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The Abruptly Ended Media Interview

Recent Trump interviews have brought this topic back into the headlines. A Google search on “abruptly ended interview” yielded over a half-million results so it clearly happens more than it should. Whether it is a print or broadcast interview, the result is always the same. The act of ending the interview becomes the story and anything that was said before that moment is quickly disregarded. It’s the adult equivalent of taking your ball home because you don’t like how others are playing.

So, why do people go through the effort and agree to speak with the media just to quickly end it when they aren’t happy with the questions? Simply, they are ill-prepared, believe that their walk-out will reinforce that the media is wrong to ask about a topic, or some combination of both. Let’s explore best-practices when preparing for any media interview.

1.     Expect any question to be asked: Tough questions are generally not pulled out of thin air. They are often generated by the topics that you or your client have talked about in the past. Once that door has been opened, then reporters are free to ask questions on the subject.

2.     Prepare responses: Knowing that anything can be asked, prepare a clear and articulate response to the topic. Even if you don’t want to expand or give a specific answer, at least have a response so that you do not appear to be caught off guard. Because you aren’t ready to discuss the subject, doesn’t mean that the journalist is not.

3.     Establish ground rules: Before granting an interview, we can request that a journalist not veer off topic and venture into a specific area. The journalist must explicitly agree to ground rules before the interview takes place. When this request is made, there may be a legal, regulatory or personal reason that you don’t want to, or can’t, talk about something. But even if this agreement is made, you should still have an appropriate response in your back pocket. Something other than walking away would be ideal.

Never underestimate the power of the pen. Abruptly ending an interview demonstrates a lack of preparedness, an inability or no desire to clearly articulate answers to the “tough questions.” This disrespects the rights of the press, shareholders, stakeholders, elected officials and the public’s right to know what your response is on the topic. Before walking out, decide if you want part of your legacy to include the image of you not able to respond to the adult questions.

When Is it OK to Lie to the Media? The Definitive Answer

The answer is: Never. Really. Lying to the press is essentially an open invitation to become an even bigger target for both journalists and the public. One of the easiest ways to give a bad story a longer shelf-life is to lie to a journalist. Equally important, lying to the press ruins your own reputation as a communications professional and that of the organization or person you are representing. For more, you can see my interview with Simon Locke of CommunicationsMatch.

Although there are times when lying, or misleading a reporter, may seem easier and you may think it will yield a positive result, the long-term effects can be detrimental. Here, we will address three topics that may lead you down the wrong path of being dishonest with the press and how to better handle these issues.

Answering every question from the media: Depending on the whether your company is public or private, and for an individual, if you are an elected official or private citizen, every question that is asked does not have to be answered. In some cases, there are legal or regulatory reasons to choose to or not to respond. But in every instance, the answer needs to be true and consistent over the long-term. If you cannot be honest, then decline to comment. The right PR guidance and media relationship can only serve to benefit you. 

You don’t want the facts to get out: The reality is that if a reporter has verifiable facts, they have the right to share what they have with the public. Facts are different than opinions or rumors and reporters work hard to adhere to the standard of presenting facts. At times, data can be manipulated to highlight a certain element of a story, but it would serve you to present your interpretation and explanation, or an updated set of facts if they are relevant. But the underlying information needs to be truthful.

A crisis or sensitive situation is gaining traction: When we get early signs that a bad story is about to come to light, it is critical that the organization’s leadership and communicators spring into action quickly. We cannot kill a story by denying the very existence of the issue or overtly downplaying what is happening. No matter the size of your organization, planning ahead with a crisis plan, including a working group, is crucial. Keep your eyes open to social media, industry events and regulatory issues that may impact your firm. Be prepared with the right messaging, supporting information and a plan of action as to how to communicate with your key stakeholders, not just the press. It is imperative to be honest and accurate with the information that you decide to divulge. Having a positive and trusting relationship with the media will go a long way in helping you and your firm.

Whether you are a spokesperson or a source working for a business, person, government entity, or non-profit, building honest and positive relationships with journalists will be the one of the best ways to ensure that your side of the story will be heard. Lying to the media will put you further under the microscope and undermine your own efforts to get a better story in the press. 

The Real Risks of Fighting with the Press

Recent headlines have ignited a fight that has pitted those who support working with the media against those who see advantage to working against the press. Mark Twain, said, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” As someone who has long established and maintained press relationships, I say, beware who you take a swing at, because reporters like nothing more than a good battle. That’s not to say that they will go out of their way to start one, but they will use a lot of time, patience, sources and resources to identify and report on an issue that they view as a conflict or controversy. They will fight tooth and nail to drag dirty laundry into the public light. And they have the Constitutional right to report, or not, on what they judge the public should know.

In a non-partisan, apolitical setting, let’s discuss ways to engage with the media when there is debate about the facts, an underlying issue with a publication or journalist, or when we are nervous about sensitive or damaging information becoming public.

The Facts Are Wrong: Despite reporters’ best efforts, sometimes they do get facts wrong based on incorrect information from their sources, erroneous data or human error. One of the best ways to correct something that is incorrect is before it ever goes to print. In many cases, reporters will call the subject of their story to verify or get comment. Having a conversation will offer you the opportunity to refute a factual error or potentially build professional goodwill. And sometimes the mistake is on us. If we give a reporter the wrong info, we need to tell them and be forthright. Journalists’ reputations are built on trust, credibility and accuracy. When in the public eye, our own relationships with the press and the public writ large are also weighed similarly. So, the subject, source and journalist are all best served by engaging in a professional relationship.

Not Liking a Particular Journalist or Publication: There are relationships that can start or turn sour between source or client and a specific reporter or their news outlet. It is incumbent upon us as those who rely on the press to cover us fairly, or at all, to figure out how to improve that working relationship. One bad experience shouldn't tarnish the whole news outlet, or the entire industry for that matter. But if you feel that you are being treated unfairly, go to the powers that be at the publication and air those grievances behind closed doors. Be sure to address the issue with specific facts and incidents that have occurred. Do not argue hurt feelings. You will gain no traction. In the end, to have a long simmering feud with any media outlet will ultimately end up hurting you or your firm. 

