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The case for media training – it’s not about the questions

Written by Genevieve Norton

October 2, 2018

As preparation for interviews with journalists companies often schedule media training to try and get the best outcome for their Managing Director or C Suite executive.

Inevitably executives inquire of the PR “what questions is the journalist going to ask”. From the company standpoint this probably seems reasonable. Surely approaching a journalist ahead of the interview and asking for the questions in advance will lead to a better outcome for everyone – right?

But making this request is generally unproductive, and not because the journalist wants to keep the questions a surprise.

Journalists’ workloads have changed dramatically. With print and online the days of writing one story a day are long gone. The demand for fresh content is relentless. They now have to juggle writing three and four stories a day, often updating the initial version, posting on social media, moving from one topic to another and expected to be knowledgeable about multiple sectors and companies. Radio and television journalists are similarly time poor, getting numerous verbal and email pitches from PRs, watching for relevant ASX announcements, responding to their editors’ queries and following the general news of the day. From a journalist’s viewpoint it is simply not conducive to spend time thinking about an interview which is scheduled for a few days out.

It’s common for journalists to shoot from the hip, with no real line of questions prepared. Their questions can be totally open-ended as part of a broad fishing exercise: What is your focus for the next 12 months? Where is your growth going to come from?

The open-ended nature of the questioning presents a company’s executive with an opportunity and highlights where a robust media training session can add value. Similarly in broadcast interviews, learning how to work your messaging into your answers is an important skill.

Why do I need media training?

In today’s 24/7 continually evolving news cycle the ability for a company’s executive(s) to present well in the media is a necessity, together with the ability to provide specific messages in a succinct manner that gets the company’s point of view to resonate with the audience.

It is important to remember that performing well in a media interview can boost corporate and personal reputations. Conversely, a bad performance can quickly erode any goodwill that both the executive and their company have in the marketplace.

What do you want to highlight and who are you talking to?

One of the most important aspects of any training session is defining the key messages and determining what story the company should be telling. What does the executive want to say – about the company’s strategy, its milestones, growth targets, executive bench strength, and position in the sector? It might be signalling a growing expertise within the business which the market is not fully aware of, perhaps highlighting contract wins or training employees which may resonate when pitching for government tenders.

Secondly who is the audience – is it investors, potential customers, governments or employees? Understanding this will help shape the messaging.

Importantly find a case study. Everyone talks about focusing on buzz words like innovation, superior customer service or sustainability, but they are meaningless if not backed up with good examples that people can understand and relate to.

Look out for the skeletons

In addition to ensuring executives make the most of open-ended opportunities, media training also allows preparation for the worst possible questions – the skeletons in the cupboard which companies and executives hope never surface. Sadly in today’s never-ending news cycle nothing stays secret for long. So determining the right response to negative issues in advance and practicing the delivery takes the stress out of the interview process.

Words matter and how they are used matters even more. Speaking to the media is a skill that must be developed and cultivated. Even the most experienced executive can benefit from a media training session as all company stories are continually evolving and need regular reshaping.

Helen McCombie is a founding Partner of Citadel-MAGNUS and has extensive expertise in corporate communication and issues and crisis management across numerous sectors. Helen has a strong understanding of the Australian media landscape having previously worked in journalism for 25 years including roles as Business Editor of Sky News and with Channel 9’s Business Sunday Program. She also provides presentation and media training to senior executives and company Boards.

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