At Ease With the Media

Insights for media relations practitioners and their spokespeople

Cost per Practice Interview Should Be a Media Training Metric


Media training has been half of my core business for about 25 years. And, in that time, I can safely say that one aspect of training has had more value than any other—to the organization, to the public relations team, and to participants.

Practice interviews.
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During training, participants may obtain value from theory provided. They may obtain value from watching good and bad examples in others—whether those examples are pulled from the outside world (i.e. BP, Volkswagen, or others) or are examples they witnessed during training when colleagues have gone through practice interviews.

But there is no question that the greatest value they receive is when they themselves are interviewed, recorded, and critiqued.

They know how they felt. They know the decisions they made during the practice interview. They know the things they said. And if they’re given insight into how they can improve the next time they face a real situation, they enhance their chances for success.

With that in mind, and assuming that media training is virtually a commodity (and I know of at least one large, national PR agency that considers it to be such), it makes sense that the program that offers the lowest cost per practice interview is the program that provides the highest value per dollar spent.

For example, let’s suppose you are planning to purchase media training for two executives, who have committed to a three hour session (a half day). You’ve done your due diligence and you’ve narrowed your choice to two potential media training consultants.

In the first consultant’s proposal, which charges a fee of $2,500, each executive will be interviewed twice (four practice interviews in total). In that situation, the cost per practice interview is $625:

$2,500 ÷ 4 = $625

Your second consultant’s proposal also charges $2,500. However, the second consultant commits to eight interviews (four for each executive) during the same three-hour time frame. Each executive has twice as many opportunities to practice their skills is a safe, controlled environment (as opposed to doing their third interview with a real journalist in the real world).

The cost per practice interview is $312.50:

$2,500 ÷ 8 = $312.50

Let’s look at another example.

Suppose you are preparing to organize a full-day session for six people, for which each consultant is planning to charge $3,500. Again, the first consultant plans to interview each person twice, for a cost of $291.67 per practice interview:

$3,500 ÷ 12 = $291.67

The second consultant commits to interviewing each person four times, for a cost of $145.83 per interview (or twice the value):

$3,500 ÷ 24 = $145.83

Certainly there are differences in theory and approach in media training. Some executive teams might work better with one consultant over another.

But when you’ve narrowed the field and you’re seeking quotes, make sure you identify the commitment to a number of practice interviews.

Divide the total number of interviews into the number of dollars the training will cost, and compare the numbers.

If everything else is equal, the consultant with the lowest cost per practice interview provides the highest possible value.

And that consultant should be the one working with your spokespeople.

If You Didn’t Like It Then … Why Do It Now?


An experience in San Francisco a few years ago opened my eyes an interesting irony that exists in the media relations industry.

In 2009, I had just finished creating and testing my At Ease With the Media online training program. Around that time, I attended the IABC world conference in San Francisco. While in the Bay area, I decided to schedule a few sales calls for my newly-completed online program in a relatively safe environment.
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One of those meetings was with the director of media relations for a national professional association. Going to the meeting at Fisherman’s Wharf even became a bit of an adventure; it may be the only time I will ever ride a cable car to a meeting.

During our discussion, the director revealed that he was a former journalist. A minute or two later, I asked him what his biggest pet peeve was when, as a journalist, he was interviewing someone. He barely hesitated, then replied: “When spokespeople didn’t answer a simple question directly. I couldn’t stand it when all they talked about were things that were important to them—when they kept going back to their messages.”

Later, I let him pick a module from the online program to sample. He chose "Working with Reporters.” This module discusses creating win-win outcomes with journalists—helping the journalist by answering questions clearly and concisely on one side, while seeking strategic opportunities to influence specifically identifiable audiences along the way.


Towards the end of the meeting, I asked: "Can we do some business together?” He replied: “I don’t think so.”

When I asked why, he replied: “Because you are not as message-driven as we are.”

Well, folks, if you pushed me with a feather at that moment, I would have fallen off my chair. I immediately started to wonder how many other former journalists have done exactly the same thing.

I didn’t get the sale because I didn’t know how to overcome the objection without offending him by pointing out the obvious irony. I have since learned to overcome this objection because I have encountered it many, many times.

Win-Win Outcomes

Call me crazy, but I believe that spokespeople can be taught to answer journalists’ questions clearly and concisely as a means of communicating effectively with them, helping them complete their stories accurately, and enhancing working relationships. (It is, after all, called “media relations.”)

