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So You Want to Be a Spokesperson?

Make sure you know “The Rules of the Game.”

Becoming a media spokesperson for your company or organization is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. It’s a job that requires some special knowledge and some unique skills — skills not commonly found or mastered elsewhere. To succeed, you need to learn these new skills — and most important — “The Rules of the Game.”

“Winging it” is not a strategy for success, neither for you nor your organization. And playing the game without knowing the rules is a recipe for disaster.

If the idea of appearing on TV or being quoted in a newspaper or on the web — facing tough, knowledgeable or dogged reporters — scares you, you’re not alone. It scares most people. The perception is that there’s little you can do to influence or control it, and nobody likes to feel out of control.

That’s the perception. Now here’s the reality — the exact opposite is true! You can be “in-control” if you learn how to take control of every facet of an interview.

For any organization, getting news coverage is like two sides of a coin. Heads — we get free, positive stories that shape public opinion in our organization’s favor. Tails — we get negative attention just when we don’t want it — and it hurts. So, a better understanding of the news media is useful and necessary if we hope to tip the odds in our favor.

Understanding how the media behaves — and why — gives you confidence, and confidence changes everything. It lets you see media interviews as opportunities instead of dreaded confrontations — opportunities to get your message across to the audience.

What do the media have that you need? Access to people — readers, viewers, and listeners. Journalists are the eyes and ears of that audience. In other words, to get your message to the audience, you have to “go through” reporters and editors.

Most reporters today come from journalism school believing they have a sacred mission to dig out information that will expose wrongdoing or corruption or deception, thus saving society from harm. The hotter the controversy… the more immediate the crisis… the more this attitude drives their behavior. Out of this attitude comes the belief they are entitled to ask anyone, about anything, at any time and in any place. Their questions can be inappropriate or downright rude and insensitive. There are many examples of reporters acting in bad taste or exercising questionable judgment. That’s why a critical strategy is to “know thy opponent.”

Not only is it their job — in our democracy, reporters have a right, even a duty, to ask challenging and probing questions, because they have the right to ask a question, it doesn’t mean you have to answer it.

Remember, the first responsibility of a reporter is the same as yours — get the job done. Coming back from an interview without any usable information… without a story that makes sense… without any colorful soundbites or good quotes… will not help a reporter keep his editor happy.

If there is a prevailing view of the press, it is that reporters often play loosely with the facts and use the most negative information. So the first responsibility of any interviewee is to tell the truth — and tell it so clearly — that the reporter is able to report it accurately. People who go into interviews unprepared are the number one cause of misreported stories, as they “wing it” or make it up as they go along. It’s unrealistic to think that a reporter, especially one who’s young and inexperienced or new to a beat, will be able to grasp a complicated idea or story — when the person telling it is fumbling and rambling their way through the interview.

Reporters are nothing more than human beings doing their jobs. Just like you and me, they appreciate anything or anyone that makes their job easier — or makes them look good.

When a spokesperson is doing her job correctly, a considerable amount of the interview time is actually spent teaching — giving explanations and providing background to help the reporter understand both the story and its context. If the topic is extremely complex or if the reporter needs more depth, “teaching time” might be half the interview.

When you actually help a reporter do his or her job, not only will you have a more positive interview experience, over time you will also gain a reputation as a “great interview.” This can pay big dividends later when reporters seek you out — giving you many additional chances to get your organization’s message across to their audience.

We don’t have to tell you that the news business these days operates globally 24/7/365. But do you realize just how intense the competition is for the media today?

At the latest estimate — not even including trade publications — there are tens of thousands of news outlets in the U.S. alone. Cable and network TV news, 24-hour news radio, daily and weekly newspapers, news magazines, newsletters, internet news sites, online digests, news feeders and news aggregators, blogs, podcasters — you name it. They are all fighting for an audience and they’re all hungry for information.

That’s why reporters and editors will pursue almost any story — giving it little more than a sniff test. Reporters literally make a couple of calls and find something that smells like a story—and suddenly, it’s news. The higher profile your organization or industry, or the higher up you are on the executive ladder, the greater the likelihood you’ll be dealing with the media.

Just like you and me, reporters have bosses. Knowing what drives them reveals a great deal

Reporters’ bosses are called editors or producers, and it’s their job to put together a news program or newspaper that grabs and holds an audience better than all their competitors. If you could walk a mile in a reporter’s shoes, you’d quickly learn they have to deliver stories that their bosses like.

