CEO Insight On How To Talk To Media

Like celebrities, CEOs are always on stage. Wherever they go or whatever they say — good or bad — is gobbled up quickly and disseminated. And in today’s ever-changing world of social media, this information spreads at rapid speed and is picked apart by a larger audience than ever before.

Good Or Bad: What’s the Difference

Whether the situation you are responding to is good or bad actually doesn’t make much of a difference. The key thing for CEOs to remember is that they are speaking through the media rather than to them. The CEO is really speaking to the audience the media serves — the public — and it is their opinion that matters in the end, not what a particular reporter thinks or says.

The second key thing is to focus on key messages and be succinct. CEOs are used to speaking for long periods with their peers and subordinates. Speaking through the media is not the time to go on endlessly. Doing so gives the reporter the authority and discretion to decide what your main message is. Don’t hand them that authority.

On a good news story, pick out two or three positive things you can say about the topic in two or three sentences. If you can’t complete this in two or three sentences, end with something that leaves you open to potential follow up questions. For example, try “That’s just two things that we’re pleased about, but there are others that will …”

Bad news is a lot trickier. Unlike good news where you’re building on something already positive, bad news almost always means a certain demographic was hurt, meaning more thought needs to go into the reply.

Either way, be sure to stay on message and don’t let the media catch you off guard with an off-topic question or aggressive delivery. Preparing with your team to outline the main talking points and go over possible questions will go a long way.

CEO media training basics

Before meeting with the media, sit down with your public relations/communications team and identify some of the toughest questions that could arise. Include identifying who the injured party or persons are. It’s extremely important to display empathy. However, if it’s a legal issue — injuries, lawsuits, etc. — consult with your legal team first before saying you’re sorry for whatever occurred. If a situation is still being investigated, be clear to provide what details you can, but be sure not to jump the gun and provide misinformation.

While it is not always possible to predict what one will be asked in a media interview, there are some things that CEOs should always be prepared for, as well as questions they must know how to deflect. Always be prepared to be asked about past experience or personal background, and discuss with your PR team how to answer the question as needed but also stay on message.

“The key thing for CEOs to remember is that they are speaking through the media rather than to them.” — Ronn Torossian, CEO 5W Public Relations

Depending on the situation, you may be asked where blame for whatever occurred can be placed. If a decision has been made in conjunction with key stakeholders, announce your decision and be prepared for questions about how this decision was made, and how the situation will be prevented in the future. If the decision is yet to be made, make it clear that the decision is being made with care — but be sure not to take too long to make it.

In almost any situation, the most important questions to be prepared for are: who, what, when, where and why. If you have an answer, or sound bite, for each of those that ties back to your overall message, a CEO can respond to almost any question.

Perception is everything

Keep in mind that you’re speaking to the public that the media serves. Even if the incident you’re responding to may have been fatal or disastrous, remember that you’re connecting with a larger public, and that their perception is everything. Because of that, the words that are chosen and the tone used can be as sharp as weapons or soothing as a salve.

  • In today’s fleeting world of video and sound bites, use short sentences. This way, what has been said is much less likely to be taken out of context and twisted to fit a previously constructed narrative the media is hoping to achieve. Like the good news example earlier, respond in two or three sentences.
  • Do not repeat the negativity in a reporter’s question. To respond, “I don’t beat my pets” to a reporter asking you if you beat your pets only serves to leave the images and words “beat my pets” even in denial.  Perception is very strong and real with most audiences and that kind of response will remain with viewers. It is important to think about how quotes can be taken out of context and fit into a sensational headline or social media post.
  • Attitude and delivery can be just as important as content. If a CEO responds in a defensive or aggressive manner to a seemingly innocent question, it not only makes the CEO look bad but also leaves the audience to think that there may be more to the story. Sometimes, all the well-prepared content and crafted narrative goes out the window and the negative or over-the-top reaction becomes the story. Even if a question throws the CEO off guard or is out of line, a calm, confident delivery goes a long way in making the CEO look refined and prepared.
  • Hold a dress rehearsal. Like an upcoming shareholder or stock analyst tour presentation, do a mock interview with your PR/communications people prior to any public media event, having the team ask the toughest questions they have identified. Don’t shy away from their tough delivery and solicit their candid feedback and suggestions. Better yet, record the mock interview and also make note of your tone, facial expression and demeanor. Be sure it matches your answers.

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations, one of the 10 largest independently-owned PR firms in the United States. With over 20 years of experience crafting and executing powerful narratives, Torossian is considered one of America's most prolific and well-respected public relations professionals. Since founding 5WPR in 2003, he has led the company's growth, overseeing more than 175 professionals in the company's headquarters in the iconic Helmsley Building in Manhattan. Torossian's roster of client experience includes work for L'Oréal, Unilever, Walgreens, SAP NS2, Sparkling Ice, KRUPS, Zeta Global, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Wendy Williams, and others. He also has represented top global brands including Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Microsoft. He was named the American Business Awards PR Executive of the Year and Entrepreneur of the Year and Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year semi-finalist. An expert on crisis communications, Torossian has lectured on crisis PR at Harvard Business School, has appeared on CNN & CNBC, was named to PR Week's 40 under Forty list, is a contributing columnist for Forbes and the New York Observer, and his book, For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results With Game-Changing Public Relations is an industry best-seller.