Trying to Hide the Real Facts: Lack of transparency will quickly make you or your organization an easy and potentially rewarding target for the press. Facts are hard to hide, and once they are widely disseminated, even harder to argue. When faced with unflattering facts, it’s important to have reasonable and accurate talking points that address the issue. Ignoring the topic, not being prepared, or being dishonest will leave a hole for someone else to fill. That could leave you marginalized and compromised as others are sought to tell your story for you.

Your approach should always lean towards working with reporters first. If they are unwilling to hear your side, or purposely push false facts and statements, then it’s time to take next steps by putting them on notice and speaking with the top of the masthead, writing a rebuttal to the editor and putting a factual response on your own website.

The bottom line is that the vast majority of the media are not malicious. They are curious and want to get to the truth. The more we can work with them, the more likely they are to listen and include your perspective or that of your PR client.

Melissa Daly is the founder and president of MFD Communications, a firm which focuses on developing, honing and communicating clients’ key messages to stakeholders. Melissa provides messaging, media training and presentation coaching for clients in a range of business sectors, as well as academia, law and professional services firms. Prior to starting MFD in 2011, Melissa was Vice President, Corporate Communications at Goldman Sachs beginning at the height of the financial crisis. There she was responsible for communications for Goldman’s Asset Management and Private Wealth Divisions as well as Goldman’s political and lobbying activities. Prior to that she was with Brunswick Group for four years where she spearheaded its US financial services practice. Earlier in her career, she held senior communications roles at Fred Alger Management, The Hartford and Lipper. Melissa is often quoted in the press discussing a variety of business and communications issues and Bloomberg calls her “a veteran Wall Street message maker.” Her broad experience spans across business sectors and continents.

Reporters’ Biggest Grievance

I asked, and they answered. My unscientific poll included senior writers and editors at well-known news organizations including newswires, top financial magazines and national newspapers. These are the very people that most PR professionals want and need to know and they are increasingly frustrated by the same familiar tactics. But one in particular stood above the rest: Sending story pitches that have absolutely nothing to do with what the journalist, or even the publication, would ever consider covering as a news story. In fact, some ideas don’t even meet the definition of news or the easier standard of being even remotely interesting.

Over the years, I have heard this complaint with varying degrees of frustration coupled with some colorful language. To a PR person, a wrong pitch may seem insignificant, but for a busy journalist who may receive dozens of these a day, it can be a huge time-waster and more than simply annoying. And following up with a phone call will not help your cause. Equally important, when sending a useless pitch, you are also diminishing your own credibility with the journalists with whom you need to have established respect. And as a result, you’re damaging your career by not putting in the work to build goodwill with the journalists who ultimately determine if you’re effective at your job. Avoiding this mistake won’t take much time and will help advance your media relationships.

Read the Publication: The aforementioned journalists tell me that they constantly get press releases and pitches that are so distant from their audience that they question whether or not the PR person ever read their publication. There is a big difference between having an idea of what a publication covers and its intended audience and actually knowing what reporters are writing. Journalists are almost begging their PR counterparts to simply take a moment to read their publication. You’re trying to make a professional connection. That’s impossible if you don’t put in the time to understand the journalist’s area of expertise and his or her audience.

Identify Relevant Reporters: While you are reading your intended publication, take note of those who write about issues and topics important to your firm or client. Each publication has its own hierarchy and at times there are topics that get assigned. But for the most part, the by-line that you see would be the best person to start with when sending out your pitch. Editors will write but they should not be your first and frequent recipient of your emails. If you decide to hit send, be sure that the story idea or news event would be something of specific interest to the person on the receiving end.

Make the Pitch Clear, and Brief: Ok, you have the right publication, the right reporter and feel that your announcement, news, story idea, or white paper would have no better home. Reporters simply do not have enough time to read every press release and white paper that is sent to them. They have mastered the art of a quick scan on items that will pique their interest, but for the most part, they may miss what is most compelling because it is buried on page 5 of what you sent to them. Keep your pitch to the point and sort through your own information to show them what will be news or noteworthy to their readers. Presenting the media with a pitch that is easy to understand, gets to the point and justifies being sent to that reporter will go a long way in building long-term relationships and increase the chances of your emails being opened at all. In short, you have to think like a journalist, not only what interests them but how they convey information. You need get their attention early in your pitch.

Aligning the perfect pitch won’t always land a story, but your chances of having the media actually read or listen to you in the future will go up significantly. Consider all that journalists have to review and keep their eye on during the day and help them by giving them ideas and stories that they can use and not get sent directly to their trash.

 

3 Things Never to Do After a Media Interview

Recently, I have written about common mistakes that people make before and during media interviews. Unfortunately, once the interview is over, you may still undermine your end goal. Your actions may be misguided and could potentially jeopardize your place in the story as well as your long-term relationship with the media. Here are some things you should not do:

Blame your PR Person: I am not saying this selfishly. PR professionals really do not control what the press writes. We influence the relationship, provide education and background, verify facts, and have meals and drinks with reporters. All in an effort to try champion and promote your viewpoint. However, we don’t write the piece, nor do we see it ahead of time. As much as we try, we can’t control the focus of the story, the quotes that are used, and whether or not your comments even make it into the article at all. Be as prepared as possible before the interview and be mindful of your talking points and messaging.

Blame the reporter. There can be many instances when someone is not happy with an article. Today we will look at the more general displeasure of being left out, taken out of context, a negative undertone, the story not matching the interview or the headline not to your liking. Each one of these can be an hours-long discussion. But in essence, outside of a careless mistake, the twisting of facts or an error of omission, the journalist is not responsible for or beholden to your happiness with the story. If there is a mistake, then take the steps to get a correction. But if the story is factual and you just simply do not like it, step back and consider how to better get your message across next time.

