‘The Media Is the Enemy,’ and Other Dangerous Notions to Disavow

Every PR person has worked with spokespeople who are not exactly media friendly. These folks usually feel that they are experienced enough, not to mention downright talented, when it comes to being interviewed by members of the press. The reality is often pretty much the opposite. The reasons for this negative attitude runs the gamut from “been burned before” to “journalists are stupid,” which means changing a spokesperson’s way of thinking about the media requires a number of different approaches and tactics.

Training—or, actually reeducating and refocusing—these spokespeople is a definite challenge. My approach includes insight into the journalist mind-set, mock interviews—sometimes recorded and always in front of a couple of peers—followed by a positively focused critique and specific techniques for practical, immediate application. I add a bit of psychology to help actions and reactions along the way.

We all know that having a spokesperson with good media interview skills is vital to any business. The best spokespeople are those who are able to keep a cool head under pressure and put the company's message across clearly and concisely. A spokesperson that views interviews as torture sessions from which they expect only to be misquoted convey a poor impression of the organization and often, not surprisingly, achieves the negative press they expect.

Turning around a spokesperson with a negative attitude toward the press requires an understanding of what the press is and does. Journalists’ success is largely determined by sources, and we expect them to write "objectively" on the topic at hand. They are deadline-driven and, in this age of newsroom cutbacks and online content, extremely busy. In an increasingly competitive business, they constantly filter through an avalanche of outside communications. 

It’s true that journalists often bring an agenda to an interview, along with the perspective of their particular beat or publication focus. They pull information from a number of sources, the most important being the primary source—a company spokesperson—from which they get firsthand information. 

Beginning the conversion of a hostile spokesperson requires helping that individual to focus on achieving positive press—the reward for doing the job correctly. I ask my more adversarial subjects to step out of their contentious role by applying a sales call mentality. The relationship between businesses and the press is a symbiotic one: They need our information and news, and we need their accurate, positive coverage. An important part of our jobs as PR professionals is to arm our spokespeople with the tools they need to achieve that coverage.

By having a negative spokesperson play the journalist in a mock interview, he or she learns how it feels to be in the reporter’s shoes, and they begin to understand that, as a spokesperson for the company, they have something the reporter needs—and it does not need to be an adversarial face-off. Gaining distance from the reporter’s attitude helps spokespeople to better empathize with them and not take anything personally.

I teach spokespeople how to establish rapport during the first minutes of the interview. Company spokespeople are speaking on behalf of the organization, not from their own personal opinion. I remind them to be considerate and polite; confident without being brash or arrogant. The best way to retrain an attitude is to subject them, as the reporter, to a hostile spokesperson. They learn to make eye contact and read the reporter’s body language, while monitoring their own. A defensive arms-crossed across the chest, or a bored, slumped back chair posture does not convey the attitude of a positive spokesperson ready to help the reporter get the story that portrays the company in the best light possible.

By thinking like a billboard, spokespeople can forget their antagonism by keeping in mind the headline they would like to see. Concentrating on a single key message with a couple of supporting messages allows them to focus on what’s important and what they want to achieve. They learn to answer questions with their key message, including supporting details such as, examples, anecdotes, third-party endorsements, etc. This gives the spokesperson something more important to focus on than how much they distrust the press. There’s nothing more engaging than telling a story, and being listened to attentively because you’re telling it well.

I teach my spokespeople to think of quotable phrases in advance to further engage the reporter and to help being misquoted. Again, a couple of positive coverage results go a long way in converting an antagonistic spokesperson into a true media maven. I help prepare them with anticipated questions and interesting anecdotes, which helps maintain a conversational tone. It can be a bit tricky to rehearse and still sound spontaneous, but making their words memorable and communicating their messages accurately goes far to ensure the positive coverage we all want.

When spokespeople concentrate on getting the who, what, where, when and why into the conversation, they have little time to think about another disappointing clip. I counsel spokespeople on avoiding habits that may have aided in their prior journalistic misrepresentation. These include:

  • Not repeating negatives
  • Not nodding "yes" or saying "uh-huh" to indicate you understand the question
  • Never say "no comment" or speak from personal opinion
  • At all costs, avoid losing your temper or mentioning previous negative coverage
  • Not asking which parts of the interview will be used
  • Not asking if you can see the article before it goes to print

I give them free license to ask the reporter:

  • About the deadline
  • To revisit a particular point
  • If follow-up information is needed
  • When the article might appear

I help them avoid negative coverage and stay in control of the interview by filling them in on different media interview styles:

  • Jokes: don’t let your guard down or compete
  • Rapid-fire questions: don’t try to answer all the questions, choose the question you want to answer
  • Constant interruptions: politely continue your statement succinctly
  • Paraphrasing your words: avoid being misquoted or taken out of context by restating a summary point in your own words
  • Negative or hostile language: do not react angrily or repeat negative language; remain calm and bridge to your message point

Exert control and stay away from negative interactions by using practiced transitional working:

  • “Before you get off that subject, let me add…”
  • “That’s not my area of expertise, but your readers may be interested in knowing…”
  • “Another thing to keep in mind is…”
  • “Now that we’ve covered -----, I’d like to discuss another important point…”
  • While ----- is certainly important, don’t forget that ----“
  • “Let me put that into perspective…”

I also provide spokespeople, who might need a second to breath and decompress, with set phrases:

  • “That’s a very good question…”
  • “You’ve obviously done your homework…”
  • “I’m glad you brought that up…”
  • “Before answering your questions, I’d like to provide some background on …”
  • “In order to understand the situation, I think we need to go back and examine…”

When a spokesperson feels empowered by a pocketful of tactics to help pull out of potentially destructive interviews, they are much less likely to go on the defensive with the journalist—who is, hopefully, just trying to do his or her job. By being flexible with solid communication skills, with a bit of empathy, and with the ability to accept constructive criticism, even the most recalcitrant spokesperson will be rewarded by being perceived as credible by media, and the public.

Judy Erkanat is a PR director in Silicon Valley. She has worked for PR agencies and inside corporations for over a decade, prior to which she was a journalist for Electronic News, El Observador, South Bay Accent and a number of other domestic and international publications. She can be reached at jerkanat@sbcglobal.net.

For more media training tactics, see PR News' Media Training Guidebook, Vol. 3.