August 11, 2016 - by Todd Robson
Want to see someone in a respected position of power throw away a career in all of about two minutes? Stephen Duckett was an expert in his field. Respected globally. Until this…
Duckett wasn’t prepared to deal with media. He paid a serious professional price and left a lesson for us all to learn from. In fact, his exchange is used by a lot of media trainers on exactly what not to do in a crisis situation.
As a former news producer, I remember scrambling to find an expert opinion or perspective when news was breaking. If a story required explanation and when it was beyond the grasp of even the brightest of reporters we needed the help of supporting sources. They were critical in helping explain, validate, and ideally, break down just what was going on to our audiences at home.
When an outbreak struck, we needed an epidemiologist. When a rare earthquake shook the region, the search for a seismologist was on.
Finding the expert wasn’t usually the problem. We had local universities, colleges, and health care facilities within arm’s reach.
However, finding an expert who could effectively speak on camera often was. Our goal was to keep people from turning the channel – so boring, highly technical speaking experts simply wouldn’t do it for us.
When I worked in TV, we needed someone who could explain a complex subject, in layman’s terms, and in sound bites of about 15 seconds. It may not seem like much, but it is a lot to ask. Explaining high level content is not easy, but the reality is that your audience needs complex subjects explained in the simplest of ways. To do this right, it requires understanding the roles and goals of media and media training.
Anyone who will be representing an organization, institution, or corporation needs some form of coaching. It’s a must-have requirement for most CEOs and politicians. Turn on your news at just about any hour of the day, and you can easily tell who has been properly prepared and trained and who hasn’t. It doesn’t happen organically. It takes work. It takes expert coaching.
Media-friendly speakers bolster credibility and get noticed. In times of a crisis, a trained speaker may be the missing piece that can make or break a situation a reputation.
Those who are not trained stick out—in a very bad way. They stammer, evade questions, ramble and are usually incoherent. If the task is mainly to describe a current situation, an untrained expert may ramble or speak hundreds of feet over the head of the average person. If there’s a crisis at hand—a tragedy, a scandal, a lawsuit or worse—an untrained speaker risks making a bad situation worse.
Take a look back to July of 2013—an out-of-control train carrying crude oil exploded, destroying the downtown section of Lac Megantic, in Quebec, Canada. Thirty buildings were leveled, killing 47 people. In this small town, everybody knew somebody who was killed.
Edward Burkhardt, president of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Inc. arrived shortly after the explosion. He was the near-perfect storm—an untrained, and likely uncoachable leader. He was clearly in distress, rattled, arrogant, and unprepared. He fixed blame at the worst possible time, blaming the train’s engineer and the local fire department.
A journalist asked how much he was worth. A town is destroyed, the world is watching, close to four dozen people are dead, and his reply was, “I’m worth a lot less now than I was last week.”
Proper media training and coaching would not have prevented the horrible tragedy, but knowing how to speak during such a high-stress situation and knowing what questions to expect might have mitigated the visceral reaction of residents, industry and government officials.
As it stands, Edward Burkhardt and the company, no matter how successful either had been in the past, are now forever associated with that interview.
Conway Fraser worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for almost 20 years. He’s a Gemini award-winning journalist who worked as a national reporter and investigative journalist. These days, he specializes in strategic and crisis communications as well as media coaching. Conway’s worked with some of Canada’s top corporate executives, academic leaders, and politicians.
In both journalism and in PR, he has seen executives who have spent decades building a reputation only to have it destroyed in moments because they weren’t prepared to deal with the media. They’ve either never received media coaching or, Conway says, have taken mandatory training but were never further invested in. In other words, he says, they thought they didn’t need media training and were only taking it to appease the Board or ownership.
“Proper media coaching isn’t just about knowing how to spew a main message, use effective body language or bridge away from challenging questions,” Conway says, “In my sessions I also teach my clients about the media, what their job is like, what a day is like for a reporter, what they need from you and how to respect their role. If anyone doubts the value of that, they’re playing with fire. Ask Stephen Duckett.”
Natalie Duddridge is a reporter for NY1. I worked with Natalie years ago in Canada at the start of her career. Natalie’s talent as a journalist has taken her to Ottawa (Canada’s capital), Toronto, and most recently, New York.
New York sits at the top (sorry L.A.) of media markets in the United States. It has a huge audience of about 10 million people and it is hands down the most competitive media game on the continent.
Reporters in these markets never get to rest. They’re either chasing stories, or when they are covering a story they had better have an angle, source, or expert that the others do not. And when you are in a race with at least six other news outlets, standing out isn’t easy.
Finding experts and having them ‘camera’ or ‘microphone’ ready is a must.
As Natalie explained to me, getting an expert for a story is absolutely crucial. In a market as diverse as New York City, those experts can range from police to politicians, to health and education officials, to scientists and artists.
Natalie also lent some great perspective on just how a reporter puts together a story and how your expert needs to know that news is also about storytelling and not just details.
“Last week I did a story about the heroin epidemic plaguing the Borough of Staten Island,” Natalie explained. “We like to begin our stories with a human element, in this case a recovering drug addict. In addition to his personal opinions and insight about how to prevent and slow the opioid crisis in the region, we also reached out to the local Drug Rehabilitation Center and interviewed a doctor as well as a therapist. We also interviewed the Staten Island District Attorney about the work he’s doing with New York State Governor to get more dollars for a drug task force to do everything from put more money into preventative education, build rehab centers, add police, fund additional assistant district attorneys to process criminal cases.”
If you were counting, you can see she spoke with three key experts on the subject of the story. Each was essential in the reporting process.
“For this story we featured several different experts on varying opinions on how this current drug crisis should be dealt with. All of the facts, stats and data for this story were based on the officials and experts we contacted.”
Being prepared and knowing what the reporter wants are also ideal elements in conveying the right message. For TV, short, smart, and to-the-point responses work best.
“We need a 10 to 15 second sound bite that is ideally informative and clear, and in some cases entertaining,” Duddridge told me. “When I am making calls to experts, I essentially do a pre-interview over the phone to hear how clearly they can explain a topic. If they are great at breaking down studies and terms into focused ideas that are concise and fit into a two-minute story, our job as reporters is so much easier.”
A win/win scenario. Your message is delivered, your institution and experts are promoted and the reporter files a great story.
It all seems simple.
But it’s not.
It takes training and preparation. If you are going to offer up your experts for an interview, they need to be ready.
Media training takes time, it costs money – but it’s an investment in your staff and your institution. As we learned from the example above, not knowing how to answer, interact, and respond to media can be devastating. Performing under pressure only succeeds with practice and training.
If your experts are media trained the reward will always outweigh the risk.
Here are a few tips:
Get media trained – Use a professional media coach. It costs money, but the professional development, readiness, comfort, and ability to deliver will pay off ten-fold.
Media-friendly experts get noticed – When your expert is on the news, people see them. They are representing your institution, so think about what this means for your credibility and recruiting potential.
You never get a second chance at a first impression – An old, clichéd saying, but it’s true. A weak speaker who comes across poorly imprints a negative impression on viewers, peers and your institution as a whole. It’s amateur hour, and it doesn’t need to be.
Friends for life – Once you prove yourself as a worthy and media-friendly source, the media will keep coming back. Experts who can provide journalists with the information, perspective, and sound bites they need are not only appreciated but noticed and remembered by all media. Once you have established yourself as a reliable source, expect the reporters to come calling time and time again.
Dividends – Every story where your expert looks good is positive earned media. Getting on NBC, CBS, FOX or any other nightly newscast is a huge win for your Communications Department. It’s exposure, promotion, and advertising—and it’s free.