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Training day

In Communicate, Dubai, Journalism, Published journalism, Television on November 22, 2010 at 10:57 pm

As the region comes under more scrutiny from the world’s business media, specialists are coaching executives on facing the press

Originally published in Communicate, September 2007

Picture this: You’re the CEO of a large company and disaster strikes. Your business is in flames (perhaps literally), your stock is in freefall and the media is baying for blood – probably your blood.

You need someone who’s good in a crisis, who can single-handedly face the microphone-wielding jackals and save the day. The person you send out there needs to be a superhero of PR, the Jack Bauer of media managers. Alas, in many cases it’s you.

You’ve prepared for this moment. You’ve been trained as a press-pacifying ninja by catastrophe coaches and pandemonium professionals. You have, haven’t you?

Companies in the region are increasingly turning to media trainers to bring their executives up to scratch on how to handle the press both in times of crisis and during “peacetime.” With the eyes of the world on the Middle East – and when it comes to business news, Dubai especially – executives are more anxious about being ready to face the cameras.

Take the case of a March runway accident at Dubai International airport, in which passengers suffered minor injuries. “It made international news immediately,” says Caitlin West, managing consultant at UK-based crisis management specialist Regester Larkin, which recently opened an office in Dubai. Unexpected situations like this are precisely why companies need to be training their spokespeople.

YOU’RE BEING WATCHED
Media trainers come from a variety of different backgrounds. All promise to teach executives to better carry their companies’ key messages through good times and bad, and all agree that increased scrutiny on the region is good for business.

The backdrop for much of this uptick in demand for media training is last year’s Dubai Ports World debacle, according to Eithne Treanor, founder of Etreanor media consultancy. Like Regester Larkin, Etreanor recently set up shop in Dubai. “Some people I have talked to were amazed at the reaction in the US when all that happened, the fact that there were protests. … I think that’s why the people here are demanding media training,” Treanor says.

Although keeping one’s brand in the public eye is important, it’s the need to prepare for worst-case scenarios that drives many companies to seek external coaching.

Regester Larkin specializes in “issues and crisis management,” according to managing director Mike Regester. “If you wanted us to launch a new brand of butter in the Middle East, we wouldn’t do it,” he says. “We don’t do that stuff and other consultancies would be able to offer that. We’re absolutely focused on what we do.”

Chris Kinsville-Heyne, managing director of C3I Strategic Solutions, worked for the media wing of the British military before he went into media training. “I was primarily involved in getting the troops ready to face the media for Bosnia, the first Gulf War, Kosovo, East Timor, and the principle is exactly the same: you look at your key messages, you understand those, you understand how you can bridge from whatever question it is the media asks you to one of your key messages. The principle remains the same.”

This principle centers on anticipating rather than reacting to problems and turning questions to one’s advantage rather than trying to dodge awkward probes.

“I have a principle that is left over from Sandhurst [military academy],” says Kinsville-Heyne. “Train hard, fight easy. I train people for the hardest thing they can do, and in my experience that’s a live business breakfast interview. That’s the hardest thing you’re going to do. If you’re doing a print interview, it’s going to be easy in comparison.”

THE SOUND OF SILENCE
When the tough questions come, Kinsville-Heyne says “no comment” is not an option. “I’ve always maintained it with all my students,” he says. “If you ever turn round and say, ‘No comment,’ you might as well say, ‘Guess what, I’m ignorant – and stupid, too, because I’m missing an opportunity.’ You miss an opportunity to be able to engage in dialogue.”

Treanor says executives are often reluctant to admit they’ve gone through media training. “Media training in the corporate world is like going to your psychiatrist. You are a bit ashamed to say you have been to see him.”

Not Niall McLoughlin, regional head of corporate affairs at Standard Chartered Bank, who speaks openly about using media training. “Nowadays the potential for making an error, the potential for screwing up, is great,” he says. “If you’re better prepared to manage your reputation through effective communication rather than just shooting from the hip, then when you’re in a listed company it’s your responsibility to do that.” The bank uses Regester Larkin.

“People in this region still go on the defensive when they have no reason to go on the defensive,” says Treanor. “People are now realizing they need to be on the map. There is a bit of humility about people within publicly listed companies. They are beginning to realize that they have to get information to a lot more sources. But it is a big shift for the region.”

FOCUS POCUS
It’s important to go into an interview focused, says Standard Chartered’s McLoughlin. “In any one-on-one interview, you try to have your objectives of the interview, and the journalist has their objectives of the interview,” he says. “It’s trying to facilitate getting your messages across, what you want to deliver in the message. So you never go in there and let yourself be led. You try to articulate your messaging.”

The first eight seconds of the interview are crucial, says C3I’s Kinsville-Heyne. “People make up their minds about you very, very quickly. In three seconds people decide whether they like you or not; in five seconds they decide whether they trust you or not; in seven seconds they have decided whether you will lie to them or not. So essentially as a spokesperson you’ve got eight seconds. Being a good bloke and a good CEO doesn’t necessarily give you that skill.”

Choosing a media trainer can be tricky. Most PR companies offer coaching among their services, but Treanor, a former journalist, says those with a press background can do a better job, since they approach the issues from an outsider’s perspective.

Kinsville-Heyne takes the opposite approach. “I’m not a journalist and I always make sure I emphasize that. That’s probably one of my unique selling points. I’ve been a spokesman, I’ve sat in the chair that you’re going to sit in. I’ve done your job and I know exactly what it takes, how difficult it is to keep all those plates spinning.”

Whichever form of guidance you choose, there is one thing interview subjects should bear in mind, says Treanor: Journalists welcome people who are able to communicate well – but not too well. The trick is to be genuine, rather than slick. “There’s a danger that people can come across as too trained,” she says. “But that’s not what anyone in the media training business is trying to do. We’re not trying to show clients how not to deal with things or how to skirt around issues. We’re very much trying to show them how to engage, and by doing that, get their message across.”

So with the cameras aimed at you like snipers’ rifles, you might be calm, collected and ready for anything. You may think you really are the Jack Bauer of reputation management. But if you come across as a spin doctor, all that training could blow up in your face.

TIPS: You don’t say
Media trainers say there are simple rules to follow if you have to face the press. Make sure you don’t blow your 15 seconds of fame.

Prepare. Know the name of the journalist, the style of the program or publication, the interview format and the deadline. Know why the journalist wants the interview, and what angle the story will take.

Know your audience. Choose your words to suit it. Be valuable to the audience by stating your message clearly and with proof points.

Rehearse. Go over your key messages. Be enthusiastic about your company, service or product, but don’t try a blatant sales pitch.

Turn on your radar. Think of difficult questions and come up with responses ahead of time so you’re not caught off guard.

Don’t guess. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so.

Don’t argue. But if the journalist makes factually incorrect statements, correct them.

For TV or radio, speak slowly and clearly. Don’t talk over people. Ignore background noise and distraction. On screen, don’t wear distracting clothes or jewelry, and keep your eyes steady.

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