On the other side are spokespeople. Logically, if reporters ask questions, shouldn't spokespeople answer the majority of those questions — clearly, concisely and effectively?
As communicators and public relations practitioners, most of us might think about that for a moment. We might suggest (somewhat obliquely at times) that our spokespeople answer questions, but we have all counselled spokespeople to bridge immediately to what they would like to talk about, particularly when the question touches sensitive issues.
It's standard operating procedure in our business. But let's look at that standard from the perspective of an everyday example that most of us are probably familiar with, and compare this to what we do in our desire to build relationships with reporters.
Real Estate Example
Imagine that you're in the market for a new home, and a real estate agent is showing you a property. "How far is the nearest school?" you ask.
It seems a relatively innocent question, but the agent replies with: "Talking about school often reminds me of school taxes. And the school taxes in this area are among the lowest in the region. That means more money in your pocket and more money you can save for your children's education."
You try again. "But how far is the nearest school?" you ask.
"School time is certainly important, but so is after school time with your family," the agent replies. "One of the features of this property is that it's adjacent to a conservation area. Imagine the quality time you'll have with your children after school and on weekends. It's almost like country living, with all the convenience of the city."
If you're interested in the property, you'll conduct independent research to find the distance to the nearest school. You may even purchase the house if that distance is acceptable and the property meets your other requirements.
But when that real estate agent calls you in a few years to see if you'd like to upgrade, you'll hesitate. Even if you do look at properties with this agent, you'll be wary. Trust will be an issue, and we all know that trust is important in relationships.
By the same token, if you plan to build relationship with reporters, you cannot afford to have spokespeople who resemble our exuberant real estate agent in their zest to convey key messages.
Taking A Balanced Approach
The key to successful spokesperson preparation is to adopt a two-step approach. Before they can be taught to weave in key messages (not drive them home), spokespeople must first be taught to answer questions clearly and concisely. They must also be taught to stop talking. This is balance.
This can be tough to teach. But it brings a number of benefits.
First, it teaches spokespeople to communicate effectively. And, as communicators ourselves, shouldn't we teach them to communicate, not obfuscate?
Second, it protects spokespeople. With a balanced approach that emphasizes answering and stopping, there is less chance they'll be quoted out of context because, quite simply, there will be less context from which quotes can be drawn. This is true in print and, as we all know, learning to stop talking can also be important when cameras are rolling.
Next time you're preparing a spokesperson to be interviewed by reporters, put yourself in the reporters' shoes and compare the answers they give in training to our real estate example. Is the spokesperson communicating? Or is he or she waffling, sidestepping, obfuscating and evading?
If it's the latter, develop the teaching methods to instil the fundamental skill of answering questions effectively. Once spokespeople acquire this skill (and only after they have acquired it), teach them to weave in — not drive home — key messages.
This is a balanced approach that will have a positive impact on your media relations program. By creating win-win scenarios between your organization and reporters, you construct a solid foundation on which positive media relationships can be built.
Copyright © Eric Bergman 2003 All Rights Reserved