When they come back to the newsroom, their boss will ask, “What have you got?” The reporter’s response has to describe the source. Was it an expert — someone in a position to know or with the proper experience to provide solid information on the topic? You will assist the reporter when you explain your qualifications without being asked. In doing so, you’ve helped the reporter to better deal with the grumpy editor or prickly producer who’s skeptical of everything their staffers are trying to get past them.

Reporters can take different approaches or points of view — called the angle — when reporting any story. For example, in reporting a financial story, one angle might be, “Why did the Fed raise interest rates?” Another might be, “How you should be investing your money now.”

When reporting on your operations, the angle could be, “How you’re doing from your customers’ point of view.” Or it could be about improvements in your products, or how your labor force is changing — or how you’re destroying the environment. There are all kinds of angles, positive or negative, laudatory or critical.

Your objective as a spokesperson is to align your key messages with the reporter’s angle.

Reporters are trained to find stories that are newsworthy and interesting. One quick way is to think of news as containing one or more of the four C’s: controversy, color, contradiction and conflict. But it’s more helpful to be more specific:

  • weighty story is one full of bad news and tragedy.
  • A story with impact is one that affects lots of people.
  • A story with human interest touches people’s emotions.
  • One with controversy or conflict pits two sides against each other to create a battle whose outcome is not known, thus creating a mystery.
  • Stories with big names make big news, and ones that are nearby get more attention.
  • Stories with tips to help people make smarter decisions are useful.
  • Other stories could just have an educational angle: what does this new gadget or program do?
  • And don’t forget, except in radio, good pictures influence how editors judge any story’s newsworthiness.
  • Finally, when something new and novel or unusual brings a fresh, timely aspect to a big story, that can make it more newsworthy. Think of it as a new twist on an old story.

All that said, there’s no real universal definition of news. As legendary reporter and NBC network anchor David Brinkley once said: “News is what I say it is.” So on a slow news day, your minor story becomes a big one, and on a day with lots of breaking stories, your “big news” just got kissed off. Don’t blame yourself or the reporter; it’s just the way it is.

Journalists know what makes a good story: drama, emotion, tension — not just a collection of facts and dry information. The best stories are about people, because that’s the number one thing readers and viewers want to know about — other people. So if you can tell your story in terms of what your organization’s people did, are doing, or will do, reporters will be much more likely to use your material — and your messages.

While the best strategy is to be helpful to the reporter, do it absolutely professionally. It’s a big mistake to try to play buddy-buddy. Remember, reporters have ONE allegiance — to the public — not you. Serious journalists call them as they see them. You have a right to fair or balanced coverage, and you have a right to factual stories. It’s nice when you get a favorable story, but you don’t have the right to expect or demand it.

Talking to a reporter is not the time to demonstrate your command of complex terminology or industry buzzwords. Leave your jargon at the door and tell it as if you’re telling it to your own teenager. Keep the language plain, simple and direct. Why? Because you’re not really talking to the reporter — you’re talking to the readers and viewers at home.

Let’s be clear about what a media interview is:

  • A news interview is NOT a mere “Q&A session.”
  • It’s NOT a deposition or inquisition.
  • You are NOT giving courtroom testimony.
  • A news interview is NOT an intellectual exercise or a game of verbal chess.
  • And it’s definitely NOT a conversation with a friend or a stand-up comedy routine.
  • It IS an opportunity to present YOUR message.
  • It IS a situation in which you will likely know more about the subject than the reporter.
  • It IS a time when the reporter and spokesperson need each other to get their jobs done.
  • It IS a unique situation in which selected parts of your verbal and non-verbal communication are going to be either seen, heard or described in writing to an audience.

As we said, you will need to learn some special techniques to get your messages across.

Reporters are not all alike. There are young ones and experienced ones, local ones and national ones, cynical ones and skeptical ones, TV reporters and print reporters, trade and professional journal reporters, general assignment reporters, reporters with specific beats, tech-savvy reporters and hopelessly clueless ones. Currently, there is a debate raging in legal circles whether bloggers are reporters, able to enjoy the same press protections as their traditional counterparts.

