Wanted: Execs with media expertise

Recent events highlight need for media-trained leaders

When pharma CEO Martin Shkreli faced widespread outrage after making dramatic price increases to a medication his company purchased, he took to Twitter to respond. 

“You are such a moron,” he tweeted to a journalist who had asked questions about the price rise. 

But the 32-year-old founder and CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals didn’t stop there. As the questions and controversy continued, he responded by tweeting out lyrics to an Eminem song: “And it seems like the media immediately points a finger at me. So I point one back at them but not the index or the pinkie.”

Shkreli wasn’t the only CEO to face serious media scrutiny over the past few weeks — Martin Winterkorn, former CEO of Volkswagen, was also in the hot seat after the carmaker’s emissions test-rigging scandal came to light.

When an organization is coping with a scandal, it’s important to have a CEO who knows her way around a media interview. To that end, training is key.

“In the contemporary age of social media and instantaneous reporting and 24-hour-a-day news, the costs of bad communication are so much higher than they were in the past that I think it would be imprudent for companies not to media train the senior staff who might find themselves in a position of speaking to the media,” said Yaroslav Baran, principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa. 

“I would highly recommend media training for everybody in any company who either is at the CEO level or is designated to have a public or media interface.”

A good investment?
Media training is a key investment in mitigating risk, said John Perenack, group head of communications at StrategyCorp in Toronto — if it’s not done and done correctly, there can be dire consequences to the whole organization. 

“From an outward perspective, there’s a loss of confidence in the management of the company when the CEO is in that kind of situation and fails the test. If you’re a publicly traded organization, that could be reflected in your stock price. Even if you’re a privately held organization, that has an impact on your customers and how they perceive you,” he said. 

And if a CEO steps into the spotlight of a tragedy or scandal and flubs the interview, it can be a death knell for the company, said Baran. 

“A combination of arrogance and lack of experience and ignorance can be lethal to a company when you go in with a cocky attitude, not realizing how big a situation is and how delicate it is, and how important it is to respond appropriately.” 

There can be serious internal repercussions as well, said Perenack. 

“When you think about the human resource aspect of this, if the company is facing a real existential threat — like, for example, Volkswagen right now — within the organization, and the CEO fails the test in a public interview, repercussions are felt through every level of the organization. The confidence in ‘Do we have the right leadership in place to weather this storm?’ ‘Am I going to have a job?’ (is threatened). That’s what the stakes are — they’re very high.” 

These days, “media” is a much broader concept than just a couple TV cameras or newspapers, said Diana Bishop, a Toronto-based media trainer.

“(Before) people were just dealing with the traditional media — and now there’s this whole new element of social media,” she said.

It’s not just reporters you may have to contend with — there could be a veritable army of bloggers banging down a CEO’s door as well.

“We have to have that conversation — can he say no? If it was CTV news calling, he would probably feel that that is OK because it’s traditional media. But he doesn’t know what to do when a social media person calls, who is technically not trained as a professional journalist, but has probably more breadth and more (of an audience) than another publication,” said Bishop. “So it’s gotten more complicated.”

Too little, too late
One of the most important considerations is making sure executives are media trained before a crisis ever erupts, said Perenack. 

“Being prepared ahead of time is actually extremely important. And that begins not with the media training but actually with, ‘What are we going to say, what is our position and what are we going to do?’ 

“When someone speaks to the media, it’s not so much about ‘Are you saying the right words?’ it is ‘Are you perceived to be acting in the right way, in the best interests of your customers, shareholders, the community — whoever you’re impacting?’”

If a real crisis hits, there’s no time for a crash course, said Baran.  

“If you’re, say, Volkswagen right now, it’s not like you can put the world on hold and say, ‘I’m going to go for a two-day refresher course.’ That’s why it’s good to have that base. You don’t want to be starting from scratch if you have a significant scandal on your hands.” 

By the time an executive team actually needs media training, there’s a good chance it’s already too late, said Perenack. 

“In the past, you might have been able to take a day to get back to a reporter — it was a longer timeline. Nowadays, things happen so quickly, especially with the immediacy of social media and the immediacy of wanting to know what an organization thinks about an issue right when the issue is breaking. It doesn’t give you the luxury of saying, ‘OK, I’m going to take a day to figure out how to get media trained and then get back to the journalist.’ So the way the media cycle is compressed and the acuteness of it is increased,” he said. 

“You have to be prepared ahead of time because, oftentimes, it’s too late if you’re not.”

Also, organizations should consider training a range of spokespeople — not just the CEO, said Perenack. 

“Of course, the CEO should get it, but when your company’s facing an issue or your organization’s facing an issue, it’s not always the CEO that you want to put out there in front of an issue right away. It’s important to have really a scaled response, and have multiple levels of spokespeople available, depending on what the topic is,” he said. 

“Once you go to the CEO as a spokesperson, there’s really no one else to go to. You only want to go to them as a last resort in a crisis situation.” 

What should training look like?
Good media training should examine any scenarios the organization might actually face and “war game” them out through realistic simulations of interviews, said Perenack. 

Also, there is always value in understanding how the media conducts interviews and the techniques journalists use.  

“Being able to understand how to work in the environment — which is unlike any other environment you typically find in social interaction — is a critical step,” he said. 

Executives need an understanding of how the media works and how to stay on message — providing soundbites on the topic, not PhD dissertations, said Bishop. 

Ideally, media training will take place on an ongoing basis, said Perenack. But it depends on the specifics of the organization. 
 “Ideally, what it should be is, on an ongoing basis, you’re looking at the threats and issues that your organization may face — and are we prepared for them? Then (it’s about) looking at what are the skills and abilities of our spokespeople who we’ve identified?” he said. 

“It’s very strategic to look at what we might need to say in any given situation, and what are the skills of our spokespeople… and then let’s build a training program that matches those needs specifically.”

Different people have different levels of natural talent for media relations, said Baran — but it’s definitely a skill that can be learned. 

“I don’t believe that good media relations are necessarily some kind of gift that some people are born with and others aren’t — it’s not artistry. I’ve always seen it as a craft that anybody can work on and anybody can improve and anybody can become good at with training and practice,” he said. 

“It’s amazing how much better people can become when they take that approach to it.”

Not just about crisis response
In an age where personal branding has become the watchword, media training isn’t just about crisis response, said Bishop — it can also be an opportunity for leaders and executives to learn how to promote their organization and their own skills. 

“Most of them are promoting themselves… because they are starting to think, ‘What am I going to do with my particular leadership role?’ They consider it part of their leadership role that they might have to interact with the media,” she said. 

And for executives, media might not be limited to traditional outlets — it may also include being on a panel at a conference or giving a presentation about their area of expertise, she said. 

“A lot of people want to do TED Talks or TEDx Talks — this is very big right now,” said Bishop. “The personal brand has become a really important piece to this whole training.”

It’s no longer only about preparing for a crisis situation, she said. 

“They actually want to be prepared to promote their philosophy or their company, and how they are different in the marketplace. So they are looking at it now as an opportunity to promote themselves.”

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