Media

Burned by the media

I see the media has claimed another victim. This time it’s one of the former wives of a polygamist in Bountiful, B.C. The woman – I’ll give her the dignity of withholding her name, although it’s been blared across the continent and the world by the media – asked the judge at her former husband’s polygamy trial to withhold her video evidence from reporters to prevent them from embarrassing her with it.

Maybe she was naïve

She spoke from experience, having regretted talking to the media in the past. We can certainly question her judgment because, among others, she appeared on the Dr. Phil talk show and shared details of her life as one of ten wives. Maybe she was naïve, maybe she liked the attention and glamour of being on TV. Maybe she just wanted to have her story told.

Her story didn’t matter

But she learned in very short order that her story really didn’t matter much. What mattered was the media’s edition of her story. And that word edition is a big one because that’s what gets published. That’s what holds readers/viewers and sells ads. As the woman told the Toronto Star, “. . . the media can make it sound the way they want it to sound”. She’s right. And that’s where I have big issues.

They had no idea

I’ve heard people complain that a reporter did a 45-minute interview and only 10 seconds made it to air, often out of context. And I’ve seen people babble away to a reporter as if he or she were a friend, not realizing that anything they said could fling them into the spotlight and potentially embarrass them to their community, including their bosses. They simply had no idea of the power of the media.

No obligation

If a cop arrests you for a criminal offence, he or she is obligated to read your rights, to tell you that anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. But a journalist has no obligation to tell you that anything you say can be edited in any manner and published to the world, perhaps in a context that’s opposite to the one you spoke in. A journalist’s only obligation is to identify him- or herself as a journalist. Once they’ve done that, everything you say is on the record and you can read it in the papers or see it on TV news.

The rules are simple

I understand journalists have a tough job. I know they work hard and the good ones follow a strict moral and professional code. They – the good ones – act in the public interest. But I’ve always had an issue with the fact that they are not required – and therefore don’t – explain the rules of engagement to ordinary people who’ve had no exposure to media. The rules are simple: if you’re talking to a journalist, everything you say can be published. The journalist knows that – but the interviewee often doesn’t. And the journalist is able to use that lack of awareness to his or her advantage, often to the detriment of the interviewee.

Respect for privacy

I think it’s time we introduced a new standard of journalistic professionalism. I think it’s time for journalists to start doing what police officers are required to do during criminal arrests. The public needs to know, when it’s their turn to have their 15 minutes of fame, that they have the right to remain silent and that everything they say can be published and perhaps used against them by family, friends and their community. I think that’s just basic respect for privacy.

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About Thomas Moss

Thomas Moss is a speaker, writer and coach who provides business communications services, primarily in the Greater Toronto Area, including Oshawa, Whitby, Ajax, Pickering, Markham, Richmond Hill, Newmarket, Vaughan, Brampton and Mississauga. Service is also available outside of the GTA.

Using key messages in media interviews

So CSIS (Canada Security Intelligence Service) head Richard Fadden has admitted that he shouldn’t have told CBC News’ Peter Mansbridge that his agents were watching some municipal and provincial politicians who, in the agency’s view, were a being used by China to gain strategic information.

A sense of complacency

You may have read my previous blog post on this issue www.sayitwithpower.ca/media/talking-to-the-media-can-be-a-challenge/, in which I wondered why a person as highly placed as Fadden would give away that much detailed information to a newscaster instead of using key messages to stay on safe ground. I speculated at the time – and it looks as though his admission bears out my suspicion – that Fadden was just lulled into a sense of complacency by the comfort and the familiarity of speaking to Mansbridge. And perhaps a little bit of the celebrity of being on national television affected his better judgment and he veered off course, instead of using his key messages to stay on target.

Forced to come forward

The uproar that ensued because Fadden didn’t name names, leaving all politicians under a cloud, has forced him to come forward now and admit – at least the government – who his agents are watching and why. All of this could have been avoided if Fadden, a 30-year bureaucrat, accustomed to being in high places, who knows the media game, had just been more discreet, using his key messages to manage the media interview.

It’s easy to criticize

It’s easy for guys like me to criticize him for what he did but the pressure in that sort of a situation is huge. Fadden knew that millions of people were watching him. He knew that Mansbridge was a highly skilled interviewer. He undoubtedly was skilled in using key messages, had been prepared by media trainers and theoretically shouldn’t have gotten into trouble.

Calls to resign

But Fadden is known to be outspoken, to tell it as he sees it and to be fearless. However, sometimes common sense has to trump courage. There have been calls for Fadden to resign, which he has resisted – so far. Politicians right across the country are outraged. Relations between Canada and China were given a shake by his words and the value of Fadden’s reputation as a wise and capable spy leader has been dealt a blow. As I said, it’s easy to criticize.

The reporter’s job

It’s much harder to escape the same thing yourself in a similar circumstance. Very few of us are at Fadden’s lofty level of power but no matter where we sit on the power curve, if we’re going to be interviewed by the media it’s important to remember a few things:

  • It’s the reporter’s job to put you at ease, to take you into his or her confidence, to encourage you and to make it easy for you to say things you wouldn’t reveal under other circumstances
  • It’s the reporter’s job to go for the best story that’s available. If you allow the reporter to do so, he or she will take you to that story and share it with the world.
  • It’s absolutely paramount to use key messages to remain in control of the information  you’re going to share
  • And the only way to do that is to prepare those key messages in advance, discuss them with people who matter – the people it may affect – and stick to the tone and limit of those messages, no matter what the reporter asks
Stay within the boundaries

The boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate must be very, very clear. If you step outside those boundaries you’re entering a no man’s land where you may find yourself all alone in a very hostile environment.  Plan your key messages carefully and stay within the boundaries of the intent of those messages.

