When a panic attack strikes you on national TV

A subject expert recently went on a television news program to give live insights on a breaking story. His meltdown and the self-revelatory post that followed are striking in discrete ways.

An Australian lecturer recently suffered—and rebounded from—what he called “the worst public embarrassment of my career.”

Dr. Benjamin Habib of Melbourne’s Latrobe University appeared on live television to discuss North Korea’s rocket launch. He froze—and the anchors quickly killed the interview.

Shortly after launching my website in 2010, I started a feature called “The Worst Video Media Disaster of the Month.” I became somewhat well known for that series, but I have since killed that feature.

I still write occasionally about media and speaking disasters. Public figures and elected officials who bully and treat others badly deserve scrutiny, but when the bad moments happen to people who were formerly anonymous—or at least not well known—I try to write with a more compassionate tone and offer productive advice about how that person might move on. I do so now.

What makes Habib’s interview interesting is what happened afterward. He wrote a lengthy essay for his blog, in which he described the humiliating experience and his battle with mental illness, which, he says, contributed to his on-air performance.

The full essay, describing the anxiety and sleeplessness that immediately preceded the interview, is worth reading in full. Here’s his description of the start of the interview:

As the…tech guys were counting in the live camera feed to the studio desk, I began to experience what could generally be described as a panic attack. I could feel my body overload with adrenaline as my entire physique heated up, my muscles deadened and my skin began to vibrate as if being shocked with a mild electric current.

Michael Rowland introduced me and then threw to me with his first question. I have no memory of his actual question, my mind all of the sudden swimming in a haze. As I realised that seconds were ticking away without me forming a coherent answer, the physical anxiety reactions intensified.

I babbled and stumbled, my carefully prepared comments slipping away from my conscious awareness. Michael and Virginia, seeing that I was struggling, asked prompting questions in an effort to change tack and help me out of the hole.

I very much appreciated their efforts to shepherd me through the interview, but it was to no avail. With every question they asked I struggled even more as my anxiety symptoms took complete command of my body and mind. Finally I gave in and said “I can’t do this,” and Michael and the editors quickly threw to the next story. …

I was absolutely devastated. All I wanted to do was crawl into a hole away from human contact, but instead I boarded a train packed with morning peak hour commuters. After returning home I spent the remainder of the day shaken and upset, shunning any form of electronic media. Eventually my anxiety symptoms subsided enough that I managed an hour or two of disturbed sleep.

Habib emerged from his metaphorical hole with a new commitment to talk about mental health and help others learn from his experience. To his credit and my delight, he hasn’t altogether given up on appearing on TV. He wrote:

I’m not going to do any more television interviews for a while (and I doubt I’ll be in great demand, given [that] performance), but I will eventually jump back on that horse, with some further media training and new anxiety management strategies in my tool kit. …

I’ve come to feel a responsibility as someone with a position of influence, who has experienced extreme anxiety and associated bouts of depression, to share my experiences and attempt to normalize mental health as an issue for the young people I work with.

Habib has clearly diagnosed his challenge accurately, and, given his high level of self-awareness, I have every confidence he will be able to bounce back from this.

I do have a few ideas that might help him along his journey and could allay others’ trepidations:

1. There’s no rule that says you have to go on television, at least not right away. In the meantime, continue developing your media interviewing skills through telephone and in-person print interviews. You can surely find a talented media trainer in Australia; my book, “The Media Training Bible,” is a low-cost option available in the Amazon Australia Kindle store.

2. For some television interviews, you may be able to request a taped “sound bites” or “live to tape” interview format instead of a live one. In those formats, you could start over again if your anxiety were to take hold during an answer—and the producer would show only your good answers on the air. If you’re invited on another television program, you might forward them your article and request, for the reasons apparent in your article, that they consider offering you one of those formats.

3. Instead of high-profile live interviews, consider starting small. Ask your university’s media relations department to book you on live but lower-profile programs—perhaps the university has a small television station or there’s a small community interest satellite program. When the stakes are lower, you might be able to beat your anxiety and develop the muscle memory you’ll need for more visible broadcasts.

4. Finally, and I don’t say this to minimize your experience, but it wasn’t that bad. The public tends to punish people who are unsympathetic, hostile, irresponsible or bullying. You were none of those things-and I suspect many viewers were thinking some version of, “That could have easily happened to me.” Is it embarrassing? Yes. Will the public be on your side and rooting for you to succeed next time around? You bet.

By the way, after writing his post, Habib did an interview on a local radio show to describe his botched television appearance. He did well, and it’s worth a listen.

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 Bibleand “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”

Topics: PR


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