By David Calusdian, Executive Vice President & Partner
I recently spoke at the NIRI Fundamentals of IR Seminar on “Media and Communications,” and the part of the presentation that generated the most discussion was on how to conduct “media training” for CEOs, CFOs and other corporate spokespeople. Of course, the most difficult part of media training can sometimes be convincing the executive that they need help. But once you clear that high hurdle, there are three basic steps to help prepare senior management for a successful interview.
1) Establish key messages. Without significant interview experience or preparation, your CEO is likely to a) offer rambling responses to questions, b) divulge too much information, and/or c) miss an opportunity to convey the messages you want to get across to customers, investors, employees or other important stakeholder audiences. Prior to the interview, create three to five key messages and supporting proof points that you want to make sure appear in the story. When you are developing key messages, think about the audience for the particular interview and the points that you want to convey to that specific stakeholder group. Look at it this way: if you were writing the article for the reporter, what messages would you include? Those are the messages that management should use in the answers to the reporter’s questions whenever possible. Politicians often do this very well. For example, earlier this year British Labour leader Ed Miliband famously repeated his position on strikes taking place in the UK in several successive questions during a BBC interview.
2) Prepare anticipated questions. Before the interview, write out a list of all the questions the reporter might ask. Start by focusing on the questions you absolutely do not want posed. Don’t put your head in the sand and hope that the question never gets asked… because it most likely will. Work on developing straightforward, credible answers to each question. In developing the answers, don’t worry about drafting long answers word-for-word. Instead, focus on the key messages you developed and how you can work them into the answers. Using bullet points usually works well for easy memory recall. And while it is critical to think through the answers to the hard questions, don’t forget to have responses prepared for the softballs too. Nothing can derail an interview like a bad answer to an easy question. Staying with the political examples, one classic is Ted Kennedy’s rambling response to Roger Mudd’s “Why do you want to be president?” question during his presidential campaign.
3) Play to the medium. There is a tremendous difference between a live broadcast, whether for TV, radio or webcast, and an interview for print, where you can afford to take a long pause to collect your thoughts without the audience’s knowledge. Even the difference between a video interview, whether for TV or webcast, and an audio webcast or radio interview has significant ramifications on how you should prepare your spokespeople. For example, capturing the right tone of voice in answering difficult questions during a radio interview is no easy task. And being aware of the messages that your body language is sending during a TV interview can be equally as important as the words you are saying. In another classic political example, the Kennedy/Nixon debates clearly demonstrated the immense difference between audio and video presentations to the detriment of the Nixon campaign.
In any profession, whether politics, sports, or business, preparation for interviews is critical. As basketball hall of famer and frequent foot-in-mouth interviewee Charles Barkley said, “I don’t think of myself as giving interviews. I just have conversations. That gets me in trouble.” The best interviews are those that are so well prepared, that they sound like conversations. Follow the three steps to effective media training and your spokespeople will be on their way to a successful interview.
David Calusdian, an executive vice president and partner at Sharon Merrill, oversees the implementation of investor relations programs, coaches senior executives in presentation skills and provides strategic counsel to clients on numerous communications issues such as corporate disclosure, proxy proposals, shareholder activism and earnings guidance. David’s clients are focused in the industrial, life sciences and technology sectors.
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