Adam Shapiro
President/CEO of ASPR, former Senior VP at Lipman Hearne

Uncover the Story

How to Become Media Ready

I just read an article commenting that a Hollywood star, facing an upcoming gauntlet of critical questions from reporters, had better get herself media trained right away.

It struck me that this is exactly the wrong approach to take. Indeed, if done effectively, media training is something that is integrated into a communications strategy from the beginning, not crammed in after a crisis.

This is especially germane to leaders in higher education and other nonprofit institutions. We wouldn’t ask them to run a 5K without training. So why would they face shrewd questioners without preparing for the experience? Even Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player in the history of the game, needed coaching.

Uncovering the story is a process of media training that I’ve used with much success, and is comprised of a two-step process:

  1. In training sessions, I work with trustees and board members, presidents, department heads, and other leadership. They always have messages, ideas, and mission statements about their institutions. Yet there is a need to translate that content into people-speak (brief, poignant soundbites) that leads the reader, viewer, or listener to understand what is truly unique about their non-profit organization or higher education institution. It takes time to uncover these elements and they aren’t always obvious.
  2. Once we have the defining messages down pat, it’s time to ask the tough questions in practice sessions. I began my career as an investigative reporter, the type of journalism that thrives on making Freedom of Information Act requests, and highlighting when things go wrong and why. Investigative reporters do love to uncover a good story. Therefore, I’ve honed the ability to develop questions that can trip up even the most eloquent leaders, and then work with them to shape the appropriate responses.

This process, conducted well in advance of walking into a news conference or an impromptu discussion with a story-hound, is ideal in today’s intense media environment, where everyone can be on Twitter and the next Mike Wallace might be a freshman with an iPhone.

An institution’s messages are the core of the communications process. When a leader is being interviewed or giving a speech he or she should always look for opportunities to tie their response or topic back to the institution’s key messages. This can be done in a way that is easy, effective, and natural after a spokesperson goes through media training.

I’ll leave you with one quick tip. – It’s not always the tough questions that cause the most headaches. Sometimes an easy, routine question can lead to a regrettable answer. For instance, a reporter asks “How long do you plan to stay here as university president?” And the president jokingly says, “No longer than it takes to get back to a bigger university.” Comments made when they think they are off camera or off-the-record, often are not.

It’s an honor to work with mission-driven institutions, explore their stories, and help leaders prepare to tell those stories in accurate, compelling, and motivating ways.

Shapiro, a former senior vice president with Lipman Hearne, is president/CEO of ASPR, a Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm that focuses on education and nonprofit clients.