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When the CEO is on the record: Media coaches offer advice on how to avoid verbal missteps

(This article was written by Gigi Suhanic and published in Canada''s National Post in February 2005.)

Today''s words are no longer tomorrow''s "fish wrap." Case in point: Martha Stewart, when asked by Barbara Walters how she would cope serving a five-month jail term, said she would emerge stronger for the experience, as had Nelson Mandela -- after his 28-year incarceration.

"That got archived on the Net and she looked bad, comparing herself to Nelson Mandela. People were outraged. And that is what I consider a very clear example of how the stuff hangs around and affects your reputation," says Kathleen Conway, president of Camden Communications, a Toronto-based company that offers white-collar workers lessons on how to avoid such pitfalls when they are at the recording end of a journalist''s microphone.

"[Your words] will live on and can be accessible," she says.

What a chief executive says before TV cameras or in print can affect a company''s reputation by as much as 50%. Given what is at stake and that there are any number of gleeful bloggers out there to pounce on a verbal misstep, media training has become very important to the corporate world.

"Too often when a reporter asks a question that is out of left field or off topic, even the most seasoned CEO can get a little flustered," says New York-based media coach Steve Dunlop. "That''s where training comes in -- to know how to handle those types of questions truthfully, accurately, not say things that are not factual."

Furthermore, he says, ease with media interviews is important for a corporate leader. "You have an obligation to your stockholders, to the public. You''ve got to know how to handle the routine and the not-routine media questions [and] at the same time not say something you regret later on."

It''s not just executives who have to put their best foot forward. "Lots more people are seeing a lot more media. It used to be just the very senior level," Ms. Conway says. Now, companies often decide the best spokesperson is the employee working on a project.

Dr. Yves Talbot can vouch for the value of media coaching. A professor at the University of Toronto in the departments of family and community medicine, as well as health policy management and evaluation, Dr. Talbot has had plenty of dealings with media in his role as a spokesman for the Medicall Reform Group, a public health advocacy organization. He has taken individual coaching and found, among other things, it has helped him to overcome an innate suspicion of the media.

"Initially we are all a little tense because we think we are going to get criticized. But once you become comfortable you can develop a relationship. [Journalists] can help you present an issue that is very important for you, that you feel is not getting the coverage it could," Dr. Talbot says.

In this world where sound bites can be as short as seven seconds and often no longer than 20, company representatives need to keep their messages compelling and concise.

Besides brevity, responses need to be phrased effectively. Exactly what that means truly depends on the philosphy espoused by a particular media coach. Some swear by the approach of sending their clients into interviews armed with key messages or "aces," that must be conveyed while others say they believe honesty is the best policy.

FP Weekend interviewed four coaches, two Canadian and two American, to get a taste of different techniques.

The pusher Dan Keeney, president of Texas-based DPK PublicRelations, says he works with "C-level" executives -- CEOs, CFOs and COOs -- at Fortune 500 companies. From Mr. Keeney''s point of view, an interview isn''t so much an opportunity for the journalist to get answers as it is for the executive to get across the company''s message.

"[My clients] think of an interview as an obligation to answer a reporter''s questions," he says. "We train them to change their mindset. Think of this as an opportunity to use a journalist as a conduit through which your message is communicated."

Mr. Keeney is an advocate of "bridging" -- a technique that lets the interviewee reclaim an interview that is headed in an undesirable direction, and link the reporter''s question to the company message.

"A common bridging technique is to say, ''What your viewers or listeners really care about is ...'' If you are disciplined with it, it might seem evasive but it''s better to be, or seem, evasive than it is to damage your organization."

The bridge builder The client list of Steve Dunlop, a New York-based media trainer, has no shortage of big corporate names: Procter & Gamble, Kraft Foods, Pfizer, Charles Schwab, Chase Manhattan are among them.

Mr. Dunlop, a veteran journalist of 30 years and a part-time reporter for CBS News, sees his role as bridge builder between journalists and businesspeople, who, "more often than not are concerned, sometimes afraid, to talk to a reporter," he says.

A common trap the inexperienced fall into is they fail to speak in complete sentences and instead answer questions with a yes or no or in partial sentences. Moreover, an interviewee''s words can fall on deaf ears when his or her facial expressions and tone of voice don''t jibe with what is being said.

"I consider my mission to get more people interested in talking to the press by building their confidence, by showing them how to speak the media''s language," Mr. Dunlop says.

The axiom-ater "I think trainers get it wrong," says Toronto-based Ed Shiller. "They teach techniques for trying to gain control of the interview from the reporter basically under the idea of bridging or something similar," he says, describing that tactic as "destructive."

In response, Mr. Shiller has devised seven axioms for successful interviews:

  • A media encounter is an opportunity for you to get your message across to your key publics;
  • You and the reporter have a coincidence of self-interest;
  • The reporter has the absolute right to ask you any question in any manner he or she chooses;
  • You have an absolute right, and a firm moral and pragmatic obligation, to answer each question according to your own dictates, not the reporter''s;
  • All information is either public, and thus available to outsiders, or it is confidential, and thus available only to insiders. And all information is automatically public unless a compelling case can be made to keep it confidential;
  • All reporters deserve the same cordial professionalism from you and your organization before, during and after an interview;
  • Effective communication results not only from speaking the truth, but also from believing in what you say.

"My training is designed to give the skills to be honest," Mr. Shiller says.

The emoter Like Mr. Dunlop, Kathleen Conway of Toronto-based Camden Communications says she believes effective media coaching turns on helping people to manage logic and emotion so that what the interviewee is saying makes sense and is reinforced by the appropriate emotional tone.

Dan Keeney
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Author: Dan Keeney
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