Media Training Uncovered

Thank you to ASPR’s friends at Lipman Hearne for allowing us to share these thoughts about media training.

Uncover the Story Through Media Training

By Adam Shapiro

I just read an article that said a Hollywood star, facing an upcoming gauntlet of critical questions from reporters, had better get herself media trained right away.

It struck me that this is exactly the wrong approach to take. Indeed, if done effectively, media training is something that is integrated into a communications strategy from the beginning, not crammed in after a crisis.

This is especially true for leaders in higher education and other vital institutions. They wouldn’t run a 5K without training, so why would they face critical questioners without preparing for the experience?

Uncovering the story is a process of media training that I’ve used with much success. “Uncover the story” has two meanings:

–In media training sessions on campus, I work with the university president, provost, department heads and other academic leaders. They always have messages, ideas and mission statements about their work. Yet there is a need to put them in human language and discover what is truly unique about their institutions. It takes time to uncover these elements and they aren’t always obvious.

–Once we have the defining messages down pat, it’s time to ask the tough questions in practice sessions. I began my career as an investigative reporter, the type of journalism that thrives on making Freedom of Information Act requests and highlighting when things go wrong and why. Investigative reporters do love to uncover a good story. Therefore, I’ve honed the ability to develop questions that can trip up even the best leader.

This process, conducted well in advance of a need to walk into a news conference, is ideal in today’s intense media environment, where everyone can be on Twitter and the next Mike Wallace might be a freshman with an iPhone.

Here’s a secret: It’s not always the tough questions that cause the most headaches. Sometimes an easy, uniformed question can lead a spokesperson to a regrettable answer (for instance, “How long to you plan to stay here as university president?”). Media training helps prepare officials for that situation as well as understanding that comments made when you think you are off camera often are not.

I’m reminded that even Michael Jordan, the best basketball player in the history of the game, needed a coach. It’s an honor to visit college campuses, explore their stories and help leaders prepare to tell those stories in accurate, compelling and motivating ways.