Thank the journalist for a great story. You and your communications team did it! You worked hard to get that great, glowing profile in the most important, well-respected publication there ever was for your business. You want to pick up the phone and thank the writer for doing “such a great job!” Please don’t. A journalist’s priority is to be fair, balanced and accurate. If they hear that you are incredibly pleased by their representation of you or your business, they will feel as though they didn’t do an effective job sticking to their own guidelines. They will walk away thinking that they missed something or that you and others may consider them a shill for your firm. Instead, you can say that you appreciated their time and thoughtfulness while working with you and your colleagues. Vanilla, but respectful.

There are many rules of engagement when it comes to working with the press. With each media outlet, reporter and storyline you may be dealing with a lot of different moving parts and people. It’s critical that you don’t approach a press interview like a chat with an old friend, colleague or potential client. Each unique situation should be considered and prepared for carefully with assistance from those in a position who can help you through the process. 

Don’t Do This During a Media Interview

The day has come and you have decided to speak or meet with a journalist. You prepared, learned about the reporter and are ready to be interviewed as an expert on a topic, industry or key issue. We all have heard and read stories about interviews going wrong, or about a soured relationship with a reporter.  Here are some things that the media often complain about and that you may be doing without realizing that you are hurting yourself.  

Getting too friendly. Many journalists are very nice people who are great dinner companions. They are usually naturally curious and well read.  During an interview, they want you to relax and speak openly, and if they are unfriendly, you will not open up to them. But never forget, journalists are on the clock and have a job to do. They are not your friends (unless, of course they are actually your friends - more on that in a separate article). You should be mindful of asking them to treat you differently or to assume that because of a friendly relationship that they won’t work to get you to say more than you intended.

Taking a whimsical off-the-record approach.  “Oh, that was off the record” is not a phrase that reporters take seriously. You should never consider this as a safe back-up plan if you happen to let slip something you should not have said. Reporters take their jobs seriously and when you agree to speak with them, you are, by all accounts, on the record. This means that when you offer an opinion that is nice, or not, talk about your current or former employer, mention a business or personal relationship, you can expect to see or hear these comments in an upcoming story.

Asking to see the story before it prints. Kudos to the many journalists who hear this request and tactfully decline. This plea makes reporters prickly and they will think that you are out of touch with how the media actually works. No matter the topic, from personal finance, health and fitness to an investigative piece, journalists are bound by their own code of conduct and will not show any outsiders a story before it hits the public domain.

There are many rules of engagement when it comes to working with the media. It is imperative that you understand how the press works from their perspective. Journalists play a critical role in bringing the public valuable information on a range of topics. Respecting their work and establishing mutually respectful relationships with the media will not only help them, it will help you, your business and any cause you choose to advocate.

 

 

Your 3 Mistakes Before a Media Interview

Whether you are a seasoned executive or spokesperson, or it’s your first time speaking with the press, common mistakes are often made before you even begin speaking with a reporter. These errors will quickly derail the interview, impede your ability to stay on point and potentially result in you saying something you regret. The end result is a waste of time, an embarrassing quote or just being left out of the article. Let’s look at these common errors and the fixes you can make:  

Winging it: Subject matter experts often come to the media table very confident in their knowledge of a given topic. The problem arises when you offer too much and never get to your point or actually say the most important points that you wanted to articulate. You and the reporter have both drowned in an ocean of information, when sips of information are what will nurture the conversation. Take some time to prepare your talking points and make sure that they are relevant to the exact topic that you will be discussing with the journalist.

Asking for questions ahead of time. There are two people that cringe at this request; your PR person and the reporter.  PR pros are often put in this uncomfortable spot knowing that reporters really hate sending questions in advance. Reporters may begrudgingly comply and send questions in advance to make the conversation start off smoothly, but don’t expect reporters to keep to those questions. As with anything, there are exceptions such as a difficult or new topic for the writer or a time-zone issue.

Assuming too much. We know what can happen when assumptions are made… As you get ready for any interview, there are several assumptions you should never make. First, don’t assume that you are the most important person being interviewed, because there are others who can take your spot if you aren’t flexible or available. Second, don’t assume that the reporter knows everything about your business. Truly, there are people on your floor, just a few offices down the hall, that don’t understand exactly what it is you do. So, you may need to tailor your talking points based on the reporter’s experience. Contrasting that, don’t assume that the reporter knows nothing. You should always enter into any conversation with the media considering that they did their homework and may ask you a question that you were hoping to avoid. Be prepared for anything that could possibly come up in the interview.

Thorough preparation, getting background on the reporter you will be speaking with, being conscious of their knowledge and their sources relating to you, your business or industry will help you and the reporter. Ultimately, you don’t want to just get through the interview, you want to make the most of your time speaking with journalists, which can foster the relationship and help your organization.

Have a topic you would like me to address? Please email me melissa@mfdcommunications.com

 

3 Reasons Journalists Never Quote You

 

Public relations pros around the world consistently dread the reaction from their clients if they are left out of an important story. If you are a subject-matter expert or spokesperson, you may have had a number of interviews but never landed in an article or just have had a few words in the story.

We hear this often. After the media interview takes place the interviewee feels that they spoke with the reporter for a long time, exhaustively covered the topic, and gave the journalist more than they could ever possibly want to know about the subject.

Then the story appears. Competitors and other experts are quoted extensively, the information that you gave to the reporter appears in the story but there is no attribution to you at all. You are some combination of angry, disappointed and/or embarrassed.

Well, all of those steps that you thought were correct actually worked against you. You need to refocus your efforts in order to have a productive and mutually beneficial media interview. We often hear from reporters that the person being interviewed talked a lot and for a long time, yet didn’t actually say anything useful or usable that can be put in the story.  Let’s help with some basics to fix this.

