Interview Training for CEOs: How to Make it Worth Their Time

In the past, corporate leaders might agree every year—or more likely every couple of years—to your request they participate in media training, just in case they might face an occasional interview.

But because there are so many more media these days and they are increasing coverage of the corporate arena, media attention now can be instantaneous and blinding.

How a chief executive officer handles media attention, wanted or otherwise, is increasingly important to the success of an organization. Stock prices can rise or fall, key customers can defect to competitors, and top talent can be recruited away based on what a corporate leader says—or doesn’t say—about the organization.

Your CEO and any other corporate leader who talks with the media, has to be prepared specifically for each interview, not just generally for any interview. That calls more for interview training than for media training.

Here is how to convince your leadership that interview training is worth their time, and how to structure every training session for maximum benefit.

1. How to convince your leadership this is really necessary
CEOs, who generally are of the most interest to the media and who always personify the company to all of its stakeholders, frequently refuse media training at all. Sometimes, they just don’t see the need. Sometimes, they just don’t want the need seen.

Some CEOs figure that they have to make so many decisions, deal with so many audiences, handle so many problems, that they are fast enough on their feet to handle any question a reporter might lob. Some simply do not like the idea of appearing to lack anything, including the ability to deal with a journalist who may be the same age as their children.

They may not yet realize it, but they no longer have any choice but to prepare individually for every interview with the media. That includes interviews that your team proactively arranges and those in which your company has to respond to what is being said about it.

Here is why:

•    What is most important about the blogosphere is not how many new blogs start up every day, but how a growing number are successful in attracting big audiences and advertisers.  Inevitably, success means more work. As is true of any journalist, top bloggers not only have space to fill but also are always looking for ideas to keep people coming back.

•    What the exploding popularity of social media really means for you is that whatever your chief executive says in an interview now is also interpreted across these social networks. People always have had opinions about companies in the news, but now they have found new ways to express them with others on these networks.

•    The proliferation of broadcast business networks and talk shows means increasing chatter —both informed and uninformed—about your company. While this suggests more receptivity to your story ideas, it also means that on the proverbial “slow news day,” your company might find itself in the crosshairs of a conversation about a topic that otherwise might not have made news.

•    How the mainstream media are working to stay relevant has an impact on your company because the online versions of their stories give readers a chance to comment. Readers can respond to what your chief executive says in an interview but they can also opine on just about anything about your company, regardless of whether there was an interview.

What this means is that more people than ever are talking about your company, so the risk grows every day of a perception crisis based on how people construe what your company says or what is said about you. Regardless of how good your CEO is with the news media, he or she has to be prepared as never before for every single interview, because he or she must be perfect each time.

2. How to structure every session for maximum benefit

Life used to be so easy. Or maybe it was just simple.

You called a reporter about an interview. You told your chief executive about the topic and the questions. Your CEO talked with the reporter. The story ran. It’s a little more complicated now.

You call, but find out the reporter has retired. You’ve never heard of the reporter who calls you back. Instead of being half the age of your CEO, he may be half your age. Instead of writing one story from the interview, he may have to do four or more. And if he doesn’t know much about you, then he figures he has to be the one to decide what those stories will be. The problem here is that if war is too important to be left to the generals, then stories are too important to be left to the journalists. You need to be the cruise director. Here is how to prepare your chief executive for the interview, to ensure you get the story or stories that you really want to see:

•    Two reasons why this interview is so important. You don’t want your CEO to be surprised when a print journalist shows up with a video camera. As your audiences, from customers to employees and more, gravitate to online resources for information and insight, the news media are creating Web sites with both written and video content. Let your CEO know how many iterations the story is likely to take and help him or her prepare for each. The CEO may already know why this particular media outlet is so important. It reaches customers in China. It reaches investors in London. Regardless of what the CEO knows, provide at least two reasons why this media and this interview are so important. That will keep the CEO looking to you for assistance with every media encounter.

