I’ve worked with many people who mistrust or dislike members of the news media.
One recent group of trainees from a public entity was more emphatic in their hatred of journalists than I’d ever encountered before.
This group constantly felt besieged by a rapacious press corps that couldn’t be satiated, and they believed that reporters were far too busy pursuing their own predetermined agendas to give them a fair shot.
Given the hostility of this group toward members of the press, I decided to try something different. The result was striking, if not outright shocking.
Instead of playing the role of reporter (as I usually do in media training sessions), I decided to divide the group in half.
The first group played their usual role of serving as corporate spokespersons. I gave them a scenario to work with, asked them to develop their messages and media strategy, and told them to assign a person who would deliver a press conference.
The second group was tasked with playing the role of reporters during a press conference. I told them that their job was to do everything they could to get the facts the spokesperson was reluctant to offer. I instructed them to get past the spin, challenge evasive responses and do whatever they could to get to the truth.
Those in the second group took their job seriously. When the press conference began, they were unforgiving of anything that remotely resembled spin. They asked tough follow-up questions, used evidence to contradict some of the spokesperson’s claims, and adopted an almost hostile tone. Frankly, they were tougher than most of the reporters I’ve ever seen at press conferences.
The ‘ah-ha!’ moment
When the press conference ended, I asked both groups what they were feeling. The group representing the company said they felt exhausted and beaten up; the “reporters” were annoyed, bordering on angry. They felt the company was being evasive, and they resented its lack of candor.
I didn’t have to say anything. My takeaway message seemed to wash over everyone simultaneously: Reporters aren’t being jerks just to be jerks; they just resent that you’re not being straight with them.
That profound realization, which reminded me of the adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, changed their perspective. Suddenly, they understood how they were complicit in journalists’ reaction to their attempts at media management-and they recognized the need to do things differently.
Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: ” The Media Training Bible” and “ 101 Ways to Open a Speech.”