“Well, I guess it’s time for my root canal.”
That was the most memorable thing that Ed would say to me all day. Ed (not his real name) was the number-two executive at a major U.S. financial firm, and first in line to succeed the soon-to-retire CEO. He had been through the wringer with a number of media trainers, and it showed.
We had been introduced, and Ed just didn’t want to be with me. There was a seemingly permanent scowl on his beefy, reddish face. He had a perfectly pressed shirt and great gold cufflinks, but his collar was a couple of sizes too tight.
When it came time for our mock interview, Ed spoke to me in a laconic monotone, scattered with eminently quotable moments like: “yes,” “no,” and “I dunno, about six or seven people.” It made me wonder how he had gotten as far as he did. The fact is executive suites of the world are mostly populated with middle-aged men and women not unlike Ed. In an era of 24-hour business news, it’s these individuals – many of whom have had little to no media exposure for most of their careers – who are increasingly called on to be the public face of their company.
Contrary to what some corporate watchdogs would argue, I’ve known the vast majority of these people to be bright, ethical, and highly capable. But media communications is just not their bailiwick. They do not teach these skills in business school.
And, so, admired as they are in the country club – and feared as they might be in the boardroom – these captains of industry tremble at the prospect of spending a few minutes with a wet-behind-the-ears reporter who is often barely old enough to work for them. As a result, forays into the realm of interviews become, for these type-A personalities, remarkably type-B.
They speak in sentence fragments that have to be spliced together, electronically or in print, to be even marginally usable. (No wonder executives often feel misquoted or taken out of context.)
They listen, sometimes against their better judgment, when legal advisers tell them to think of media appearances as if they were depositions. They are instructed to say as little as possible, to fill in the gaps with plain vanilla messaging, and to approach every reporter as an adversary. Of course, with most reporters, this advice has an opposite effect of what the executive wants.
An effective relationship with journalists – be they print reporters, TV broadcasters, or even bloggers – has nothing to do with creating an adversary. It has everything to do with correctly understanding journalists and their needs.
The supposition that reporters are always looking for their subjects to simply “answer the question” is fundamentally wrong. Sure, sometimes they need those answers. But at their core, good reporters aren’t just looking for “yes” or “no.”
They are looking for a narrative. They long for the unexpected. Their pulse quickens at information that surprises them, intrigues them, moves them. They want to satiate the basic curiosities that led them to become journalists in the first place.
It’s why the definition of news is so often summed up with the phrase “man bites dog.” It’s no accident that Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes, titled his memoir, Tell Me a Story.
This imbalance between the demand for good narrative and the limited supply of compelling material is a big reason why much of today’s news cycle appears so tediously dysfunctional. It’s why what you see, read, and hear often seems sensationalistic on the one hand; repetitive, trite, and boring on the other.
But therein lies an opportunity. The people who know the secrets to filling these voids – and filling them well, as opposed to poorly – get called to appear in media, again and again.
One day, if he can overcome his self-defeating mindset and wipe that sour puss off his face, Ed might take his training to heart and become one of those people. But that seems unlikely. Shortly after agreeing to begin an intensive program with us to remediate his media skills, Ed’s board decided to do a little remediation itself by bypassing him for the post of CEO and handing it to someone from outside the company. They also decided that improving Ed’s media skills wasn’t worth the time or cost.
Ed can take comfort in this stark fact: When it comes to his own media unpreparedness – and by extension, his company’s – he is far from alone.