PR Leaders Offer Hands-On Insight For Media Training Strategies

Vice President Dick Cheney's now-infamous hunting expedition and subsequent fallout has brought the importance of media training spokespeople to the forefront of the PR profession. His communications teams' laundry list of faux pas - including a late release of the story and inappropriate jokes during press conferences - offers a prime example of what not to do in a crisis situation. And while publicity of that magnitude may be the exception rather than the rule, it's a stark reminder of media training's essential role in any executive portfolio.

Andy Gilman (president and CEO of CommCore Consulting Group), Tom Hanley (director, public relations for Connecticut Children's Medical Center) and Robert Elek (manager, media relations for Verizon) discussed the ins and outs of media training in the PR News Webinar "Media Training Your Key Executives (And Yourself)" on February 16. The first line of defense when an executive is in front of a camera or notebook, according to Gilman: "It's not just about training executives to answer questions. It's about preparedness. They have to be able to think like a journalist."

Preparedness and a journalistic mentality are two things Hanley knows from firsthand experience. Directing public relations for a children's hospital comes with inherent risks and inevitable crises, so for Hanley's PR team, it's all about preemptive action.

"Train your organization to be ready," Hanley says. "Develop a crisis team before you need one. Test ways to communicate with staff and develop backups. Doing drills gives you the opportunity to show you are a professional." His decision to act out crises in a drill format - complete with student journalists and PR managers grilling hospital executives - paid off when a real emergency hit home. Not only was his team prepared for the media onslaught, but he was able to anticipate the hot button questions and control the story - two things Gilman emphasizes when he trains executives.

"The best key messages are not created on the fly," he says. "They are there, waiting to be fit into the interview." He cites five steps to successfully endure media questioning:

  • Do your homework: Research the reporter you or your executive will be dealing with, including recent stories he or she has published. This will offer insight into their line of questioning, and it will help in preparing for the interview.
  • Key messages: Understand the key messages you want to convey before the interview begins; if the reporter doesn't specifically address them, they can be bridged into other responses.
  • Prepare for difficult questions: Especially in crisis situations, there inevitably will be critical questions that cannot easily be answered without addressing the problem. Rehearse answers ahead of time that will quickly address the question and then end on a positive note.
  • Last question response: The most important question a seasoned reporter will ask at the end of an interview is 'What haven't we covered?' This is the perfect opportunity to reiterate key messages and sum up the interview in a positive light.
  • Offer to be a resource: Developing a relationship with the reporter increases the likelihood for a constructive future interaction with that media outlet.

Elek offers additional advice when it comes to media training: While a spokesperson may be the right person for interviews in come situations, others require the presence of the CEO or top executive, and he or she must be willing to accept that duty. Cheney's hunting debacle reaffirms this point; his conspicuous silence in the days after the shooting drew additional criticism, and it allowed his communications team to botch their initial response with careless humor. And, no matter the scale of the story, Hanley emphasizes that, thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, "You can have a local story become a CNN story in real time." This fact of life necessitates media training at every level of an organization; after all, there's no telling when a story will spin out of control.

"You can have a match turn into a brush fire turn into a forest fire," Elek says. "You never want to go before the microphone or the notepad without experience. Media training is the time to make mistakes."

To order the full Webinar proceedings, go to or call 888.707.5814.

Contacts: Andy Gilman, 202.659.4177, [email protected]; Tom Hanley, 860.545.9954, [email protected]; Robert Elek, 813.483.2541, [email protected]