Media training remains one of the public relations practitioner’s most central and vital tools. The process of crafting and leading training sessions should represent the communications counselor at his or her absolute best.
Unfortunately, too many of today’s media training sessions are run almost by rote. Approaches to messaging can be fixed and inflexible. True customization to the subject matter – as well as to the individual being trained – is often thin. Classic training techniques can be overly fixated on stale notions of “tough questions.” And deeper insights are missing relative to the challenges of today’s radically fragmented media landscape, with its significantly shorter attention spans.
There’s a new set of rules when it comes to media training. It is time to break old, outdated training habits to give spokespeople the edge they need in a challenging media environment. This includes rethinking how we approach messaging, getting beyond tough questions, training with an eye toward social sharing and helping spokespeople become super-adaptable to a wide range of scenarios and situations.
Rethink the Concept of Messages
The first new rule of media training is to pull the concept of “messages” out of its box. Memorizing three neatly written messages about your product or service simply doesn’t cut it. Nor does demanding that spokespeople parrot a list of overly-edited, overly-corporate, overly-long bullet points treated as sacrosanct by those who have crafted them. As The Cluetrain Manifesto underscored way back in the year 2000, “markets are conversations,” “markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors” and “conversations among human beings sound human.” Wise words, even 16 years later.
Communications professionals must help spokespeople understand the dynamic, fluid and real-time nature of messaging today. Spokespeople require a deeper understanding of (and comfort level with) what it means to truly make messaging their own. Yes, you should put in the time to develop a message track and accompanying briefing documents for your spokespeople. But keep them simple, clear and compelling. Ultimately, training in this area should be focused not just on “delivery” – but rather, how to adapt and shape messages in the moment so they land and stick with the listener.
Get Beyond “Tough Questions”
Every PR pro knows to anticipate answers for tough questions. But when it comes to key training techniques like bridging, discussions can get stuck on irrelevant notions of what “tough” actually means today. Yes, it’s critical to be prepared for challenging lines of query. But the real enemies to positive interview outcomes go well beyond the gotcha question. Today, it’s the very environment itself that poses the biggest challenge to connection and clarity (not to mention great quotes included in a smart story).
Members of the media (of all types) are positively buried with information overload. They confront a voracious 24/7 publishing cycle. And many of them now lack the kind of subject matter expertise that used to be common before media business models were so deeply shaken.
Spokespeople need to keep these pressures top of mind – because the biggest risk today is that the person on the other end of the interview is not fully following them, or getting it, or understanding why an angle is so newsworthy NOW. Trainers have always talked about not being passive and helping to steer the discussion. But today this is absolutely essential; important to the “nth” degree. If spokespeople aren’t actively managing the discussion, and dropping breadcrumbs along the way for interviewers to follow, they shouldn’t be surprised if the results are underwhelming.
Train with Social Sharing in Mind
As PR practitioners, we have long understood the power of the soundbite. But that power is exponentially greater (and more dangerous) in a socially connected world of lightening-fast sharing. The idea of quotable quotes is still valid, just in a more amplified context.
It’s vital to adapt a social sharing mindset into media training. Part of this must happen in the messaging process, as communications professionals and spokespeople embrace the need to condense. The idea of “quoting for Twitter” can help focus training discussions on the essence of what really matters.
This social sharing mindset also includes increasing spokespeople skills relative to active listening. Conducting an interview is tough. The person in the hot seat must listen, mentally “translate,” think of the best response and answer, all nearly simultaneously. It’s easy in that situation to flip into a kind of mental auto-pilot – filtering out critical cues on where the reporter might be taking the conversation. Active listening is a skill that can be practiced, and will help spokespeople keep their heads in the game and make better choices about what comes out of their mouths.
Maximize Spokesperson Adaptability
Spokespeople have always had to be prepared for a wide range of interview scenarios. But this is massively more true today, with major impact on achieving positive outcomes. Interviews come in all formats now, from the formal to the super lo-fi. Effective training means helping your spokespeople assess the situation, reset expectations in real time and seamlessly transition from one mindset or mode to another.
Of particular note is the fact that today’s media environment is far more “DIY” than at any time in the past. Sure, maybe you get invited in studio. But given the volatile breaking news environment, you’re just as likely to field a sudden request to connect via Skype. Spokespeople must get past the expectation of extreme hand-holding – where the communications professional is expected to control every nuance of the interview experience. If they’re going to be in the game and want positive outcomes for their organizations, they need to adapt to the new rules. And first and foremost, this means getting comfortable with higher levels of flexibility and unpredictability.
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