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Why every brand should have media-trained spokespeople (and five great examples to prove it)

By Lee Cullen, Client Director 

Having spokespeople with the confidence and the skills to speak directly to the media can do wonders for a brand’s reputation.

The very best spokespeople have credibility, authority and can remain calm under pressure. They come across as someone the audience can relate to and they convey their messages clearly and concisely.

With a rolling 24-hour news agenda, there are plenty of opportunities for company spokespeople to get ‘out there’ and talk to the media. And if anything, the impact of coronavirus has created a situation where journalists have become even more reliant on good spokespeople to help them craft interesting or informative stories. Particularly TV and radio outlets.

Done right, a great media interview can be a fantastic PR tactic, adding credibility and personality to a brand, helping to position it positively in the minds of the audience. It’s also a great way for a company to stand out from its competition.

But when done wrong, they can have the exact opposite effect and actually damage a brand’s reputation – something which can take a long time to recover from. This is especially true when it comes to handling a crisis (if you haven’t already seen it, take a look at our eight-step guide on the best ways to manage crises from a communications perspective!).

Mastering the art of media interviews

We’ve worked with a whole range of different people over the years and it’s fair to say that when it comes to media interviews, some people love them, and others loathe them.

But the good news is that learning how to handle a journalist’s questions – whether that be for TV, radio, print or online – is a skill that can be taught. In our view, it’s also an essential investment.

We encourage all of our clients to have at least one person within the business that is media trained and understands some of the key techniques needed to manage a media interview.

They need to feel comfortable speaking to the press and as an agency, we only want to put clients into those situations when we’re happy that they feel confident.

With COVID-19 creating a very different set of circumstances for media outreach right now, we’ve adapted our training methods to include media interviews over Zoom – an option we’re seeing more and more media outlets take right now, and something we expect to see carry on in the future too.

Is media training just for TV and radio interviews?

Media relations is just one of the tactics in the PR toolkit, and there are also lots of different ways to effectively do media outreach for a brand.

Print and online media journalists tend to be a mixed bag, with many happy to take pre-written content, whilst some others prefer speaking directly to senior people within an organisation to help shape their stories.

But when it comes to TV and radio outlets, it really is essential to have senior people available (often at very short notice) who can offer interesting and informative soundbites.

Whatever the media format, the fundamental principles of a good press interview carry many of the same characteristics.

Here are five key things you can expect to be covered by the media training we offer, with some high-profile examples of interviewees not quite hitting the mark…

  1. Think about your interview setting

COVID-19 has moved the goalposts somewhat and the option of online interviews are becoming more commonplace. It’s always important to consider your background and the environment for any interview, and that rule still applies even if you are working from home.

Professor Robert Kelly – an American political analyst on inter-Korean affairs – went viral with this BBC interview back in 2017, which was gate-crashed by his children. Far from damaging his reputation, such was the outpouring of support from the public that this incident actually enhanced his public profile as a ‘working from home’ dad.

It’s an amusing and topical reminder of how important it is to make sure that you consider your surroundings before launching into a media interview.

  1. Define your key messages

Understanding the key messages you want to get across in any media interview is crucial, and the secret to it lies in good training and preparation.

Working with a great agency will help to ensure you are fully briefed and know the important points you want to get across to the audience. But, it’s important to have some variation in your answers. And you need to sound like a human being – not a robot on repeat.

This interview with Ed Miliband back in 2011 highlights what can go wrong if you don’t take the time to prepare fully and rely too much on just a couple of key messages…

  1. How to handle tricky questions

Taking on a media interview means you have to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth. You will get a chance to talk about all the good things you or your company has achieved if you handle the questions in the right way (there’s a great technique we teach for that!), but you must also accept that you might get asked some tricky questions along the way.

It’s a journalist’s prerogative to ask a range of questions that will be of interest to their audience, so make sure to consider anything and everything that might come up. Having a response in mind for any difficult questions, along with using clever media training techniques, will stand you in good stead.

Here’s an example from former Persimmon CEO, Jeff Fairburn, showing what not to do when faced with a question you’d rather not answer:

  1. Staying focused and never switching off

One of the very best tips we’ll give for free is to always ask a journalist what their first question will be. If you’re working with an agency, they should have already given you a good steer of what to expect, but before the interview it’s absolutely fine to ask a journalist what the first question will be. It can help settle your nerves and give you time to think about an answer so you can get off to a strong start.

Never, ever, switch off either. That applies before the interview and after it too. You need to remain professional the whole time and remember that someone will probably be listening or recording, even if you’re not aware of it.

In 2018, Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe was caught singing ‘We’re in the money’ just before a TV interview, where he was going to talk about a proposed merger with Asda. He was forced to apologise soon after, but the clip was picked up by media outlets all over the country.

It is worth highlighting, however, that Sainsbury’s is one of the brands that has been highly praised for its response and communications strategy around COVID-19. Coupe has been a key element of that too, so credit where it’s due, but that clip was a moment that will still live long in the memory for all the wrong reasons.

  1. Read the room – conduct your interview with clarity, sincerity, compassion or whatever else may be required

As well as being confident in your answers, it’s important to understand the context of your interview and consider what pre-conceptions the audience may have already about the topics you’re discussing.

If you’re a legal expert for example, it would be wrong to assume that the audience has the same level of understanding as you for complex areas of law. It’s vital to simplify things (without being patronising of course) and keep in mind the thoughts and feelings of viewers, listeners or readers. If the topic is a sensitive one, or you’re responding to a crisis, you need to convey compassion and empathy towards anyone that may have been affected by it.

A recent example of someone getting this spectacularly wrong was Prince Andrews’ BBC interview in 2019, where he talked about his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. Speaking to Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis, the Duke came across as completely out of touch with public opinion on the topic and was, quite rightly, criticised for showing a lack of empathy for victims in the case.

Prince Andrew has since taken a step back from Royal duties in the public eye and it remains to be seen if he will ever be able to recover the damage that was done to his reputation following this interview.

Honing your media training skills

Whether you’re looking to brush up on your media interview skills or learn them from scratch, using some of the time we have right now to practice your techniques will be time well spent.

No Brainer is able to offer media training packages via Zoom right now with a key focus on TV and Radio, delivered by highly experienced journalists. These sessions include practical tips and key message preparation, followed by roleplay interviews, playback and feedback.

If you want to know more about the training on offer, please get in touch with us.

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