Need a guest speaker?

If your group needs a skilled guest speaker or workshop leader, I’d like to help you. I provide a range of communications key note presentations and workshops. Please visit the presentations and workshops pages of this website and contact me to discuss how I can help you.

Need a presentation trainer?

Would you like help dealing with public speaking training and other communications issues? If so, please contact me to discuss my public speaking training programs. I provide one-on-one presentation training and group public speaking training sessions that provide tools to develop your public speaking skills. Contact me today!

About Thomas Moss

Thomas Moss is a speaker, writer and coach who provides business communications services, primarily in the Greater Toronto Area, including Oshawa, Whitby, Ajax, Pickering, Markham, Richmond Hill, Newmarket, Vaughan, Brampton and Mississauga. Service is also available outside of the GTA.

Talking to the media can be a challenge

One has to assume that Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Director Richard Fadden knew what he was doing when he told Peter Mansbridge on national television that certain local politicians, particularly those in British Columbia and a few other provinces, were being overly influenced by China.

No stranger to the media

Fadden is no stranger when it comes to talking to the media.  And, as a career bureaucrat – much of it in high places – he had to have known what he was getting himself into.  He was telling politicians that their activities were being watched by his agency – not the stuff a spy chief would usually admit.  He was telling visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao that he was onto his game and simultaneously telling Canadians that the people they’d elected may be serving Hu’s ends.  Not something his boss the prime minister would want him to say on the eve of a controversial G20 Summit.  So what was his game plan?  We can only speculate, particularly because if anyone knows how to play his cards when it comes to talking to the media, it should be the head of a spy agency.

No place to take risks

Fadden is known as an outspoken risk taker who tells it like it is.  But national television is no place to take risks.  No matter who you are.  National television is a place to deliver key messages, to influence the masses, to score points for your position.  Very few interviewees are as candid in television interviews as Fadden was, and for good reason.

Media can kill careers

Television – or any other media – can kill a career.  It’s happened many times, even to people who know the rules.  A perfect example is General Stanley McChrystal, who showed an incredible lapse in judgement when he not only allowed a Rolling Stone reporter to live with him and his officers for a month, but also bad mouthed his bosses to that same reporter.  He should have known better.

Everything is on the record

So what happened?  Well, several things, in my opinion.  First, McChrystal probably wanted to reach the Rolling Stone demographic with his side of the Afghanistan surge he was leading.  But somewhere along the line something akin to Stockholm Syndrome set in and he and his officers forgot they were talking to a reporter.  Maybe the offensive comments were made after a few drinks.  But that’s no excuse.  When you’re talking to a reporter, EVERYTHING is on the record.  While there may be a few exceptions to that rule in very special circumstances, to ignore that cardinal rule is to flirt with disaster.

A reporter is not your friend

A reporter is not your enemy, but a reporter is not your friend – as Brian Mulroney learned when he poured his heart out to Peter C. Newman and Newman turned the former prime minister’s candid comments into a very embarrassing book.  A reporter’s job is to dig for information and to share it with the public and he or she will use just about any means to access that information.

15 minutes of fame

Disarming charm and filial familiarity are two of journalists’ favourite tools.  And they work exceedingly well.  Sometimes, all the interviewer has to do is bat his or her eyes and listen while the interviewee spills the beans – even the ones he or she didn’t mean to spill, all because they mistakenly believed they’d achieved celebrity. The interviewee often thinks of the media interview as his or her 15 minutes of fame, and proceeds to share innermost feelings and secrets with what they perceive will be an understanding, adoring public.  The outcomes are often embarrassing at best and disastrous at worst.

Understand the game

So, should you be terrified of the media?  No, not at all.  But you should understand the game and how it’s played.  If you’re in a position that’s likely to place you before reporters you should get some professional training.  In the meantime, here are a few rules to remember:

  • Before you agree to an interview, ask questions to find out what the story is about, the angle the reporter is taking, who else he/she is talking to, etc.
  • Prepare key messages and use them
  • Stick to the facts; avoid giving personal opinions other statements you can’t verify
  • Avoid technical terms and be prepared to explain issues in detail if necessary
  • Be nice, spontaneous and friendly
  • Relax an enjoy yourself – but stick to your key messages


Need a guest speaker?

If your group needs a skilled guest speaker or workshop leader, I’d like to help you. I provide a range of communications key note presentations and workshops. Please visit the presentations and workshops pages of this website and contact me to discuss how I can help you.

Need a presentation trainer?

Would you like help dealing with public speaking training and other communications issues? If so, please contact me to discuss my public speaking training programs. I provide one-on-one presentation training and group public speaking training sessions that provide tools to develop your public speaking skills. Contact me today!

About Thomas Moss

Thomas Moss is a speaker, writer and coach who provides business communications services, primarily in the Greater Toronto Area, including Oshawa, Whitby, Ajax, Pickering, Markham, Richmond Hill, Newmarket, Vaughan, Brampton and Mississauga. Service is also available outside of the GTA.