The Weekly Media Trainer: Part 1

By George Merlis Thursday, March 19, 2009

Today at The HBS Blog we are thrilled to introduce our first Guest Blogger, George Merlis, he is the President of Experience Media Consulting. This is the first post of his weekly series based on a keynote speech, media training workshops and his book, How to Master the Media. Welcome George! The stage is yours........

1. The Fundamentals

I give a keynote address for business people called “You Can Make the Media Work for You.”  I begin the address by recounting how, years ago, when I was executive producer of “Good Morning America” our show overtook the “Today Show” in the ratings and the chore of booking guests got much easier because politicians, writers, actors, singers, college professors and lawyers clamored to be interviewed.  But not business people.  They had to be sold on appearing.  I suspect that many executives feel they are exposed to more than enough critical scrutiny from customers, shareholders, directors and employees.  Why subject themselves to media probing as well?  The answer is that a well-prepared executive can -- as my keynote title indicates -- make the media work for him or her.  An executive with an agenda can turn almost any media encounter to his or her advantage.

The key word in the last sentence is “agenda.”   If you go into an interview without an agenda, you’ll come out of it wishing the reporter had asked you this question or that question, that he or she had covered this point or that point.  A business person armed with an agenda,suffers no such post-interview remorse. An agenda changes an interview from a challenge into an opportunity.

In a future post I’ll cover how to create an interview agenda and how to make it media-friendly.  But for now let me cover the most basic elements of mass media communications.  These rules are so fundamental that I have the temerity to call them commandments. There are only five -- my temerity has limits.  I’ll list them and then explain each one.

The Five Commandments of Interviews:

Thou Shalt Be Prepared
Thou Shalt Know to Whom Thou Art Speaking
Thou Shalt Be Quoteworthy
Thou Shalt Practice, Practice, Practice
Thou Shalt Not Lie, Evade, Speculate nor Cop an Attitude

While these rules may appear self-explanatory, it’s worth putting a little flesh and muscle on their bones.

Thou Shalt Be Prepared: You can’t get a message out if you don’t have a message to deliver; you need an agenda.  How large an agenda? I recommend just four or five message points plus a URL where people can get more information.  Go in with more agenda points and you’re setting yourself up for frustration because you’re unlikely to deploy all of them and, even if you do, the reporter’s not going to use all of them.

Thou Shalt Know to Whom Thou Art Speaking: You are not speaking to the reporter.  You are speaking THROUGH the reporter to his or her readers, viewers or listeners.  This is especially important if you are dealing with a media specialist.  He may ask very sophisticated questions which you may answer at a matching level of sophistication.  Back in his office, he decides he gets what you’ve said but his readers won’t, so he paraphrases you, diluting the impact of your agenda.  And that brings us to our third commandment.

Thou Shalt Be Quoteworthy: Reporters categorize answers in one of three ways: “Can’t use that,” “Could use that,” and “Gotta use that!”  You want to get your agenda points phrased in “gotta use that language.”    Reporters would much rather use your words than paraphrase you, but you need to give them the raw material -- the pull quotes or soundbites. In a future posting, I’ll give detail how to turn message points into soundbites.

Thou Shalt Practice, Practice, Practice: Fella comes up to me and asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”  I answer, “Practice, practice, practice.”  That joke by the late Henny Youngman inspired this commandment.  The most important part of my media training workshops are the practice interviews. It’s critical that you get used to deploying your agenda out loud and in answer to questions.  The best way to do that is to have someone throw questions at you so it becomes second nature to reply using your agenda points. I recommend taping every practice sessions and critiquing your performance.  Then do it again.  And again.  I.e.: Practice, practice, practice.

Thou Shalt Not Lie, Evade, Speculate nor Cop and Attitude: If you tell a reporter a lie and he learns the truth THAT becomes the story.  Also, lies destroy your credibility.  If you don’t know an answer, don’t get evasive.  “I don’t know, I’ll find out for you,” is much better than any kind of evasive tactic.  Speculation is dangerous because you could be wrong, the reporter can leave out the speculative nuance of your remarks and you look like you’ve made a mistake.  Finally, on copping an attitude, the media loves knocking people off high horses.  If you don’t get up in that saddle in the first place, they can’t do it.

Next week: What is News? I’ll deal with the realities of the mass media in the era of 24-hour news cycles and multiple media sources.

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