How Do You Manage?: Learning how to handle the press

International Herald Tribune
April 20, 2007
by Roxana Popescu

Andy Warhol promised everyone 15 minutes of fame. But what if it hits when you aren't ready for it? Maybe a board member leaked that Google wants to buy your Web site, or your college roommate is implicated in an options backdating scandal. Suddenly cameras show up, people start blogging about you, and Larry King wants you on his show – tomorrow.

Handling the media is a skill most people do not pick up until they are faced with the need, and the results can be predictably poor. But it is actually relatively easy to avoid getting caught off guard and making rookie mistakes. On a more positive note, knowing how to give good interviews is a valuable tool for getting a company or cause coverage even before crisis hits.

If you are confronted with breaking news on which you are not prepared to comment, there is one thing on which media trainers agree: Never, ever say, "No comment." The quick retort may sound glamorous in your head, but doing anything quickly in a pressure situation can be damaging.

" 'No comment' almost always implies guilt, even if there is none," said Matt Lauer, managing director of Qorvis, a public relations firm in Washington, whose clients include politicians and chief executives. "Take your time, say you'll get back to the reporter."

Once you have given yourself some breathing space, your next step is to respond as quickly as possible, so as to stop or at least slow down the rumor mill, and as completely as you can, so as to sound credible. Review all the known facts. Keep the message simple. Speak clearly and concisely.

Lauer teaches his clients to frame their argument like a "diamond": Introduce the point, develop it with an anecdote or example, and then repeat it. This might sound like speech class for beginners, but on television people have to be much more "tenacious," Lauer said, since the environment is nerve-wracking and they have very little time to speak.

"Often you meet a CEO who can't explain what the company does in three or four paragraphs," he said. The goal should be to do it in 15 seconds or less.

He also teaches people how to take control of an interview, or at least not to relinquish control. Set out with a clear goal and do not let the interviewer veer from the agreed-upon subject. The idea is to sound affable and informed, but focused.

"Business men and women need to understand that it's their interview, not the reporter's," he said. It helps to practice with friends, to weed out assertiveness from obnoxiousness.

Print interviews are less rushed, so the pressures and pitfalls are different. More time means more opportunities to ramble, so speak calmly and crisply, said Barry McLoughlin, founder of CEO.TV, a media training firm also based in Washington.

He tells clients not to be pressured by silence. When there is a pause, inexperienced interview subjects rush to fill in, and sometimes they say things they shouldn't.

"You don't have to keep the interview going," McLoughlin said. "The reporter has to. Be disciplined in what you're saying. It's not an ordinary conversation, although it has conversational qualities to it."

Preparation is equally important: Know the subject and publication in advance, said Rebecca Shaw, executive vice president of Spaeth Communications. Then, shape comments for the target audience – lay readers or viewers versus a trade publication, or a business versus lifestyle angle.

Another skill is communicating facts through numbers. "A lot of executives I work with think that numbers are so obvious," Shaw said. "They think that numbers tell a story. The numbers only support the story." Place them in context, show how they have changed or how they compare to another value.

Media relations do not end with the interview. If a published article or broadcast report contains factual errors, get in touch immediately to correct them. But if the report simply did not hit the angle you hoped it would, grin and bear it, experts said. The interview may have been somewhat within your control, but the finished product is not.

And, in the best of worlds, a relationship with reporters should not start in a crisis, but when things are going well. "The ideal is to have them call you not for the story about the company, but just your views on the industry, because people think you're helpful," said William Merritt, chief executive of InterDigital, a telecommunications company in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. "That's the ideal: when you start to build a rapport with a reporter." Or, as McLoughlin put it, be a "good source before you're a good subject."