You are going on for too long: First, spending a long time speaking with a reporter can be counter-productive. Unless it’s for a major profile on you or the firm, journalists simply do not have an hour or more to spend with each source as they are writing a news, current event or general interest story. In today’s fast-paced news cycle environment, reporters simply can’t always spend that much time with a single source. Keep your responses short and to the point. Focus on the meaningful pieces that the reporter can use to relate to their audience.

You aren’t interesting: Next, covering a topic from beginning to end helps the reporter with education and context on the issue but those pieces of the conversation can be said by others or found through a bit of research. This is why your comments would not necessarily be attributed to you when you see those very words in the article. Frustrating, I know. Instead, focus on the most compelling and topical highlights that the reader will care about. In other words, something news-worthy. Determine what is most compelling and new and then say that. The only time a writer should quote someone is when they can’t say it better or with more authority.

You are going too deep: And finally, going into great detail on a topic is an easy way to bore the reporter or may be much more than the journalist can possibly convey to readers. Simplify your talking points, tell a story and develop some analogies or anecdotes so that you are quotable and helpful. The media needs to tell a story. In order to be quoted, you need contribute to that story and say something that is easy to understand by the readers who mostly sit far away from your office and colleagues.

The goal for a successful media interview is to not just get through it, but to make the most of your time with the reporter. Helping the media by giving them clear and concise comments that add clarity and something unique to their story will help you land in the article. Spend more time preparing these points in advance so that you can spend less time speaking with the writer. Both you and the media will benefit from this focused approach. 

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TODAY’s Lessons From Sarah Palin

If nothing else, Sarah Palin gives us many teachable moments. Let’s focus on her most recent interview which generously provides us with two lessons learned. She appeared on the TODAY show to discuss the Iowa Caucus as she recently endorsed Donald Trump for President. However, she quickly took issue with her interviewers when they strayed from the topic she wanted to discuss.  You can watch her reaction and response HERE.

Earlier this year, Ms. Palin made her endorsement which coincided with her son being arrested that same day. When she took the podium to make her Trump endorsement, she used the dais to place blame on others for her son’s actions which resulted in his arrest. The TODAY show hosts asked Ms. Palin about these very statements.

Lesson number one: When you publicly introduce or elaborate on a subject, it is then fair game for the media to ask you about it. If you use your family members as talking points, you will be asked about them. If you publicly talk about a business or product, an employee, relationship, plans, projections or anything else, and the press is in attendance, you should be prepared for journalists to ask you about that very topic.

During her TODAY show interview, when asked about her son, Ms. Palin stated that she was “promised” that the hosts would only ask about the Caucus. She blamed them for getting off topic. She went on to accuse the media of not being honest and of lacking credibility. The host, Matt Lauer, clarified that no promises were made regarding any topics being off limits.

Lesson number two: Journalists are not obligated to make any promises about the topics they will discuss during an interview. They have a right to ask anything. Agreeing to an interview does not mean that you have to answer the question. It’s your decision. But you should establish ground rules directly with the journalist if you don’t want to discuss a topic. They may or may not agree. It’s their decision. But, even when ground rules are established, you should be prepared to address the difficult questions.

Handled correctly, Ms. Palin should have anticipated questions related to comments that she made. She could have used the opportunity to convey an articulate statement on a topic for which she obviously has passion.  She could have won people over to advance her message but now it reinforces the message that she does not take the media seriously. 

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Predicting the CEO Departure

An early indicator of when a leader may soon be leaving their organization is often their very own statement that they are not stepping down. This week Volkswagen’s Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn posted a video apologizing for his company’s actions related to fraudulent emissions reporting. He went a step too far when he said he would not step down. Fast forward to the next day when he was ousted.

Mr. Winterkorn isn’t the only one offering this self-assured proclamation of future employment. You may recall news in the spring related to FIFA’s scandal. Sepp Blatter repeatedly said he would not step down as the head of FIFA only to do so days later. Next, after it was discovered that personal information of 22 million government employees was hacked, Katherine Arculetta, the Director of Personnel Management, stated that she would not step down. The next day, she announced her departure. These are just a few.

Amid a crisis, leaders boldly say that they won’t step down in order to reinforce stability to their customers, investors, employees and other stakeholders. Or maybe it’s to give themselves this sense of stability and imply “If I say it, it must be true.” As we have seen, this can be presumptuous and may be perceived as arrogant. In hindsight, ignorant.  

When things aren’t going well, leaders should steer clear of the ill-advised declaration of not stepping down. The track record of this comment doesn’t bode well for the person saying it.

Instead, focus on the issue at hand - the crisis that’s happening now. Don’t speculate on your own fate too soon. Leaders in government, business and non-profits need to lead through a crisis and work closely with their boards and bosses and defer any answer to “Are you stepping down?” until the time is appropriate, the facts are in and there is a path to a resolution. All of these things generally cannot happen within the first few days of a crisis.

If you insist on saying that you aren’t stepping down, run it by the people who may tell you otherwise. Wait until the smoke has cleared, the dust has settled and others have the confidence in your leadership role.

Melissa F Daly has 20 years of financial communications experience, with a special focus on key message development and media relations around critical issues. Melissa formed MFD Communications after spending three years at Goldman Sachs as Vice President, Corporate Communications. At Goldman, Melissa focused on raising the profile of the its Asset Management and Private Wealth divisions, as well as the firm’s political activities. Prior to that, she was a Director at Brunswick Group, a London-based financial and strategic communications firm. There, she spearheaded its financial services business in the US, managing communications for hedge fund, private equity, insurance and traditional asset management firms. Melissa also worked at Fred Alger Management, The Hartford and Lipper in senior communications and media relations roles and has frequently appeared on CNBC and CNN as an industry commentator. Her experience spans across business sectors and continents.

 

 

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BMW CEO Crashes

This week we saw BMW’s new CEO Harald Krüger, collapse on stage. This is something many speakers and presenters fear but will rationalize that it will not happen to them. The chances of passing out on stage are slim, of course, but it can happen. The good news is that Mr. Krüger is fine and this episode is being chalked up to feeling unwell earlier in the day.

