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It may seem obvious that you should develop your messaging before training your spokesperson in how to deliver it to the media. In practice, it can often be less black and white.  

Let’s look at where message development should come first, and then examine the common situation where full message development before media training can be less than effective.

While message development and media training can take many forms, in simple terms what I mean is:

  • Message development: external facing messaging relevant to your sales process, which but also engages broader audiences, and in particular is interesting for the media.  Not just a sales or product message.
  • Media training: practicing techniques for speaking to reporters and appearing on broadcast outlets, using taped mock interviews to test both how credible messages sound under scrutiny, and how effectively the trainee can keep control of the interview.

The most common situation where message development needs to be fully in place before media training is when it relates to a forthcoming corporate announcement.  What can be said here is usually constrained by legal and public company disclosure considerations. This is especially true if it’s bad news, such as a plant closure or a fine.  The spokesperson, or spokespeople, need to know exactly what to say.

A second situation is where the spokesperson is dealing with material wholly distinct from her or his day job. This could include sponsorships, internship policy, local community involvement – or comment on a public policy issue. Hopefully executives can talk about diversity as part of their day job, but it’s in practice an area where they need to learn an agreed message.  In essence, someone else knows the detail, but the executive needs to practice being able to convey the material.

In contrast, where it can make sense to do media training before finalising messaging is when the spokesperson is acting as an expert on both his or her business and the industry or client issues around it. Often the actual spokesperson is the individual who knows most about the topic.

From experience, I find that when executives who don’t regularly deal with the media have messaging in place before media training, it very often doesn’t work well in a mock interview.  As with a general’s battle plan, it looks good on paper, but it simply doesn’t survive the first contact with the enemy.

The most common reasons include:

  • The spokesperson being trained doesn’t really use the messaging because they want to say different things
  • The spokesperson uses the messaging but realizes it’s not good enough
  • The spokesperson uses the messaging and thinks it’s ok, not realising it won’t work with journalists

The most common weaknesses in the messaging are:

  • It’s really sales messaging
  • It’s all about features with no benefits
  • It’s not what the spokesperson would ever actually say
  • It has no facts, statistics or industry context that make it credible and persuasive

The good news is that under the (gentle) probing of a mock interview, better messaging often emerges.  The trick is to capture it and translate this into messaging that can be said publicly.  (For a public company, for example, saying roughly a third of sales are in Asia can be safer than saying that 37% of sales this year are in Asia).

There is naturally a balance – a spokesperson who wanders into a training without any idea what they want to say may simply not have any foundations to improve on.  Getting trainees in advance to think about what they will want to talk about is never bad.  If there is an element of corporate messaging that a subject matter expert needs to be ready to deploy, then this should also be provided in advance.

If time is urgent, all of this can be done in days – and start ups sometimes have to operate at that speed.  For most larger companies and banks, the process takes a few weeks and needs to link in with sales planning and other priorities.

My takeaways:

If you think you have good messaging in place but haven’t used it, road test it in some media training mock interviews first.  It’s not just training the executive on how to talk to journalists, it’s about testing out your messaging.

If you media train an executive who hasn’t got decent messaging in place, make sure you capture useful content from the session and then work with the executive and others to get strong messaging in place – and then get the executive out talking to reporters to gain confidence and use the agreed messaging.