Media Training Shows that a Good Interview is About Good Storytelling

Effective media training promotes good storytelling
Effective media training promotes good storytelling

I have been working on one or two new product launches over the past few weeks, and that means putting CEOs and senior managers in front of reporters and analysts to tell a story. It’s amazing how many executives are bad at storytelling. They are confident speaking to managers, their board of directors, even venture capitalists, but when it comes to telling a compelling story to editors many seem at a loss.

Effective media training can address a number of these problems and actually show senior executives how to think like a reporter. It can show managers what is really newsworthy and printable, and help them tell a story. I want to direct you to a new white paper by seasoned freelance writer Mark Halper and offered by Johnson King. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have known Mike King for many years, and can’t recommend a better high-tech PR firm if you are looking to break into the EMEA market.)

Mark had some interesting observations in his white paper; observations from which all executives can benefit. I suggest you read Mark’s comments for yourself, but here are some highlights.

  1. Know your audience. I prepare briefing documents for all my clients. In those briefing sheets are insights about the reporter, his publication, its audience, and likely topics of interest and questions that might be asked. From the interviews that follow from those briefing sheets, I have to wonder if the clients actually read them. In order to get coverage, you have to offer information that is informative and relevant to the editor. (And by the way, Mark’s penguin analogy is much more colorful than my insights here.) Today, for example, I had an interview with Skype Journal about a client’s new product. Fortunately, most of the conversation focused on Skype but it could easily have taken a left turn, focusing on other non-Skype-related product features that would have been irrelevant to the story. Too often clients become so focused on their own script that they neglect the human element – connecting with the reporter and asking him what he needs to file his story.
  2. There is no such thing as “off the record.” This is a common failing that I have seen the most experienced executives make. They are so busy trying to establish a rapport with a reporter that they forget the rules of engagement. You need to know when to reveal information and when to withhold it, and you need to know that there really is no such thing as “off the record.”
  3. Make it colorful. Anecdotes are incredibly useful. The right story or key phrase can stick in the mind of the reporter and make you look larger than life. Remember that no matter who the reporter is writing for, readers are always people and they gravitate toward interesting stories and anecdotes.
  4. Not just the facts, tell a story! In order to make their articles interesting, reporters must be storytellers. In the world of high-tech, reporters always ask for analyst and customer references, not just to validate new technology but because third parties add color. I recently landed an interview for a client with the San Francisco Chronicle about corporations adopting social media strategies. The quotes that made print were the colorful anecdotes about customer observations and trends that put a human face and connection on the story.

As Mark states, “Executives should not underestimate the storytelling aspect of journalism.” Media training can not only teach executives how to control an interview, but how to “keep it real” and give the interviewee the kind of color commentary that makes a compelling story that goes deeper than the facts.

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The Skeleton of a Crisis Communications Plan

It pays to be ready with a crisis communications planI wanted to expand on a recent blog post about creating a crisis communications plan. There are many details you have to worry about when building out an effective crisis plan, but the framework for an effective crisis communications blueprint is the same, no matter what your market. Here are some of the basics you should keep in mind:

