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Who broke media training?

By Seamus Byrne in Media News on
A threshold was crossed where the art of just being ‘comfortable and confident’ in front of the media stopped being the focus of a lot of media trained speech we see in the world today. 
Knowing how to pitch your wares was replaced by training in how to stay absolutely on message, polished to the point of meaninglessness, and the weaponisation of one key idea – never accept the premise of the question.
I’ve found in performing work as a corporate content writer that I’ve been having some great interviews with business leaders because their guard is down and they can relax into the conversation and know I’m being paid to share honest, valuable insights that don’t try to catch them out along the way.
I’d argue that’s also my job when writing independent journalistic stories too! But there’s a distinct difference in how people engage, resulting in less interesting and less valuable information being shared.
So we’re asking the question on what went wrong? Is it an active choice to train people to avoid saying anything that isn’t ‘on brand’? Who twisted this training process to remove all life from the voice of the client? Or is this just ‘bad’ training and the ‘good’ trainers out there are invisible because they’re good at their work? Is what we see in politics today an entirely different beast or part of the same problem?
I posed the question to the wisdom of the crowd on LinkedIn and got some great responses, shared below. Agree? Disagree? Add your thoughts below.
Paul McKeon, Group Account Director, Mave:
I think that's called bad media training. The goal any time I've run it has been to help someone get better at communicating in a situation that is, for most people, outside their everyday experience.
99% of interviews are not adversarial. They are the culmination of a lot of work on behalf the company, PR and agency. Not to make the most of that opportunity is crazy (and suggests inexperience).
Jonathan Englert, Founder, AndironGroup:
As a journalist, I am always looking for the immersive conversation, one that goes in directions that no one expects and that leads roughly in the direction of that fraught word "truth".  When we media train, we encourage people to see the interview as exactly this kind of conversation. That said, depending on the context, purpose of the story, etc., you need to establish internal guardrails for the interviewee. In a normal human sense, this is just about applying some discretion, but, unfortunately, if you don't lead with the idea that the interview is essentially a collaborative, not an antagonistic/adversarial, engagement, then you end up with a robotic, redundant, stiff, pointless engagement with throwaway marketing lines.
I also think the idea of "weaponisation" of training  is worth looking into--and I'd love to learn what you find out here. I wear two hats. Most of the work of a non-fiction, long-form journalist, research student like myself is just understanding an area to a sufficient degree to be able to do it justice.  As a media trainer, communications adviser, it's the flip side, serving as a way of building understanding of a subject area through teaching this engagement with journalist or other audience and then finding ways to make the most salient points as clear as possible, while side-stepping mines in the minefields of misunderstanding and agenda. 
Andy Sommer, Head of Global Communications / PR, Oracle (Construction and Engineering):
It's really down to three 'A's’. We forgot about the importance of authenticity and authority as a result we arrived at average.
Karina Keisler, Corporate Affairs leader (ex-NBN, ex-Cricket Australia):
I often find that training focuses on how to avoid the gotcha moment rather than how to get the best out of the relationship with the journo - who is ultimately  a conduit to your real audience. They have a job to do,  and if you can help them do it,  you're more likely to get yours done. Unfortunately the distrust of media also means people fear being genuine and the training helps them feel protected. I think there's much to be taught about how to be yourself... that makes for much better training in my experience.
David Heath, Principal Consultant, A Friendly Word:
To some extent, I think the journalists are also to blame. When was the last time someone in a press conference said, "thank you for your canned response, but with all due respect, would you answer the damned question I asked?"
Politicians have come to the point where they think they own the press conference.  This needs to change.
Barrie Seppings, Founder, Director at The Transfer Desk:
The main distinction is between media training that improves how an individual communicates (through the medium of an interview or presser), and media training that limits the risk of the individual saying something they might get in trouble for (from their boss, legal, compliance, HR or god-knows-who-else inside the organisations they are nominally 'representing'). Used to be about the former, now it is overwhelmingly about the latter.
Natasha Brack, Director and Group Head of Technology, Edelman:
SO much of being skilled at engaging with media and being good at landing messages and ensuring there is quid-pro-quo for both parties comes down to the interview subject. No amount of media training in the world helps when you have a spokesperson who a) doesn’t know the content/topic, b) isn’t personable or likeable and c) isn’t confident. Just like any normal interaction, some ppl nail discussion and some don’t. I don’t think it’s always the training so much as the ppl, topic and context
Roxy Sinclair, Executive Manager Corporate Communications, ALDI Australia:
I agree with Barrie Seppings comment. Building on WHY media training has become risk averse and playing devil’s advocate - do you think there is any blame to be shouldered from a media side with the rise of click bait inflammatory headlines or publications pushing an agenda/always just seeking out the dirt? You mention trust and I think that plays a big part with brands and spokespeople feeling anxious their words will be taken out of context. They get burnt once or twice with headlines that literally aren’t fact and have to be amended and as a result they dilute all their messages until it is meaningless vanilla and not worth publishing. Obviously if there is something to hide then of course journalists should go hard until the truth is uncovered but otherwise I think there is something to be said about having a two-way trusting relationship and ethical and authentic journalism in turns helps brands let down their walls to speak more candidly and openly.
Chris Oaten, Photographer (ex-Editor, Australian Macworld):
Let's see the issue from the flip side. In 2006 or thereabouts when I worked at The Advertiser, management decided the cadet counsellor was no longer a valued role. Like most counsellors, the person who held the job was a long-time newspaperman (and I use that word in its historical sense) who brought a rounding to the training of cadets which they otherwise could not have earned through the academic process. As part of that rounding, they learned the art of interviewing people in such a manner as to derive a useful journalistic outcome.
We might speculate on when the modern practice of journalism began to falter in its purpose. Possibly around the time the rise of the internet began to crumble the business model upon which the rivers of gold were machinated. Certainly, however, lack of training provided by wise newspapermen may have hastened the demise.
The point I'm driving at is that possibly if you've detected a failure of media training, that it's not so much a failure in and of itself but a calculated response to a media that's lost so much trust among its consumers and the people who need to reach those consumers that a combative approach has become necessary to punch through the ineptitude of contemporary media practice?
Fleur Brown, Founder, Launch Group:
Media training was broken from the start. It was started by ex journos with serious current affairs backgrounds who had dealt with too many politicians and focused mostly on the “gotcha” moments in journalism and exposing skeletons in the closet. The price tag for training became so high and required justification by shoving cameras in everyone’s face and focusing on a media expose when the average spokesperson will mostly do print interviews on everyday subjects and has led a relatively routine professional life. We have come a long way with authenticity - much as people loathe giving it credit social media has actually helped enormously with that. And we are now at a point where an inauthentic style is spotted a mile off and undermines the message. So yes, media training should focus on how to deliver a story powerfully and truthfully not how to deflect the truth.
Hamish Barwick, Sub-Editor and Social Media, NZ Farm Life Media (ex-IDG):
Former journos becoming spin doctors for politicians. That's who I think  'broke' media training. 
Oisin O’Callaghan, Director, Watterson:
For many companies, media training has become much more focused on ‘what not to say’, leading spokespeople to stick to safe company lines. If those company lines are generic and something anyone would arguably say, it worsens the issue. Spokespeople who have been criticised for saying the wrong things during interviews by others in the business may also be hesitant. Media training needs to do more to bridge what journalists want and the more marketing-driven outcomes that are now part and parcel of PR. Involving active journalists in the process to explain the frustrations they encounter and perform mock interviews is a great way to do this.

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