In my last post, I shared three ways to bungle your product launch and touched briefly on preparing your executives for media interviews. Let’s dig into this a bit more.
First, why is media training so important? Because this is a chance to speak to a wider audience and therefore, any missteps can be magnified. No one wants to be the one that caused THAT headline or article that harms your business.
In our work with spokespeople over the years – from product managers to CEOs – there are some common mistakes that can trip up even seasoned executives. Here are my top three blunders, with some advice on how to improve.
1) They think an interview is just about answering questions.
In the majority of media training sessions I’ve done, the spokesperson plays “ping pong” with the interviewer. Ask a question, answer a question, ask a question, answer a question.
It’s clear they can’t wait for the torture to be over – and it shows. An interview is not about answering a reporter’s questions! You wouldn’t approach a meeting with a prospective customer that way, and this reporter has the capability to reach many prospective customers, current customers, investors and employees. Rule No. 1: an interview is an amazing opportunity to tell your story. Do not squander it by just answering questions.
Instead, remember that every question is an opportunity to get your message across. When you change your mindset, you are less worried about the next question and whether or not you “know the answer” – you are looking forward to hearing how you can use the next question to tell the reporter something important about your business. Here’s an example of what I mean:
Reporter: Tell me about your company.
Spokesperson: We are the leader in cloud computing dog collars. We are based in San Francisco and have 10,000 customers who use our collars.
It’s not inaccurate or even necessarily bad, but it could be better and it could better inspire the reporter to understand your passion for your company. Try this instead:
Reporter: Tell me about your company.
Spokesperson: I lost my dog a few years ago. It was heartbreaking for me and my family. It was then that I thought there must be a way other than microchipping to track my pets. That’s when I thought of the idea for a collar that could use cloud technologies to track dogs if they are ever lost. Now we give piece of mind to 10,000 pet owners and have been instrumental in reuniting more than 500 dogs with their families.
Now you can see that instead of just answering the question with facts, it became a way to tell a story about your company that gets a reporter engaged in your business and its mission. Also feel free to ask questions and to solicit feedback. Remember that these meetings can also be an exchange of ideas. In the example above, the spokesperson could follow on with a question like, “have you ever lost a pet?” or “are you a pet owner?”
2) They can only talk about their company and their products.
The majority of reporters want to write stories that talk about current trends and their impact – whether it’s a specific industry or a broader business outlet. These appeal to readers and allow for richer content than company profiles or product news. In fact, you should be able to not only explain the customer pain points and how your product helps solve them, but also identify how certain trends like cloud computing or remote workers positively impacted your success.
Yet often in media training sessions, we find that people are uncomfortable outside of their narrow domain of expertise. Company executives typically know the company, know the product and understand how they are different from their competitors. Those things are great, but they need context. Reporters don’t know the company or product or competition nearly as well as insiders do, and their perceptions are colored by an outside lens. Spokespeople need to show how all these elements about the company and its products fit into the bigger picture.
Also, by speaking more broadly, you become a resource for that reporter, someone she can call for commentary on future stories on that topic. The more insightful you are on those industry trends and how they are changing the way things are done, the more valuable you are to the media. Continuing the example above, here is one way to address a technology trend that is core to the company’s business.
“One thing that has been key to our success is the cloud computing phenomenon. What I mean is with platforms like Amazon Web Services we can quickly get access to computing power at a very low cost, compared to what it would take to purchase and manage those systems ourselves. This is an absolute game changer for many businesses like ours. Statistics show that 10 million more small businesses were launched in the last 10 years than in the 20 years prior, and industry analysts attribute that to cloud computing. We couldn’t have gotten off the ground without AWS. In fact, we see the opportunity to continue expanding our product line with the use of cloud computing technology.”
For your business, maybe sensor technologies have increased your ability to collect and analyze tremendous amounts of data that has led to major product advancements. Or maybe the rise of the gig economy has helped your business in a measureable way and you see continued demand as more millennials advance in their careers. Whatever it is, know what trends affect your business, have some statistics and examples to back up your position, and be willing to speak more broadly on the issues.
3) They don’t know what information can or cannot be shared with media.
During media training, I ask about financial data, competitors and customers. It’s surprising how many executives stumble on this front. Often they start to provide an answer and then back off of it saying that they aren’t sure if that information was appropriate to share. Or sometimes they aren’t sure what is accurate.
I’ve heard varying answers on when the company was founded, had executives of privately held companies disclose revenue details that the board would rather not share, and had to call a reporter to ask that they not use that great company example my client shared – more than once!
Why? Back to my first point, they just want to answer the questions and get it over with. But preparation is a key ingredient for any press interview. This is where your PR team can really keep your foot out of your mouth. The PR team should provide a FAQ for all spokespeople so that everyone knows the correct answers to commonly asked questions. From what customers are referenceable (updated regularly!) to common language around revenue growth to basic facts about the company and its founders.
It is also good to make sure that spokespeople know what upcoming announcements or product news they can discuss – if anything. This information should be provided to spokespeople a day or so in advance of an interview, within their briefing materials. As a company spokesperson, it’s imperative to take the time to read over these materials so you can put your best foot forward when you have the opportunity to tell your story to the press.
While I could provide additional tips (maybe in a future blog), I’ll leave you with this bit of advice. Know your story, prepare your story and tell your story. And then relax. Reporters are people, too, so a kind word and a human connection will go a long way. If you found this helpful, or have any tips you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
Senior Vice President
***Please note: The company in my examples are completely made up, as is all content in the responses. If there is a company that sells cloud computing dog collars, I wish you all the best.