press

The local press was waiting. The CEO had been well prepared by his communications team for the interview. Due to challenging economic times, his company was being forced to close a local fish processing facility and consolidate operations to stay afloat. The decision had been a difficult one, but the union was onside because they agreed it was the only way to keep the business above water and preserve the bulk of the jobs. Now there was only one thing left for the CEO to do: speak to the press about the decision, which would have a significant impact on the local community.

The CEO had been reluctant to do the interview because of his fear of being “skewered” or “trapped” by the questions. But he agreed after relentless, extensive media training in which he prepared a list of answers to all the questions he feared, and had written a list of key messages he was focused on delivering.

The interview began. Looking the CEO straight in the eye, the interviewer asked respectfully, “Exactly how many jobs will be lost due to this closure?”

The CEO looked down at his key messages, and replied: “We’re committed to ensuring long-term employment for as many of our employees as is possible during these challenging economic times.”

There was an awkward silence.

The interviewer tried another question: “What alternatives did you consider before reaching this decision?”

The response came quickly: “This decision is in the best interests of our customers, shareholders and our employees. We are committed to the long-term here.”

Noticeably irritated by these platitudinous answers, the interviewer ramped up his intensity. He asked: “Do you even care about the impact to this community, where these closures will create real hardship?”

The CEO looked down at the sheet. No message was to be found. And this question had never come up in his mock interview prep! He found himself getting anxious. Unsure of what to say, and feeling cornered, he lashed out, “I’m surprised you’d ask me that. How dare you imply that we don’t care about this?”

The interview went downhill from there. The next day the article ran. The headline: “Fish boss gives slippery answers; it’s him who should be on the hook for local job cuts.”

This kind of bad press should have been avoided. After all, there were sound reasons for the closure. The affected union was on board with the difficult decision. And the CEO had prepared extensively for the interview. Yet the interview was a disaster. Why?

Because this leader’s over-preparation and focus on staying “on message” both robbed him of any authenticity while leading him to deliver canned remarks that conveyed little substance.

At The Humphrey Group, we help our clients take a different approach to interactions with the media. We firmly believe that the key is not to “play defense” by staying “on message,” but to instead view the interaction through the lens of leadership. Here’s are five ways encourage our clients to capitalize on the opportunity (and, remember, talking to the press is an opportunity):

1. Adopt the leader’s mindset

The CEO in the opening story approached his preparation and the interview itself with a fearful mindset. His concern was avoiding being skewered or trapped; his solution was to stay “on script” and not to answer anything that might back him into a corner. Yet he ended up giving tense and adversarial responses, which precipitated a tense and adversarial conversation.

Leaders look at media interactions as opportunities to influence and share their story to broad audiences. They recognize that they will have to face tough questions, and that it will be impossible to anticipate everything they will be asked. Instead of worrying about being trapped, they think about the dialogue as a chance to get their ideas across to a broader audience than they could reach on their own.

Read: An Insider’s Guide to PR

2. Prepare the right way

The CEO made two common mistakes in his preparation. First, he had over-prepared for specific questions, making him anxious when he was asked something he hadn’t anticipated. Second, he had a list of key messages he had memorized and was overly focused on getting across. The result was a lack of flexibility in the interview and answers that seemed formulaic—something journalists hate.

Preparation is crucial, but the most effective leaders focus on preparing their thinking rather than any specific answers. When we prepare senior leaders we start by talking about the issues they are likely to speak about, and then work on getting their stories straight. The adage, “no plan survives contact with the enemy” can be as easily applied to a Q&A as it is to war. That’s why pre-scripted answers should be replaced with clarity about the positions you want to take on the issues that may arise in the interview.

Read: 4 Keys to Getting Media Coverage

3. Answer the darn question already!

Another mistake the fishing CEO made was to not answer the interviewer’s question; instead, he tried to skip over tough realities and instead give a “speech.”

When talking to the press you need to earn the right to give a message. Nothing reeks more of “spin” then delivering canned messages instead of actual answers. By giving a succinct and focused answer up front (e.g. “the closure will result in the loss of 185 jobs”) you can then credibly move to a clear, positive message (e.g. “and that’s why we worked hand-in-hand with our unions to ensure we’d explored every possible alternative”).

4. Stay positive (but not unrealistic)

The CEO sounded tone-deaf because he only delivered positives when there were clearly negatives associated with the closure. To be sure, there is always a risk in an interview that a statement may be printed without context; this is why it is critical to stay positive and avoid unnecessary negatives.

Yet leaders recognize that they must acknowledge challenges or difficult realities when talking to the media. Doing so allows them to show why the decisions they are talking about were warranted and required.

Read: The 5 Classic PR Blunders SMEs Make

5. Be authentic

Why do newspapers and television shows go to the trouble of conducting in-person interviews, rather than simply emailing lists of questions? Because they are looking for human interaction and perspective on business decisions. When talking about the closure, the CEO could have used the opportunity to talk about the sadness he’d felt, the 30% pay cuts he and his executive had chosen to take until they could reopen the facility or how he’d personally called each person who lost their job to apologize for the closure.

When talking to the media the most effective leaders show their personality and allow their audience a window into their personality and thought process.

By approaching interviews with the media in this way, you’ll be better able to treat them leadership opportunities, and to share your own authentic stories with broad audiences. And that can give you the kind of great press that can genuinely boost your business.

Bart Egnal is president and CEO of The Humphrey Group, which teaches people to communicate as inspiring leaders and express ideas that move others to action. The company has offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Mexico City, and serves clients around the world.

More columns by Bart Egnal

Do you hate dealing with the press? What strategies have you found effective in making it more comfortable and effective? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Loading comments, please wait.