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Why Media Training Matters

Preparation is the key to successfully responding to the media during a crisis.

You are standing in front of a bank of microphones and wall of TV cameras. Your words and how you express them will influence how the public, elected officials and employees view your organization. A lot is riding on your performance.

Even though the stakes are large, many spokespersons wing it. They enter the pit without any training and often without a realistic appreciation of the chaos they will encounter. They are entering the lion's den as bait.

Media training is intended to prepare spokespersons — and their bosses — to deal with the news media, cope with the pressures of social and digital media and manage the flow of information to a variety of external and internal audiences.

If crises are opportunities to demonstrate an organization's core values and enhance their reputation, then preparation and continuous practice are essential. Here is what media training should cover:

  • Building rapport with reporters. Spokespersons should understand the news media's role and how they do their job. Respecting deadlines, providing information in a timely manner and avoiding spin are ways that spokespersons build a positive relationship with reporters so they work with you instead of looking for ways to go around you. 
  • Understanding the value of sound bites. Reporters want facts. They also want great quotes. Spokespersons need to deliver both. An interview clip on a TV broadcast frequently lasts 10 seconds, which means there isn't time to offer a lengthy explanation. You need a short, quotable sentence or phrase that conveys your key message. This takes art, but mostly it takes the hard work to identify the most important fact and convert into a sound bite.
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The Complete and Convincing Apology

Many apologies fall short on the sincerity scale. They also are typically incomplete. That wasn't the case for the Ebola-related apology last week by Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC's chief medical editor.

Snyderman is regularly featured on NBC's Today and Nightly News shows. She comes across as knowledgeable, articulate and authoritative. Her opinions, as a result, carry some weight with viewers.

The apology followed her coverage of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which ended when freelance cameraman Ashoka Mukpo contracted the deadly virus. Snyderman and her team returned to the United States and submitted to a voluntary 21-day self-quarantine.

However, within days, Snyderman was spotted walking outside her house. That prompted New Jersey health officials to press for mandatory quarantines.

She apologized, saying, "I stepped outside the boundaries of what I promised to do and what the public expected of me. And for that, I'm sorry."

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Think Before You Post Online 

If you ever feel the need to sound off, find a secret spot and vent. Don't spew on social media.

The latest reminder of this online truth is Elizabeth Lauten, formerly the communications directors for a Tennessee congressman. After her Facebook bashing of the Obama daughters, Lauten finds herself embarrassed and unemployed. 

The spark that blew up Lauten's career was the sight of Sasha and Malia Obama looking and acting like teenagers when their father, the President, performed the annual ceremony of pardoning a turkey. Most people found this scene silly enough that they didn't watch, let alone let loose a social media mega bomb.

Many people may have shared Lauten's views about the girls' behavior, but only Lauten felt compelled to share her views about the girls – and gratuitously about their parents – with the world on her public Facebook account, and the world responded very quickly.

What did Lauten expect? Even teenagers could have predicted the blow-back she received from her Facebook posts. They've seen it over and over when someone posts an in-your-face screed.

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Giving Thanks

The Thanksgiving holiday should serve as a reminder of the importance and value of giving thanks – to colleagues, customers and clients.

Few actions, at any cost, provoke more goodwill and loyalty than a well-timed, heart-felt thank you.

Despite their remarkably high ROI, thank yous are hard for some people to express. They are too consumed with what they are doing to recognize great work, amazing innovation or impressive perseverance by the people around them.

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Curiosity and Public Affairs Storytelling

Curiosity is one of the most useful tools for writing in the public affairs space. The more you know, the better you can be at explaining a complex subject with an engaging story.

Malcolm Gladwell, who has been called the "eclectic detective," is an excellent example of a storyteller with an immense, far-reaching curiosity. Many of his stories could easily qualify as textbook examples of effective public affairs writing.

A staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996, Gladwell has turned his unquenchable appetite for answers into an amazing aggregation of information.

