Menu

Reading time: 7 minutes

Many leaders, politicians, and communication professionals invest in media training. However, many mistakes are being made over and over. Here’s how to avoid them.

by Jerry “Doctor Spin” Silver // Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn
Senior Digital Strategist // Spin Factory

Over the years, I’ve media trained lots of executives and politicians.

Standing in front of a camera or a microphone can be stressful for anyone, especially if you’re facing a crisis. Therefore, many leaders, politicians, and communication professionals invest in professional media training.

Still, many have expressed their concerns about corporate media training in general. They say:

“You can always spot a media trained person. They talk and act like assholes. Honestly, I don’t see the point in whatever guys like you are teaching these people.”

Talking with reporters, especially in tense situations, is difficult. What official spokespersons often do, is that they take what public relations advice they’ve been given — and then they take it too far.

Here’s how this happens (and how to avoid it):

The Scenario: A Terrible Accident at Work

Imagine the following scenario:

Two construction workers get severely injured when a structure collapses at a building site. A couple of bolts, which should’ve been replaced by the workers themselves several months ago, gave in due to wear-and-tear, resulting in this tragic incident.

The construction company has since doubled-up on their safety routines and legal processes to determine accountability is to be expected. The labor union is, of course, accusing the company of not investing enough in workplace safety — and they’ve called in the reporters.

For this particular scenario, the company’s spokesperson on workplace safety meets up with a reporter. But despite intense media training, many mistakes are being made:

Mistake #1: Talking without Saying Anything

Typical media training advice:

If the reporter asks, “is it unsafe to work for you?”, you often can’t say ‘yes.’ Just because it was unsafe one time at one location, that doesn’t mean that all related work environments are unsafe. You can’t say ‘no,’ either. Obviously, it was unsafe in this specific situation. You’re being cornered! The only thing you can do is to focus on what you actually can say.

How it backfires — Many media-trained spokespersons can tell when they’re being cornered by the reporter — and when they do, they get nervous. And as a result, they desperately try to talk themselves out of the situation. Reporters are trained to spot this evasive behavior and instead of letting the spokesperson off the hook, they start probing even harder.

What to do instead — You must have something of substance to say before entering into the interview situation. Even if you would hypothetically be able to talk your way out of a tough question without saying anything of substance, the audience will dislike you for it, whether you succeed or not.

Mistake #2: Disregarding the Reporter’s Questions

Typical media training advice:

Instead of answering a question and then wait for the next one, you could also go ahead and add additional context or insights to the matter at hand. This is what’s known as The Bridge Technique.

How it backfires —  It’s easy to grasp the mechanics of The Bridge Technique. The reporter asks a question, you answer the question, and then you talk about what you want to highlight. Too often, media-trained spokespeople use this technique to speak about something too far away from the original question, closer to their own agenda. It’s impolite at best — and it certainly doesn’t look good on camera.

What to do instead — When you’ve answered a question, it can be helpful to the reporter if you add additional context or insight on your own initiative. But always make sure that you’re adding context or insight relevant to the original question.

Mistake #3: Repeating Prepared Statements

Typical media training advice:

At times, the reporter comes prepared with pertinent and insightful questions. However, reporters have stressful jobs, and the news doesn’t wait for anyone, so often, they have to go with what they have. Prepare a short list of valuable and relevant information that you would like to get across to the public. If the reporter is open for it, you can then be the one moving the interview forward.

How it backfires —  Surprisingly many media-trained spokespersons decide to repeat their prepared statements word-for-word, over and over again. An irritated reporter could easily punish you by airing this, and you can count on how this won’t reinforce your trustability in the public eye.

What to do instead — Write down three words as talking points, and remember these three words. Don’t memorize word-for-word statements. And most importantly, don’t say the same thing over and over again.

Mistake #4: Staring the Reporter Down

Typical media training advice:

A common trick that most journalists use is to stay silent instead of firing another question. For most people, this silence is awkward and unpleasant. And to escape, they start talking, aimlessly. The rule of thumb is to allow for a little bit of quiet now and then. Don’t force the interview forward.

Where it backfires — Allowing for silence is important, but there’s no need for you just to sit there and stare intensely for 30 seconds. Because this doesn’t look good, either. Many media-trained spokespersons misunderstand the basics of this recommendations, and they go quietly in a way that only adds a dramatic effect to the soundbite.

