The PR BlogMedia & PsychologyMedia Relations7 Media Training Mistakes Even Professionals Make

7 Media Training Mistakes Even Professionals Make

Media training is difficult — even for seasoned professionals.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

Even pro­fes­sion­als make media train­ing mistakes.

Standing in front of a cam­era or a micro­phone can be stress­ful, espe­cially if you’re facing a crisis. Therefore, many lead­ers, politi­cians, and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als invest in pro­fes­sion­al media training.

Still, many non-PR-pro­fes­sion­als dis­like the idea of media train­ing immensely. They say:

You can always spot a media-trained per­son. They talk and act like assholes. Honestly, I don’t see the point in whatever guys like you are teach­ing these people.”

Well, they’re not wrong.

Over the years, I’ve media trained lots of exec­ut­ives and politi­cians. Maybe I should feel some­what respons­ible for my part in how people feel about media training?

Talking with report­ers, espe­cially in tense situ­ations, is dif­fi­cult. What offi­cial spokes­per­sons often do is take what pub­lic rela­tions advice they’ve been giv­en — and then they take it too far.

Let’s dive right in:

Table of Contents

    Pro Mistake 1: Talking Without Providing Substance

    Typical media train­ing advice: If the report­er asks, “is it unsafe to work for you?” you often can­’t say ‘yes.’ Just because it was unsafe one time at one loc­a­tion, that does­n’t mean that all related work envir­on­ments are unsafe. You can­’t say ‘no,’ either. It was unsafe in this spe­cif­ic situ­ation. You’re being cornered! The only thing you can do is focus on what you actu­ally can say.

    How this advice back­fires: Being media trained, a spokes­per­son can get over-con­fid­ent in their abil­it­ies. And so, they believe that they can get away with card-stack­ing and talk­ing them­selves out of the situ­ation. Reporters are trained to spot this beha­viour, and instead of let­ting the spokes­per­son off the hook, they start prob­ing even harder.

    What to do instead: You must have some­thing of sub­stance to say before enter­ing the inter­view situ­ation. Even if you could talk your way out of a tricky ques­tion without say­ing any­thing of sub­stance, the audi­ence will dis­like you for it — no mat­ter if you suc­ceed or not.

    Pro Mistake 2: Taking the Bridge Technique Too Far

    Typical media train­ing advice: Use the bridge tech­nique. While being unable or unwill­ing to accept the fun­da­ment­als of the ques­tion, the inter­viewee can add con­text, and by doing so, it’s often pos­sible to slide over to pre­pared state­ments and talk­ing points. This is what’s known as the bridge technique.

    How this advice back­fires: It’s easy to grasp the mech­an­ics of the bridge tech­nique. The report­er asks a ques­tion, does­n’t answer the ques­tion, and then talks about what you want to high­light. Too often, media-trained spokespeople take this tech­nique way too far. It’s impol­ite at best — and it cer­tainly does­n’t look good on camera.

    What to do instead: When you’ve answered a ques­tion, it can be help­ful to the report­er if you add addi­tion­al con­text or insight on your ini­ti­at­ive. But always make sure that you’re adding con­text or insight rel­ev­ant to the ori­gin­al question.

    Pro Mistake 3: Clinging to Prepared Statements

    Typical media train­ing advice: Prepare a short­l­ist of pre­pared state­ments and answers you would like to get across to the pub­lic. Have these state­ments been fact-checked and used, espe­cially if you’re being put on the spot? If the report­er is open to it, you can then be the one mov­ing the inter­view forward.

    How this advice back­fires: Surprisingly, many media-trained spokes­per­sons decide to repeat their pre­pared state­ments word-for-word, over and over again. An irrit­ated report­er could quickly pun­ish you by air­ing this type of “par­rot beha­viour” — and it’ll be ter­rible both on cam­era and in audio.

    What to do instead: Write down single words to rep­res­ent your inten­ded talk­ing points, and remem­ber these instead of actu­al phrases. Don’t mem­or­ise word-for-word state­ments. And most import­antly, don’t say the same thing over and over again.

    Pro Mistake 4: Staring the Reporter Down

    Typical media train­ing advice: Most journ­al­ists use a com­mon trick to remain silent instead of fir­ing anoth­er ques­tion. For most people, this silence is awk­ward and unpleas­ant. To escape this unpleas­ant­ness, they start talk­ing aim­lessly. The rule of thumb is to be com­fort­able and allow for a little bit of quiet now and then.

    How this advice back­fires: Allowing for silence is essen­tial, but there’s no need for you to sit there and stare intensely for 30 seconds. Because this does­n’t look good, either. Many media-trained spokes­per­sons are simply apply­ing this advice by tri­umphantly try­ing to stare the report­er down.

    What to do instead: If the report­er is ser­i­ous about stay­ing quiet for a long time, then care­fully use the bridge tech­nique to add more con­text and insight. But take a few moments in silence to think about what you’re going to say before you do. The key is not to be afraid of silence, not feel the need to fill these pauses with excess­ive talk, and not to enter some star­ing con­test with the reporter.

    Pro Mistake 5: Using Non-Apologies Instead of Apologies

    Typical media train­ing advice: Don’t be afraid of say­ing that you’re sorry. Making an apo­logy pub­licly is some­times just the right thing to do. The import­ant thing here is to not sound like a robot; to make sure that you genu­inely empathise.

    How this advice back­fires: More often than not, media-trained spokespeople say things like, “We’re sorry they feel this way,” “We’re sorry if this did­n’t come across,” or “We’re sorry that you’re sorry.” These state­ments are also known as non-apo­lo­gies — and every­one right­fully hates them.

    What to do instead: Connecting through emo­tions means that you should talk and act like a human being. Don’t say that you’re sad, be sad.[note]If you can­’t express human emo­tions and empathy dur­ing dif­fi­cult times; see a ther­ap­ist and not a reporter.[/note] And even more import­antly, stay away from non-apo­lo­gies alto­geth­er. It’s about your feel­ings on the mat­ter, not theirs.

    Pro Mistake 6: Second-Guessing Other People’s Emotions

    Typical media train­ing advice: The story is always about people, and there­fore, you should focus on those dir­ectly involved. Addressing share­hold­ers, mar­kets, and cus­tom­ers will have to come second.

    How this advice back­fires: To address the human aspect, many spokespeople make the mis­take of try­ing too hard to reas­sure people. But it’s nev­er a good idea to tell people not to worry if they aren’t ready. If you con­tra­dict what people feel, you’re act­ively dis­qual­i­fy­ing their real emotions.

    What to do instead: Don’t talk about oth­er people as if you have magic­al insights into how they feel. Once again, it’s about your feel­ings, not theirs.

    Pro Mistake 7: Sticking to Platitudes and Jargon

    Typical media train­ing advice: Never spec­u­late. Nothing good ever came from second-guess­ing any­thing in front of a report­er. Stick to what you know.

    How this advice back­fires: Media-trained spokespeople rarely say things like “no com­ment” or “I can neither con­firm nor deny.” They know bet­ter. But resort­ing, as many do, to plat­it­udes and jar­gon instead is not a much bet­ter strategy.

    What to do instead: Avoid cor­por­ate cringe. Talk like you would with someone you just met on the street ask­ing for dir­ec­tions, and don’t resort to cor­por­ate speak.

    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
    Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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