So, what can we do to prevent ourselves from falling over while on stage? Sometimes, we are just simply sick, but feel that the show must go on. If that is the case, we have to weigh the decision of whether or not to go on at all. If you feel that you must get up there, you may want to tell your audience that you are under the weather and sit rather than stand. Nerves and exhaustion can prove to be an unsteady mix.

But sometimes it may be that our nerves are getting the better of us, our minds race and lightheadedness sets in. Let’s discuss lowering those stress and anxiety levels.

First and foremost, be as prepared as possible. Practice your presentation to the point that you are very comfortable with it and the talking points are second nature. To be sure, “practice” doesn’t mean glancing at your notes. We mean that you should read your comments aloud so that you can reinforce what you will say. When possible, rehearse in the event space so that the amplified sound of your own voice doesn’t freak you out.

Some of us take our breathing for granted. This involuntary function can be controlled to help us get through our presentation. Take some slow deep breathes before getting in front of your audience. Most importantly, take a deep breath just before you utter your first words. If you don’t start on a full lung, you will be catching your breath and will sound nervous. When you sound nervous to yourself, you will perpetuate your own sense of unease, resulting in even more anxiety.

Getting ready for your presentation also requires some rest the night before. Of course, life and work get in the way of good sleep. When that’s the case, some of us turn to coffee, and then more coffee and caffeine. Too much of this can cause your heart to race and will not help you calm down. My personal preference is the shot of B-12 in Berocca and my good friend Red Bull.

If the fear of speaking in front of small or large groups causes you enough anxiety that you think that you may suffer a career-fatal crash, seek the right help, prepare and practice.

Melissa F Daly has 20 years of financial communications experience, with a special focus on key message development and media relations around critical issues. Melissa formed MFD Communications after spending three years at Goldman Sachs as Vice President, Corporate Communications. At Goldman, Melissa focused on raising the profile of the its Asset Management and Private Wealth divisions, as well as the firm’s political activities. Prior to that, she was a Director at Brunswick Group, a London-based financial and strategic communications firm. There, she spearheaded its financial services business in the US, managing communications for hedge fund, private equity, insurance and traditional asset management firms. Melissa also worked at Fred Alger Management, The Hartford and Lipper in senior communications and media relations roles and has frequently appeared on CNBC and CNN as an industry commentator. Her experience spans across business sectors and continents.

 

 

 

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3 Reasons Your Company’s Message Isn’t Clear

Last week I heard a familiar statement: "Our message is so simple, I don't know why people can’t understand it.” But I could see why. I listened to their message and was left with little-to-no idea about the value of their product. I simply didn’t get it, and I don’t believe that this firm’s potential clients get it either. As we become more entrenched in our own industry, business, or area of expertise, we are increasingly comfortable—too comfortable—with how we talk about it. Because we understand our topics deeply, we often forget that the people we are trying to reach, whether through a press interview, marketing materials or a presentation, may not fully comprehend the subject. The result is a disinterested or bored audience. What is the cause?

1. The Curse of Knowledge. Sometimes you can know so much, you lose perspective and forget that a lesser-informed person doesn’t understand what you are talking about. As a result, you tell your story in an overly complicated way as you present an idea.

Look for ways to streamline talking points and eliminate onerous phrasing. Choose words, examples and analogies that others can easily relate to or understand. When you take your shirt to the drycleaners, do you want to hear about the machinery and solvents used to make your clothing crisp? Or would you prefer the simplified version of that process, that your shirts come back clean and the environment stays green?

2. Jargon. Would you prefer that your doctor told you that you had tinea pedis, or simply that you have athlete’s foot? Pharyngitis, or a sore throat? Specific to every industry, there are words and phrases that are overly complicated to others. And not everyone in your industry may know all of the vernacular you are using.

As you think about your target audience, put yourself in their place and consider exactly how deep their individual knowledge of your firm or industry may be. Now assume that it is far less. Go through your talking points and pull out words that a novice would not necessarily understand.

3. Acronyms. My use for an acronym may be different than yours. Don’t believe me? There are 362 uses for "ACE" alone. Every industry and every business has a unique set of acronyms. Many firms even produce their own internal acronym lists for their employees.

Don’t make the assumption that someone outside of your four walls completely understands the meaning of acronyms that you may easily toss into a sentence. You can’t always eliminate them, but when speaking with an outsider, spell out the meaning of the acronym on the first reference.

The presumption that your audience knows exactly what your company does and the meaning behind your internal or industry phrasing will result in a lost opportunity to deliver a clear message. That may ultimately hurt your bottom line through wasted time in sales meetings, potential lost sales and missed opportunities with presentations and press interviews.

Melissa F Daly has 20 years of financial communications experience, with a special focus on key message development and media relations around critical issues. Melissa formed MFD Communications after spending three years at Goldman Sachs as Vice President, Corporate Communications. At Goldman, Melissa focused on raising the profile of the its Asset Management and Private Wealth divisions, as well as the firm’s political activities. Prior to that, she was a Director at Brunswick Group, a London-based financial and strategic communications firm. There, she spearheaded its financial services business in the US, managing communications for hedge fund, private equity, insurance and traditional asset management firms. Melissa also worked at Fred Alger Management, The Hartford and Lipper in senior communications and media relations roles and has frequently appeared on CNBC and CNN as an industry commentator. Her experience spans across business sectors and continents.

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Grievances Should be Aired Behind Closed Doors

There’s a great read in today’s Wall Street Journal, Inside the Showdown Atop Pimco. This story has all the elements of what reporters want—and everything executives and their PR staff dread. There’s an adversarial relationship, drama and juicy quotes meant to be private, from a brand that everyone knows and wants to read more about. In particular, an argument between top executives was recounted in full detail, on the front page of the paper. Yikes. Given their roles, business leaders make news when they do something out of the ordinary. Simply because of who they are, the actions and words of high-profile executives are of great interest to others. Conflict like this is a journalist’s dream.