In the same day on the same story, a spokesperson may speak to an old pro, a stringer and an intern who’s actually not out of college yet! And at the same time, the stories and story angles they are working on may differ as well. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • A TV reporter may be told by her producer your story will be a short item on the news that night, so she will ask a couple of obvious questions and then she “has to run.” She has several other stories to get to. She also has a hot lunch date.
  • A daily newspaper reporter who’s new in town or new on your beat may have no idea what your company or organization does. All he has is a slip of paper given to him by the assignment editor with a couple of questions on it and a clipping from the previous day as his only background. Trying to do a good job, he asks you two dozen questions, but unfortunately most of them don’t relate to the point of the story.
  • At the other extreme, a dedicated beat reporter from a newsmagazine or industry journal may have been covering your field for years and also spent most of the morning talking to your competitors and searching LexisNexis for stories about all your organization’s activities and statements for the last five years. And, like the old pro she is, she has also spent time gaming her interview and her question types.
  • Or a weekend newspaper reporter in Texas (whose paper doesn’t come out until Monday) gets a call from a local ranch owner about a shooting involving the vice president, calls the White House for confirmation, and puts it up on the paper’s website so the story breaks on the wire services and goes national just minutes later.

We use these examples to remind you that while all reporters are just doing their jobs, they can do them in very different ways, and the end results can differ greatly.

If you ever go to an interview without knowing exactly who you will be talking to, you’re winging it, and you’ve broken the first rule of any game: Know the other team!

If you’re not willing to work at preparing, don’t take the job.

If you’re going to be a good spokesperson for your organization, then you must know how to prepare for an interview. Preparing is your responsibility — it comes with the job. If you resist preparing and rehearsing, it’s best if you don’t take the job.

Fortunately, it’s not a mystery. There are five straightforward steps in preparing for an interview. They are not long and complicated. Following them actually makes it easier for you to prepare well.

And best of all, reporters appreciate someone who has taken the time to prepare. It’s another signal of professional respect — that you intend to help them do their job.

First, check out the reporter and their publication or program in advance. You probably have a protocol already established with your public relations counsel to do this. Take time to become familiar with the reporter’s work, his publication and his audience. Not only will you be better prepared, the reporter will appreciate it when you refer to things of his that you’ve seen or read.

You would never agree to make a speech to a big, important audience without knowing what the topic was and what their interests were, would you? So why would you ever agree to a media interview without knowing the same things? Savvy spokespersons learn how to question the reporter to help them define and limit the scope of the interview.

Third, exactly what are you going to talk about? Not knowing what to talk about is the Number One confidence destroyer for spokespeople. What are the key messages that you want the audience to remember or come away with? What headline do you want to read in tomorrow’s paper? This is how to develop and manage your key messages.

Great soundbites or quotes don’t happen by accident. They’re thought about and prepared in advance. Reporters need them, along with powerful examples and proof points. If they use yours, you will exert a much greater influence on the final story that runs.

Finally, knowing how to rehearse is the mark of all successful spokespersons.

In his book “How to Talk to Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere,” Larry King emphasized how easy it is to communicate properly during an interview. Just do one thing: talk about things you know… AND ONLY THE THINGS YOU KNOW. If you don’t know something, say so. “I don’t know,” is always acceptable when it’s the truth.

King told the story of his first radio job. He froze on the air. He couldn’t speak. His boss poked his head in the studio and told him if he didn’t talk, he’d be fired. He decided to be honest. He admitted he was nervous. He confessed it was his first time on radio, and he hasn’t stopped talking since. In short, he talked about things he knew. Your biggest problem with the media is the feeling of not knowing what to say. Once you have SOMETHING to say, and you know you can talk honestly about it, you really can talk to the media anytime and anywhere.

A good spokesperson has one job and only one job — to get her organization’s key messages into the story, into print or on the air.

As a spokesperson, you’re speaking for your organization, not yourself. Your personal opinion doesn’t matter. But your personal demeanor does. Over 90 percent of what the audience takes away is directly the result of how you LOOK and how you SOUND while speaking. Remember, you are communicating both verbally and nonverbally.

What reads well on paper may not communicate effectively when spoken. That’s why the final and most critical step in preparation is to translate your organization’s key messages into your own, natural words. You must look and sound like you truly believe in what you’re saying. You must avoid sounding scripted, or worse, like a wooden marionette.

