Individuals and organisations can spend decades building a brand only to have it blown up in hours after a disastrous media performance.

Those disasters can range from mangling the messages, going blank, defensiveness, arrogance, indifference, aggression, or locking up like a clam.

But as much as we’d like to point to individuals and personality flaws as being responsible for a poor media performance, the reality is the media grab gone wrong is the distillation of a flawed media strategy. It’s an organisational problem.

An organisation’s spokesperson, in fact its spokespeople (you should always have more than one person ready to speak for your organisation), need to be properly trained on what to expect when they get in front of a camera or microphone.

Just because someone is good at speaking in a staff room or to a room full of investors or clients, does not necessarily mean they will be good in front of a camera. Speaking to the media is an entirely different kettle of fish for several reasons.

Firstly, a spokesperson is not in control of the conversation in the way they are of a speech they’ve authored. A journalist who is asking questions is in control and will generally not reveal the questions they are going to be asking you ahead of time.

Secondly, the media interview is neither a monologue nor a conversation. It’s a series of brusque questions where you’re expected to deliver brief answers, and which can jump from subject to subject in a way that is quite unlike a conversation.

But the good news is that you can control the messages you want to deliver if you remember these 7 golden rules.

7 Golden Rules

A media interview is not a conversation.

You’re not there to have a chinwag and make friends with a journalist; you’re there to deliver key messages to your target audience. Journalists are the conduit.

Most people will not hear the to-and-fro between you and journalists but only a 5-10 second grab. Your job is to bring your answers back to your 2-3 key messages so that it features in the grab.

Prepare and practice your key messages

Before you figure out what a journalist’s questions might be, figure out what key messages you want to deliver on a topic.

The media interview should funnel back to these key messages as much as possible.

Find reputable stakeholders to support your messaging

Of course you would commend your organisation to the media, but there’s nothing like a third party endorsement of your organisation, or one of its programs or policies.

Find a stakeholder with authority or public sympathy to support your call-to-action or message. Ask if they’re happy to be quoted or to be part of media releases or holding statements you prepare for journalists.

Anticipate what journalists might ask

Having nutted out your key messages and found allies to support them, try and anticipate the key questions you think a journalist will ask you.

Practice answering those questions with someone, including unanticipated questions, to get you into the right head space and odd manner of communicating with the media.

Respond to prickly questions with pivots or bridging statements (see below), a key message, where possible illustrate the messages with real-life impacts or case-studies, and finish with a call-to-action (increase funding, support this program etc.).

Prepare case-studies

Have some examples in mind to illustrate why your key messages are important and what impacts heeding or not heeding them might have on ordinary people’s lives.

For example, a 10% decrease in aged care funding means 10,000 carers will leave the sector, which could severely impact patient care. We already know of a man who didn’t eat for three days due to the low level of supervision in an aged care facility.

Bridging and pivoting

Directing the questions a journalist might ask to the answers and key messages you want to deliver is the role of the bridging statement or pivot.

A common trap in a media interview is to assume you’ll have time to deliver your key messages later in the interview, but sometimes interviews are cut short and the later questions don’t relate at all to the messages you want to deliver.

It’s imperative to practice steering conversations from questions that are close to the topic matter you want to cover and into your key messages.

When answering a difficult question, don’t start with a negative like ‘No, that’s not true’, or something defensive like ‘We haven’t had time…’ Start your bridging statement with something non-defensive like.

‘Actually, the facts are…[deliver key message]’

‘Let’s look at the big picture here…’

‘That’s one perspective, but for us…’

‘That’s not for me to say, what I can say is…’

Responding to a media crisis

If you are responding to a crisis that you have unexpectedly found yourself at the centre of, and have not sought the counsel of a PR and media agency, we strongly recommend you do so immediately as the issues can get very heated, very quickly.

As a general rule, you will need to perform an audit of what’s happened, establish a crisis media team with roles and responsibilities outlined, develop a media plan, and communicate your plan of action to the media and your staff. Once again, time is of the essence and a media plan established before a crisis hits is preferable.

Who are the victims? How are you reaching out to them to provide support? What stakeholder bodies are you working with to resolve the issue? What action are you taking internally to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

This will form the basis of a media holding statement for your website, a media release for journalists, and will be the skeleton of any media talking points.

For example, if a journalist asks ‘Do you have a bullying problem at XYZ?’ don’t say ‘No we don’t’, and don’t deny it if it’s evident that there is an issue, say something like:

‘At XYZ Corp there’s no place for bullying. Following a recent incident involving an employee/manager [very brief, non-emotive description], we suspended the employee/manager with pay pending an investigation and have reached out to the victim and offered [counselling, leave etc] and will continue to do support them through this process.

‘XYZ is in the process of reviewing our internal processes and workplace culture to ensure we have the highest standards in the industry and remains an employer its staff can be proud to work for.’

You must only make reparatory statements if you are in fact taking corrective action. Do not say you are taking corrective action if you aren’t, that is highly likely to be revealed and your reputational damage compounded.

To interview or not to interview?

There will be occasions when an interview is ill-advised and nothing is to be gained from it. In those instances referring journalists to holding statements or media releases will be preferred.

That is the case when an organisation is not decided upon a definitive course of action. That’s particularly true when there is no agreement on a remedy and usually occurs to organisations without a media plan that has anticipated threats to its brand.

Puff statements on doing the right thing while nothing substantive is going on behind the scenes to rectify a problem is to be avoided at all costs.

No PR person in the land can help you if you refuse to do the right thing when a problem is brought to light.

At the same time, avoiding the media is no answer either when there is a public crisis unfolding, or if you are attempting to build a public profile for your organisation. Developing a media plan really requires expert assistance.

Follow the above rules to put your spokesperson on the best possible footing. Alternatively, contact a media training agency like Good Talent Media to help you establish a media plan or book a workshop that will walk you through it.

Tony Nicholls

Tony Nicholls

Founder and Director of Good Talent Media

Tony Nicholls is an accomplished journalist who has held roles for more than ten years with the ABC, SBS and Network Ten, covering thousands of news stories across Victoria, Australia and in the international media.


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