When this type of discord occurs in front of others it is difficult to know exactly who may be listening. Clients or other visitors may hear the disagreement. A disgruntled employee may be taking note. Someone may be on a call.

I have had the misfortune of witnessing many blow-ups among senior executives.  Some eruptions have occurred in the halls, on trading floors and even in the reception area of a publicly traded company. In each case, one could easily see the danger of those disagreements spilling out into the public.

We can’t control every leak to the press, but CEOs and heads of businesses must understand the importance of keeping private matters private. Don’t let rifts sneak beyond the closed door lest you want the rest of world to get a whiff of your dirty laundry.

The next time someone asks me “What makes a good news story?” I will point them to this Pimco piece.

Melissa F Daly has 20 years of financial communications experience, with a special focus on key message development and media relations around critical issues. Melissa formed MFD Communications after spending three years at Goldman Sachs as Vice President, Corporate Communications. Prior to that, she was a Director at Brunswick Group, a London-based financial and business communications firm. There, she spearheaded its financial services business in the US, managing communications for hedge fund, private equity, insurance and traditional asset management firms. Melissa also worked at Fred Alger Management, The Hartford and Lipper in communications and media relations roles and has frequently appeared on CNBC and CNN as an industry commentator. Her experience spans across business sectors and continents. 

 

 

 

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Avoiding an Armstrong Moment

Recently Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL, was forced to reverse an unpopular revision to the firm’s employee benefits plan. In an employee call, detailed HERE, Mr. Armstrong announced an adjustment to the company’s 401(k) matching program. Pretty straightforward although unpopular with employees, the change in itself should not have been a news event, let alone garner front-page coverage and hours of airtime, with “Armstrong distressed babies” generating more than 54 million hits on Google. All of this could have been avoided. During the aftermath, much of the conversation has been about the content of his comments and the subsequent apology. Had Mr. Armstrong mapped out and vetted his content, as well as stuck to a script, this self-inflicted PR bullet would have never been loaded let alone shot in such spectacular fashion.

Mr. Armstrong has a history of just speaking what he thinks, and he seems to lack empathy when he goes off the rails. As you may recall, last year he abruptly fired a staff member while on a company-wide conference call, HERE.

If you are prone to making off-the-cuff, inflammatory statements, you are best suited to being well-rehearsed and scripted. We also recommend an objective sounding board to run through your statements beforehand.

Even if you are a thoughtful person who does not tend to make outlandish remarks, you are still better off being prepared and seeking a gut check from a trusted advisor who will offer an honest perspective and thoughtful feedback.

Simply, prepare remarks in advance and read through them with someone who can flag a statement that isn’t clear, contains inaccurate information or may come across as insensitive. Seek honest feedback, not just things you want to hear. Then stick to the script. Practice and rehearse until everyone is comfortable with the content and the delivery. If you are on a call, it’s ok to read from a script. If you are presenting in front of an audience, bring your notes. Don’t change up the language or decide to wing it.

The resistance to this approach has been that an executive may sound stilted or like he is reading. But with the right preparation and practice for a smooth, comfortable delivery of a script, that does not have to be the case. Even so, honestly, would you rather sound like you are reading from a script—or sound like a jerk?

Melissa F Daly has 20 years of financial communications experience, with a special focus on key message development and media relations around critical issues. Melissa formed MFD Communications after spending three years at Goldman Sachs as Vice President, Corporate Communications. Prior to that, she was a Director at Brunswick Group, a London-based financial and business communications firm. There, she spearheaded its financial services business in the US, managing communications for hedge fund, private equity, insurance and traditional asset management firms. Melissa also worked at Fred Alger Management, The Hartford and Lipper in communications and media relations roles and has frequently appeared on CNBC and CNN as an industry commentator. Her experience spans across business sectors and continents. 

 

Michael Bay Directed Himself Offstage

Movie director Michael Bay was to deliver a keynote address for Samsung at the Consumer Electronics Show, detailed HERE. When the teleprompter stopped working, he fumbled, and then made a quick and awkward exit. Although he could not control the technology, Mr. Bay could have controlled how he handled the debacle. Had he prepared effectively, he may not have opted to walk off stage while so many were watching. Bay’s embarrassment offers us yet another opportunity to talk about preparing for a presentation. We have written about the topic a number of times here, here and here. The harsh reality is that as much as we prepare for anything, stuff happens to knock us off balance. It is impossible to plan for every situation, but it’s important to be prepared for something to go wrong, especially in front of a crowd, with camera phones, and instant access to the Internet.

As we work with executives who are getting ready for a keynote, media interview or a big sales presentation, we constantly reinforce the importance of preparing and rehearing effectively. While in front of an audience, large or small, any number of things can happen to distract us: a failed piece of equipment, drinks spilled on an audience member, a loud noise, a joke falling flat… the list goes on.

What to do? Organize your thoughts on paper in a simple outline. Start with three or four basic points and then provide the substance below those points. And then, read this content out loud and work out the linguistic kinks. Now, repeat these points over again until you know them. These basic steps are often overlooked because most people think that they can wing it. Clearly, not everyone can do this.

Why go through this exercise? Because if you have said something aloud over and over again, it’s much easier to get back on track when the teleprompter breaks or something else interrupts you. Your audience wants you to succeed. Bouncing back from a technology blow up is easier than batting away the criticism and mockery of walking off stage.

Melissa F Daly has 20 years of financial communications experience, with a special focus on key message development and media relations around critical issues. Melissa formed MFD Communications after spending three years at Goldman Sachs as Vice President, Corporate Communications. Prior to that, she was a Director at Brunswick Group, a London-based financial and business communications firm. There, she spearheaded its financial services business in the US, managing communications for hedge fund, private equity, insurance and traditional asset management firms. Melissa also worked at Fred Alger Management, The Hartford and Lipper in communications and media relations roles and has frequently appeared on CNBC and CNN as an industry commentator. Her experience spans across business sectors and continents. 

