Are Media Trainers The Enemy?

A few days ago, I noticed that a journalist from Auckland, New Zealand had sent out this tweet:

“A fascinating media training blog – #knowthyenemy


First, thank you. I’m glad you like this blog!

Second, how cool that people are reading this blog in New Zealand!

Third, are we really the enemy? If you missed it, the journalist used the hash tag #knowthyenemy. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean that literally (at least I hope he didn’t). But I’ve heard the same sentiment numerous times before, that media trainers are the enemies that somehow prevent honest dialogue with journalists and subvert democracy.

Today’s post will address that question directly: are media trainers the enemy?

One of the biggest misconceptions about media trainers is that we’re Machiavellian string pullers who tell people what to say and how to say it. But that approach rarely works, since communication is rarely effective (at least in the long-term) unless it’s rooted in authenticity. The approach we recommend can’t be top-down – rather, we have to build an approach based on the views and positive traits the spokesperson already holds.

The vast majority of our training sessions are spent on subjects that help journalists. Among other things, spokespersons who have been media trained know how to:

  1. Deliver a clear and concise message in the short timeframe television allows
  2. Eliminate jargon that makes their messages undecipherable to a general audience
  3. Communicate in a variety of different formats, including radio, television, and podcasts
  4. Look in the right place, eliminate distracting vocal tics, and appear more confident

I’d argue that those things are good for both the media and the public.

Okay, But That’s Kind of an Incomplete Definition, Isn’t It?

Yes. In addition to the rather straightforward items listed above, media trainers also help spokespersons frame their messages in the most favorable light possible. That’s where people begin to get suspicious. But assuming the media trainer is an ethical practitioner, those suspicions are usually unfounded.

I think of it this way: all of us have different sides to our personalities, and we show them at different times. For example:

  1. A young woman might act differently during a job interview than she would on a Friday night while drinking with her friends.
  2. A middle-aged man man probably speaks to his childhood friends with saltier language than he would his children or parents.
  3. Business professionals almost certainly talk to their clients differently than their spouses.

We all have many genuine sides. It’s just a question of which ones we bring to our interviews.

In all of those situations, we accept that people present incomplete versions of themselves. The same dynamic applies in media training workshops, during which we help trainees present the most appealing version of themselves. Sure, they’re going to clean up their roughest edges and present their most likeable selves. But those versions of themselves have to be a genuine part of who they truly are in order to be effective.

Come On. Shouldn’t People Just Be Themselves?

In an ideal world, yes. But…

If a spokesperson says something just a little bit “off” – something I call the seven-second stray – the media will play the clip on an endless loop. CNN will show the clip twice per hour, radio talk show hosts will rail against it, and Jon Stewart will make fun of it. As a result, that stray could diminish the reputations of business leaders, kill the candidacies of political candidates, and destroy the careers of entertainers.

Given the state of today’s “gotcha” sound bite media culture, wouldn’t leaders be irresponsible if they didn’t learn how to avoid those types of situations? Wouldn’t they be irresponsible if they didn’t learn how to advocate on behalf of their brands as effectively as possible?

Sure, we occasionally swim in murky waters along with some tough ethical questions. Perhaps a spokesperson doesn’t agree with the official company party line. Maybe a political candidate knows he’s probably going to lose, but can’t say so for fear of diminishing voter turnout. Or maybe an executive fears that a product isn’t likely to be the hit he thought it was going to be, but doesn’t want to dampen the product launch by saying so. But those moral dilemmas are going to exist with or without media trainers – and if we do our jobs well, we can help them navigate those situations in a manner that will allow them to retain their integrity and preserve their reputations.

So, going back to the original question: are media trainers the “enemy?” I’ll leave that answer to you. Please leave your thoughts in the comments sections below.