8 steps to take before your CEO goes on camera

A TV interview can be disastrous if your spokesperson isn’t prepared. This PR pro walks you through the steps to take to avoid catastrophe.

This article originally appeared on PR Daily in April of 2017.

In my near 20-year career in public relations I have done countless news TV interviews and helped to prepare many CEOs and directors for their own TV interview debuts. There is a clear difference on television between someone who has had a bit of media training and someone who hasn’t. This is what I’ve learned in my career so far:

1. Prepare to be all that you can be

Before you even get to the broadcast interview request stage, you should do some prep work. Pull together a list of all the super-awkward questions that your organization could be asked and get answers ready. In my experience working in financial services, I’ve had to ask our spokespeople to prepare answers for everything from how we dealt with Islamic mortgages (explained here) to what would happen if the IT system was compromised or a director caught fire during a media briefing (this actually happened).

Having such a list is Press Office 101. It’s handy not just for TV interview prep, but also for general in-house PR life. This would be my starting point.

2. Media training and role play

This was my favorite part of working as an in-house PR person. You get to say horrible things to the directors and CEO, and when they start getting mad, you can point out that you are simply asking what a news interviewer may ask. (“Why has Andy Barr not had a pay raise in 2 years?” is an obvious question that Kay Burley would have asked my then CEO.)

If you are doing a proactive TV interview, there is a good chance you are flogging a new product, service or organizational announcement, and the interview is not going to be that risky. If you are doing a reactive news interview, though, it is likely that the organization you work for has borked something badly. This is where really training your directors on how to handle awkward interview questions can help. It is always a good idea to try and get all of your directors media-trained, even the IT ones (you never know when you are going to be desperate). As a rule of thumb, the TV news media always want to see the most senior person available for the interview; this is typically the CEO or finance director, so these people should be your first port of call for media training.

3. Should you take the interview in the first place?

This is an essential question. You may have a CEO who loves the limelight and wants to do every interview, or you might have a CEO who wants to mow you down every time you suggest one. If it’s a proactive interview and the director who wants to take part is media trained and savvy, go for it. What’s the worst that can happen? If this is a reactive interview because your organization has done something wrong, you should decide based on your overall crisis communications strategy. Given that crisis communications typically goes along the lines outlined directly below (see “Stages of a PR crisis”), you may choose not to put your CEO up at an early stage and instead use a director who is expendable—the person who gets the boot to appease the media later down the line.

4. Stages of a PR crisis

  • Caught doing something bad—react with a statement while investigating.
  • If it’s your fault and you can apologize without legal implications, do so. Put up an expendable director at this stage if news media are hounding you for response.
  • If problem isn’t going away, announce an independent investigation.
  • If it still isn’t going away, announce the findings of the investigation and sack someone senior (possibly the director from the first media interview).
  • Take out full-page media ads to apologize to customers.
  • Move on, and don’t do it again!

In short, think carefully about accepting a reactive broadcast opportunity. I would only do so if you have lots of confidence in your director/CEO and you have no real way to get out of it.

5. Choose your clothes and backdrop wisely

Personally, I don’t think you can ever go wrong (male or female) with a black or grey suit and a pale blue shirt. Necktie optional; trousers, a must.

What you need to watch out for, though, is patterns and stripes. Studio and outdoor broadcast cameras, even in this ultra-HD era, struggle to pick up stripes, patterns or intricate details. The camera tries to compensate by making the whole area look bright pink. Never a good look—and one that is sure to bring ridicule and possibly get the head of the PR team fired.

Similarly, when you are choosing where to host your proactive TV interview, check the backdrop of the shot to make sure that won’t come back to haunt you. Tony Blair got caught out by this when he made a speech in a church and a stained-glass window behind him made him appear with a kind of halo. That image was used a lot afterwards to mock him.

Also, if you are working for a FTSE company and you have a new building announcement, don’t put your CEO or director in a hard hat (unless the dreaded Heath and Safety brigade make you). These hardhat pics will come back and bite you should your organization experience trouble later down the line. The pics will be accompanied by “Chief puts on the hard hat for tough times ahead” headlines.

6. Umms and errs

Make sure that you and the people you train don’t do this. Beat it out of them!

7. Make yourself memorable with ace soundbites

The goal of every TV interview is to be remembered—ideally for good reasons. The trick to this is coming out with ace soundbites. These can then be used in the “teaser” clips by the news media when promoting the upcoming bulletin. Here is a cracking example that I used during a national radio interview when I worked in financial services (modest I know).

I was asked if there really was a chance that a recession would affect house prices. I replied with, “There is a greater chance that the Loch Ness monster would swim up the Thames than there is of a fall in house prices.” The clip was used in all the teasers and I felt very happy. Sadly, the next day Northern Rock went belly up and the housing crisis began. I have yet to see the Loch Ness monster.

You get the drift: Say quirky things that will make you memorable. This also increases your chances of being asked back.

8. Dodge awkward questions using “bridging” techniques

A “bridging technique” is when you 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. Politicians are the masters of this.

When I worked in-house for a power organization our CEO was dragged onto the television every time an outage left people without power. This was, sadly, frequently. It is a widely held assumption by media analysts (so I am told) that Joe Normal who sits and watches the news does not really listen to the question, just mainly the answer that is given. Bridging techniques help you to do that. For example:

Interviewer: Do you not think you should give customers without electricity double the normal compensation as it happened at the weekend?

CEO: That is a really interesting question but what I think is more important is that we continue to invest in the electricity network so that we can reduces incidences of this happening. We will be working to try and find ways in which we can raise the funds that are needed to improve the electricity network.

In this example, the crafty CEO uses a few words at the start of his reply to take the response back to something that he or she wants to talk about. Now the CEO can keep deflecting away.

Learn from the best

This link takes you to the best-handled attack news interview I have ever seen. Kay Burley off of SkyNews takes on Nick Varney from Merlin Entertainment over the Alton Towers rollercoaster injuries. Varney handles this amazingly well—and is far more patient than I would have ever been. Burley clearly wanted him to storm out or react with a knee-jerk statement. Kudos to whoever trained this fellow.

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.

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