The interview begins the moment you walk into the room and continues until you and the reporter have parted ways. If you don’t want to read it in tomorrow’s paper, just don’t say it. That goes for chitchat — even when you think the camera or recorder is off or the notepad has been put away.

There is one issue we want to be very clear about. Don’t go “off the record”. Ever. “Off the record” means too many different things to different reporters. It doesn’t matter if the reporter says things like: “I won’t quote you.” Or: “Just between you and me.” Or: “It’s for background I won’t use it in the story.” The only sure way to be “off the record” is not to say it in the first place. If you say it, expect it to be used.

A newspaper or online text reports what you said during your interview, and can also describe how you looked and acted while saying it. Radio, television and online video present you actually saying it. It’s what’s called an actuality or soundbite, or just a bite. The TV or radio reporter will stick a microphone in your face. So will most print reporters — they use mini-cassette or MP3 recorders to make sure their quotations are accurate. It’s a good idea for you to do the same, especially if the interview subject is complex, contentious or risky.

And increasingly today, print reporters of all types are shooting video for their publication’s website; so for all intents and purposes, there’s very little difference between your interactions with the various media types.

While television has set the style for modern news reporting, print reporters can also watch you and report what they see — not just what you say. Your effectiveness often depends on your image in the first few seconds of an encounter. Often there is only time for a few words of exchange, so they better be the right words.

The average length of a broadcast news story today is one minute and 30 seconds.

The average length of a soundbite on the air today is under 10 seconds, closer to eight.

It’s nearly the same for newspapers and magazines today. Print stories are becoming ever shorter, with greater reliance on pictures, charts, graphs, diagrams and sidebars. The print equivalent of a soundbite is a quote, and they are often even shorter than 10 seconds when spoken.

Soundbites and quotes are used to support the reporter’s narration, not to replace it. So don’t expect all — or even a substantial part of what you say — to get on air or into print. It won’t. What reporters look for are short, powerful, interesting statements.

President Ronald Reagan was famous for using soundbites very effectively to make his points memorable. One of Reagan’s best was how he described his position on national defense: “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose.” Reagan wasn’t known as “The Great Communicator” for nothing.

Everybody remembers “Read my lips, no new taxes” or “I have a dream” or “It’s the economy, stupid.” These catchy phrases don’t happen spontaneously. They’re carefully crafted, and then prepared and rehearsed. When reporters use your soundbite, they’re actually putting extra emphasis on your messages. They may be short, but they’re worth your attention.

You should strive to tell your story or key message within 20 seconds. Research shows attention spans are getting shorter, so your message must be clear and concise if it is to have any chance of getting through.

Think about this. If you can’t summarize your point in 20 seconds, your message may be too muddled for the average person in the audience to grasp. And, as you know, in many instances, it’s that average person we need to influence the most. So it’s critical that you master the 20-second technique.

The lesson here? Brevity gets used. Remember: your job is to get your key messages delivered to the audience. If they’re not used, you lose.

Your image is more than WHAT you say. It’s HOW you say it and what you LOOK and SOUND like when you say it.

Do you want to be sitting or standing?

Is there something in the background distracting the audience?

Where do you want to be looking?

Are you fidgeting, rocking back and forth, or swaying?

Do you slouch?

Is your voice timbre strong and commanding? Or do you sound weak and tentative?

You send powerful images through your eye contact, facial expressions, body movements, voice pitch and inflection. Does your speech convey a sense of confidence? Do you know your stuff? Are you in command of the facts? Are you enthusiastic about what you’re saying… or just mouthing words?

Remember…we’re dealing with perceptions — how the reporter and the audience see you. They make critical judgments about your all-important credibility from exactly these things.

When you feel confident and in-control, you project that to the camera, the reporter and the audience. If you look distressed or depressed, if you slump down, use tired language, look off into space instead of making direct eye contact with the interviewer, you’ll reduce your effectiveness.

In other words, you will not be properly doing your job as the spokesperson for your organization.

Few people can do all this automatically. It has to be learned and practiced. Otherwise, you’re just “winging it.”

Credit for this article belongs to multiple EMA Media Training team members: Ann Higbee, Greg Loh and Peter Kapcio, with special thanks to former television news reporter and Professor of Broadcast Journalism Ron Hastings.

For more information contact:

Peter Kapcio
Eric Mower + Associates
Phone: (315) 413-4292
pkapcio@mower.com