what is media training


With an ever changing media landscape it is important constantly to review how we prepare our spokespeople to get the most out of our opportunities in print, online, on the radio and on TV.

And it is, I think, time for a review.

It’s time to change the way we approach and answer the question “What is Media Training”. Subtly. But to great effect. And that subtle change is to consider the end user – the audience – much more in our planning for an encounter with the media.

First a history lesson on Media Training

“Mrs Thatcher… what’s your first answer to my first question?”

The late 1970’s – a great shift in preparing for the media came with Mrs Thatcher, thanks to her wily old Chief Press Secretary Bernard Ingham. A former journalist himself he recognised that simply answering questions from journalists rarely if ever conveyed a political agenda with any clarity. And so he and Mrs Thatcher simply went out and delivered statements. Whatever the question. It was, at the time, breathtakingly effective.

Mrs Thatcher swept through the media with a mission to tell people exactly what she was going to do. And not only that. It was an exercise in information not engagement. Certainly not debate.

It was so successful that even the self-proclaimed Grand Inquisitor himself, Sir Robin Day, was wearily to say that when interviewing her he may as well just begin… Mrs Thatcher, what’s your first answer to my first question?

What is Media Training and what it is not…Avoiding the question

As journalists and – more importantly – the public began to realise that all politicians adopted the ‘avoid the question’ technique they got increasingly fed up. Politicians in particular – and copycat corporate spokespersons – utterly lost credibility. No one believed what they were saying. Engagements with the public via the media became and exercise in obfuscation not enlightenment and any hope of persuading the public to your point of view was lost. A change was needed

But that change wasn’t for corporate spokespersons to return to simply answering the question. Remember, exchanges with journalists are not a pub quiz. You don’t get any points for giving the correct answer.

The days of the lengthy ‘If this is the question, this is the answer’ briefing were gone. Such exercises are useful in certain circumstances… personal profile interviews, appearances before Commons Select Committees, briefing sessions with market analysts.

But when your opportunity in the media might be as little as 12 seconds on the BBC 10 o’ clock news then the “if this is the question, this is the answer’ briefing document is far, far too much.

Media Training with “Key Messaging”

Key Messaging became the central plank of media training. And it’s still useful up to a point.

Enter Mr Tony Blair. His media guru was, of course, Peter Mandelson. And his “lines to take” approach – Key Messages by any other name – won that day as swathes of candidates achieved the great goal of communication – consistency of message.

And the delivery mechanism changed. Gone was the brutal Thatcher style of simply saying what she wanted to say, ignoring the question. Now the communication skill was to address the question, at least acknowledge that a question had been put, but then link back to a Key Message.

Sometimes the Blair address of the question was a little crude… ‘I think the most important thing to say is…’ but again, a subtlety of style made it effective. He was, at first, believed. Indeed, he was hailed as a great communicator.

It’s time for another change in the definition of Media Training. New Thinking.

Unfortunately engaging with the public via the media is an art not a science. When a successful formula is devised it isn’t e=mc2. It doesn’t hold true for ever. Remember our ever changing media landscape? With the advent of multiple platforms, print shifting online, instant information via social media, 24 hour global news feeds and even the rise of the ‘alternative fact’, the public can spot a Key Message a mile off. This is no longer clear and effective communication. This is no longer effective media engagement. “Safety is our number one priority” Pah. There’s a burnt out tower block behind you mate. “Strong and stable government”. Give it a rest.

So, what is media training now? What is the next shift in thinking?

The public, the audience, the readership – they kind of get the facts. Journalists raid their sources, sweep the social media, gather the vox populi, make up their mind what they think the story is and then then present themselves to you. You’ve got the chance to be interviewed. They’re offering you this opportunity: 12 seconds on the BBC 10 o clock news. (see other blogs of mine on maximising your opportunities in terms of time).

It’s time to shift our thinking away from what is my Key Message. It’s time to start asking ourselves these questions:

Given the facts as we know them, at this time, on this matter of corporate importance, where brand and reputation are at stake:

  1. What might this audience expect?
  2. What are they most likely to take on board?
  3. What might they be expecting from a corporate spokesperson at this time?

That’s right. This is the subtle change. It’s…

“what’s my big idea that will prompt the required reaction from this audience at this time”.

And the reaction you’re after may be for the audience to act in a certain way, to empathise with me, to believe me, to be reassured by me. 

So that’s the shift successful media training needs to take. The move away from simply what do I want to say … to what’s my big idea… what do I want this audience to do, to think, to understand? It’s the art of the possible … matching what we want to say balanced against to what chance it has of success.

In Reflection

The delivery part of Media Training used to say “Presentation”. How to present your corporate position. Some years ago we at BMS changed this to Performance. Simply stating your point of view was no longer enough, we needed our spokespersons to have more – well – oomph.

With the New Thinking on Media Training, to fully and successfully engage the audience the delivery now requires Personality. And that’s another blog entirely.