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Aug 31, 2000

Lights, camera, action

Senior executives are increasingly expected to be media savvy, though few start out that way. Media training has become a crucial part of CEO 101

Have you ever considered hiring a professional to irritate your chief executive and then watch him squirm? Putting your boss in the hot seat may sound like a guilty fantasy, but it's not. Many IROs are winning points for far-sightedness by sending their superiors through a grueling course of media training.

Media training lets executives hone their interview skills in unpleasant (but simulated) situations. 'Part of my mission sometimes is to antagonize and irritate the interviewee,' says Susan Neisloss, senior counselor at Pondel/Wilkinson Group, a Los Angeles-based investor relations firm. Nonnie Gerber, an independent media trainer based in Manhattan, also prides herself on ruffling her trainees: 'I run my clients through very tough questions so they can take anything.'

Trainers regularly see corporate executives blow important questions in practice sessions. Steve Bennett, founder of Media Mentor in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says, 'I've had some lulus in terms of memorable gaffes companies have made.' One engineer blabbed about the flaws in the company's encryption system. 'Engineers are like faucets,' he says. 'You get a gush.'

Most executives are good sports about revealing their own shortcomings. Eric Brandt, CFO of $9 bn Allergan, went through a course of media training in January and February with the goal of raising the profile of the Irvine, California-based specialty pharmaceuticals company. 'It's important to see yourself so you know how you come across – whether you come across overconfident and shifty or sincere and direct, and how you use that,' says Brandt. His own Achilles' heel was a tendency to ramble, answering questions in far too much detail. When asked whether media training had corrected that problem, Brandt says, 'I'm acutely aware of it. I try to ask myself, How can I answer this in no more than three sentences?'

Media training is gaining in popularity, in part because the number of venues where CEOs, CFOs, CTOs, and COOs' opinions are sought has increased dramatically. It's no longer unusual for a corporate executive to appear on TV, according to Sandra Sokoloff, head of media relations for Magnet in Manhattan. She notes, 'You go into the green room of CNNfn and it's a constant flow of individuals.' Business news is now mainstream fare, she observes: 'CNBC is one of the most popular stations ever, from grandmas' houses to frat houses.'

Finally, there's been a sea change in how corporations regard the media. 'Ten years ago,' says Barrie Doyle, founder and president of Gateway Communications International in Beamsville, Canada, 'the job was to keep the chief executive out of the newspaper. We didn't even let the public know who the CEO is. And now it's very much seize every opportunity, get your man out there, and let everyone know who's in charge.'

What is it?

Nonnie Gerber defines media training as 'working with CEOs and senior-level management on how to present themselves so they and their companies appear in the most positive light.' As she explains, 'I teach my clients the tricks of the trade for how to turn an interview into a PR opportunity.'

Today's media training is far more comprehensive than it was a decade or two ago. According to Bennett, the biggest foot-draggers are 'people who were trained ten years ago. Too many people went through the fluffy stuff, how to sit and how to look on TV.' Sokoloff agrees: 'It's very easy to say, Don't wear white on TV. That's not media training.' Now trainers emphasize their role in helping executives develop a message and then present that message in a high-pressure situation.

The new thinking about media training also confronts the nature of the interviewer-interviewee relationship. 'One of the key aspects of understanding how to be a good interviewee is understanding that it is not a natural conversation,' says Neisloss. She advises, 'You need to have four or five prepared messages that you want to get out. You need to use the reporter to transmit those messages.'

Brandt has found that media interviews aren't the same as presentations to analysts or institutional investors: 'You have to get a comfort level and a rhythm in the way you speak, which is different than in the investor relations world, where they want detail.'

Ken Vest, a director at the Washington DC office of PR giant Burson-Marsteller, emphasizes the importance of putting yourself in the interviewer's shoes: 'On the investor relations side, you're trying to tell your story through a number of different filters.' Knowing how to get the most important message through a phalanx of reporters and editors takes savvy, practice, and finesse.

More than anything else, media training helps executives master the rules of the road for print and broadcast journalism. The point isn't to stonewall, emphasizes Brandt. 'If someone says to you, Are you going to sell this business if it doesn't perform? then the answer is, 'Yes, if it doesn't perform, we're going to sell this business. You don't want a PR person who says, We'd evaluate the situation. You want a decisive individual who gives you some insight into how they think.'

Too often, media training is blamed for blunting the message, but Allergan's Brandt, who was taught by Sokoloff, says he learned just the opposite: 'If you're not going to answer the question, you're going to frustrate the reporter. And what was a favorable reporter may turn out to be an unfavorable one.'

Still, there's a line between being forthcoming and spilling the beans. 'You need to know where the boundaries are,' emphasizes Brandt. He maintains that the boundaries relate to competitive issues, public information, and topics that become red herrings, drawing attention away from your central message.

