can actually be talking to people normally. On television you can be polished. Our advice is to stop senior exec's from being "Mr. Businessman" and instead engage the audience. It's the same as if you are having a conversation with a friend. The audience can relate to this and will remember it."

From his experience John has noticed that Indians tend to love talking, because the feeling is that if you're talking you're in control. But if the receiver is not talking and instead tuning out, the speaker must be aware that it's the speaker's fault, not the listener's.

"The training goal for most people is to demonstrate that they know what they're talking about, they can do it without stopping and they won't make mistakes. Most people tend to follow the standard advice such as looking smart and smooth and overlook the communications part."

"We are drawn to great speakers. Bad speakers seem to be unaware of themselves. Speaking is a skill you have to learn directly. The use of silence is important. The human brain must think about what he's hearing and process it. Interactivity is the only way to communicate. Think about what happens when you speak. It's a two way process. The person speaking makes the second person think. That second person has to be involved and the response can be as little as "ok" or "uh huh" indicating "I've got it...go on. Listeners recognize subconsciously when a one way speaking event is going on."

"Media issues happen when something has gone wrong or there is some sort of crisis, such as a crash or a bottling plant where someone's found a syringe in a bottle. 90% of media communications are not crisis, they're just an excellent chance to get publicity. When it's not a crisis people don't tend to do as good a job and have a tendency to muddle through, be not as prepared as they should be or overprepared and can't stop talking. The worst thing you can do is start talking without thinking and keep on going."

He offers the following tips:
When answering a question make sure you don't talk for more than 25 seconds, after 30 seconds audience tunes out. Many people go on a good 2-3 minutes without realizing they're not being effective.
It's important to always answer the question.The really good interviewers go best with a good interviewer because of this. After you answer it, then look for an opportunity to add value and "bridge" from the answer to the point you are making.
If you have bad interviewer, don't get sucked in to keep talking. Stop talking and let him ask the next question.
Never do an interview without knowing what message you want to get across. This is your opportunity to do it.

Asked about trends, John answers, "The trend is that the media is getting more friendly. Corporate affairs people in public company understand this and have more relaxed attitudes. 20 years ago, if you mention TV interview to the typical CFO, CEO, he would be terrified. Today the media and business are much closer. Major companies often have a tv camera set up with equipment ready for a live feed anytime. They are ready to go on-line, with the company logo in the background."

When asked about the kind of training he thought managers need, he responded "Training that focuses on gestures or voice modulation is probably not what you need. The best kind of training is to get as much practice in a range of scenarios as you can, from easy to testy, with video review by a coach who gives you feedback. The training should include at least 8 interviews."

"Our programs start with presentation and speaking speaking skills in 2 hour sessions with a videocamera and put them through practises to get better. We train them for an average of 6 sessions building on their practice. Media training is an extension of that where we involve a reporter, cameraman and equipment as well for perhaps a 1/2 day session. We also do a lot of one on one coaching for senior executives such as CEO's and CFO's, which they love. It makes sense for corporate affairs and public relations departments to get involved in the training as part of the feedback team."

John cautioned against getting your response solely from the company lawyer, because the reaction would sound totally defensive and they lack the finesse to know how to package the information.

He cited the following British Midland airlines case as a success story.

"Some years ago, an airplane crashed on a freeway killed motorists and air passengers. Michael Bishop, the CEO, handled the event so well that ticket sales in the airline went up as a result. He was completely compassionate, showed real concern and had a very human reponse to everything. All of his reactions were about people, he put families up in hotels while the crisis was being investigated. He pulled out little comments like "You have to understand we've never had a crash in the 50 years we've been operating."

Arupa Tesolin, owner of the training firm Intuita, is a consultant, speaker, seminar leader and author of The Intuita 3-Minute Solutions for Innovation, Intuition, Vision & Stress. Her numerous international publications on intuition in business have established her as a thought leader in this field. She is currently working on a new book entitled "Becoming An Intuitive Organization". Contact her at www.intuita.com, intuita@intuita.com or 905.271.7272.

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