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Step up to the Mike

Media training not only prepares your professors for talking to reporters — it can also add more credibility to your PR efforts

By Lisa Grider




The interview was going well. As the cameras rolled, my new boss, Seton Hall University's vice president for university affairs, looked great. He easily answered the reporter's questions about the university's new $17 million academic building and its recently announced partnership with the United Nations Association. He was smiling; making great eye contact with Steve, the reporter; even laughing at Steve's jokes. Then Steve dropped the bombshell. From out of the blue, he asked my boss about an extremely sensitive issue - one in which the university was quite vulnerable.

From the edge of the stage, my heart skipped a beat. I think my boss's did, too. His smile vanished. His eyes darted around quickly. And then he spoke. "Ah, well, Steve ... um, well ... that's really not. ... I wasn't involved in that. ... Oh boy, what do I say?"

"Cut!" I yelled, and the cameras stopped. Luckily this wasn't a real interview. It was the first segment of a media training class I was conducting for members of Seton Hall's executive cabinet. My boss had volunteered to be the first guinea pig in a mock interview session, and he had just unwittingly done exactly what I wanted him to - he showed his skeptical colleagues why they needed to be in the class that day.

Most campus public relations officers undoubtedly have a story like this to tell. Unfortunately, most of their stories are real. To you and me, even one such episode might seem enough to warrant a full-scale media training program. But in reality, convincing faculty and top administrators of the need for media training can be a tough sell.

At Seton Hall, by using media training as an ongoing tool for institutional image-building instead of a one-shot crisis-management project, we have developed a successful program that has helped our administrators and faculty members become more confident in speaking to the media, enhanced the university's visibility, and built on-campus confidence in the public relations staff. Read on to learn how we got our program started and how you can do the same at your campus - and guarantee its success.

First, build your case

Just as all your institution's programs follow from its vision statement, your media relations efforts should flow from a deliberate, well-considered philosophy. Develop this philosophy with input from your institution's most visible spokesperson - your president - and use it to guide all your public relations programs and interactions with reporters. At Seton Hall, our philosophy is simple: "Any media interaction is an opportunity to tell the public who we are and what our mission is."

Then, before you start the formal training sessions, earn campus respect by working on one or two high-profile media projects. Identify a faculty member who's involved in important research or an administrator who can serve as an expert on a topic of national interest, then offer to serve as his or her personal media consultant. Shortly after I came to Seton Hall, for example, the director of our Center for Public Service, Naomi Wish, was preparing to announce the results of her three-year study on the nationwide effects of a New Jersey Supreme Court decision regarding race and public housing. By working individually with Wish to prepare her for some difficult and explosive questions likely to surface at the press conference, we earned a campus supporter for our media training efforts.

Another way to convince wary administrators of media training's importance is to analyze your institution's media coverage. Nothing makes your point clearer than a front-page story that falls short of communicating your institution's message. Don't hesitate to point out to key administrators how media training could have improved a so-so story or neutralized a bad one. After an article appears, follow up with the campus representatives who appeared in the story. Ask how they felt about the interview - did their message come through? If not, use that discussion as a "teaching moment" to build your case for media training.

Choose a media training partner

The key to the success of our program at Seton Hall is our partnership with the aforementioned Steve - Emmy-award-winning television broadcaster and producer Steve Adubato Jr., who agreed to conduct nine training sessions with me each year. Steve's extensive experience in public and network television gives our participants an insider's view of the needs and expectations of the news media. (He also holds a Ph.D. in communications - an all-important credential when gaining the confidence of faculty members.)

Consider inviting a local media professional to work with you on your training program. There's usually at least one who frequently guest lectures or perhaps even serves as an adjunct professor at your institution - in which case he or she has already shown an aptitude for teaching. Steve, for example, is also a guest lecturer at Seton Hall and a teacher in our online executive communication master's degree program.

Once you've identified a possible partner, spend some time talking about how you both envision the program - how often you'll conduct the sessions, what you feel is an optimal group size, what speaking style you prefer - and make sure he or she supports your institution's media relations philosophy.

Finally, talk money. Ask your potential partner to "pilot" a session or two at no charge, then evaluate the sessions together and agree on a figure that fits within your budget. Since any partner you choose probably has a regular income from his or her full-time media job, fees aren't likely to be as daunting as those of a full-time consultant.