I also believe that gaining a strategic communication advantage is not mutually exclusive to the skill of answering questions. As I’ve witnessed during thousands of media training sessions I’ve delivered over the past 34 years, spokespeople can be taught to seek, identify and capitalize on strategic opportunities during interviews while helping the journalist and protecting themselves along the way.
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In fact, the most effective media relations programs are constructed on the concept that it is possible to answer questions clearly and concisely while gaining a strategic communication advantage.

Research shows that win-win outcomes are the foundations on which communications excellence is constructed. And media relations is no exception to this rule.

In an information-driven world, can your media relations program be constructed on excellence if your spokespeople are only taught to talk about what is important to them?

Forgive me for pointing out a potential irony, but couldn’t that be the part that’s mutually exclusive?

In a Crisis, Secrecy is Your Worst Defence


In a crisis, it is difficult to know whether or not information should be released. With privacy legislation lurking in the background, and lawyers often heavily involved, it can be easier to hide behind a shroud of secrecy than be transparent. But my advice to my clients when they are facing a crisis has always been: “When in doubt, let the information out."

A perfect case in point is a recent article in the Toronto Star that reported Toronto’s student transportation fleet has been in 1,157 collisions with 20 injuries during the past five years. To make matters worse, nearly 80 per cent of those accidents were deemed preventable — which simply means they did not need to occur at all.
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When confronted with these grim statistics, the school boards claimed they were unable to identify how many accidents in which each transportation company has been involved because of privacy legislation.

According to Kevin Hodgkinson, the general manager of the Toronto Student Transportation Group, “They’re not our vehicles, they’re not our drivers, so that’s not our information to provide."

But Ryder Gilliland, a lawyer with Blakes who represents The Star, said the legislation contains a “rarely invoked” clause that allows public bodies to disclose third-party information if it’s in public interest.

But even after being made aware of this clause, Toronto school boards refused to release the accident statistics of the transportation companies serving them. Is it not in the public’s best interest to know what companies are getting in more accidents than others? I’m sure any parent would feel it is, regardless of whether their children are attending an elementary school in Toronto now, have attended school in the past, or will attend in the future.

In this situation, child safety should be the Toronto Student Transportation Board’s top priority. Rather than hiding behind privacy legislation, they should be open and transparent, encourage each school board to evoke the disclosure clause, and release the number of accidents in which each transportation company has been involved.

If they hide behind privacy legislation and one more child is injured — which, statistically, is only a matter of time — the issue may grow beyond manageability.

Releasing the statistics will also have a positive effect on the behaviour of the transportation companies and their drivers. Once accident rates are revealed, these companies will face public scrutiny, ultimately forcing them to change driver behaviour and set higher safety standards.

This is the right thing to do in terms of public interest. Let’s be honest. Eighty per cent preventability is absolutely unacceptable when it comes to child safety.

When dealing with any crisis, transparency is always the best option. By being transparent, companies will prevent bigger problems in the future.

And, as I always say: “When in doubt, let the information out.”

_____________________________


eric
Eric Bergman, BPA, ABC, APR, MC, FCPRS, is arguably the world’s most credentialed and experienced media training consultant. He has helped organizations manage issues and crises, and coached spokespeople, for more than 30 years.

To learn more about his media training program, At Ease With the Media, please click here.

Perhaps It’s Time to Embrace "No Comment"


As I was listening to CBC radio while driving to a media training engagement a few weeks ago, a featured story inspired me to consider that perhaps, as an industry, we should start using “no comment” as part of our professional lexicon.

Immediately after having that thought, I was aghast. I have been a member of this industry since June 14, 1982. During the past 33 years, I can never remember a time in which I would not have cringed if I heard any spokesperson say “no comment” when asked a question by a journalist.
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However, I am starting to think I should get over that involuntary reaction. As I sit here three decades later, I must admit that saying “no comment” would potentially have more value than the repetition of meaningless key messages. At least “no comment” is relatively honest and potentially less insulting to the readers, listeners and viewers.

The CBC story that inspired this thought involved a Nigerian priest, an Ontario woman, and the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA).

The woman had accused the priest of raping her while he was visiting the southwestern Ontario church at which she was an administrative employee. In 2004, police issued a Canada-wide warrant for his arrest, but he had already returned to Nigeria. The victim was assured by the CBSA that her rapist would never be allowed back into the country.

However, she later learned that he had returned to Canada in 2013. The victim contacted her local member of parliament and the CBSA to try and discover how and why an accused rapist was allowed back into the country.

After a seven-month wait, she received a brief e-mail from her MP’s assistant a few weeks before Christmas. The letter apologized that the priest had been let into the country, assured her that appropriate action would be taken, and then wished her a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

After being contacted by a CBC journalist, a spokesperson for the CBSA replied via e-mail to say: “The agency won’t comment on specific cases, but the safety and protection of Canadians are its top priorities.”

