The world of journalism recently suffered a great loss with the passing of veteran 60-Minutes broadcaster Mike Wallace. Known for his gruff demeanor and tough interview style, his name could strike fear into the heart of anyone who had ever served in the role of company spokesperson. Thanks to his reputation as a relentless interviewer, Wallace is no doubt partially responsible for the reluctance of many communications professionals even today to take on the role of media spokesperson. For those old enough to remember footage of Wallace cornering a company executive outside corporate headquarters with a camera and an accusatory question, it is no small wonder that many people are fearful of talking with a journalist.
Yet, talking to reporters does not have to be a source of anxiety. Media interviews represent a terrific opportunity for individuals and organizations to get their messages out to the public. As a conduit for our clients’ messages, reporters will always play a critical role in the public relations business. That is why it is so important that we make sure our clients are fully prepared to take on the role as a media spokesperson. And if talking to a reporter causes a client to break out into a cold sweat, it is our job as professional communicators to eliminate that fear. We do that through media training.
Not surprisingly, few people actually enjoy the experience of media training. Some actively resist. Others take the passive aggressive no-time-in-their busy-schedule approach. Still others reluctantly agree, only to suffer anxiety attacks in the days leading up to the session. Yet media training is the single best way to prepare for working with the media.
Spokesperson training boils down to three simple things: preparation, planning and practice. The purpose of training, whether through a formal session with cameras rolling, or an informal Q&A over the phone, is to show potential spokespeople how to prepare by anticipating the way an interview may unfold, to plan in advance how to most effectively handle challenging questions, and to practice delivering their key points.
The most effective media training is designed to simulate a real life exchange between two individuals with sometimes very different agendas. The reporter, whose goal is to prepare a piece that supports his/her basic story premise; and the spokesperson, who has a very specific point to get across that may or may not mesh with the reporter’s objective. Simply rehearsing key message points is always good practice, but the real value of a media training session comes from having a direct interaction with another person who will actively challenge you. In real life, it is the reporter who is the source of that challenge; in media training, it is the trainer who does the challenging, oftentimes with much greater intensity than a real reporter.
The intensity of the exchange is what helps prepare the spokesperson for even the most difficult of interview sessions. Media training sessions represent a concentrated form of preparation that puts the spokesperson into situations specifically designed to mimic real-life interviews. Through a series of mock interviews that typically include softball questions, hardball questions, and totally out-of-left-field questions, the trainee gains a sense of what he or she may encounter, as well as how to maintain focus. That preparation and practice, in turn, serves to provide a real psychological boost in the form of confidence that stems from learning how to successfully handle an interview situation.
The knowledge of what to expect, along with the preparation and practice that media training provides, increases a spokesperson’s sense of control during an interview. Along with that increased control comes less anxiety and greater confidence. The combination of preparation, control, and relaxed confidence – achieved through media training – can turn the reluctant spokesperson into a great spokesperson who thrives in even the toughest media interviews. Even if the interviewer turns out to be the next Mike Wallace.