The invitation list

Media training is not for everyone on your campus. To build prestige for the program, consider making participation an "invitation only" opportunity. Initially, Steve and I trained Seton Hall's president and executive cabinet. We followed that with a session for all the academic deans, and we've gradually expanded the program to include administrative directors and an array of faculty members. The deans and public relations account managers from the various university deparments recommend new participants. We send invitations to them via e-mail and then follow up with a phone call.

We try to group peers together - department chairs, administrative directors, and so on - to ensure that participants feel safe enough to learn from their mistakes. We adopted this small-group format after several attempts to provide individual media training. While one-on-one training may work in a crisis, we learned by trial and error that administrators and faculty members give at least as much credibility to the feedback they get from their peers as that from the trainers.

Planning the sessions

Our media training sessions range in size from eight to 12 participants and run for three hours each - that's about all the time our busy participants are able to give. We conduct one training session per month during the academic year so that it's not too long between when participants get recommended and when they can enroll in the class.

Prior to the session, I prepare background information on each participant. Like the baseball catcher who keeps a "book" on opposing batters, I give my media training partner a synopsis of each participant's past media experiences, plus an alert to areas where I think the person needs extra help. Needless to say, I don't share this information with the participants, but it's a great help to Steve. These "cheat sheets" allow him to quickly set up personalized mock interviews - like the one with my boss - that immediately get the participants' undivided attention.

Let the sessions begin

Our three-hour sessions are fast-paced and often go by without a break. Early on, Steve and I agreed to be fairly aggressive about making sure participants understand that whatever their area of expertise, dealing with the news media is a skill that one acquires only through preparation and practice.

We start with introductions and then launch a group discussion about participants' attitudes toward the news media. Their comments are fairly predictable:

  • "I don't like to talk to the press. I always get misquoted."
  • "I'm really afraid of journalists. They always seem to have their own agendas."
  • "I'm not comfortable putting myself out there as an expert."
  • And perhaps the scariest response: "I don't really need training; I'm already pretty good at doing this."

Steve and I listen carefully during this discussion. We debunk some myths, correct inaccurate information, and otherwise make it very clear that the two of us understand how the media work. We confirm that journalists often do have their own agendas, but stress that the person being interviewed should, too.

We then move to role-playing, where we ask one participant to volunteer for the hot seat. The role-playing is by no means an ambush interview, but Steve does challenge the participant with some unexpected questions. The other participants observe the interview and then answer three questions about it:

1. What was the person's message?
2. Did he/she stay on message?
3. Was he/she credible?

This is an eye-opening experience for the group. The observers are usually sympathetic to colleagues, but they are also quick to point out when they don't understand what the interviewee is trying to say.

We discuss the first interview as a group, while Steve and I mix in our key lessons. To reinforce the lessons, we use videotapes - many taken from local newscasts - to illustrate both successful and disastrous media performances. Participants often note in their evaluations that these tapes help clarify the concepts we discuss.

We reserve the last 75 to 90 minutes of the session for more individual mock interviews. When a group has more than 10 people, Steve and I divide them into two groups so that they all get a chance to experience the feeling of having a microphone (or reporter's notepad) in their face.

Initially, we videotaped or audiotaped every participant. Frankly, we did this because almost every other media trainer either of us had ever encountered did it, and we thought it must be a necessary element for the participants. After nearly two years of conducting monthly sessions, however, we've found that videotaping is instructive but not necessary - and the additional staff needed and predictable technical difficulties you'll experience can prove to be more of a distraction than an enhancement to the training.

Key lessons for a successful interview

During the workshop, Steve and I do not spend a great deal of time on things like posture, attire, voice, and diction - we can do follow-up on those issues individually. We have found that for our own credibility, it is important that we spend the majority of the participants' time on lessons that go beyond aesthetics. Here's a look at the eight key lessons we focus on at Seton Hall.

1. Know your message. Leading communications consultant Merrie Spaeth teaches that successful interviewees are those who can set aside their concerns about what questions the reporter is going to ask and focus instead on what they want the audience to remember. Of course, that means participants must first spend time thinking about who their audience is. For anyone who's representing a college or university, determining your key audience is simple. To borrow from James Carville, "It's the students, stupid!"

So when we're helping participants construct their key message, we advise them to frame every issue - be it faculty collective bargaining or the school's latest bond rating - in terms of student impact. It not only makes for better interviews but provides a refreshing reminder of our most basic institutional mission.

2. Understand the reporter's job. Steve and I have found a general lack of understanding among our participants about how journalists are assigned stories, supervised, and expected to produce.

So we explain that most reporters today are on "general assignment" - not a specific beat - so it's likely they don't know much about the subject they're covering. Nonetheless, it's the reporter's job - not the interviewee's - to fill pages or air time with something of interest to readers or viewers.