Well, knock me over with a feather. Isn’t that obvious?

If anyone at the CBSA does not take the safety and protection of Canadians seriously, they should seek alternate employment. Likewise, if they do not have the moral fortitude to say that they take every situation seriously enough to investigate — without admitting whether a breach of protocol occurred in this specific case — to ensure a situation like this never happens again, at least have the courage to be honest and say “no comment.”

In cases like this, please do not insult our intelligence by expectorating meaningless key messages that overstate the patently obvious.

Be honest. In future, just say “no comment.”

Perhaps Dalhousie's Dentistry Students Should Step Up


If you’re like me, and you’ve been following the issue that erupted this week at Dalhousie University, you have to be shaking your head.

On Monday, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) broke the story that a dozen dental students at Dalhousie University, located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, were participating in a Facebook page under the name “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” and using that forum as an opportunity to post sexually explicit comments.
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And folks, these were not your everyday sexually explicit posts (to the extent, at least, that we can say there is such a thing). Chloroform was mentioned in a number of them. One provides two names and asks: “Which one would you rather hate f——k?”

Yes, Facebook took the page down last week. And yes, there were only 12 members of the page. But in today’s world, in which many of us were recently introduced to the term “hate f——k” by a former radio star with the same organization that broke the Dalhousie story, one knuckle-dragging neanderthal moron is too many.

Twelve is truly a dumbass dozen.

University president Richard Florizone has said the university “has a responsibility” to ensure it’s free of harassment. As the father of a young woman who graduated from a Canadian university two years ago, I couldn’t agree more. But does the president take that responsibility seriously?

Obviously, he hasn’t read the latest crisis communication handbook. Folks, he wants 48 hours to consider his response. And he almost promises to announce a plan of action by the end of the week.

Huh? Or should I say: duh?

Then we learn that Dr. Florizone first got wind of problems in the school of dentistry last summer. He was approached by the president of the students’ union with allegations about sexual harassment and he referred them to the campus Office of Human Rights, Equity and Harassment Prevention.

The complaint went no further when that office explained that anyone making a complaint must provide their name.

Referring the complaint may be a requirement of his office, but if the president didn’t conduct his own quiet investigation, especially when the Jian Ghomeshi incident broke, does he deserve to still be president? That’s a question the university’s board will need to address when the smoke clears and the dust settles—and the damage to the reputation of a 200-year-old institution is assessed.

As Caroline Sapriel so eloquently wrote in this week’s Communication World Insider, the first step to managing a crisis is anticipating one. The second step is mitigating it.

What has Dalhousie done? The president got wind of problems four months ago. Now that they’ve surfaced, fourth-year dentistry exams have been postponed until January.

Wonderful, rather than taking a relaxing breather during the holidays, those who weren’t involved now have the stress of unfinished exams waiting for them in the new year. Let’s punish everyone who wasn’t involved.

(But don’t be surprised if the university puts a positive spin on it by saying that students will have more time to study.)

While the writing was on the wall for this crisis, those of us who counsel executives know that we (both external and internal consultants) can only lead a leader to the wall. We can’t make him or her read what’s there.

More’s the pity, I say.

Dalhousie's Dumbass Dozen Creates Crisis



It’s not often that we have an event with two distinct crises at its core, but the issue of the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen”—the 13 male dentistry students at Dalhousie University—has provided us with just such a case.

On one side, we have Dalhousie University. When questionable Facebook posts by fourth-year dentistry students were made public, the president chose to instigate a process of restorative justice. It wasn’t until he faced a mini-revolt from faculty members in the new year that he banned the male dentistry students from clinical practice, and scheduled separate classes for them.

From the university’s perspective, this issue isn’t going away any time soon.

On the other side, we have 13 male dentistry students.

These young men are in serious crisis. Somebody needs to explain to them that things won’t get any better by crawling into a cone of silence. News reports are indicating that ALL male dentistry students of Dalhousie’s class of 2014 will need to prove they are of sound ethical judgement (i.e. they were not a member of the infamous Facebook group) to any provincial registry before they can practice their profession.

In other words, no proof, no license.

Silence is not an option for these young men. They need to go public, take responsibility for their actions, discuss the foolishness of their behaviour, apologize to everyone involved, and convince the world that this one lapse in judgement will never be repeated in the future.

I don’t only say that as a crisis consultant. I say it as a parent of two young people who are almost exactly the same age as these fourth-year dentistry students.

