Media Training as Leadership Development

Andrew Gilman

Is media training a tactical skill to prepare for interviews or an aspect of leadership development? In the vocabulary of a media trainer, I would consider that question a false choice or an A/B dilemma.

The answer to the leadership vs. tactics question is increasingly both: Media training will prepare you tactically to plan, respond and get better quotes in almost any interview. Media training should also be viewed as part of any leader’s development. And when framed in terms of grooming leadership skills, the outcomes are improved for all involved: executive, journalist, PR professional and trainer.

Of course, many assignments are 90%-plus tactical. Prepping spokespeople for quick booth interviews at an auto show is one example. Incident/crisis response/litigation training is tactical once the messages are developed.

In most other settings, adding the strategic, or leadership, lens to media training influences several aspects of the process as well as the results:

▶ Framing the message: Tactical responders answer questions. Leaders look at an interview as a conversation and a two-way dialogue. One of my favorite leaders thinks about an interview as a presentation in the form of Q&A. He goes into the interview looking to frame up the subject. He prepares with message points and collateral material.

He’ll often start the interview with a statement: “I know you have a lot of questions for me, and if you want to ask them let’s get going. However, I just came back from a customer meeting and we spent 45 minutes on two critical slides. Can I email you those and use them as the basis of our discussions?”

The response to this framing is that eight of 10 reporters are happy to get the slides while the spokesperson very much is responsive to the subject and controls more of the discussion.

▶ Message development and storytelling: Leaders know that storytelling is critical to communicating with stakeholders, and often that’s through the media.

The leader knows that a good story in a media interview will often get a higher placement in the article and can often be used in other settings such as meetings with employees, shareholders, customers and regulators. The leader doesn’t want to be told the sound bite that needs to be delivered; he or she is actively involved in the development and creation of the message.

▶ Attitude: The spokesperson who views media training as part of leadership development comes into the session with a very different mind set. He/she has a set of personal and organizational objectives. Instead of fretting about, “How do I avoid getting in trouble for what I say,” the trainee starts with the question: “How can my comments and quotes help the organization and me?”

Practice: Executives who view media training as a necessary evil will do the practice runs and improve. Leaders, on the other hand, view a practice session as a true workshop or laboratory, in which messages can be tried out and refined.

Building relationships with reporters: Journalists will talk to anyone once. The second interview depends on a number of factors: how important the executive or organization is; who else is included in the story and how good a quote the spokesperson is.

When I was a reporter, I knew I should rotate my sources and who received first placement in roundup stories.

But I invariably called earlier the companies that had better PR folks and executives who were interesting and enjoyed talking to reporters. Good leaders crave market intelligence, and a leader who knows how to control a conversation can learn a good deal from what a reporter is picking up from other sources.

Discussion of trends: Reporters often prefer to talk with leaders who can discuss a broader societal issue, industry trends or the competitive landscape before diving into a self-serving company or organizational message.

This is part of the interview process and makes the spokesperson more credible and likely to get called back. Tactical media training is often confined to narrower company messages. It works fine for the specific issue but it doesn’t necessarily get the call back on the next story.

Interviews with leaders benefit all players. Journalists like executives who have broad and specific knowledge; the PR pro gets credit for advancing the organization’s cause and the trainer enjoys it when the leader looks good with journalists, readers, viewers and listeners. PRN


Andrew Gilman is CEO of Washington, D.C.-based CommCore Consulting. He can be reached at