New Tactics for Coaching Top Execs

Andy Gilman
Andy Gilman

In our nervous-twitch workplace environment, PR execs who provide media training often face an executive or a team that has received coaching previously. They know—or think they know—the basics and don’t want to waste time on Training 101. They are content- and results-focused and likely lack the PR knowledge about how the 3 Ps (preparation, practice and performance) make a difference in interview success. How should communicators react? I’m a fan of trilogies, so here are three things an expert media trainer needs to be able to do:

1. Know the content and challenging questions. Formulaic media training no longer cuts it. Counseling top executives to “Know your three messages. It doesn’t matter what they ask, just score your messages even if you aren’t really answering the questions” fails to provide added value.

Sure, that tactic might work with reporters who don’t listen or lack an understanding of the subject. And of course if your executive is taping B-roll or is asked “Is there something else you would like to add?” and/or “Is there something I forgot to ask you?” those are perfect opportunities to score.

The trainer can no longer teach the executive to score them no matter what the question. That’s where the subtleties of the ‘Bridging/Pivoting’ technique come in to play. Credibility is lost when pivots are blatant. Want proof? Watch a cringe-worthy interview on MSNBC, FOX or CNN and you’ll see what it’s like for a business professional to walk into a major interview unprepared—and pay the price.

For the trainer, this requires more detailed research on the client. Start with the material supplied by the client, including his/her website and FAQs. Do the journalistic homework and find and read analyst reports, negative articles, and what’s been written about the competition.

2. Know the client’s background and personality. Remember the Stephen Colbert line: “It’s bigger than you and me, it’s all about me.” In the case of media-training a senior leader, it’s all about that individual. In addition to boning up on the content, the trainer needs information about the particular executive.

Get a bio, LinkedIn profile and, perhaps most important, find articles about and video examples of the executive. This is the equivalent of the physician who studies a patient’s chart before conducting an exam. It’s one thing to know a patient’s condition, but rapport, diagnosis and treatment work better when you get under the hood.

3. Be flexible and use the experience from prior work. Long gone are the days of a full-day media training session with three or four participants who learn the fundamentals and practice with two or three interviews, picking up pointers from their colleagues and applying it to their material and personality.

Everyone wants training in a compressed timeframe and promises that they will practice more on their own or with their PR team. So a skilled trainer enters each session ready to adjust from the pre-session plan. You might start with message review and go to a practice interview.

In another session, conduct the mock interview first and while reviewing the video make “surgical-strike” comments on how to craft the message and apply technique.

In one session, you get the team to work and review together, in another the trainer does an overview with a group, then schedules one-on-one sessions with individual executives and spokespersons throughout the day.

This reminds me of a senior executive who challenged me to provide value-added to his communications objectives. In fewer than 10 minutes, I used a respectful, direct approach to demonstrate how to take his current messages and add a “story” element so that they would have more impact on key audiences, including customers, employees and the media.

I then quickly showed him how a mind-map could help him weave his messages into any key Q&A session.

After these hearing about these modules, he was willing to practice and watch himself. End result: I was invited to teach at the annual conference he held for fast-track executives. 

Sidebar: Messages for the Messenger

Question: When is the best time to communicate a message during an interview? Answer: Whenever you can. There are three easy places to insert messages. At the start, during the interview and on the last question:

1. At the start, frame the subject. One of our clients is very assertive when he starts an interview. First, he prepares. Then he will start: “I know you have many questions for me. If you want to ask, go ahead. However, I just came back from a customer presentation that is close to the topic you want to discuss. We spent 45 minutes on 2 slides. If you want, I’ll email you those slides. Ask me questions about this presentation and at the end if you have other questions, please ask them.” This executive says 8 of 10 reporters let him start this way.

2. Pivoting. Our rule. Answer the question and then use bridging phrases. No one phrase will work every time. Have several ready to use: “But” and “however” are classic phrases. Other phrases, depending on the question, include, “Actually, that’s not the data we have seen,” or “I can’t answer the first part of your question since I’m not our best expert on that subject, but here’s what I can say,” or “I can’t answer that because of HIPPA or employee confidentiality rules, but for that kind of information, I can refer you to____, “ and “What I can say? I’m sure our competitors would love to know that information as well, here’s what I can share....”

3. At the end of an interview. Most good reporters will close an interview with “Is there anything else you want to share?” or “Is there something I forgot to ask you?” Reporters almost always want your best information. They also know that they aren’t perfect, so these questions give you a chance to score a message. Some reporters either are in too much of a rush or don’t want to betray a lack of knowledge about you and your business, so they won’t ask these traditional ending questions. Be ready for this and make sure you close the interview by saying, “Let me wrap up with one or two points.” —A.G


Andy Gilman is president-CEO of CommCore Consulting. He can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the February 9, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.