When Facing Today’s Media, Leaders Can’t Live on Hubris Alone

“I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck. [My wife] Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually.”

—Mitt Romney, on Feb. 24, 2012, at a speech to the Detroit Economic Club

Any time a politician speaks, whether giving a speech, an interview or during a debate, they are under intense pressure to stay on message and say the right thing. But it’s not easy, whether on the campaign trail, in the White House or in a conference room: The spotlight is on and even the most minute mistakes get magnified.

“Someone once said the Oval Office is loneliest place in the world,” says Chris Wailes, VP, national media relations, at Pierpont Communications, based in Houston. “And it’s not that different being in the C-suite.” Wailes likens both situations to being in a cocoon. “Contact with outside perceptions is limited at best,” he says.


That’s why even to the most media-savvy of leaders, media training is critical, particularly in this age when embarrassing news spans the globe in seconds. But guess what? Some leaders still don’t put media training on their lists of things to do. Why? Some have enough hubris to feel they’ve got everything covered with the media.

Montieth Illingworth, president of communications consultancy Montieth & Company, based in New York, recalls that as he huddled with a CEO of a major oil company before meeting the media, the CEO said, “OK, this is what I’m going to do,” and took out a spreadsheet that he’d face reporters with. “I just said that wasn’t going to work,” says Illingworth.

Without formal media training, and ongoing sessions before key events, leaders tend to exhibit certain habits that hurt their—and the brand’s—credibility. “Some leaders,π because they’re suspicious of the press, will be defensive and, in the process, may completely dumb down their messages,” says Illingworth.

Other leaders get too comfortable with the press when breaking the constraints of formal earnings calls. “They’ll just forget that they’re speaking to a reporter, and will say things they’ll live to regret,” says Illingworth.

To avoid that scenario, three key questions should be asked of a leader regarding media training, says David Calusdian, executive VP and partner at Sharon Merrill Associates, a Boston-based investor relations and corporate communications agency. They are:

• Were you completely comfortable walking into your last interview?

• How satisfied were you with the results?

• How good do you feel about doing the next interview?

If any of those questions are answered in the negative, media training is necessary, says Calusdian. “A leader must feel well-prepared, because facing the spotlight can be intimidating for anyone,” he says.

“I will tell you: It’s three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone: Commerce, Education and the—what’s the third one there? Let’s see...OK. Sorry. Oops.’’ —Rick Perry, during a Nov. 2011 GOP debate, forgetting his plan to abolish the Department of Energy


Leaders can’t rely on sheer guile to survive and thrive in the spotlight. Its an issue of message discipline, says Mark Meissner, senior strategic communications adviser at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Holland & Knight. “Some corporate leaders tend to want to share more information than they really should,” says Meissner. “Less is better, so stay on message.”

Organizational leaders are often under intense, glaring pressure when addressing the media—hence the need for extensive media training.

Staying on message is why well-prepared leaders practice, and practice some more. “People who are facing the prospect of a 60 Minutes -like interview, the more practice they have, the more confident they’ll be,” says Meissner. Getting peppered with tough questions beforehand and knowing what their answers will be creates that confidence.

To Teresa Henderson, senior VP and general manager at Pierpont Communications, correct messaging isn’t the only requirement for a media-trained leader. Thanks to a changing media landscape, “the days of training a CEO with three messages and bridging technique are over,” says Henderson. Today it’s all about transparency and two-way dialogue with stakeholders.

Henderson’s colleague Wailes agrees. Having mastery of the facts and getting messages right is just about 25% of an effective interview, says Wailes. And CEOs will almost always have the mastery of the messages. “But few, without practice, will be able to produce sound bites that answer the ‘what,’ the ‘so what’ and the ‘now what,’” says Wailes. And can you take those questions and address them past a newscast or a print interview? “That takes some dedicated practice, which is still not top-of-mind in the C-suite,” he says.

“We’re the country that built the Intercontinental Railroad.”

—Barack Obama, confusing “Intercontinental” with “Transcontinental” in a Sept. 2011 speech


Where politicians and corporate leaders often go astray is in trying to answer every question. It’s only natural that a leader would want to know the answer to just about everything. But of course, that’s just not possible.

“I always coach executives not to answer a question that they don’t have an answer for,” says Henderson. “There’s nothing wrong with suggesting that a subject matter expert can address a question better than they can.”

Here are some considerations from Illingworth in creating the best media training atmosphere for your leadership:

1. Assess the communications culture inside your organization, in terms of having the resources to challenge the CEO and the ability to get him or her prepared.

2. Assess the leader’s strengths and weaknesses, and then pair her up with any “third rail” issues the company might be facing.

3. Test the leader’s tolerance level for handling tough questions.

Then again, you could have a leader like JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who, at a recent analyst day press conference, continually asked the media contingent if it was awake, paying attention and listening clearly.

Now that’s playing with fire—and only a media-trained leader can get away with that. PRN


Chris Wailes, cwailes@piercom.com; Montieth Illingworth, montieth@montiethco.com; David Calusdian, dcalusdian@investorrelations.com; Mark Meissner, mark.meissner@hklaw.com; Teresa Henderson, thenderson@piercom.com.

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