When media ask tough questions, highlight the positives. Prepare ahead of time. Don’t be caught off guard. Keep your cool. Don’t leave interviews before they are over.
Posts Tagged ‘media training’
Few athletes face more critics than LeBron James of the Miami Heat. Few athletes handle the criticism better.
This is one of the first questions a reporter asked LeBron after the Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs in Game 2 of the NBA Finals: “LeBron. Because you beat the Spurs in the Finals last year and won two in a row, you think seeds of doubt creep into their minds especially late in the game in the fourth quarter?”
This is one of the most dangerous questions a reporter can ask not only athletes but also businesses. The question cracks open a door for someone to level criticism against or pass judgment on a competitor. Under such circumstances, we’ve watched athletes utter comments that motivate opposing teams to respond passionately on the court or field. We’ve watched executives spew sarcastic remarks about competitors and then later regret their words. During media training mock interviews, businesses often struggle with questions about rivals.
This was LeBron’s response to the question:
“I mean that’s not our concern. All we worry about is what we can control and that’s just how we play the game, how we approach the game both physically and mentally and live with the results.”
Slam dunk! In general, don’t speak about competitors. Let them speak for themselves. Focus on your products and services. Highlighting your company’s strengths and advantages is a better play than trying to score points by breaking down a competitor’s values or ideas. The fact LeBron can calmly draw up such answers after feeling the heat from critics shows why, in this particular instance, he displayed skills of a media training king. For several weeks, reporters have hammered LeBron with questions that would irritate most people and persuade them to lash out. LeBron has stood steady. For businesses, running the right play is not so simple when reporters are playing rough and getting under your skin.
In the NBA, a team must attempt a basket which touches the rim or scores before the 24-second shot clock expires. During Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the AT&T Center in San Antonio needed a shot clock to speed up the pace of releasing a statement.
The Center’s air conditioning broke during Game 1. ABC showed rows of fans fanning themselves. Players discussed the temperatures. For most of the game, the TV commentators discussed the problem regularly and analyzed how the temperatures impacted the players. While this storyline played out on national television, the commentators repeated they were awaiting a statement from AT&T Center.
ABC’s courtside reporter finally relayed the Center’s statement with about 9:38 left in the game. In essence, the statement explained the AC broke and the Center apologized.
This was crisis communications playing out on live television. So what took so long for a facility to craft and release a statement that a rookie PR pro could write? Why were we awaiting a statement? Why wasn’t ABC interviewing courtside someone with the facility who could explain the problem?
When preparing for big, national events showcasing your “house,” you hope people take every precaution to prevent lights from shutting off during the Super Bowl or the AC from breaking during Game 1 of the NBA Finals. But we judge communicators, much like athletes, on how they handle adversity. PR pros should consider setting up their own shot clocks. They can set those clocks for longer than 24 seconds, but the goal is to respond quickly. And if you craft such a statement quickly and a broadcast network continues to tell a national audience it’s awaiting your comment, make a fast break to someone who can get the word out.
In an episode of The Partridge Family, the 1970s TV sitcom about a musical family, band manager Reuben Kincaid tells the family, “I do know how to handle myself with the press.” The family sits down with Reuben and watches on TV how reporters ambushed him in a parking lot about a sensational magazine article on the family. One of the kids, Danny, supplied the magazine false stories to help publicize the family and Reuben didn’t know about it.
A reporter asked, “How much truth is there in the recent article concerning Shirley Partridge?” Reuben responded, “Article? What article?”
The oldest kid, Keith, watching this on TV, mocks Reuben as being a real pro. Reuben tells him, “I know how to protect my clients.”
Back on TV, the reporter told Reuben the magazine article claims Shirley once ran a school for exotic dancers. At least three microphones were in his face. Reuben snapped back, “You’re kidding! No comment.” The reporter followed up explaining the article also points out Shirley can’t resist men with beards. Reuben began to respond, “I never knew … No comment.”
Shirley, stunned, stands up from the couch and can’t believe Reuben offered a “no comment,” saying Reuben inadvertently made the false information sound true.
