The power of PR

I don’t think there’s anyone who questions the power of public relations (and by public relations I’m referring to media coverage, primarily with legacy media, although many independent bloggers have just as much influence these days).

A few weeks ago I wrote about the media frenzy around Royal Bank’s plans to bring in foreign workers to replace 45 people in their IT department. It started when one of the displaced employees went to the media to tell his side of the story. He was articulate, confident and strategic, hitting all the right messages.

He talked about the legality of what RBC was doing, the impact on the people in his department, as well as the impact on his own family. It was a sad story that pretty much went viral until RBC CEO Gord Nixon issued an apology and promised that the 45 employees would all find comparable employment at RBC.

So there was a happy ending, entirely as a result of pressure from the media.

The importance of preparation

So media coverage is a very powerful tool, but how do you ensure media coverage about your business is positive and that your spokesperson doesn’t mess up?

There’s a popular clip from the old Bob Newhart Show (circa the mid-1970s) used in media training to demonstrate the importance of properly preparing for a media interview. In the clip, Dr. Hartley, a psychiatrist played by Bob Newhart, appears on a local TV morning show.

Hartley is unprepared for the interview and stumbles his way through with much hilarity. Here’s one exchange between Dr. Hartley and Ruth Corley, the journalist:

Corley: Dr. Hartley, according to a recently published survey, the average fee for a private session with a psychologist is $40.

Hartley: That’s about right.

Corley: Right? I don’t think it’s right. What other practitioner gets $40 an hour?

Hartley: My plumber.

Corley: Plumbers guarantee their work. Do you?

Hartley (aside): I don’t understand why all of a sudden…

Corley: I asked if you guarantee your work.

Hartley: I can’t guarantee that each person who walks through the door is going to be cured.

Corley: You mean you ask $40 an hour and you guarantee nothing?

Hartley: I validate.

Clearly Dr. Hartley arrived for his interview without prior media training, no agenda of his own and with no understanding of the interview’s real focus.

So how do you avoid a similar fiasco?

Three principles of media interview preparation

There are three important disciplines we teach clients in media training sessions:

#1 Message development

Key messages are the foundation of most effective communications programs. They are 20-second sound-bites that tell your story in an interesting way. The media is not looking for Shakespeare so messages should be succinct, jargon-free sentences using easy-to-understand language.

Key messages are important in interviews since media platforms allow for only a few spokesperson quotes. For example, a 15-minute interview usually includes just two or three of the spokesperson’s sentences. Knowing your messages ahead of time helps ensure your important points don’t end up on the cutting room floor.

#2 Interview control

Controlling the interview starts with knowing the journalist’s agenda. Never jump into an interview cold. Before agreeing to any interview, ask the journalist a few pointed questions so you can understand what the article or segment will cover:

  • What is the focus of the interview and the report you’re preparing?
  • Who else are you interviewing on the subject?
  • Will the interview be taped or live (for TV or radio)?

Always be courteous and convey accessibility. Once you qualify the interview and agree to move ahead, take the time to properly prepare.

#3 Message delivery

Message delivery is all about body language and the way you answer questions. If you’re a spokesperson, you need to be confident and poised, especially for TV interviews.

The way you stand is important, with both feet firmly planted on the ground. And so is the way you sit, leaning in slightly and engaging with the journalist.

Once the interview starts there are additional ways to control the interview:

  • Listen carefully to the questions and answer them
  • Refuse to speculate
  • Avoid repeating the negative
  • Introduce the subjects you want to talk about in a natural way without being overly promotional

It’s not difficult to ensure a positive experience with media interviews as long as you remember to prepare with key messages, take control of the interview and deliver your responses with confidence and poise.



What other tips do you have to ensure spokespeople don’t mess up in media in interviews?

Written by Shelley Pringle