As chief executive of BP, Tony Hayward had one of the highest-profile jobs in British business, but he took a low-key approach to media relations. One of his first live TV interviews came in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in which 11 of his employees lost their lives. “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do, I’d like my life back,” he said. Hayward’s reputation never recovered from that disastrous slip of the tongue. He lost his credibility and, ultimately, his job.
Media training is essential for all leaders – no matter the size of their organisation. It can take a lifetime to build a reputation, but it can be destroyed in a heartbeat.
A common mistake too many organisations make is thinking that the right time for media training is when they are already in crisis mode; in fact, that is the worst possible environment in which to prepare. The real value of media training comes from the lessons it instils when it’s business as usual; don’t think of it as a short-term fix.
When I was Business Editor of the Daily Telegraph and chaired the National Business Awards judging panel, there was a lively debate about the qualities required to win the Leader of The Year award. “No matter how experienced or intelligent a leader is if they cannot communicate they cannot successfully lead,” said one panellist. “Business leaders are expected to use words to defend and advance with all of the vigour and skill of a General,” said another.
Media training teaches you not only how to deliver your message effectively, but also what you are trying to communicate. The latter is as important as the former. You can’t expect to influence the court of public opinion if you can’t articulate the guiding principles of your business. That may sound obvious, but it’s striking how many leaders struggle to explain the essence of their business in a three-minute interview.
As a former journalist, who spent 25 years on national newspapers, I was surprised to discover how many businesses were suspicious of the media or simply did not understand how journalists operate.
So, the first objective of media training should be to bridge this knowledge gap – to explain what journalists want from you; what makes a good story; what are the rules of engagement. For example, what does off-the-record really mean? What are the pitfalls to avoid – and how can you use it your advantage?
There is also important technical information to convey:
- How to handle the different broadcast interview formats: live studio interviews; live ‘down the line’ interviews; live Zoom interviews; pre-recorded interviews
- How to use body language to communicate effectively
- How to master the pitch of your voice and pace of delivery
- How to dress for an interview
Whether you are running a business and likely to be its public face, or are trying to become a go-to media pundit to raise your company’s profile, you need to know the right tactics to use:
- How to deliver messages succinctly in an interview that is likely to last less than 300 seconds
- How to reach the audiences that matter to you most
- How to provide the evidence for your messages to make them credible, authentic and memorable
- How to avoid being derailed by difficult, or unexpected, questions so you can still communicate your key messages on your own terms
But the final part of the jigsaw is the one that is most often overlooked: what are you trying to say? Good media training is not just about the techniques you need to master – important though they are. A good media trainer puts just as much emphasis on the substance of your messages.
Living and breathing every aspect of your business seven days a week means you know it inside out, but sometimes you can be too close to be dispassionate. What seems important to you might not resonate with a wider audience. Or the things you take for granted might need to be explained afresh. What colour, anecdotes and data do you have to bring your messages to life.
Media training is a collaborative process which not only gives you the confidence to engage with the media on your own terms but also gives you a new perspective on your business as viewed from the outside.