 

The Flack's Flack

Some may wonder why Bill de Blasio flack Lis Smith’s personal relationship with a certain former Governor and NY Attorney General is an issue for the mayor-elect of New York City. Public relations executives have to be trusted by the press and trusted advisors to their charges. And yet, it has been reported HERE that Mr. de Blasio was blindsided by Smith’s relationship with Eliot Spitzer. If de Blasio cannot trust her to be honest with him, it is logical to say that it would be difficult for him to entrust her with his own public image and her relationship with journalists.

Given their roles, senior-level flacks are privy to a lot of information on behalf of those for whom they speak. You have to trust that your communications officer, as he or she is often the first line to handling your own or your firm’s reputation with the public.

The lesson here is that it’s important not to lie, whether to your boss or to the media. Good flacks do not lie to reporters but respect and navigate the relationship, providing honest answers and giving details when possible. Now De Blasio needs to consider his own level of trust with his chief spokesperson as well as how reporters and the public will view her honesty with them.

Melissa F Daly has 20 years of financial communications experience, with a special focus on key message development and media relations around critical issues. Melissa formed MFD Communications after spending three years at Goldman Sachs as Vice President, Corporate Communications. Prior to that, she was a Director at Brunswick Group, a London-based financial and business communications firm. There, she spearheaded its financial services business in the US, managing communications for hedge fund, private equity, insurance and traditional asset management firms. Melissa also worked at Fred Alger Management, The Hartford and Lipper in communications and media relations roles and has frequently appeared on CNBC and CNN as an industry commentator. Her experience spans across business sectors and continents. 

 

Speaking From the Seat of Your Pants

Last week, during a live interview on Bloomberg Television's "Street Smart" Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon, was asked an open-ended question about issues with the material used in the company’s pants.  After a long preamble, he said that Lululemon pants, “won’t work on some women’s bodies.” Cringe. Ok, not all pants fit all people. We know this. But there are more elegant ways to explain fit and function without alienating your own customers. Mr. Wilson insulted everyone who he thinks shouldn’t be using his product.

We often write about the importance of being prepared for press interviews, such as here, and answering the tough questions, here. It’s not like this is the first time that topic has come up for Mr. Wilson, or any other Lululemon executive. Given that the firm has been under fire for problems with their pants for months, the company should have had talking points that considered all of its stakeholders.

As you prepare for an interview or presentation, it’s always important to consider your audience beyond just those in the room. Key messages and talking points around topics, sensitive or not, need to address whomever may hear or read them. This includes investors, competitors, employees and the media, to name a few. And yes, Lululemon, your current and potential customers must be part of this exercise.

An outsider’s point of view also helps the process. Drafting key messages and talking points is a difficult exercise. Word choices become critical and all audiences must be considered. Working with an external resource who understands your business, or listening to the most cynical person in the room, is a necessary “gut check” to understand whether or not concerns are addressed.

Finally, it’s important to have a broader perspective than just your business at this particular moment in time. One must consider that just getting through the interview or presentation is not enough. Anticipate reactions to your comments so that you are not left with your pants down.

As a follow up to his statements, Mr. Wilson very appropriately and quickly issued an apology and said he is “sad,” here.  Well, not sad for what he said but for the repercussions of his statement. In short, he apologized to his employees, not to those who may have been offended. We can discuss how to say I’m sorry next…

Melissa Daly has worked in media relations and financial communications for more than 20 years. Melissa formed MFD Communications, a strategic consulting firm, after spending three years at Goldman Sachs as Vice President, Corporate Communications. Prior to that, Melissa was a Director at Brunswick Group, a London-based financial and business communications firm. There, she spearheaded its financial services business in the US, managing communications for hedge fund, private equity, insurance and traditional asset management firms. Melissa also worked at Fred Alger Management, The Hartford and Lipper in communications and media relations roles and has frequently appeared on CNBC and CNN as an industry commentator. Her experience spans across business sectors and continents. For more, please visit mfdcommunications.com.

Um, You Look Great But You, Uh, Sound Terrible

Last week we clicked on a video to watch a senior financial industry executive being interviewed about his area of expertise. He looked great. He had on a nice suit with a shirt that was not white. He smiled broadly; his posture was perfect. And then he spoke. First words out of his mouth? “Uh, uh, uh, uh, um, uh.” And every sentence afterwards was generously peppered with “ums and uhs.” By all appearances, Mr. Executive was “media trained.” He was trained on how to prepare his body language and his clothing for his interview. However, he was not trained on how to effectively prepare the content for his interview. Mr. Executive’s inability to tell a story, and to string coherent thoughts together, canceled any of the headway made by his confident appearance. More, because the content was so jumbled, the interview was a waste of the executive’s time. The clip lost its value as an effective means to deliver any message, and the firm lost the opportunity to promote this clip more broadly and reach an audience beyond the initial posting.

Preparing for a broadcast, webcast or print interview should be very similar to preparing for any presentation, big or small. The reality is that content matters. Crafting and practicing specific language is critical. Interviewees who know their messages cold don’t have to search their brains for the right words. It’s this frantic search through the corners of the mind that causes people to “uh” and “um.”

A media training session that focuses solely on appearance is shortsighted. The tactics for looking good on camera can be learned through a quick Internet search or HERE. But truly effective media training should be conducted by someone who can understand your content and can help you work through the appropriate talking points. Once you know what to say, you can work on how to say it, and then you can think about where to put your hands and what color tie to wear.

Preparing the right way for interviews with the press will ensure that you are focused, your answers are clear and you are confident. The decision to be interviewed was made because it will get you in front of the right audience. Do you want to use that as an opportunity to demonstrate you know your stuff or that you simply know how to gesticulate?

