Planning a media training program
With the rapid growth of social media, companies have an unprecedented ability to communicate with customers, suppliers, regulators and the media.
The command-and-control approach, where only C-suite executives and corporate spokespersons engaged with external audiences, is history. Today, everyone is a corporate ambassador.
Christopher Dillon looks at the process of planning a media training program and how media training can help individuals and organizations communicate with greater credibility, clarity and consistency.
Media training prepares your staff—senior executives, communications professionals and front-line employees—to interact successfully with the media.
Conducted one-on-one or in small groups, the training program explains how reporters gather information and gives trainees tools and techniques to prepare for a range of situations, including TV and print interviews, and crisis communications. Training reinforces awareness of your corporate communications policies and messages, and highlights the resources available to employees.
Training activities are covered by a non-disclosure agreement, so interview simulations can tackle sensitive and confidential issues. With careful planning, media training can address trainees’ issues and concerns as well as organizational challenges and opportunities.
What is media training?
Media training equips your staff to interact effectively with traditional media, such as radio, TV and newspapers, as well as social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, so employees can present your organization in the best possible light.
For front-line staff it means learning the basics—inquiries from traditional media are promptly and politely referred to the corporate communications department and company gossip is not shared on Facebook or with the (seemingly) nice woman from the TV station. Employees should also know how to recognize and report a crisis. At this level, training is mainly preventative.
For corporate communications staff, media training ensures different departments and offices use the same standards, techniques and information to handle journalists’ inquiries and prepare social media posts. The emphasis is on delivering messages that are clear, consistent and credible. Training can involve crisis simulations, where executives manage communications in a rapidly unfolding situation, typically with incomplete information.
For senior executives, training focuses on media-handling skills, with video-based interview simulations and detailed appraisals. Training often supports an important event, such as a merger, acquisition, downsizing or product launch.
Regardless of who is being trained, the program must equip staff to work with the media and interviews they encounter on a day-to-day basis.
In Asia, this presents unique challenges. State-controlled outlets like China’s Global Times operate differently from international news services such as Bloomberg. There are scrappy startups, like Hong Kong Free Press, that specialize in investigative journalism. Like other markets, Asia has mass-market tabloids and broadsheet “newspapers of record.” Levels of skill and sophistication vary widely. Interviewees encounter everything from cub reporters to knowledgeable industry specialists.
Cultural differences can create miscommunication. For example, there is a long list of topics that should be avoided in interviews with Mainland media. And executives who are used to non-confrontational Asian reporters may be shocked by the aggressive tactics used on programs like HARDtalk.
Language is another potential stumbling block. While training should be conducted in the language in which the interviews will take place, most media training concepts are language-neutral. In the absence of skilled local or multilingual trainers, English is often a suitable compromise.
Planning a media training program
Because media training supports your corporate communications, public affairs and marketing functions, these departments should be involved in the planning process. Discuss training goals, the trainees’ needs, the course content and the overall training approach.
Having realistic goals is critical. A half-day session won’t turn beginners into seasoned pros, but it will introduce basic concepts and help you determine who has potential, who is terrified and who is unlikely to be an effective spokesperson.
Advance planning is important if you are training busy senior executives. Holding the training at a hotel or as part of a regional conference can minimize disruptions from paperwork, phone calls and email. It can also create a buzz around the training.
When you have identified the trainees, distribute a questionnaire to determine their experience, interests and concerns. Then use this information to fine-tune the program and group trainees according to their needs and responsibilities. Mid-level staff are rarely comfortable in the same session as senior executives (and vice versa), particularly when the program involves role-playing and detailed critiques.
For training that includes interview simulations, small-group sessions offer the optimum combination of personal attention, flexibility and cost effectiveness. While less expensive on a per-head basis, larger groups are difficult to schedule and offer fewer opportunities for trainee participation in role-playing exercises.
