Mastering the art of media interviews, particularly on TV and radio, is a must-have skill for senior executives. An unfortunate slip of the tongue from an unprepared, or under-prepared, spokesperson can wreak havoc on your organisation’s reputation and weaken your brand. Media training is an essential investment, says Bridgid Nzekwu, head of media training at TNR Communications
Remember Tony Hayward? The former CEO of BP
will always be remembered for a monumental cock-up during an interview. He was forced to resign after telling a reporter “I’d like my life back” following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Millions of barrels of oil had poured into the Gulf of Mexico and 11 workers had been killed in the disaster. Yet the man at the helm of the company responsible appeared inappropriately concerned with his own situation.
Hayward has since conceded that BP
was “not prepared to deal with the intensity of the media scrutiny…” An astonishing admission. Yet this is a pitfall which any organisation, even those with smaller budgets than multi-trillion pound oil companies, can avoid if their spokespeople are given the right training.
The best speakers are confident, credible and authoritative. They are cool under pressure, interesting to listen to, with a memorable turn of phrase. The good news is, these skills can be learned. Most people are not born fully-fledged media stars, so high quality training is the solution. In fact, the majority of the best media performers in business have had media training. They recognise that it’s just too risky to put themselves in the path of a John Humphries, Jon Snow, or indeed any journalist, without proper preparation.
Knowing how to control an interview is a vital skill. Being trained in effective techniques pays dividends, allowing your spokesperson to make the most of their time on air or in print, rather than slavishly following the journalist’s agenda. Every interview is a valuable opportunity to promote your brand and communicate with customers and investors. In 2013 some ITV1 advertising slots cost over £16,000 per 30 seconds. Consider, then, the value to your business of two or three minutes of air time on the BBC Breakfast business slot or Channel 4 News?
A confident, engaging interview is also a chance to steal a march on competitors and rolling, 24-hour news generates endless opportunities for expert comment. The power of this exposure for a brand is considerable, positioning it as a trusted name in the mind of the audience. Yet many organisations miss out on these opportunities by having too few “oven-ready” spokespeople. Most interview requests come with very little notice, so having several media-trained spokespeople is wise. If your sole front man or woman is travelling, off sick, in a Board meeting or unreachable for any reason, your media capability is severely limited. A chance to put your case or respond to news or industry developments is highly likely to go to a competitor. If their spokesperson performs well, journalists will remember and are likely to go straight to them for comment next time there’s a story. You have possibly lost a whole series of chances to put your brand in the limelight.
The rise of social media has been a game-changer in the way organisations communicate. Twitter, YouTube and social media in general are undeniably powerful channels but they have markedly increased the risks of having untrained or poorly trained spokespeople. Tweets can disseminate a faux pas worldwide in seconds and video clips go viral long before damage limitation can kick in. A poor interview or unguarded comment can damage reputations, tarnish brands and end careers.
The best media training goes far beyond practising answering questions and getting to grips with microphones, cameras and studios. Developing and refining your organisation’s key messages, particularly in times of crisis, is an essential first stage of preparing for an encounter with a journalist. What are you really trying to say to your audience? What will the journalist be most interested in and pursue? How will what you say actually come across in a soundbite? Most importantly, how do you not just survive the encounter but turn it to your advantage, especially if your organisation is on the back foot, for example because of poor financial results or a product or service failure?
These key messages are only effective if they are subtly worked into interviews. Masters at this include Angela Knight, Chief Executive of Energy UK, Justin King, former Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s, and Willie Walsh, Chief Executive of International Airlines Group, the parent company of British Airways, all skilled at deftly taking control of the agenda during interviews, even under pressure. Less adept performers, politicians especially, lack effective techniques for handling tricky questions. They alienate their audiences – and make an enemy of the interviewer – by simply repeating their key messages regardless of what they’ve been asked.
Coming across well in print, on camera, or on radio is not merely about saying the right thing. An interview is a performance and, like any good performance, delivery is just as important as content. Tone, body language, even appearance can undermine what a spokesperson is trying to get across. At TNR Communications, bespoke media training includes work on an individual’s breathing, intonation, articulation, posture, gesture and facial expressions, as well as techniques for controlling nerves and eliminating “tells” which betray stress.
Another important factor is the training environment. A spokesperson trained in the comfort and safety of their own office can falter when expected to perform in a studio, where the journalist is on home turf and has an additional psychological advantage. Those who do practical exercises in a realistic setting are much more likely to feel secure and in control when it comes to doing it for real in the ‘Today’ Radio 4 studio or on the ‘Good Morning Britain’ sofa. The lesson here is to choose a training supplier with the appropriate training facilities and strong media credentials to make the most of your investment.
Possessing the right skills is non-negotiable for those who speak on behalf of their organisations. High quality training can transform a spokesperson’s confidence and credibility, developing them from mediocre to outstanding performers in a matter of hours, ensuring your organisation can harness the power of the media.
Bridgid Nzekwu is Head of Media Training at TNR Communications, part of the Press Association. She is a former Channel 4 News presenter and ITV News Anchor