By Michael Willard and Olga Willard
Henry Kissinger, the celebrated diplomat, walked up to television cameras at a news conference and quipped to the media: “I sure hope you have questions for all my answers.”
It’s an old story told by media relations specialists. The central character is interchangeable. Instead of Kissinger, it could be Biden, Clinton, Branson, Bezos or Musk, anyone with a public profile of newsworthy attention.
The primary point demonstrated during message training is simply this: It’s your show. Not the media’s. The newsmaker is there to deliver his or her messages, and to, hopefully, make news.
We have used the Kissinger story — the person we first heard identified with it — on occasion in training spokespeople, though we localize it to whichever politician is the flavor of the day in the particular country or state we are holding forth.
Having worked both in the public relations and the journalism worlds, we outline here just a few of the myths and truths associated with the interaction of legitimate news gatherers and well-intentioned newsmakers:
- “They only asked bad questions at the news conference.” This is a common complaint when an interview didn’t come out as well as expected. One of the first things a message trainer will tell a client is that there is no such thing as a bad question, only bad answers.
- “All that reporter cared about was selling newspapers.” Journalists rarely make the connection between the job they do and selling newspapers, social media ads or broadcast time. They just want a good story.
- When “Larry King Live” was on CNN, the former host remarked: “A good interview is when the person being interviewed answers the question asked.” Not necessarily. A good interview is when news is made whether or not it is on that particular question.
- “That reporter had already written his story in his head before even showing up for the interview.” For a busy journalist, it is not unusual to project what a news lead might be. It is incumbent on the newsmaker to deliver effective messages that direct the story to his or her messages — and that they are, indeed, newsworthy.
- “I went off the record, but they quoted me just the same.” For a while, Associated Press had a rule of not accepting off-the-record quotes. we have advised clients not to go off-the-record on sensitive matters that would embarrass them if printed.
- “We embargoed the story for noon but the Daily Planet went with it at 10 a.m.” Guess what, in today’s deadline every second world, embargoes are mostly a relic of the past. Don’t be surprised if some reporter jumps the gun.
We have often wondered what would happen if journalists took the same media training that newsmakers take. Would there be some cosmic stand off and both go away disappointed.
We don’t think so.
To begin with, each side wants the same thing: To make news. The avoidance of making news is not the object of an interview. If that were the case, why bother meeting with the media at all.
By its very nature, the relationship between journalists and newsmakers should be an adversarial one. An adversarial role is necessary to facilitate a free press, and for the journalistic community to maintain its position as society’s watchdog.
(Michael and Olga Willard are partners in Willard Global Strategies. They have conducted more than 500 trainings in the United States and Europe on media messaging, crisis communication and public speaking.)