Another option is to use programs, like those offered by chambers of commerce, that simultaneously train people from different companies. While better than nothing, these courses use a one-size-fits-all approach that is unlikely to address trainees’ individual concerns. Because they are open to the public, these programs are inappropriate for executives preparing for product launches, layoffs or other sensitive interviews.
Media training program content
The program’s content will be driven by your corporate goals and the trainees’ needs. It will typically include some or all of the following components.
Policy review—For transferees, new hires and front-line staff, media training is a good opportunity to introduce and explain your communications policy. That includes who is authorized to speak to the media, under what circumstances, on what topics, and the interview approval and tracking process. An external trainer can review your communications policy with senior executives, a task that may be difficult for corporate communications staff.
Corporate communications—A training session is a logical place to introduce the corporate communications department and its key executives. You can describe the services the department provides and how it facilitates interviews.
Messages—Introduce approved corporate messages, such as your mission and vision statements, and show how they can be used in interviews. If appropriate, you can also discuss promotional messages for new products or services.
Conventional media—Introduce the reporter’s role and the characteristics of key media types and news organizations. Describe how stories are written, explain why the media is interested in your organization and show examples of positive and negative coverage. If you are training expatriates, contrast local media and reporters with those in the trainees’ home countries.
Social media—Explain how social media drives news stories in conventional media. Describe how your organization uses social media in its marketing, crisis management and customer service functions.
Interview preparation—For executives who will represent the company, explain how to conduct background research, and select and package information for an interview. [This is important for subject matter experts who often have decades of experience that must be reduced to crisp soundbites.] Include techniques for handling difficult and unpleasant questions and tips for television, radio and print interviews.
Simulations—In our post-course surveys, participants consistently rate interview simulations as one of the most valuable parts of the training process. Executives who represent the company should participate in several video-based interview simulations and critiques. There is no substitute for seeing and hearing yourself answer a reporter’s questions, and receiving constructive, specific feedback.
Interview simulations should include easy, difficult, open-ended and obvious questions, and be appropriate for the trainees’ role and experience. A 60 Minutes-style ambush interview is valuable for a CEO in a crisis-prone industry, but it will be wasted on a junior executive who pitches product news releases to trade magazines.
Rehearsals—If you are anticipating difficult, sensitive or important interviews, ask about rehearsal services. Polishing and practicing messages before the big interview makes executives more confident and convincing.
Finally, include plenty of Q&A time so trainees can address personal concerns and questions. To keep the course topical, use real-world examples from your company and industry. And incorporate some fun elements to relieve the tension trainees may feel about appearing on camera.
Choosing a media trainer
There is no standard media training curriculum or certification for media trainers, and training programs can cost US$15,000 per day. As a result, whether you hire a global public relations firm, an independent agency or a corporate training firm, choosing the right trainer is critical.
Referrals from your corporate communications department and from other human resources professionals are a good place to start the search. Short-listed companies should be able to provide references and explain their course materials, training approach and pricing policies in detail. They should also be prepared to accommodate special requests, and handle any company- or participant-specific idiosyncrasies.
You’ll want to meet the person delivering the training—not just the person selling it—to ensure they are diplomatic, credible and able to build rapport with trainees. This is particularly important if you are working with senior executives or specialists who may be skeptical about the training process.
The trainer may suggest using freelance journalists in the program. While this can add realism, it can also create confidentiality issues.
Finally, everyone involved in the training program, including support personnel like videographers, should be covered by a non-disclosure agreement so you can discuss sensitive issues in confidence.
Wrapping it up
When the training session has been completed, use a questionnaire to track participants’ satisfaction with the program, content and the trainer. You can also hold debriefing sessions to determine which parts of the program were effective and which need improvement. Use this information when you plan future sessions, or hold follow-up and refresher courses.
Don’t forget to share your comments and feedback with the trainer. Good trainers are always looking to improve their services, and your comments are an essential part of this process.
Christopher Dillon is the principal of Dillon Communications Ltd. He has delivered one-on-one and small-group media training programs to over 300 senior executives in China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the April 2005 issue of Asia Staff magazine.