The right trainer

Media training outlets range from the big public relations and IR firms to sole practitioners, who are often former journalists. Nonnie Gerber, for instance, was a correspondent on CNN and worked as a news anchor in Phoenix, Los Angeles, and New York City before reinventing herself as a media trainer; she has interviewed everyone from Ronald Reagan to David Letterman and Jerry Seinfeld.

Gerber's teachings flow from her real-life experience. 'I've interviewed people from the highest echelons of the corporate sector. I know how to make them feel really comfortable.' She recalls from her reporter days that some CEOs 'would call the next day and say, My wife said I came off better with you than with anyone else.'

Some consider it a plus if media training is a facet of an overall IR or PR push. Karina Byrne, director of media relations for Thomson Financial in New York, emphasizes that executives at publicly-traded companies need slightly different skills than politicians, economists, entertainers, or other experts with television personae. Most IR-related interviews, she says, 'are focused on the numbers and big-picture strategies. The media training that we prepare our CEOs and CFOs for are interviews with the Wall Street Journal and Barron's, not the National Enquirer. It generally won't be an ambushed interview situation. You won't be chased down outside your office.'

If you're seeking a media trainer, one good question is, 'What toys do you have at your disposal?' Most agree that professional equipment, including broadcast quality cameras and monitors, prepares a CEO better than a session in front of a handheld video camera.

It's also important to find a trainer who specializes in all media – from print interviews to TV spots to webcasts – or one whose experience meshes with the types of interviews your company expects to do. Doyle notes that an interview by a highly-specialized trade journalist might call for a media trainer versed in the subject matter: 'There are reporters out there who have their MBAs; they know as much about business as you do.'

The actual training sessions can range from a general course aimed at several participants and lasting a few days to a specific and targeted session for a single interview. Typically, preparations for one appearance last half a day. More generalized training takes anywhere from three or four hours to two full workdays. John Walker of New York's Walker Communications says the length of individual training sessions varies depending on the person: 'It's usually half a day with CEOs because they don't have the time for longer.'

Gerber admits she'll work with individuals until they declare themselves adequately prepped. 'For some,' she says, 'after two days of sessions, they say, Hey, I'm ready to take a shot at it.' Others need longer. 'Once you do a TV interview, you can't take it back. It's so critical that they feel they can enter an interview situation and be at their peak.'

Companies should expect to shell out a few thousand dollars for even a short round of media training. Bennett estimates a half-day session for a group of three-to-five executives runs $3,000-$6,000 or more, depending on the equipment required. For most IROs, the price isn't an obstacle. According to Cecilia Wilkinson, a principal at Pondel/Wilkinson, 'If you go on CNBC and get hammered or don't tell a story properly and it contributes to weakness in your stock – even 1⁄16 of a point for millions of shares – what's that compared to a few thousand dollars of media training?'

Perhaps the most important factor in choosing a media trainer is personal chemistry. 'Most executives are able to make a decision about multi-million deals, but all of a sudden you tell them there's a reporter on the phone who wants to interview them and they turn to a bowl of Jello,' says Doyle. 'That's because the media are outside their comfort zone.' Working with a trusted and caring trainer can demystify journalists and familiarize your executives with the medium. Hiring someone your executives like also increases the odds that media training will be ongoing and informal, rather than a one-shot deal. Brandt remarks, 'You do media training before you step into the batter's box, and every time you're in the batter's box, you're in effect being trained.' Sokoloff and others from Magnet comment on all Brandt's media appearances: 'It's a continual learning process.'

Making the pitch

How appealing is the idea of approaching your CEO and telling him he could profit from some media training? Some say the topic has become easier to confront and CEOs no longer bristle when they hear it. 'There was a long period of time when executives didn't want to admit they needed training,' says Wilkinson. 'The IR professional was hesitant to suggest it to a CEO because it might imply there was some deficiency. But more and more, it's now considered a matter of course,' she maintains. 'It falls into place as regularly as the attorneys coming in and prepping you on what you need to do as a public company.'

Not all individuals take to media training immediately, although most media trainers believe that anyone who's risen to a senior position at a public company can successfully improve their communications skills. According to Bennett, the two hardest types to train are engineers and marketers. The problem with marketers, says Bennett, is they never stop selling, and 'you can't push a reporter.' Engineers, on the other hand, are too forthcoming: 'They want to talk about the product, warts and all. They'll tell you where their competitors are better.'

Brandt thinks CFOs are probably one of the biggest challenges to train: 'Most CFOs are introverted, analytical people. They'd prefer not to be in the spotlight,' he explains. 'Journalists are in the quest of finding someone who's going to be real. CFOs will tend to be overly cautious and not tell you things.'

While talking to the media isn't everyone's cup of tea, Neisloss concludes that most executives can become adept at it – with training and with time. 'People who deal with issues that are highly technical or, say, just numbers all day – for them sometimes understanding the bigger picture is harder,' she says. 'But I still think there's great hope.'