Media Training Tips: Lessons from the New WH Press Secretary
On the evening of January 20, my Facebook feed was filled with fellow PR and Communications people posting some variation of “OMG. A professional press briefing. I’ve missed those!” Regardless of your politics, I think we can all agree that the past administration had a contentious relationship – at best – with the press. This often resulted in exchanges that weren’t about answering questions or telling a story.
The new White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, opened her first briefing on Inauguration Day with a pledge to be “transparent” – but what does that mean? I’ve been watching her briefings, and to be clear, I do think she is doing a great job of being transparent. But that doesn’t necessarily mean answering every question, and I’ve noticed that she’s very skilled at positioning her answers.
It occurred to me, watching her, that there are lessons for corporate spokespeople here. As you think about sharing your company’s messages through press coverage, watching Jen Psaki answer questions is a great place to start your media training. Below, we’ve shared five tips to keep in mind as you prepare for media interviews.
#1 You Don’t Need to Answer Every Question
At every single press briefing I’ve seen her conduct, there’s at least one question that Jen Psaki doesn’t answer. She’s very clear about, saying something like “I don’t have anything to share with you on that right now, but will certainly circle back when we have a comment.”
It’s important to remember that not answering a question is perfectly acceptable. Sometimes, you just don’t have the data in front of you. It’s far better to say so, and promise to follow up with the data later when you can verify it, than to give wrong information. Other times, you might not be ready to talk about something you’re being asked – and it’s OK to say so.
Press interviews are your opportunity to tell your story. Being clear when you can’t, or don’t want to, answer a question, is an important tool in helping you accomplish your PR objectives.
#2 Bridging is a Powerful Tool
Sometimes, a question you don’t want to or can’t answer is a fantastic segue to something you do want to say. Watch a White House press briefing for great examples of this. You’ll see lots of answers like, “I don’t have anything new to share on trade agreements, but I can tell you that the President is committed to promoting American industry and workers. Nothing is more important to this Administration than American jobs and opportunity for every American family.”
Here’s how this technique, called “bridging” works:
During an interview, you get a question that takes you off-topic or feels controversial. You can answer naturally with a brief statement that acknowledges the question, like in the example above: “I don’t have anything new to share on trade agreements.”
The next steps is to insert a “bridging” phrase like “In our experience, it’s more important to…” or “The real issue here is…” – we found a great list of bridging phrases here.
Follow the bridging phrase with one of your talking points (see next tip) that is most relevant to the question.
Be careful not to do this too often, or you will seem evasive. But used strategically, this is a powerful tool.
#3 Bring Your Talking Points – and Don’t Forget to Prepare
Think of the media interview as your party. If you want to get the most out of it, you should be prepared and know what you want to say. Otherwise, the whole process is a waste of your time. Have you seen Jen Psaki’s briefing book? It’s a big binder with key talking points, data she needs to answer questions, and likely, information about the reporters in the room, their biases/angles, recent stories they’ve written to get a sense of the issues they care about, and more.
We provide a smaller version of this to our clients when we arrange media interviews and recommend that everyone pull something like this together before a media interview. Taking the time to pull this together pays off.
Write down your top three-to-five talking points. The interview is a success if you’re able to reinforce these multiple times. You may also want to read a few recent pieces by the person interviewing you – bonus points for referencing one of their articles during the interview. “That’s an interesting question. I enjoyed reading your November 20th interview on this topic with the governor.”
Being familiar with their recent work will also help you anticipate what they may ask you. Spend time trying to anticipate tough questions and practice your answers to them. An experienced PR person can help with this.
#4 Practice Your Soundbites
Whenever possible, speak in soundbites, whether you’re speaking with a print reporter or being recorded for broadcast. Pithy, memorable phrases are easy to quote and easy to remember. You’ll want to develop quick anecdotes, and short, visual phrases for your talking points. Work with a professional to develop multiple soundbites for your top messages.
At the same time, it is also important to be yourself. Soundbites and messages should be developed in your voice so the conversation flows naturally.
#5 There’s No Such Thing As “Off The Record”
As a rule of thumb, assume that NOTHING you say is off the record. The tape is usually rolling before the interview starts – and the microphone is always on. Don’t say anything you don’t want to see included in the story – EVER.
PR Best Practices for Media Interviews
In short, the better prepared you are for media interviews, the more successful they will be. You absolutely must put in the time to prepare or the interview is just not worth doing. A strategic process for preparing your spokespeople for media interviews is key. A good PR agency team can conduct media training sessions, help develop your talking points and soundbites, and provide background information on the reporter so you can put your best foot forward. Best practices in PR will ensure that your executives present your organization in the best possible light and tell the story you want told.
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