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Randy Savicky

[August 9, 2004]

Strategy + Communications Column:
A Look Inside Media Training


In the previous column, “Being – and Staying – ‘On Message,” we discussed the importance of ensuring that your company’s key messages are heard and understood when communicating to your organization’s key audiences -- customers and prospects; business and sales partners; employees and stakeholders; government and regulatory bodies; and the media and analyst communities. 

Being “on message” simply means being able to utilize your key messages as the basis or part of these communications. Being “on message” means that the messages are delivered clearly and consistently so that the media, for example, gains a precise understanding of the company’s viewpoint or positioning. 

Unfortunately, too many times in both my experience as a journalist and marketing professional I have experienced having to decipher the answer to a question posed by the media, rather than hearing an answer that was clear, concise and readily understandable. Too many times, the point (or “key message”) has been buried deep inside the answer, like a pearl in an oyster, waiting to be discovered.

To ensure your company’s success with the media, it is important to avoid this type of situation. It is essential to dedicate the time and effort needed to make your spokesperson comfortable with your key messages. This is truly a case where practice makes perfect. And the best way to begin to practice is through formal media training. In this process, an outside expert or team of experts is brought into the company for a half- or full-day session that provides both the theory and hands-on practice of speaking to the media.

Media training, I believe, is one of most misunderstood and therefore underutilized tools in the marketing toolbox. It is the key to making a company spokesperson -- whether loquacious or reticent -- speak clearly to the media. Let me explain what goes into a media training session so that you can see clearly why it is so beneficial.

The best media training experts have more than two decades of experience helping prepare thousands of individuals from around the world to face the news media.  They bring decades of experience with some of the biggest names in the media industry, understand how stories are conceived and structured in major newsrooms as well as how your company is likely to be positioned in them. Because they’ve been active in the news industry, they’ve asked the tough questions, been on the other side and can anticipate many of the answers that will be demanded of your spokesperson.

Well in advance of the actual training session, the media trainer works with your company directly or with your in-house or agency public relations liaison to make optimal use of your training session. Usually, the trainer will ask for bios of the participants as well as a personal “take” on their strengths and weaknesses. 

He or she will also ask you to focus on what you’d like your spokesperson to accomplish in the training. Should the emphasis be on speaking to print or broadcast press? If it is broadcast, will he or she be speaking primarily on TV or radio? If print, will he or she be talking primarily to the trade, business or consumer press? Will the interviews be conducted primarily in person or over the phone? Is there a specific announcement your company is gearing up for or are your needs more ongoing? 

The media trainer also asks for guidance to ensure that the mock interview sessions are relevant to your spokesperson’s responsibilities and needs. He or she may ask you to supply a few samples of recent press coverage for your company or industry as well as a summary of the issues facing your company and your industry. In addition, the media trainer may ask for suggested “starter” questions that can be raised during the mock interview sessions.

The training usually takes place at a conference room at the company. Typical supplies are an easel and flip chart as well as a video camera, VCR and monitor since the mock interview sessions are tape recorded.

The session usually begins with an informal chat. As your trainer and trainees get to know each other, it becomes apparent to the trainer where the trainees will need the most work. Is the client a “natural communicator?” Are they shy or reticent? Or do they have the opposite problem -- do they “over-explain” or share too much? The best media trainers have learned to recognize the many different types of communicators and how best to help them in the context of media training.

Next, the media trainer then explains the methodology that he or she will be using.  This can take the format of an informal “classroom lecture” with questions and answers from the trainees or may consist of a more formal presentation with handouts. The methodology can be adjusted slightly depending on whether the training is for print media, broadcast or both. But the overall strategies should remain largely the same, regardless of media.

Next come the hands-on interview practice sessions. The structure of these sessions can vary from group sessions to brief one-on-one sessions to several intensive (two-hour) sessions. All interviews are videotaped for a critique which follows. The trainee gets to watch him or herself on video to hear how each question was answered and see his or her physical appearance (or “body language”) during the interview process.

Interviews and critiques continue for as many rounds as time allows. These rounds may vary by content (different hypothetical story lines), format (print vs. broadcast), media category (“consumer press” vs. “trade press”), level of urgency (“feature story” vs. “crisis”) and level of difficulty (“soft” vs. “tough” vs. “hostile”).  

In most cases, the entire group goes through one round of interview/critiques before returning for subsequent rounds. In some cases, however, it’s more efficient from a scheduling standpoint to have each individual go through two or three rounds at a time.  

At the end of each mock interview session, the media trainer reviews the improvements through the various rounds of interviews.  As positive reinforcement, the trainer will often direct the trainee to particular points in the mock interviews that capture the client at his or her best.

It ' s desirable, but not always necessary or even possible schedule-wise, for the group to reconvene en masse when all the interviews and critiques are complete.  The trainees can then share their experiences with the rest of the group, offering the opportunity for additional questions and answers as well as guidance from the trainer.  

Media training is one of the essential keys to successfully communicating with the media.  In the next column, we will look at the “real world” application of your company’s key messages in the media arena.

With his unique "both sides of the editor's desk" perspective, Randy Savicky’s advice and counsel on public relations and marketing has been sought after by some of America’s largest corporations and best-known brands.  He has designed strategic plans, managed communications programs and obtained major news coverage for such Fortune 500 companies as IBM, Fujifilm, Motorola and Sony, early stage companies like Arbinet, Dialogic and Juno as well as startups like Barnesandnoble.com, ClubMom.com, New Paradigm Software and Viaweb.  As President of Strategy + Communications Worldwide, he helps companies gain mindshare and win market share by improving their communications to their key audiences through the use of outside experts.  He welcomes your comments and questions on how to put his ideas to work and can be reached at (516) 467-4122 or [email protected].

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