  1. Understand how to define a crisis. A communications crisis is any event that could adversely affect your organization’s reputation, integrity, brand, and ultimately your business. Remember that to be considered a crisis, there has to be a victim; someone who is directly affected and harmed, whether that person is a customer, employee, stockholder, or some other entity such as a special interest group, the community or the environment.
  2. Know the common elements of a crisis. Every crisis is a surprise. If you can see the train wreck coming then you should be able to prepare and control the message, so there is no crisis. There also needs to be an imminent threat; an element of danger or risk to employees, customers, the environment, somebody. And there needs to be a need for a short response time.
  3. Set goals to handle the crisis in advance. Of course, our primary goal is to protect the reputation of the organization. Beyond that you need to assess additional goals, whether it is to protect employees and their families, serve the needs of the public, protect key stakeholders, or some combination of multiple goals. You need to be clear about your objectives before you can formulate an effective game plan.
  4. Form a crisis team. Have your crisis management team (not necessarily your spokespersons) tapped in advance and create a master call sheet and a plan to make sure you can rally the troops quickly.
  5. Prepare your spokespersons. Once you have your goals and your messaging, you can prepare your spokespersons. Effective preparation extends beyond the immediate crisis. Most companies make sure their corporate spokespersons go through intense media training so they know how to deal effectively with the press in the event of a crisis. Practice promotes perfection and it keeps your team cool and controlled under pressure.
  6. Have background material ready. Make sure your fact sheets and executive biographies are up to date, and you have information you can hand out to the press to help them get their facts straight.
  7. Manage the crisis. This includes managing uncertainty first through quick and definitive outreach to all the parties affected, including the press. Then you can respond and resolve the situation, including setting compensation and memorializing the event so the victims can feel they have been honored and their needs met.
  8. Close the books. During the crisis you should maintain a communications log of all calls and e-mail communications with reporters. When the smoke clears, go back and make sure you have successfully closed each open issue in the log. Also be sure to perform a post-crisis analysis – Why did the crisis occur? Could it have been prevented? Was it handled properly? How did the spokespersons do? What would you do differently next time? Take this information and refine your plan to prepare for the next crisis.

These are just some of the myriad of things to consider when developing your crisis communications strategy. And there’s lots of great material available online to help you refine your crisis plan. One of the most useful I found was a written by Sandra K Lawson Freeo at The PRSA and other groups have additional ideas. We’ll be fleshing out components of the crisis communications plan in future posts but in the meantime, be prepared!

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Crisis Communications Means Hope for the Best but Prepare for the Worst

I have been working on a project lately for a financial services client; a crisis communications plan designed to help them deal with a variety of public problems. We developed scenarios to cover financial meltdown, executive malfeasance, data loss or theft, robbery, fire, flood, pestilence, and a plague of locusts. The client was pleased – “Very thorough” was the response – but in the process of developing the crisis plan I recalled a number of points I had forgotten about crisis management.

The first revelation was that in order for there to be a crisis, you have to have a victim. This seems obvious, but I have known a number of chief executives who look at an internal product failure or a bad fiscal quarter and decide it’s a crisis that needs addressing. Unless the public, or employees, or stockholders are going to be affected (and usually in a dramatic way), there is no crisis.

I also discovered that NOT having a crisis communications plan in place can be expensive. You can’t just think in terms of losses in revenue, reputation, or brand equity. The premiums for E&O insurance are higher if you don’t have a crisis plan waiting in the wings. After all, statistics show that every organization will encounter a public crisis sometime in the next five years.

It’s also crucial that you not only identify corporate spokespersons in advance, you need to train them! CEOs think that talking to the press is the same as schmoozing a venture capitalist or addressing the board of directors. They are wrong! Crisis communications requires a level of understand and finesse that is unlike any other type of PR. If you have doubts, go to YouTube and look up any CEO dealing with a company crisis. If they have prepared, it shows.

What’s wrong with this picture? Would you trust this man with your crisis message?

The real trick in crisis communications is being responsible and admitting there is a problem without pointing fingers or assigning culpability. This is a fine line that can be very hard to walk. If you speak frankly and address concerns quickly about what you know, and stay within your area of responsibility, you can avoid laying blame or making statements that you will have to recant later.

Above all, crisis communications calls for authenticity It’s not just about saving the company’s reputation or shoring up stock price. It’s about being a stand-up corporate citizen that cares about customers, employees, or the planet – whoever has been affected by the company’s error.

So if you haven’t revisited your crisis strategy lately, it’s time. Make sure you have assigned your crisis team, refreshed your contact list, and trained your spokespersons. There’s nothing worse than getting caught unprepared. And when you are caught unwares, repairing the damage to your reputation and your brand, and rebuilding your sales could take more time than you can afford to invest.

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