In his 2009 compilation of stories titled, "What the Dog Saw," Gladwell recounts the fall of Enron, with the counter-intuitive conclusion that it succeeded for as long as it did because no one took time to examine carefully its public financial data. If people had, Gladwell concludes, they would have seen Enron's numbers didn't add up. But few did, which made it easier later for Enron-bashers to blame its executives for deceiving the public. Their deceit, it turns out, was hidden in the light of day. 

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Making Something Real by Storytelling

Vacations offer a chance to relax and read books. They also offer a reminder of writing styles designed to entertain and inform.

Bill Bryson, who has authored books as disparate as Shakespeare and African Diary, writes in a style that invites readers to share whatever journey he takes them on. It is a style that blends meticulous research, storytelling and bright writing. He can write about anything because he can write.

The lesson here is that what sells is not how much you know, but how much you convey in ways that readers will consumer.

I just devoured Bryson's One Summer in America, the rollicking exploration of 1927 when Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, Babe Ruth swatted 60 home runs, the modern musical and television were born and silent movies succumbed to talkies. What could have been a dull recitation of an exciting period became an entrancing, hard-to-put-down romp through an age when Americans fretted about Italian extremists and one man perfected the art of legal electrocution.

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Apologies That Mean What They Say

The corporate apology is threadbare, but still necessary. What is dying on the vine is customer and stakeholder patience because too many corporate apologies are disingenuous and lack promised follow-through.

After a misdeed, words are important. But what makes the difference is action. Especially if you promise to do something to prevent a recurrence of your misdeed. 

​When a crisis hits, corporate executives want to make the bleeding stop. They often are willing to say almost anything to staunch the flow of bad news.

However, many executives fail to recognize that a crisis is an opportunity. Instead of a moment for panic, a crisis response is a chance to demonstrate your core values, to show what you really believe.

If you are a health care organization and say patients come first, a crisis is a chance to prove it. If you are a retailer and say customers are always right, a crisis is a chance to affirm it.

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Jousting on Social Media

A recent story about a political race zeroed in on rabid social media exchanges between staffers in opposing campaigns. Most people ignore the exchanges as nothing more than inside political baseball. Cybernauts aren't so generous when brands joust with customers.

JetBlue made a bad situation worse when it quarreled on Twitter with a passenger who said she was barred from boarding a delayed flight. The would-be passenger says someone made an off-handed comment about a "fully stocked bar onboard," which the JetBlue pilot interpreted as an accusation that he was intoxicated.

Irritated, the pilot ordered all passengers off the plane while he underwent a precautionary sobriety test, which proved negative. Lisa Carter-Knight, the passenger ultimately prevented from the flight, said she didn't make the comment and was punished for tweeting about the episode. 

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The Tale of Two Papers

Readers of The Oregonian are watching the at-times-painful process of the daily newspaper's digital conversion, as are the readers of The Washington Post. Both look like running backs zigging and zagging on a football field looking for an opening to break downfield.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post a year ago, raising expectations about its digital conversion. But Jeff Abbruzzese, writing for Mashable, says a grand design hasn't surfaced. The biggest development is the exit of rising star Ezra Klein, who wrote Wonkblog, a primer on public policy debates in the nation's capital that was the newspaper's most read blog.

The absence of visible change at the 137-year-old DC fixture may reflect uncertainty about what digital direction makes the most sense. It also may reflect the lull before the storm. One Washington Post official said recently the newspaper staff is being prepared to "stomach the chaos that comes with digital."

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Redirecting the Corporate Video

If you storyboard your corporate video as if it was a silent movie, you will ensure that imagery carries the day, not a bunch of talking heads.Corporate officials think in terms of messages, but for video it's better to think about images and stories.

Videos are in vogue because more people have access to devices that can access them. Plus, "watching" is becoming as or more popular than "reading." Video is a communication channel sweet spot.

However, many corporate videos hit a sour note because they are designed to send a message, not leave an impression. People may hear a message, but they are more likely to remember a striking image or a great story.

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