Believe it or not, real life often imitates art minus the laugh track, except the people laughing are viewers at home. It is not uncommon for reporters to ambush people in parking lots or outside offices. And frequently those people provide “no comment,” walking or driving away in disgust, providing the exact sensational shot some media want to air.
When reporters catch you by surprise, take a breath and respond, “I don’t have that information at this time. I will be happy to check into it and speak with the appropriate person and get back to you.” Don’t be afraid to explain you don’t have the answer at that very moment. You are not a walking encyclopedia or in today’s terms, a walking Wikipedia. The quickest way to land yourself in trouble is to provide answers when you don’t have them.
Another lesson is the mistake of providing “no comment.” Some of the world’s biggest businesses that we assume hire top marketing people continue to provide media outlets with “no comment” on a regular basis. As Shirley Partridge points out, “no comment,” fair or not, often indicates the claims might be true. There’s always something better to say than “no comment,” even if your words are simply, “Our policy is not to discuss those details publicly, but what I can tell you …”
The media have changed a lot since the early 1970s. But how people respond to them has not. And the results are often no laughing matter.
This season, the NBA’s Golden State Warriors fired coach Mark Jackson. The firing surprised analysts, who believe Jackson had led the team in a positive direction. But he didn’t stay clear of the court for long. Jackson helped broadcast game one of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers.
After a commercial break during the game, Jackson’s fellow broadcaster Mike Breen asked him about his experience at Golden State and how it ended.
“Well, I’d rather not look at how it ended,” Jackson said. “I’d rather take it as a whole and see what took place. We won 23 games. We won 47 games. We won 51 games. We went to the second round last year. We took a dangerous Clipper team to a game 7 this year. I’m grateful to the organization, the intelligent fan base and the awesome players that I had the privilege to play. I love them to death. I’m extremely blessed. I like to think about the great times. It’s good to be back.”
Sports figures often build their own headlines by uttering something stupid about upcoming opponents. But Jackson exemplified with great composure how to answer questions about controversy. His response serves as a lesson for business leaders.
Executives often can’t prevent themselves from publicly criticizing or taking cheap shots at competitors. They mock a competitor’s new product then watch it wildly succeed while their cynical sound bite turns into an embarrassing YouTube hit.
Executives also sit before media to promote new programs they created to solve past problems. When reporters drudge up the details of those past problems, executives stumble and miss an opportunity to focus on the positive future.
Mark Jackson didn’t comment about how his tenure with Golden State ended, but he skillfully recited his increasing victory totals to demonstrate his success. He shared facts and highlighted the positives of an experience that ended negatively. He got his point across without providing bulletin board material for any further controversy.
Well played Mark Jackson. You may have provided us the game’s greatest move.
By Keith Yaskin
During a media training session, we warned participants about providing answers that appeared to be guesses. Their facial expressions indicated they were contemplating the answers on the spot. In some instances, colleagues provided different answers to the same questions.
A New York Times article about United Parcel Service reminded me about that media training session. The story discussed how a passport shipped by UPS went missing for about two years. What happened? The writer described a company spokesperson’s statements as theories. When the writer questioned the first theory, he said the spokesperson offered another possibility. Perhaps the spokesperson was attempting to be helpful and transparent, but, according to how the writer related the story, we inferred the spokesperson set herself up for cynicism. After the spokesperson offered her first theory, the writer pointed out UPS’s substantial tracking technology as if to question how in the world the company lost a passport.
I talked on the phone with Susan Rosenberg, UPS Public Relations Director. She is who The Times quoted in the story. Susan told me she had worked with this journalist before and frequently speaks with consumer advocate reporters. She said it’s not uncommon for some of those reporters to initially approach their stories from negative points of view. She told me this writer’s story was cynical but she expected that from the beginning. She said she tried to be as helpful as possible for the reporter and explained the company went through exhaustive efforts to learn what happened with the passport. She explained the writer requested a substantial amount of data that the company did not provide. And she pointed out the story brought up the positive of UPS’s sophisticated technology
I was most curious if Susan regretted offering the writer educated guesses in contrast with saying something to the effect of, “Despite our exhaustive search, I’m afraid we are not sure why the passport went missing. We are still looking into it.” Susan told me she wasn’t interested in having a 20/20 hindsight type of conversation.
