Who in your organization should receive media training?
It’s tempting to focus your media training only on your organization’s CEO and other C-suite executives. After all, the leadership team is most likely to interact with the press when making a public announcement or giving an interview. But a good argument can be made for including other employees, even ones who are unlikely to ever act as official spokespeople.
Leave room for escalation
You might not always want your CEO — or any other C-suite leader — to act as spokesperson. During a crisis, for instance, sending out the big guns could signal that a situation is worse than it really is. If the CEO unexpectedly calls a press conference, the media, employees, investors and other stakeholders could assume that the company is dealing with a significant issue. Sending out someone slightly lower down the corporate ladder indicates that the situation is not quite severe enough to demand the C-suite’s full attention.
Of course, it’s crucial to gauge the scenario accurately. It might absolutely warrant the presence of the organization’s leader, especially if there’s been an injury, death or some other disastrous outcome. And even if you initially choose another spokesperson, you must recognize when to escalate and move the CEO into that role. If a situation deteriorates, or troubling new details come to light, it’s time to call in your CEO.
Speaking of escalation, another benefit of not opting for the CEO as your initial spokesperson is that it gives you the freedom to move up the chain of command. If your original representative provides an inept response, seems rattled, or makes some other mistake that damages their credibility — which can happen all too easily in the confusing opening hours of a crisis — you can bring in the CEO. But, as some argue, if you start with your CEO and things go wrong, you can’t move up. So, you’re left either sticking with the CEO or choosing someone lower down on the org chart, which sends the message that the company’s top leader isn’t capable of dealing with the crisis.
Let the experts speak
When BP CEO Tony Hayward testified before Congress after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, things didn’t go well. His evasive answers angered his interrogators and turned public sentiment further against the company.
Hayward continually answered questions by saying things like “I’m not an oceanographic scientist,” and, “I’m not the drilling engineer.” After multiple non-answers, he explained: “I’m not stonewalling. I simply was not involved in the decision-making process. I don’t mean to be evasive or difficult.”
An exasperated Democratic representative named Mike Doyle eventually responded to Hayward by saying: “I’m sitting here thinking I could be a CEO of an oil company. I hear it pays a little bit better than being a member of Congress. Because I’ve watched you in front of this committee, and you’re not able to give us much information on anything here.”
When you know that tough technical questions are coming during an interview, press conference or public hearing, your spokesperson better be able to answer them. That often means working with your CEO to ensure they have an excellent working knowledge of the technical details.
But it can also mean subbing out your CEO for a subject matter expert who can answer even the most complex questions and explain arcane technology in layperson’s terms. That’s why media training shouldn’t be reserved purely for the C-suite. Having a handful of technical experts with the media savvy needed to face a roomful of journalists can be immensely useful—and it can save your CEO the embarrassment of responding to technical questions with vague answers that make them look incompetent.
Prepare frontline employees for an ambush
Journalists know how to get their hands on a juicy visual or soundbite. For instance, they know that showing up at your head office with a camera crew will likely cause a kerfuffle.
Imagine all the ways in which things can go wrong. Security personnel might push an overeager camera operator aside or clasp a meaty hand over a lens. An ambushed employee might shout “no comment” over his shoulder as he bolts for the elevator. A flustered receptionist might struggle to get hold of a senior leader as an air of chaos and incompetence descends on the lobby.
“Reporters occasionally avoid ‘official’ channels in an effort to get more candid, less scripted responses from staffers lower on the hierarchy chart,” writes Brad Phillips in “The Media Training Bible.” “And too often, receptionists — notoriously more plugged into company gossip than most are — inadvertently say something to reporters that they shouldn’t.”
To prevent the above, employees across the organization should receive media training. They don’t need the in-depth, on-camera training of spokespeople, but they should know the basics. They should understand that a hastily shouted “no comment” makes it look like there’s something to hide and that pushy security personnel suggest a nefarious company looking to intimidate its critics.
By providing foundational media training to frontline employees (and others who a journalist may unexpectedly confront), you can prevent the sort of ill-conceived and damaging soundbite that goes viral online and causes tremendous damage.