What to do instead — If the reporter is serious about staying quiet for a long time, then carefully use The Bridge Technique to add more context and insight. But take a few moments in silence to think about what you’re going to say before you do. The key is not to be afraid of silence and allow for it here and there, not to enter a silence contest with the reporter.

Mistake #6: Using Non-Apologies

Typical media training advice:

In the above-described scenario, the company knows where things went wrong. The workers themselves disregarded mandatory safety routines. But blaming others, in this scenario the actual victims, is not a very good idea. Being rational and cold in an emotional situation will only distance you from the audience. Don’t be afraid to talk about how you feel and always connect emotionally first.

How it backfires — To connect with the victims and their families, media-trained spokespeople sometimes say things like, “We’re sorry they feel this way.” These statements are also known as non-apologies.

What to do instead — Connecting through emotions means that you as a person should talk and act like a human being. Don’t say that you’re sad, be sad1. And even more importantly, stay away from non-apologies altogether. It’s about your feelings on the matter, not theirs.

Mistake #7: Second-Guessing Other People’s Emotions

Typical media training advice:

The story is always about people, and therefore, you should focus everything on those directly involved. Addressing shareholders, markets, and customers will have to come second.

How it backfires — To address real-life humans, many spokespeople make the mistake of trying too soon to reassure people. But it’s never a good idea to tell people not to worry if they already do. If you contradict what people feel, then you’re actively disqualifying their real emotions.

What to do instead — Don’t talk about other people as if you have any insight into how they feel. Once again, it’s about your feelings, not theirs.

Mistake #8: Over-Using Standard Phrases

Typical media training advice:

Never speculate. Nothing good ever came from second-guessing anything in front of a reporter.

How it backfires — Media trained spokespeople rarely say things like “no comment” or “I can neither confirm nor deny.” Why? Because it sounds terribly robotic and it makes you look guilty. However, many still say outright that they won’t speculate2 over and over again.

What to do instead — Simply avoid using standardized phrases when talking to the media.

Don’t drop it.

What are your thoughts on media training? Please share in the comment section.

Notes:

  1. If you can’t express emotions about a severe crisis; see a therapist and not a reporter.
  2. Rescue workers and law enforcement can get away with this. But not a construction company after a terrible accident, like in the scenario mentioned above.

Never miss a Doctor Spin article again?

Join 4,100+ of the best people on the planet — my SpinCTRL subscribers
(+ download 23 Tactics for Content Promotion as a signup bonus).


SUBSCRIBE

###

Want Jerry to speak at your event? Learn more here.

Behind the keyboard:

Jerry Silver is the author of Doctor Spin, a PR blog that's been around for 15+ years. Via his agency Spin Factory, Jerry is advising brands on how to adapt to a 'digital first' world. In 2016, Cision Scandinavia named him "PR Influencer of the Year". Jerry lives in Stockholm, Sweden with his wife Lisah, news anchor and television host, and their three-year-old son, Jack.


Doctor Spin’s comment policy:
“Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”
— Eleanor Roosevelt

Reader reactions:

(If you want your profile picture next to your comment, create your own Gravatar here.)

Joakim Nordblom

In my first media preparations I was very focused on the message and the exact words. Today my focus is on making the spokesperson comfortable, to remove the stress that surfaces in an inconvenient situation. This is more important as the impact of what the viewer see and the way it is said is more important than the words. Now you gave me confidence to continue this way of work, thanks!

Reply
Doctor Spin

Indeed, Joakim. Reflects my development as well, from message-focused in the beginning to a moe human-centered approach. Thanks for hanging around, I appreciate you’re taking the time to comment and add value to the post.

Bertil Myhr

Thanks, a liberating post for us sinners and cynics. Some of your points describe beginner’s errors, and it is hard to teach the kind of security and confident delivery that we are looking for and that comes with experience. But others are not. I especially like the part about bridging. Yes, I teach this too. Shame on us.

We also provide tools for avoiding and disarming conflict (which the media looks for). But before you take that line, make sure that it is in the client’s interest too. Mistake #9. Fear of media can lead you wrong. That is when the fight is worth taking. The audience actually likes straight talk. Even if they may not agree, (perceived) honesty builds trust. I may be a dreamer, but how about a new media training paradigm: State your case. Have no fear

Reply
Doctor Spin

Thanks for an insightful addition, Bertil. Your point about how the audiences appreciate straight talk rings extra true these days, especially as we look at the US election. These powers can be used for good or bad, for sure.