I have mixed feelings about Susan’s approach. On one hand, I applaud her willingness to apparently take extra steps to answer the reporter’s questions. On The Flip Side, I inferred the writer used Susan’s educated guesses about what happened to the passport as a launching pad to cynically question whether he received reasonable explanations. In general, we believe saying, “I don’t know” is a better approach than speculating. Don’t be afraid to tell the media you don’t have certain information and that you need to do further checking to get the details. You will be happy to get back to them later.
If you offer speculation, be prepared for a reporter to ask a follow-up question that questions your logic. You might be placing yourself in that situation and opening yourself up to a line of additional questioning that might not even be relevant. Don’t increase a reporter’s opportunity to lead you into a trap and revel in gotcha moments. In general, educated speculation leads to too many potholes.
That’s what media training can do for you.
Several people publicly discussing how an Oklahoma State University basketball player shoved a fan during a game skillfully handled the media.
The team’s coach showed the importance of explaining how one incident does not reflect the whole person. He also explained how the situation is an opportunity to improve. The school’s Vice President for Athletic Programs and Director of Intercollegiate Athletics was particularly adroit at discussing how college is a learning environment and people make mistakes they hopefully will learn from. The player, suspended three games for the shove, offered what struck us as a sincere apology. Even the fan the player shoved apologized for his part in the incident.
OSU’s news conference also raised a peripheral issue people face when addressing the media: convoluted questions. The coach didn’t seem to fully understand at least one question. Reporters sometimes word questions poorly, make those questions convoluted or ask some that seem inconsequential or silly. Answering tough questions is one thing. Trying to genuinely answer questions that aren’t clear can throw just about anyone off-balance.
AZCentral’s Laurie Roberts wrote an opinion piece raising questions about the campaign and travel expenses of Arizona State Senator Don Shooter. Roberts wrote Shooter did not return several phone calls to discuss the questions.
In a video that accompanies Roberts’ story, a 12News reporter tells us he tried to talk to Shooter about the opinion piece. The 12News reporter says someone told him Shooter would be in a meeting. But the reporter says a few minutes later, he saw Shooter walk to his car. The reporter turned on his camera but says Shooter didn’t respond and drove away.
Any businessperson or politician facing scrutiny who hasn’t addressed the media’s questions shouldn’t be surprised if a reporter approaches him or her outside an office or in a parking lot. Your strategy for handling those situations should stretch beyond not responding or driving away. (We are assuming the reporters have accurately portrayed their interactions with Shooter.)
- Answer the media’s questions. Explaining your side of the story on the phone or in person is much less awkward than reporters tracking you down at unexpected times or locations. Worse, the next time you face the media for a positive story, reporters may take advantage of that opportunity to address tough questions while the audience listens.
- Before the interview, decide what one to three key messages you plan to focus on when addressing the questions. Keep circling back to your core points. Don’t delve into unnecessary details if possible. Use phrases such as, “The key issue is,” “It’s important to note that,” “Let me reiterate that.”
- If necessary, explain you are working to improve and consider changes.
- If you truly can’t comment, explain why. Maybe you need more time to get information. Maybe you don’t want to give out wrong information. Whatever phrases you provide, avoid no comment.
Be transparent. And that doesn’t mean looking at reporters through the windows of your vehicle.
We awarded New Jersey Governor Chris Christie an A- for his news conference about those controversial lane closures. But his few mistakes included a key one: He said he is not a bully.
Shortly after he uttered those words, a reporter at a major newspaper Tweeted them. CNN referenced the bully sound bite in its post news conference analysis. The image above shows Time’s take.
Don’t repeat negative questions back to reporters. Reporters often use those very sound bites. Find phrases to turn the question into a positive response.