The best performances are the ones that look unrehearsed. That goes for comedy, drama and media interviews.
Like stage actors, the best interview subjects have taken the time to practice with media training. Unfortunately, there’s a perception that anyone who takes media training is just learning how to become a better liar. This accusation is often leveled at the public sector where some journalists and citizen advocates sniff that media training is not only a waste of money, but also a perversion of democracy.
Winnipeg Free Press reporter Nick Martin took the Winnipeg School Division to task in February over the hiring of media trainers for trustees. His opening salvo – “Your tax dollars at work…”- betrays a bias that media training is not worth taking. His story surveys other political and educational organizations asking them if they use tax dollars to pay to train people how to handle interviews better. It seems a lot of them do.
As a reporter covering the school board, Martin has every right to question how tax dollars are spent. Why should taxpayers be paying for school trustees to receive media training? They’re supposedly championing openness and transparency! Surely they know how to speak already and can answer simple questions put to them? On that line of reasoning, it’s easy for a reporter to disparage the thought of someone getting professional help to practice their answers.
It’s not just Martin who thinks this way, you see it all the time.
Here’s a recent piece in the Waterloo Region Record that draws attention to $3,000 spent to media train newly elected Cambridge city councillors. Note the derisive comments that follow the story.
Here’s another piece out of the Daily Mail in the UK taking a highly critical look at the media training budget for a police commissioner. (Sounds like she needed the help, btw.)
The blogosphere is chocked full of similar criticisms of media training. They seem to blame the practice as the cause of all the political lies ever told.
I’m guessing that Martin would prefer the six new trustees receive no media training. Who needs it!? Perhaps one or two of them might cough up an outrageous quotation or two that could feed a news cycle. (He already has Winnipeg School Division Trustee Mike Babinsky for that).
The reality is that taking media training is smart. If you have never spoken with the media before, it can be a very intimidating experience. Even accomplished professionals can be overcome with anxiety and fear that they’ll say the wrong thing.
We regularly coach our clients on how to respond to the media. We start off by explaining what reporters are after. They want reliable information delivered in succinct and interesting sound bites. They want credible background and people who can speak with some authority on the subject of the day.
We teach our clients to answer questions and to recognize (and avoid) misleading or loaded questions. We teach them to listen to the question and respond in a way that educates the reporter (and their audience) about the subject. We arm them with key messages about their organization, product or cause and then help them illustrate those things with snappy stories and statistics.
After media training, our clients give better interviews that enable reporters to file better stories.
Thankfully, many reporters get that. We were recently contracted by an organization here in Winnipeg full of media novices who needed publicity badly. They responded to their first interview with a terse email statement that didn’t play well in the news. When I called the Free Press reporter on the story the next day to tell him that we had been hired to help out, he was audibly relieved.
“Oh good,” he said. “They need some help.”
Like any complex skill, giving a good interview takes practice. Very few people are ‘naturals’; most of us need to rehearse over and over again. That doesn’t mean we want to learn how to spin the truth better. It means we want to be understood more clearly.
Does it also mean practicing how not to put your foot in your mouth? You bet it does.
If you or your organization is interested in media training, contact us. We’ll help you practice and become more confident and prepared before the mic is turned on.