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

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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.

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