Standing in front of a camera or a microphone can be stressful, especially if you’re facing a crisis. Therefore, many leaders, politicians, and communication professionals invest in professional media training.
Still, many non-PR-professionals dislike the idea of media training immensely. 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.”
Well, they’re not wrong.
Over the years, I’ve media trained lots of executives and politicians. Maybe I should feel somewhat responsible for my part in how people feel about media training?
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.
1. The mistake: Talking without providing substance
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 this advice backfires: Being media trained, a spokesperson can get over-confident in their abilities. And so, they believe that they can get away with card-stacking and talking themselves out of the situation. Reporters are trained to spot this 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.
2. The mistake: Taking the bridge technique too far
Typical media training advice: Use the bridge technique. While being unable or unwilling to accept the fundamentals of the question, the interviewee can add context and by doing so, it’s often possible to slide over to prepared statements and talking points. This is what’s known as the bridge technique.
How this advice backfires: It’s easy to grasp the mechanics of the bridge technique. The reporter asks a question, you don’t answer the question, and then you talk about what you want to highlight. Too often, media-trained spokespeople take this technique way too far. 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.
3. Mistake: Clinging to prepared statements
Typical media training advice: Prepare a short list of prepared statements and answers that you would like to get across to the public. Have these statements fact-checked and use them, especially if you’re being put on the spot. If the reporter is open for it, you can then be the one moving the interview forward.
How this advice 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 type of “parrot behaviour” — and it’ll be terrible both on camera and in audio.
What to do instead: Write down single words to represent your intended talking points, and remember these instead of actual phrases. Don’t memorize word-for-word statements. And most importantly, don’t say the same thing over and over again.
4 The mistake: Staring the reporter down
Typical media training advice: A common trick that most journalists use is to remain silent instead of firing another question. For most people, this silence is awkward and unpleasant. To escape this unpleasantness, they start talking, aimlessly. The rule of thumb is to be comfortable and to allow for a little bit of quiet now and then.
How this advice 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 are simply applying this advice by triumphantly trying to stare the reporter down.
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 not feel the need to fill these pauses with excessive talk, not to enter some sort of staring contest with the reporter.
5. The mistake: Using non-apologies instead of apologies
Typical media training advice: Don’t be afraid of saying that you’re sorry. Making an apology publicly is sometimes just the right thing to do. The important thing here is to not sound like a robot; to make sure that you genuinely empathise.
How this advice backfires: More often than not, media-trained spokespeople say things like, “We’re sorry they feel this way,” “We’re sorry if this didn’t came across,” or “We’re sorry that you’re sorry.” These statements are also known as non-apologies — and everyone rightfully hates them.
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.
6. The mistake: Second-guessing other people’s emotions
Typical media training advice: The story is always about people, and therefore, you should focus on those directly involved. Addressing shareholders, markets, and customers will have to come second.
How this advice backfires: To address the human aspect, many spokespeople make the mistake of trying too hard to reassure people. But it’s never a good idea to tell people not to worry if they aren’t ready. 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 magical insights into how they feel. Once again, it’s about your feelings, not theirs.
7. The mistake: Sticking to platitudes and jargon
Typical media training advice: Never speculate. Nothing good ever came from second-guessing anything in front of a reporter. Stick to what you know.
How this advice backfires: Media-trained spokespeople rarely say things like “no comment” or “I can neither confirm nor deny.” They know better. But resorting, as many do, to platitudes and jargon instead is not a much better strategy.
What to do instead: Talk like you would with someone you just met on the street asking for directions and don’t resort to corporate speak.