I loved what American comedian and TV host Jon Stewart said about the news media a few years ago. At the ‘rally for sanity’ held in Washington just before the 2010 US congressional elections when the Tea Party was about to make big inroads. Stewart compared the News Media to a bright sun focusing its light through an absurdly large magnifying glass on a small anthill. The ants of course catch on fire resulting in a week long media frenzy about the strange phenomena of burning ants. Hilarious, but like any good comedy there’s tragedy in this truth about the distortion of the media lens. Sadly, it’s the source of much of the deep distrust many people have of an encounter with the news media.
In the hundreds and hundreds conversations with people in my coaching seminars I hear, almost to a person, that their engagement with the news media and of having to speak publicly is often one of terror about the way in which they feel their words will be misrepresented or distorted by individuals with an ax to grind or reporters assigned to finding a dissenting viewpoint no matter where it comes from and most often without sufficient fact checking. Many of them tell me they do their best to avoid any media exposure because they feel certain that whatever they say will somehow be worked against them and they’ll get into trouble with their bosses, political or otherwise. Or they might get into trouble with their friends and family. Or they might have some kind of exposure that makes them look different than they feel they want to look. As a result they are often preparing themselves for an encounter they dread because they’re very unsure of their capacity to focus on their own personal knowledge, expertise, stay out of the weeds, know that they can manage an outcome that’s successful for them. Sound familiar?
On the plus side, many of the hundreds of people I’ve talked to in my seminars understand that the news media is a business and that tension or conflict sells. They get the idea that the more tension or conflict in the story the more it sells. They get that a reporter’s job is to write something people are actually going to read, see or hear. And in that context, they get that finding a way to balance a reporters inclination to focus on tension and conflict against the need to tell the story accurately and fairly is the ongoing challenge every good journalist faces. This puts a tremendous amount of onus on the spokesperson, the person speaking for a legitimate organization whether it be a government agency, a big oil company, a service provider or a not for profit organization trying to raise funds. Put in this context, every engagement with the news media conspires against every spokesperson because it’s not their story that will be told but the story of the tension, the conflict, the dissenting point of view that must be there and often finds it’s way above the fold because it generates a more interesting story.
My sense is also that most recognize that reporters are forever wary of the spin coming at them by all those trying to seek free publicity for their messages. But even if the spin is great and honest and founded in deep credible research or in some unquestionable truth, reporters are obligated by their profession to find the dissenting opinion unless there’s clear an irrefutable consensus. How often is that the case?
These are the realities that shape the world in which I work as a coach. My brand is “The Credible Spokesperson” and the world I’ve just described is the one that shapes people’s perception of the media world and their engagement it. The questions they have are about what they need to know to have the best chance of success when they feel the odds are often severely stacked against them. The challenge in doing this can be huge for many. On top of needing to really manage the message and intensely focus on doing so, people engaged in news media interviews have to make a shift in perspective. An interview with a reporter is not a conversation no matter how hard a good interviewer will try to make it so. Because when it becomes a conversation you loose control.