Why bother with media training?

What do the former bosses at Indian Wells tennis tournament and Saatchi & Saatchi have in common?

What do the former bosses at Indian Wells tennis tournament and Saatchi & Saatchi have in common?

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They both discovered to their cost that airing potentially offensive views in an interview is not a great career move.

In March, Raymond Moore, the chief executive of Indian Wells, gave a rambling press conference in which he described lady players as very lucky and riding on the coat-tails of men, before claiming some were very attractive.

Last month (July), Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts said women lacked ‘vertical ambition’ and that there was no problem with the lack of women in top jobs.

Moore received widespread condemnation while Roberts divided opinion, but both were gone within days.

It seems odd that such high achievers would make these gaffes in interviews as they are likely to have had extensive advice on how to handle the media.  In fact, it would be extraordinary if that were not the case.

I would suspect they have either had poor advice or, more likely, have chosen to ignore good advice in the heat of the moment when quizzed by a journalist.

We live in a superficial world and it’s those who can keep cool and handle the media that often have the most enduring careers. 

Use your personality to good affect

What relevance does this have to you, your business or organisation?

Well, in a world of increasing transparency, where anything you do or say can be broadcast around the world within seconds, media training could be the single most important investment you make.

If your brand is to be successful you are likely to need the media at some stage – either to promote it or, in a crisis, to protect it.

Good media training is not about quashing somebody’s personality, getting him or her to read a script or giving bland answers to every question.

In fact, the opposite is true.  The key is to engage an audience and to do that you need personality and passion.

But you also need to understand how a journalist works; the pitfalls to look out for in an interview and most importantly how to control an interview.

You should never, ever ignore a question because that will instantly annoy your audience.

Stephen Bates, the former European managing director of Research in Motion, which makes the blackberry smartphone, famously invited widespread ridicule when refusing to answer questions from BBC journalists about falling sales in a 2013 interview.

But there are some times when you acknowledge the question, deal with it and then bridge to a different subject – something that you want to talk about.  This is the art of controlling the discussion.

Preparation is vital

Before you get near an interview, you should prepare thoroughly.  Good training will show you the right way to do it, the type of messages that will engage the media and subjects to avoid.

Many people don’t prepare before an interview that may go to a potential audience of millions, but they’ll prepare for a board meeting with a handful of colleagues.  They reason that as they are an expert in their subject, they don’t need to prepare.  But knowing about your company or product is not preparation for an interview; you need to think long and hard about what you do, and do not, want to say.

Even if you are speaking about something positive, such as an improvement in results or the launch of a new product, preparation is vital. 

Any journalist is bound to throw in a few questions that you are not expecting.  After all, you have to work to get positive coverage – journalists are not there to do your advertising.

The only time when preparation is impossible is if you are jumped on, or ‘doorstepped’, as journalists call it.  There is advice for handling that situation, but that’s for another column.

It’s all about control

After preparation, you need to know how to handle an interview.

Training should focus heavily on practical exercises, because although practice doesn’t make perfect, it certainly leads to significant improvement, particularly when combined with constructive feedback and tips.

Much of our work is with big brands, training them on how to deal with a crisis. 

Whether you are promoting or protecting, the training on how to handle an interview has similarities.  But, crucially, for a crisis your demeanour and messages will be different.

Thankfully, very few people now believe that burying your head in the sand during a crisis, or offering a curt ‘No comment’, is acceptable.  In this situation you need the media like never before, because they are your route to customers, many of whom will be desperate for information if their friends, relatives and loved ones are caught up in a crisis.

Your response is crucial because often it’s not the crisis, but how you handle it that has the biggest impact on your brand.

Famously, Sir Michael Bishop’s skill and compassion, following British Midland’s crash into the M1 in 1989 that killed 47 people, led to confidence in the airline being retained.

Sir Richard Branson’s appearance on the scene of the Cumbria rail crash in 2007 did much to protect the Virgin Rail brand.  His performance was far from perfect, but he came across as caring and empathetic, talking about people and safety above profit and finance.

Responses can be shocking

On some of our courses, we’ll film fake ‘news bulletins’ on a crisis, such as a shooting in resort, to show how the crisis develops over a period of time.  Attendees will have their interviews bolted on to the bulletins to see how they would appear on TV in a real crisis.

Predictably, early on in the course the responses of some executives can look shocking.

It is natural to be evasive, dismissive of the crisis or even aggressive when you are out of your comfort zone and questioned by journalists desperate for information. 

Many senior executives are used to staff being polite and deferential in the workplace and simply cannot handle being spoken to in that way.

It is vital to eradicate these responses in the safe environment of a training session because in real life they can have a devastating impact on individuals – often making their position untenable – and brands.

Six words sealed the fate of exhausted BP chief executive Tony Hayward in 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill. ‘I would like my life back’ he said.  After a tragedy costing 11 lives and creating one of the worst environmental catastrophes in United States history, you simply can’t say that.

By the end of the course, executives are exhausted but have learnt valuable lessons.   

Most importantly, they feel they have the confidence to deal with journalists in any situation and view an interview as an opportunity rather than a threat.


About the author

Jeremy Skidmore was a journalist for 25 years, working on trade and national newspapers, radio and TV. He now runs media training courses and works with big brands on their communications strategy. You can contact Jeremy on Twitter @jeremyskidmore or via his LinkedIn profile. 


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