Don’t let media training turn you into a corporate zombie.
March 29, 2015
In the book “The Most Human Human: What AI teaches us about being alive” by Brian Christian, the author describes how – in the headlong rush toward maximum efficiency – corporations and organizations spend a lot of time and effort converting every possible aspect of work into “best practice” playbooks, templates, scripts and repeatable processes so that they can be easily taught to, and carried out by, basically anyone – eventually even AI-powered machines. The result? Better sales, more consistent delivery, and lower costs.
Or so the theory goes.
Yet, when we actually experience these playbooks played out in real life – for instance, when we call in a problem to customer tech support, attend first-line job interviews with junior managers, or even when we’re attending an RFP briefing with a prospective client – the frustration that ensues can make us feel that something essential, something human, has been lost in our attempts to pursue efficiency at all costs.
(Several years back, when we did an agency pitch with an unnamed government department, the evaluation panel included two junior admin officers at the presentation, whose apparent purpose throughout the entire one-and-a-half-hour session was to fill up an evaluation template. A hastily stolen glance at one of the forms was revealing. One question basically asked: “How would you rank the creativity of the agency’s proposal? Was it… a) Very creative, b) Somewhat creative, c) Neutral, d) Somewhat uncreative, e) Not creative at all”.)
I can understand the motivation: templates and processes reduce subjectivity, improve consistency, and even inexperienced staffers can use them. But it also means that there’s no real human connection – the template defines our limits.
Which brings me to the topic of media training. When we run training sessions for our clients, there’s quite a bit of emphasis on process and best practices: how to block and bridge, how to dress for an interview (no stripes, no green shirts, no brown suits), and how to deflect tough questions. Media training sessions are almost always viewed by our commissioning clients as risk mitigation exercises, so the emphasis tends to be on what NOT to do. But to make sure that our clients don’t all end up looking and sounding the same, we’d always tell them to follow these three rules:
1. Treat the media like you would any reasonable human being – Too often, clients start with the basis that the media is an faceless, unfeeling machine that’s out to optimise ratings at your expense. On the contrary, reporters – especially in Asia – want to maintain a good relationship with you, because they need you just as much as you need them. Practically every journalist and editor we’ve worked with respond to respect and professionalism the same way any regular person would: they reciprocate. And in crisis situations, it’s even more important to consider your media contacts as important friends, because they can help you get your position out to the wider audience in the quickest and most effective way possible.
2. Make sure other humans care about your messages – When reporters cover stories, they ask two questions: 1) does anyone care? 2) why should they care? The media wants you to answer questions that they think viewers want to hear, not spout corporate boilerplate. This simple fact seems obvious, but you’ll be surprised how many of our B2B clients insist on using legally accurate, but non-emotive terms to describe their product. But we think there’s always a better – more human way – to speak to your clients.
- So, instead of: “Our software defined networking solution helps our clients create a cost-effective level of abstraction of their lower key features in their network”…
- Why not try: “Your IT manager will spend less time fixing network problems. Your employees spend less time searching for information. Best of all, your business spends a lot less for a top tier solution.”
3. You, not your process, make you special – Yes, “media training 101” techniques are useful to prevent the proverbial foot in mouth. But those are just hygiene factors: ultimately, we want to help our clients stand out, and to help them connect emotionally with an audience that they can’t see or hear. The elements that make us most human can’t be put into playbook: we are enthusiastic, passionate, engaged and energetic. We don’t mind being imperfect, we’re funny, and we don’t take things too seriously. We’ve had a combination of experiences that probably no one else has had. So take advantage of our uniqueness, express our “human-ness”, and never settle for the mediocrity of a playbook.