As I’ve always explained to my kids, people make mistakes. Young people sometimes make more than their share. Their old man has made more than most.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from all the fence-mending I’ve done in my life, it’s that while the mistake is important, what you do after the mistake is absolutely critical.

In the case of these 13 fourth-year male dentistry students, silence is not an option. If my son was involved, I’d like to think we’d already have our news conference behind us and be moving forward together.

With me standing beside him, supporting him, loving him, and helping him salvage as much dignity as possible from an extremely difficult situation.

Is Tom Mulcair a Q&A Hypocrite?



Perhaps I’m jaded, but in my world when people do exactly that for which they criticize others, they’re hypocrites. And Canada’s official leader of the opposition, Tom Mulcair, may be just such a beast.

For the past few years, Mr. Mulcair has constantly criticized Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper for not answering questions. “We’ve asked the prime minister a precise series of questions,” he often says, leaving the impression that it is completely unacceptable for someone to not answer those questions.
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Yet in numerous media interviews I’ve observed, Mr. Mulcair does exactly the same thing. He almost never answers a question directly. In fact, sometimes it seems he wouldn’t answer a simple question if his life depended on it.

And it negatively impacts his credibility.

I first became aware of this during a radio interview featuring Mr. Mulcair in November 2013 while I was riding my motorcycle home from a media training session in downtown Toronto. I was listening to CBC radio (it’s a Gold Wing with a premium sound system—and heated grips and seats, thank goodness!). Mr. Mulcair was being interviewed about the expense scandal in Canada’s senate shortly after three senators were suspended.

Mr. Mulcair was waxing eloquently about how the prime minister refused to answer simple, direct questions during question period in the House of Commons. The prime minister was avoiding questions. He was sidestepping questions. He was waffling. He was obfuscating.

Just after Mr. Mulcair made his point that the political party he leads, the New Democrats, believe Canada’s senate should be abolished, the interviewer asked an obvious question: “Don’t you think that suspending these three senators is a good start?”

Folks, it’s a closed question requiring either a “yes” or a “no.” And, based on Mr. Mulcair’s worldview, the answer should probably be “yes.” Was there even a hint of a yes or no in Mr. Mulcair’s answer? No. So the interviewer asked again. And again. And again. Until she finally gave up.

Honestly, he came across as a hypocrite.

This past week, I was watching CTV Newsnet when Mr. Mulcair was interviewed by Sandie Rinaldo. To lead off her interview, Ms. Rinaldo quoted Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who says he supports the capacity of Canadian troops to defend themselves. “Do you agree with that?” she asked Mr. Mulcair.

Is this an open or closed question? Closed. The first thing out of Mr. Mulcair’s mouth should be a yes or no. Instead, he ignores the question and says:

“What I do know is that in September and October I asked the prime minister a whole series of questions—very specific questions about what our troops were doing.”

Huh? Isn’t he criticizing someone for not answering specific questions by not answering a specific question?

But wait, it gets even better. “But it seems our troops had no choice but to defend themselves,” Ms. Rinaldo said. “Isn’t there an allowance for that?”

Again, a closed question. Yes or no would be good to hear, especially from someone who criticizes others for not answering specific, direct questions.

“When you’re involved in a firefight it’s because you’re involved in combat,” Mr. Mulcair answered, in his attempt to bridge to his message and tell us all what’s really important, “which Mr. Harper told Canadians we wouldn’t do, and that’s the problem.”

This doesn’t pass the sniff test on a number of levels. If I was a member of Canada’s armed forces, I’d be miffed. You mean to tell us that we shouldn’t defend ourselves, regardless of what the politicians say in their squabbles with each other?

It also illustrates the absolute foolishness of staying on message. As I’ve said many times during interviews and in my media training program, politicians are the only ones who could possibly get away with this tactic (but why would they, when a better alternative is available?), which I believe is an outdated paradigm in an information-driven, media-savvy world.

Mr. Mulcair has until October 19—the date of Canada’s next federal election—to get it right. His predecessor did, probably because he knew he was fighting his last fight.

Mr. Mulcair should go back and watch Jack Layton’s interviews prior to the last federal election. Jack provided a refreshing perspective on treating audiences with dignity and respect. More often than not, he answered questions clearly and concisely, and communicated effectively.

I believe Jack’s performance is a huge reason why Mr. Mulcair currently resides at Stornaway, the residence of Canada’s official opposition.

If he hopes to stay there (or potentially move up in the world), he should gain insight from Jack’s cogent example, and learn how to answer questions as a means of treating audiences with respect, and ultimately managing interviews to strategic gain—without exhibiting the same behaviour for which he’s criticizing others.