Thought Leadership Strategy Public Relations

Improving Your Media Training with Empathy

By Blair Poloskey

Media training is a part of the public relations function that’s often seen as a negative. I once had a lovely spokesperson tell me he had “messed up” in an interview and understood that his punishment was for me to coach him up.

All too often, executives deem media training, or the need for it, as a judgment of their abilities and intelligence. But it isn’t punishment or judgment. Media interviews just require a very different presentation style from those to which most executives are accustomed. The same spokesperson who kills it in sales meetings or company all-hands can also tank in a media interview. Because media interviews are less about showmanship and charisma (although those can help) and more about understanding a potentially unfamiliar audience – journalists. And further, the journalist’s end reader.

Media Training with Empathy Instead of Fear

Media training has, in my past experience, focused on fear. The media are trying to trap you! They want to trick you into saying something you don’t want to say! Be brief! Stay on message! Be afraid, be very afraid!

This has always struck me as counterintuitive, from a public relations perspective. If the media are really horrible tricksters, why would we want to talk to them at all? Teaching executives or subject matter experts to fear the interview and the journalist is a one-way ticket to nervous spokespeople who avoid interviews and, unfortunately, fail miserably when they do take them.

Instead, we focus on empathy in our media training. We work with spokespeople on fully understanding the journalist, their publication, and their end audience. This not only creates a more positive experience for spokespeople, but it helps them forge valuable relationships with media, which is more likely to result in a successful interview and solid news coverage for the company.

Examples of Fear- vs. Empathy-Based Training

Let’s look at some standard tips we’d give a client during a media training session, each through the two lenses above.

Rein in your knowledge database

  • Fear-based training: If you share all the detailed background information you know about a topic, you will inevitably go down a path of sharing too much. This will distract the journalist from your key messages, raising the risk of getting misquoted.
  • Empathy-based training: Understand what the journalist is hoping to learn from the conversation. Know where your point of view conflicts with what they’ve covered in the past, and where you have the opportunity to provide new, valuable information based on your expertise.     

Rewrite the question or refocus the interview

  • Fear-based training: You don’t have to answer the question asked, and you can control the direction of the interview if you deftly manipulate the situation. (By the way – this is extremely difficult to do in practice, even when trying.) If you do answer the questions as they’re asked, you are falling into a trap, you are no longer sharing your message, and you are failing the interview.
  • Empathy-based training: You don’t have to answer the question as asked, but if you understand the motivation behind the question, you are less likely to get tripped up by it. Apply your understanding of the journalist, the publication, and the end reader, so you can approach questions knowing the most relevant information to share.

Stay on message

  • Fear-based training: If you only speak in prescribed talking points, that is all the journalist can cover. If you let them pick what to cover, they can and will pick the one thing you said that you don’t want them to pay attention to. So only say the key messages.
  • Empathy-based training: The message is important, and it’s definitely what you want to impress upon the journalist. However, this doesn’t mean you have to speak in canned, pre-drafted statements. Understand your key messages as broader themes. Then use different stories, proof points, and words to relay them, depending on the journalist, publication, and end audience you are attempting to reach.

The results of these two approaches are always the same. Fear-based media training leads to suspicious and nervous spokespeople who are paranoid about sharing information, hold their expertise hostage, stay surface-level in their responses, and ironically, frustrate the hell out of journalists.

Training techniques focused on empathy can lead to empowered spokespeople, educated and engaged journalists, and, because this is obviously the end game, better coverage with broader message pull-through that’s interesting to the end reader.  

Empathizing with the Journalist

The spokesperson and the journalist, while not diametrically opposed, do have different needs and goals for an interview. This is where the fear comes from – the spokesperson knows the journalist has different goals, so they’re immediately distrustful of the situation. However, if they focus on understanding the needs and the goals of the journalist, suddenly the process of engagement is no longer intimidating. Knowing what the journalist needs allows them to be a valuable resource and properly share their message in a way that resonates.  

At INK, we use a Think Wrong exercise called “Know Me” as part of our media training workshop. This drill helps spokespeople understand the journalists with whom they’ll speak. We don’t do it for every interview, but it starts to flip the spokespeople’s mindset as they put themselves in the journalist’s shoes to describe their pain points, goals, and surrounding environment.

Empathizing with the Reader

More often than not, a publication’s readers are people in your target audience – whether that’s prospective customers, investors, partners, or general consumers. That’s why you’re having the interview in the first place, right? You want your message to reach the people you care about. So you probably already have a better handle on understanding and empathizing with this group.

If you’re ever not sure who reads a certain publication, the chances are the pub has already done that work for you. Find their media kit or webpage for advertising opportunities, and you’ll see blurbs like this:

  • “We create brand content and experiences that reach an audience of over 16 million entrepreneurs, c-suite executives, venture capitalists and tech obsessed readers.” – TechCrunch
  • “Every day, we inform and engage engineers and engineering managers with critical content on rapid technological advances and their applications at the component, chip, board, and system levels.” – Electronic Design
  • “We provide our audience of influential leaders, high-net-worth-individuals, tastemakers, business decision makers and millennials with critical business insight and unparalleled access to the world’s most powerful people.” – Forbes

Those quick descriptors are a good place to start. Reading up on the coverage itself is your next step. There’s a lot you can infer about a publication’s readers from the topics, angles, depth, and writing style of their articles.

To go even deeper into reader preference – or with audience understanding in general – we like to develop priority personas. These can range from high-level snapshots to thorough depictions. The goal is to create a tangible resource that helps you and your spokespeople better understand the person who will be clicking on that final article.

Empathizing with the Spokesperson

I know I’ve stressed the importance of teaching your spokespeople to empathize, but they deserve some empathy in media training as well.

Generally, you have two types of spokespeople – the willing and the unwilling. As I said above, everyone can use a little media training boost from time to time, but these two spokespeople need to hone very different skillsets in order to excel with media.

Training Willing Spokespeople

Willing spokespeople are confident, passionate, and oftentimes pretty opinionated. This is great if and when their point of view matches the directional goals of the company. But it can also need to be toned down in certain media situations. Willing spokespeople are your best bet for relationship building: they should be tapped for background interviews, informational interviews, and news announcements. Aligning their perspective to that of the company sets them up to excel at thought leadership interviews as well.

Here’s what you should keep in mind, though. The willing spokesperson needs more direction on the why. Why are you asking them to do this interview? What to do you hope comes from it? What does immediate success look like? What does long-term success look like? Which one is the priority here? This detail can feel cumbersome to share, and it doesn’t always jive with the way the spokesperson would have told their story. But that’s why media training is so essential. If you align from the very beginning, you’ll ensure that your willing spokespeople stay that way.

Training Unwilling Spokespeople

Unwilling spokespeople are a different story. They usually have attended too many of the fear-based media trainings. Or they’ve had a negative experience with media that made them want to avoid it at all costs. These spokespeople can also just be genuinely introverted and not interested in that level of exposure. It might be required by their job, but not at all something they would seek out on their own.

For these folks, I find emphasizing the educational part of the spokesperson role generally gets better results. You aren’t looking for them to shill or fabricate a position. The desire is for them to educate on behalf of the company and share their expertise.

Give Your Media Training a Rebrand

When it comes to effective public relations, media training isn’t a nice to have, it’s a must have. But it shouldn’t feel smarmy. It isn’t all tips and tricks or manipulation tactics, and it shouldn’t be rooted in fear and intimidation. Media training is an opportunity to help your spokespeople further hone the message and story of your organization in a way that will resonate with the audience at hand. And to start that process, you have to understand the audience at hand. Lead with understanding, and empathy will follow.