How And Why Media Training Can Keep CEOs On Message During A Crisis

The ability to talk to reporters, answer their questions and stay on message is an essential skill, especially during a crisis. The failure to do so can make any crisis situation worse and damage the image, reputation and credibility of officials who talk to the media—and their organizations.

The latest example of going off message—or having confusing and mixed messages—has played out over the past few days. The Biden administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have tried to communicate with the American public about the latest developments and advice concerning the Covid pandemic, with mixed and disappointing results.

Effective Messages

Ed Barks is a communications consultant and author of Reporters Don’t Hate You. He said, “Messages must be clear, concise and easy for spokespeople to deliver. [The] CDC does not have an enviable time of it given the ever-evolving Covid conditions and complex scientific issues. That makes it all the more vital for the leadership and communications staff there to fine tune the message consistently, and to do so with the everyday person on the street top of mind.”

Barks observed that, “Oftentimes scientists and technically-minded experts have difficulty couching their message in everyday terms. This, of course, makes it hard for the general public to comprehend and act upon. With messaging surrounding pandemic issues so critically important, getting it right in this case truly is a matter of life and death.”

CDC Head Seeks To Improve Communication Skills

Professional media trainers can help corporate and other officials communicate effectively, efficiently and strategically during a crisis and stay on message. These advisors and consultants can provide the guidance and discipline that business leaders need in order to deal successfully with the media.

CNN reported on Friday that, “For months, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has met privately with prominent Democratic media consultant Mandy Grunwald to improve her communication skills and continues to do so, according to a person familiar with the previously unreported sessions.

Cultivating A Better Messaging Approach

Indeed, CNN noted that, ““Since assuming her role, Walensky has worked to improve her internal communications and sought to cultivate a better messaging approach, according to officials. Yet there remains dissatisfaction among both administration aides and outside public health experts in some of the ways the CDC has communicated its decisions as the pandemic enters what officials view as a new phase.”

‘Media Interviews Are Not Everyday Conversations’

Karen Friedman of Karen Friedman Enterprises has extensive experience training spokesperson in the healthcare industry and during the Covid pandemic. She said that, “Conducting a media interview without appropriate training is like an amateur jumping into a boxing ring with a professional. The outcome won’t be pretty.” (Full disclosure: I am a former corporate spokesperson and media trainer and worked with Friedman and others years ago to provide training to company spokespersons and other officials.)

She noted that, “Media interviews are not everyday conversations. They are conversations sustained by messages. If you don’t understand how to deliver a crisp clear compelling message, you can damage public perception and harm your company’s reputation.”

Benefits And Advantages Of Media Training

Friedman observed that, “Good media training teaches you how to reduce the risk of being misquoted, anticipate questions and learn how to marry key messages into conversations instead of waiting for the interviewer to ask [the] ‘right’ question. It also helps you put complicated information into simple terms.

“Facing tough questions can be daunting for anyone. Practicing mock-interviews in advance will help you stick to your message, gain comfort, confidence and through, in-person or virtual video playback, see how you come across to others.”

What To Look For In A Media Trainer

Knowing How To Ask Questions

Friedman said that, “Former journalists understand what questions will be asked and how responses might be used in a story. Often, when preparing for a media training, firms send us a list of questions they want asked, but these are not always the questions a reporter will actually ask.”

News Background

“When looking for a media trainer, the most important thing you can do is get references. What was it like to work with this person? Did you feel prepared? Did they ask questions you were actually asked when being interviewed? Could you turn negatives to positives? And, if they seem to follow some kind of media training template or cookie cutter approach, you should run the other way,” Friedman counseled.