“Every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Using a strategy that politicians have mastered, a company’s aim when delivering effective messages to the media should be deliberate and explicit. The challenge, however, differs to that of politicians. While there may only be one incumbent foreign minister, prime minister or president, there are myriad financial services leaders that the media can choose to speak to, which gives reporters the scope to get the answers they want, rather than the answers a spokesperson wants to give.
For example, if a high-ranking government official dodges tricky questions in favour of delivering the party line coming into an election, they’ll likely get invited back because there are no alternative spokespeople. If, however, a corporate leader refuses to answer questions and repeats a vision or mission statement, they may not receive another invite for opportunities, because the same level of spokesperson scarcity simply doesn’t exist in the private sector.
Notwithstanding this challenge, it is possible to remain on-message, while offering some breadth to provide sufficient information to a reporter and allow them to seek clarity on matters peripheral to your messaging. As the quote at the start of this piece suggests, preparation and a deliberate objective is what will afford your spokespeople the best chance to win this tug-of-war, before an interview even takes place.
Let us focus on a hypothetical example:
- Manypennies Bank Limited is raising capital to focus on a campaign of acquisition over the next 24 months
- To support both public relations and investor relations, it wants its audience to know that this capital raising is “Good for shareholders and good for growth.”
- Manypennies CEO Bob Jobs is put in front of Pamela Prosewell, a senior business anchor, during a primetime television slot
- In the live interview, the reporter asks, “Without a track record of inorganic growth and with sufficient cash on hand, shouldn’t you be focused on protecting shareholder capital or even returning some of it while the current economic instability passes?”
Here are two potential answers:
- “Pamela I’m not sure you’re correct in your assumptions. The current executive team does have experience with mergers and acquisitions and, while the economy is in turmoil, we cannot sit idly by and batten down the hatches.”
Bob took the bait and refuted the reporter’s claims, which drew attention away from his key message and toward the question over experience, while reinforced the weak state of the economy. While the spokesperson may have been within his rights, if not a little impulsively eager to correct these claims, it did not get him any closer to the outcome he and his communications colleagues were seeking.
If delivered differently, however, Bob may have found an opportunity to get his message front and centre, while still offering detailed proof points to counter Pamela’s assumptions:
- “Pamela we believe that this raise is good for shareholders, and good for growth. Collectively, the executive board, which will work on this strategy, has been involved with seven significant mergers in our space in the last 10 years. Adding to this, we see the economic headwinds as a golden opportunity to find better value acquisitions for our shareholders, following many years of high valuations in the sector. Again, this is why we see this opportunity as being overwhelmingly good for shareholders, and good for Manypennies’ growth.”
Bob hasn’t ignored Pamela’s questions, but he has bookended his well-prepared proof points with the underlying message that he wants the public and investors to hear and recall. This way, both parties can walk away satisfied.
The bricks and mortar of messaging
Prior to media training executives, it is critical to construct messaging in a clear and concise manner in the form of a message house. This should include a ‘roof’ or ‘umbrella’ statement, which articulates the company’s value proposition or campaign proposition in a sentence or two. Beyond that, spokespeople will need several ‘pillars’ so that they can reference various topics that might be raised during an interview, followed by factual ‘proof points,’ which can be at the ready to clarify questions and provide evidence that the overall message is based on accuracy.
Once your spokespeople have been furnished with the building blocks of their messaging and are all singing from the same hymn sheet, you can then move onto training, briefing and preparing them so they’re on message, and equipped to handle curveballs.
Here is a sample Manypennies Message House (keep in mind an agency will spend days working on these to ensure they’re appropriate at both a brand and campaign level):
Media training & execution
Finally, once the groundwork on messaging is done, all your hard work can be brought to life by training spokespeople to stay on message and be aware of the proof points that will be vital in demonstrating authority, trust and integrity.
A few tips when media training spokespeople:
- Know your key messages and learn the proof points – absorbing these into your subconscious will allow you to calmly approach and interview, knowing you have detailed subject matter on hand.
- Reinforce the reporter/interviewee relationship – your spokesperson IS the expert, they HAVE the knowledge that the reporter is seeking, there is no practical reason to fear media activity.
- Treat your mock interviews seriously – film it, make sure your spokesperson knows it’s a full-dress rehearsal – no stopping and correcting, act it out as a live interview.
- Once your spokespeople have been briefed on the message house, the reporter’s background and have been through intense internal mock questioning, encourage them to completely switch off in the hours leading up to an interview. This will combat anticipatory anxiety and help the interviewee to actively listen and naturally respond.
- If possible, avoid too much caffeine – the best interviews that carry the most authority are those where the words are delivered naturally, with a moderate rhythm. Coffee can be the enemy of this!
Winning the battle of a good interview takes place during preparation, well before your spokespeople sit down with reporters. The more prepared a spokesperson is, the less risks are presented when the interview commences.
There are many other techniques that can be employed to approach a successful engagement with the media. If you’d like to learn more about them and borrow from Cognito’s 20 years of experience in doing this, get in touch.
Scott Schuberg is the managing director of the Sydney office