Years ago, when I was just a young communications manager, I had a great idea to pitch out to media about my company. It involved getting one of our company’s financial experts to comment on something that was happening in the news that day. The expert said sure, he’d love to do it. He had gone through media training already and was good with the key messages, but told me to get the okay from legal.
That was the day I learned that legal counsel is paid to say no. In fact, that’s exactly what the lawyer told me as he sat in his office high above Portage and Main in Winnipeg.
“If you want a quick answer, the answer is no. If you want a different answer, it will take me some time,” he said with a chuckle. News reports featured commentary from another company’s experts that day, not ours.
First mover status is rewarded in media relations – whether you’re responding to positive or negative news. The trick, as the lawyer taught me that day, is to be ready to move.
When you want to do some newsjacking (ie. piggy back on to a current news event with information or commentary from your brand), your chances of success are measured by how well you can craft your pitch, prep your spokesperson as well as how quickly you can get it to either into publication or into the hands of media who are likely to care.
Time for media training is now
That’s why the time to train your key spokespeople and subject matter experts to speak to the media is today. If you don’t prep your people, and you still want to throw them in front of cameras, then you’re gambling things will come off well.
Many people – especially reporters – think that media interviews are no big deal. They’re just simple conversations. Be truthful and genuine and you’ll be fine, they say. Don’t believe them. Interviews are artificial conversations that will be manipulated by a writer at a keyboard or a producer in a studio. Those writers and producers are after one thing: a large audience. The only way you get large audiences is by telling dramatic stories that feed on conflict and controversy. I’m not complaining about it – just stating a fact.
Other than violent crime or injury coverage (and often even then), news stories usually follow one or more of several common archetypes:
- Good guys versus bad guys
- Winners versus losers
- Hey, look at this stupid decision
- Wow, here’s something really unique or absurd
- Did you hear what this politician/celebrity/executive said?
Anyone who maintains that interviews are ‘just friendly conversations’ ignores the reality of what the news is as well as how and why it is produced.
The companies that do best in the media are those who are prepared all the time. They have spokespeople ready to go. Executives and subject matter experts receive media training regularly – annual refresher courses are a good idea. Bring new people into the room so they can see how the seasoned pros do it too. That way your organization is always learning.
Be first whenever you can
Today, there is no break in the news cycle. In fact, the traditional media are now frequently trailing behind the news on social media. Companies and individuals self-publish the news to get ahead of the curve.
In this environment of fast-breaking, never-ending news, it’s more important than ever to always try to be first. And if you can’t be first, then be early, especially if the story is about you.
Remember this: human beings have strong perception biases. Those biases can lead us to cling to the first thing we hear on a subject as truth until it can be soundly disproved. In media relations, that means reporters are disproportionately influenced by the first person they talk to on a story. The ‘other side’ of the story often takes a backseat – their views summarized in a single sentence at the end of the story.
*Updated August 26, 2016 to correct typographical errors.
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