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Keep Foot out of Mouth: Media Training 102

December 16, 2011

Brad Svrluga

Last week I offered Media Training 101, which was the first half of a summary of what I learned at an exceptional session we hosted last week for our CEOs and Ambassadors as part of High Peaks University. The session was hosted by Clarity Media Group’s Bill McGowan and Lucy Cherkassets, and they were terrific. Go back and read that post first, if you haven’t. I’ll wrap up my summary of the session here today with a few general learnings and then Bill’s 5 No-No’s of talking to the media. Here goes:

Bill spent some time talking about how to try to manage the flow and cadence of an interview to your advantage. A lot of people fall into the trap of thinking too little, and talking too much. He offered some good advice on avoiding these traps.

First, Bill made the excellent observation that most journalists – and most smart people for that matter – tend to ask long-winded, overly explanatory questions. The trajectory of a single question, particularly in a focused, one-on-one setting, tends to go something like this:

Many of these meandering questions can take up to half a minute. Makes you wonder who’s supposed to be the interviewee sometimes! Bill’s point is that in a world of tough questions, you can do yourself a real service by recognizing that the question almost always comes twice, or is dead simple to guess at right away. So take advantage of that, and when you know what the question is going to be, stop listening and start thinking. You can usually get at least 5-6 seconds of thought in, which is an eternity when you think about how that time would sound as silence, if you started thinking only after the question was finished. And frequently you can get a fair bit more time than that. Use it wisely.

Second, as for talking too much, Bill emphasized that brevity is best. But in our efforts to sound smart and thoughtful, we often end up saying the same things twice and/or rambling on and on. But in an interview, you want to give the journalist those juicy little quotable nuggets. So keep it brief and make it easy for the nuggets to be found. If the interviewer wants more, she’ll ask for it.

Furthermore, Bill suggested that the vast majority of big PR blunders – those horribly regrettable, foot-in-mouth statements – come at the end of talking too long, continuing after the answer has been provided. So shut yourself up before you get into trouble. As he put it – know where your answer’s finish line is before you open your mouth.

Bill then wrapped up with his Five No-No’s of talking to the media. I’ve added a sixth, below, that came out of our Q&A:

  1. Don’t answer “What if. . .” questions.  There’s rarely upside in getting into deep speculation. Journalists love to talk about things like “what if Google launches a competing product,” or “what if the government changes regulations about X.” Your best bet is to deflect it, acknowledging that you’re always paying attention to the dynamic environment, but focus on discussing what you’re actually doing, not what might happen.
  2. Don’t discuss what you don’t know.   You’re not obligated to have an answer to every question. And you’re far more likely to get yourself in trouble if you stray outside of your comfort zone. So don’t do it. Either gracefully say you really don’t know enough to offer a helpful answer, or perhaps suggest that there is someone else in your business who is better positioned to answer that specific question.
  3. Don’t predict, project, or assume things about others.  Similar to the “What if” questions, there’s just not much upside.
  4. Don’t put words in other people’s mouths.  Stick with speaking about yourself, your company, and your views. Even if you know what others have said, there’s not much benefit in engaging in “He said/she said” talk.
  5. Don’t respond to heresay. Journalists will frequently try to bait you with things they’ve heard in the marketplace. You are in no way obligated to respond, and responding to those questions can lead to accidentally answering, or implying things you didn’t intend to.
  6. Neither speak negatively about the competition nor deny its existence.  Never take direct shots at the competition or any individuals. Never tear the competition down. It WILL come back to bite you. But don’t ignore or deny its existence, either. Be thoughtful, and acknowledge generically that there are others doing interesting things in the marketplace. But then talk primarily about what you are doing and why. You can speak generically about the others by saying things like “There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in this space, and we looked long and hard at all of the players. But we saw a real opportunity in X, which we think nobody has effectively addressed. And that’s what we’re after.”

It was a terrific session, and I know all the folks on our team learned a lot. Hopefully some of that translated well here.

If I had to sum up what I learned in one thought, it’s that we should remember that an interview is something that we can exercise a lot of control over, if we’re thoughtful about it. And if we do, we’ll be much happier with the results. Finding time to think before answering, working hard to limit our answers to just the basics, rather than rambling on, having the confidence to defer and deflect questions that would not serve us well to answer – all of these things are in our control. Focus on them effectively, and you’ll serve yourself, and your company, much better.

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