As we talk about staying "on message," we remind participants to separate the reporter and the audience. Frequently, faculty members and administrators worry too much about whether the reporter likes them, understands them, and even agrees with them. Although we are sometimes accused of oversimplification, Steve and I ask participants to think of a reporter as a conduit of information - like a telephone - to reach the audience. Few of us concern ourselves with whether the telephone likes us, understands us, or agrees with us. An interviewee's message is for her target audience, so that is the group with whom she must concern herself.

3. Turn the information-sharing paradigm upside down. Everyone who has written a thesis or dissertation (which is virtually everyone we train) is familiar with the academic model of communication. You start with a hypothesis, build your case with facts and figures, and then finally (and often verbosely) draw your conclusion. Participants in our media training program light up when we discuss this type of information sharing - it's what they know best.

Then we drop the bomb: In an interview, nothing is more deadly than this traditional, academic style of communication. The interviewer and audience want to know just the facts - who, what, why, where, and when - and in quick order. And they want to know how the story affects them. So we tell participants that when dealing with the media, they should turn that traditional information model upside down. This means stating their conclusion (or message) first; following it with anecdotes, examples, and a few supporting facts; then repeating the message again.

4. Build bridges back to your message. Because reporters aren't likely to ask questions that automatically evoke the interviewee's message, it is important for interviewees to learn how to control an interview. We teach our participants specific techniques for redirecting "off-message" questions.

Let's say the dean of students gets a question about the institution's "party school" rating. Instead of getting defensive, she should look at it as a chance to talk about alcohol-awareness programs in the residence halls. So, after acknowledging the question, she reframes it using a simple phrase such as, "The key issue is whether our students have the information they need to make informed choices about alcohol use." From there, she explains the institution's commitment to student health and safety and describes the programs it's put in place to ensure that students have accurate information about alcohol use.

5. Answer the question, then stop talking. In an effort to be helpful, faculty members and administrators often talk too much, losing the reporter's interest and their own message along the way. Steve and I encourage participants to simply state their message and then wait for another question. The reporter's job is to ask questions; let him do his job.

We also advise participants to be aware of how long they're speaking. If they find themselves talking for longer than about 30 seconds, we suggest they wrap it up and wait for the next question.

6. Be the expert. Steve and I remind participants that they are the experts in their respective fields; otherwise, the reporter wouldn't have called them. Once participants grasp that concept, we encourage them to step up to their role of expert, which includes challenging reporters' misguided questions when necessary. We use the mock interview portion of the training to help participants with the technique of correcting the premise of a reporter's question and then clarifying the issue.

7. Make it real. Long-winded explanations of theory and process may be commonplace in the classroom, but when a faculty member or administrator sits with a reporter, the interviewee must paint a verbal picture of his message. New academic programs aren't created for their own sake, but because they benefit the community in some way. The trick is describing that benefit in a memorable and personal way.

8. Develop a list of "uh-oh" questions. To reduce participants' interview anxiety, Steve and I ask them to make a list of the very worst questions that could come their way and prepare answers for each one.

Initially, many participants say they don't have any such questions. So we help them. We ask someone in the college of education whether student teachers are given criminal background checks. We ask the head of human resources about a recent employment lawsuit. We ask the director of student services to describe how the university divvies up student fees.

It isn't hard to find the "uh-oh" questions: They're as close as the daily newspaper. We remind participants that any issue on any campus has the ability to become an issue on ours, and we encourage them to stay abreast of national issues in their respective fields to avoid being taken off guard.

Once the "uh-ohs" are found, we help participants craft their responses and encourage them to practice, practice, practice. Knowing their responses to the very worst questions makes all the other questions seem easy.

Of course, no media relations training program can ever guarantee that the heart-thumping, palm-sweating interview is a thing of the past. But solid, ongoing training can ensure that your campus's faculty members and administration are at least walking onto a level playing field when they step up to the microphone.

At Seton Hall, we ask all participants to evaluate our media training program. The written feedback is overwhelmingly positive, with 98 percent of participants finding the sessions very worthwhile. But for me, the informal feedback is more gratifying. People often stop me on campus to find out when the next session is scheduled or call me with recommendations for new participants. But the most satisfying thing of all is when faculty members tell me how the training changed the way they think about communicating in all situations - including with their students.

About the Author Lisa Grider

Lisa Grider is assistant vice president for alumni and university relations at Seton Hall University, a private institution of 10,000 students in South Orange, New Jersey.

 

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