The dreaded media interview has always been considered the call from “60 Minutes,” and the pressured response to a business catastrophe or opportunity that brings camera, lights and action to an executive’s office.  While you can watch this vignette on the networks every week, it really isn’t that common.  More importantly, it doesn’t take an army of executives to respond to it.  Handling this type of pressured communication stays rooted in the C-Suite…and often the CEO’s office.

We’ve coached many of these situations and the difference I see between someone who is ready to do this… and someone who isn’t… has a lot to do with the training and experience they’ve had to date.  In a pressured situation, you can count on public relations and communication experts to help create and refine messages.  But, it is very difficult to help an executive deliver the message well when the pressure is on.

Case in point:  Last year, a private company was “discovered” for their phenomenal growth and product opportunities in software.  They became the darling of the hi-tech world quickly and everyone wanted to interview the CEO.  The PR firm worked hard to create the storyline and help him define the messages he wanted to get out.  But, his first round of interviews was a BUST!  He seemed unsure of himself and couldn’t nail the key messages.  Instead, he rambled and turned a “high profile” opportunity into a liability.

And, that’s why my advice to companies is to expose executives and rising leaders to media situations early.  The face of the media has changed so much in recent years that it doesn’t take an interview on “60 Minutes” to gain experience and learn how to get key messages across.

The face of the media now includes bloggers, twitter enthusiasts, conference attendees, industry publishers, web surfers, etc.  The web has turned all of us into journalists of sorts as we search for comments and ideas to include in our own presentations or articles.  While print media may be shrinking, time spent on the Web is increasing.  During the last five years, the percentage of consumer time spent on the Web increased 121%, with newspapers down 26% and with magazines down 18%. 

I experienced this first hand a few months ago.  I worked with an Atlanta executive over the summer on a speech that was to be delivered to a high profile, public audience.  The topic was current, and we developed some good messages and examples to support his position.  Four months later, I was sitting in an audience at another event and heard another speaker quote from the executive’s speech by telling the story that we had developed.  I was intrigued by this and asked the speaker after the event if he knew the executive.  He said no that he had just been surfing the web and ran across a copy of the speech.  

Information is king and it populates at a speed that most of us can’t even fathom.  To reach a market audience of 50 million it took Radio 38 years, TV 13 years, the Internet 4 years, iPod 3 years and Facebook 2 years.  We’ve taught executives how to develop sound bites for journalists to make ideas memorable and quotable.  But, the truth is we all respond to sound bites these days from a tweet to a video blurb or a web search.

Whether you call it a media interview or just a Q&A session, many company leaders are talking to public groups at trade shows, customer conferences and industry events.  In fact, a research report by Go to Market Strategies revealed that trade shows rank fourth on a list of priorities for marketing budgets in 2011.  This is the year that companies seem ready to reinvest in high profile marketing and lead generation through conferences.

But, don’t overlook the personal skills of the team you send to get the word out.  Whether it’s a five-minute interview or a 30-second conversation at a company booth, the following skills are essential to creating quotable content and building confidence and credibility behind the words.


Message Development:  Far too many executives view an interview as a response.  They view their role as reactive, and they don’t invest the time to think about what they want to get out of it.  Success in any Q&A situation is based on preparation…thinking through what you want to say and developing the sound bites and examples to support it.   

Stories, Stats & Examples:  The goal of any interview is to give out memorable information.  Messages have to be supported with data and anecdotes that help any listener understand the concept and remember it.

Bridging Responses:  It’s hard to remember in the heat of the moment that a journalist can’t make you say anything…but it’s true.  The blunders are moments we all have to take responsibility for.  A journalist…or assertive listener…can box you in.  Learning how to bridge a response to a broader concept or a narrower fact helps executives learn to maneuver through the tough spots.

EX:  Isn’t it true that your company has laid off 20% of your workforce in the last six months?

Broader:  What’s true is that our industry has laid off 25% of employees in manufacturing jobs.  In the last six months, thankfully, we have fallen below that average but we have had to eliminate some jobs on our slower shifts.

EX:  It seems that the real estate market is bouncing back and producing more sales for everyone.

Narrower:  I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you that our company has bounced back with a sales increase of 20% in the first quarter.  We think that’s based on our ability to help companies transition quickly to office space that better suits their needs.

Delivery Skills:  Personal style and presence is critical if you are expecting results from these forums.  Most employees are pretty comfortable working a trade show booth and view their interaction with potential customers or journalists as just casual conversations.  That’s dangerous.  Because while trade shows are a great way to generate leads for your company, they’re also a great way to generate leads for your competition.  And the company that gets remembered out of all the booths, presentations and short interviews, is the company that can create lasting impressions.

This was the challenge for the executive whose story I told you at the beginning.  The moment that his company had worked so hard to reach was going sour as he missed the mark in interviews.  I did have the opportunity to work with him, and he was a quick study.  He learned how to settle in the chair and bring his energy forward to the journalist.  He learned to nail his responses and drive his messages throughout the interview.  Ultimately, he gained the confidence he needed to impact the outcome of an interview…and the media responded.

He reached his objective which was to sell the company.  But, he told me it took 18 months instead of four months, and he thinks it had everything to do with his lack of preparation and understanding of what it would take to succeed in a media interview.