During my time in PR, I was truly fascinated by executive communications—specifically the process of making sure that a CEO wouldn’t falter or make damaging revelations when called upon to speak in public. Note that I’m talking here about how to handle inquiries from the press regarding a mishap or those put-you-on-the-spot queries in quarterly conference calls.
Andy Barr, a PR professional from the UK has written a wonderful article “8 steps to take before your CEO goes on camera,” that is cynical, informative, and devilishly funny. (That dry British wit, don’t ya know.)
Here are my fave hot tips. (And by the way, all this applies to real life, too.)
What a concept. Make a list of the awkward questions your CEO could be asked—“Why have your sales tanked?”, for example—and make sure there are reasonable answers. These questions will likely come up even before the CEO is in front of the cameras or on that all-important call.
Do role plays. Mr. Barr points out that this is a fun opportunity to be a little bit mean to the CEO, all in the spirit of education, of course. This kind of practice is critical if your organization is caught doing something wrong. He recommends training directors as well as the person at the top to handle awkward questions.
Do you want to do the interview to begin with? This is critical. If your organization has engaged in wrongdoing or negligence, then perhaps a director should handle the interview. As Mr. Barr points out, “ … you may choose not to put your CEO up at an early stage and instead use a director who … gets the boot to appease the media later down the line.” (Ouch.)
Excise annoying filler words
Eliminating them definitely takes time and practice. Those “ands” and “ums” are distracting and make the most seasoned executive seem unsure and unpoised. (Mr. Barr says “Beat it out of them!”)
Create great soundbites
Soundbites make CEOs memorable. They’re terrific for promotional clips, and even if they’re not used that way, they may live on in legend. They’re also important in this age of shortened attention spans.
That is, “use a few words to ignore the question you have been asked and, instead answer a question that you would prefer to have been asked.” Don’t you love this technique?
Father to teenage daughter: Young lady, do you realize how late you are? We expected you two hours ago!
Teenage daughter to father: That’s a good point, Dad. But don’t you think it’s more relevant to discuss why more attention hasn’t been paid to keeping the tires on the van properly inflated?
Mr. Barr concludes his article with a YouTube news clip of an interview with Nick Varney, an amusement park executive whose “The Smiler” ride malfunctioned, seriously injuring four young riders. It’s a difficult interchange to listen to, but it’s instructive and offers keen insight into why media training is so important.
I dedicate this post to Dick Claeys, with whom I worked briefly at Neale-May. As a media trainer, he has no equal.