•    You will have to create your own bio on the reporter. Reporters at every level, local, trade, national, are frequently not only new, they are also young. That is expected at the local level where, for example, newspaper veterans are taking buyouts and being replaced with youngsters. Even the largest news media in the world now are hiring top talent right out of university. You may be scheduled to meet with a reporter who is so new that you know nothing about her. At the time an interview is arranged, don’t hesitate to ask for more information. Make clear that you have seen some of her stories but that you’re not too familiar with the reporter. This was discouraged in the past, but as these yearlings are looking to build careers they are more open than their predecessors.

•    One interview actually means four stories.  In the past, say, a year ago, a byline search might have been enough to tell you all you needed to know about what topics were of the most interest to a reporter and how that reporter covered companies and CEOs. Now when a reporter is done with the interview, she will have as many as four stories rather than one. First, she will look for something timely that she can create a short piece for the Web site that day or the next. Second, she will write a blog about some individual point made in the interview. Third, she will edit a podcast or videocast of the interview for the Web site. And fourth, she will write the traditional main story from the interview. Take a look at what she has done across all these fronts with earlier interviews, to see how she is going to parse what your CEO says for a similar number of stories.

•    There is only story that you really want to see.  Too many people mistakenly think media relations is tactical. Actually they are mistaken in how they use media relations. If all a company does is send out news releases and then puts the CEO in front of a journalist because he asked for an interview, sure, that’s tactical. It’s also a waste. Create the story that you want to tell your world. Is it about innovation that will fuel the product pipeline? Is it about rapid and successful expansion in global markets? Tell your chief executive what it is, as part of the interview training. Don’t wait for the boss to ask. If he or she disagrees or has another idea, then you have a conversation with some decision on that story. But that guarantees that your chief executive understands the strategy behind this interview and stays on point throughout the interview. Journalists have more work but less time, so they try to identify the story line as quickly as possible during the interview. Give them the one story you want to see, and it is what you will see.

•    The five questions the reporter is going to ask this time. More than ever, reporters start interviews with a preconceived idea based on what they have learned about the company in their due diligence. That basically means what others say about you. If your earnings were better than expected but didn’t bump the stock price, what did the analysts say about you? If a trade magazine covered what your competitor said at an industry event but not you, then is that competitor ahead of you? They are not necessarily looking for an easy story, but they are looking for an immediate story. Based on what others have said about you in the last few weeks, you can predict what questions your CEO is going to get and provide talking points, good quotes and other ideas that lead the reporter to the storyline you give him and away from the one he had in mind at the start.

•    Talking points, good quotes and other ideas. Talking points are so de rigueur. You write them. You hope the chief executive uses them. But they take on more importance once you and the chief executive both know the only story that you really want to see. When the CEO has that story firmly in mind, he or she will stick more closely to these points. That is where good quotes come into play. As far as you are concerned, the best quotes are not the ones that come in the interview. Generally such quotes are extemporaneous, and while they may be pithy or even funny, they may not match the storyline you want to see. That can lead the reporter in a direction of more interest to him than you. This is also why people sometimes wonder why a reporter built a story around one small point in the interview and disregarded all else—it’s because that’s the one good quote they picked up. And finally, arm your chief executive with one idea to give the reporter at the end of the interview, something that you think could make a good story at the right time so that the reporter considers this to have been a good interview and will begin thinking about the next one as well. Then, walk your chief executive through the interview at least once.

In the past, communications was top-down, bottom-up, push-out or pull-through. It isn’t any of those now. Communications has become a conversation between you and people who can make their voices heard around the world. It isn’t so much that you don’t want them talking about what the media say about you, but rather that you want them acting on what you have to say to them. 

Make sure they hear what you have to say—every time.

This is excerpted from PR News' Media Training Guidebook 2009 Edition. The article was written by Gary Wells, senior managing director of media relations and global communications for Dix & Eaton. To order this guidebook or find out more information, visit