Melissa Daly has worked in media relations and financial communications for more than 20 years. Melissa formed MFD Communications, a strategic consulting firm, after spending three years at Goldman Sachs as Vice President, Corporate Communications. Prior to that, Melissa was a Director at Brunswick Group, a London-based financial and business communications firm. There, she spearheaded its financial services business in the US, managing communications for hedge fund, private equity, insurance and traditional asset management firms. Melissa also worked at Fred Alger Management, The Hartford and Lipper in communications and media relations roles and has frequently appeared on CNBC and CNN as an industry commentator. Her experience spans across business sectors and continents. For more, please visit mfdcommunications.com.

Navy SEALs and Mermaids Need Practice Too

What does a Navy SEAL have in common with The Little Mermaid? Well, not much really, but in recent weeks I had the privilege of seeing both live. I promise this will not be a discussion about my diverse interests. Really what the two occasions do have in common is proof that preparation and rehearsal lead to the results you desire.

While attending the annual CounselWorks SummerTime Summit, I had the honor of listening to a member of the Navy SEAL's Team 6, responsible for the killing of Osama bin Laden. As he talked about the lead-up to the mission, he stressed how much preparation and rehearsal they went through before heading out on their mission. This is a group of elite individuals who each obviously knew what he was doing, but running through these exercises allowed them to quickly respond if and when things do not go according to plan. Like, say, one of their helicopters crashing on approach.

I also had the opportunity to sit through a theatrical performance of The Little Mermaid. This too was a group of seasoned professionals who likely already knew the story, the songs and their lines. But there is a need to practice and rehearse in order to make each performance seamless. Without the right preparation, lines would be flubbed and the timing would be off.

All too often, we have witnessed presentations by executives who clearly had not thought through specifically what they want to say. This is embarrassing for the presenter and uncomfortable for the audience. More importantly, this ends up being a wasted opportunity and can be a bad reflection on both the individuals and the organizations they are representing.

Let’s imagine a senior level executive who is about to speak in front of the Board of Directors for the first time. His idea of preparing is to jot down notes on a napkin just moments before he speaks. The end result is that he stumbles and never quite recovers.

Now, think about a CEO who is about to give a keynote speech in front of an important industry trade event, which includes clients, competitors, peers and members of the media. He is meant to speak for more than a half hour, but after only a few minutes he runs out of material and exits the stage.

In these examples, both executives knew their subject matter better than anyone in the room. But without giving the talking points proper attention and not rehearsing what was to be said, these opportunities were a huge failure.

At our firm, we view every client pitch, panel discussion and keynote speech as an opportunity to effectively convey a company’s key messages. Approaching each of these events in this manner reinforces the need to prepare properly and rehearse. These are the most critical steps in effective delivery, but are often overlooked, or just not taken seriously.

In an ideal situation, you should prepare and rehearse with a professional coach who can help simplify and organize what needs to be conveyed. You also can try your speech or pitch on your communications team, your colleagues—even your family. Traveling alone or in a time crunch? Look in the mirror and practice out loud what you will say. Work out the kinks, hear yourself say the words, and get comfortable with your content. Enough practice will help you begin your presentation smoothly, keep your audience engaged and allow you to continue with your delivery should you stumble--or if something beyond your control goes wrong.

Melissa Daly has worked in media relations and financial communications for more than 20 years. Melissa formed MFD Communications, a strategic consulting firm, after spending three years at Goldman Sachs as Vice President, Corporate Communications. Prior to that, Melissa was a Director at Brunswick Group, a London-based financial and business communications firm. There, she spearheaded its financial services business in the US, managing communications for hedge fund, private equity, insurance and traditional asset management firms. Melissa also worked at Fred Alger Management, The Hartford and Lipper in communications and media relations roles and has frequently appeared on CNBC and CNN as an industry commentator. Her experience spans across business sectors and continents. For more, please visit www.mfdcommunications.com.

The Death of the Press Release Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

We are asked, frequently, about the reported demise of the press release. In some people’s minds, the traditional press release has gone the way of the Fax Machine. We disagree. We believe that the press release is still a useful public relations tool. The problem isn’t that the press release has outlived its usefulness, but rather, some organizations have abused its purpose.

Press releases are an efficient way to blast information about your firm to the broadest audience possible, and an easy way for journalists to find out what is happening at your company. Here we address a few arguments against the traditional release.

  • Social media is sufficient to get our news out. The reality is that not all journalists use social media, or access it throughout the day. Meanwhile, your clients and investors may be prohibited from accessing social media at the workplace.
  • Press releases are expensive. There are cost-effective ways to distribute your release over the primary wire services for hundreds of dollars, not thousands. Asking your sales rep the right questions may yield national coverage on the newswires for a better price.
  • No one reads press releases anymore. Not true. People searching for information about your firm will read the release. Reporters read RELEVENT press releases, which bring us to...
  • Press releases are useless. Press releases are useful as a delivery mechanism, it’s the content that sometimes isn’t. Load a release with marketing-heavy pitches or too much jargon, then it will be worthless.

And all the reasons to send out a release? Mark a milestone and show progress at the organization. Drive traffic to your website and keep the media section of your site fresh. Reach reporters, they still use them and are familiar with their structure as a convenient way to find news, sources and ideas. Ensure your company appears in search engine results for key words including your company name and industry, important for reporters and potential clients. Expand your online exposure as press releases reach wider distribution than putting information on your site alone, including sections of news sites that exist simply to republish releases verbatim.

This is obvious to some, but we need to say it: Press releases should contain news. Use press releases sparingly and don’t paper the world. Know what events are relevant and noteworthy. Know when to communicate that news and how best to do it. The best way often is still the press release.

MFD Communications LLC is a New York-based strategic communications consulting firm specializing in key message development and media training with a customized approach. MFD was founded in 2011 based on the premise that broad business and financial services knowledge brings much-needed expertise to the process of crafting a distinct and clear story. At the same time, the firm has extensive and relevant experience preparing executives to present to external and internal audiences, handle press interviews and prepare for critical business pitches. This allows MFD to find the sweet spot where the client's need to communicate the right message and the audience's demand for compelling content intersect. For more information, please visit www.mfdcommunications.com.