In the media training I conduct for executives and political figures, I emphasize a goal of not merely surviving a media encounter, but thriving. In the media as in sports, the individual or team that focuses solely on defense usually will not win. Media appearances offer unique opportunities to reach huge numbers of stakeholders. They should be embraced with enthusiasm, rather than with the notion that escaping with one’s skin is a victory.
Yet some media encounters are barely survivable. When ambush is the order of the day, or where bias is institutionally entrenched, showing sheer guts and stamina can equal success.
Yesterday’s appearance by BP CEO Tony Hayward before Congress demonstrated this clearly. Even before any questioning had begun, the committee members’ opening statements branded Mr. Hayward with a prominent “P,” and led him straight to the stocks like a colonial sinner in an electronic town square.
No one would deny that BP is massively responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the deaths of 11 workers, and untold environmental damage. Nor could anyone reasonably conclude that a Congressional hearing of this type is about investigating anything. A witness who tries to counter the naked political maneuvering in such a hearing is doomed.
Congress doesn’t ask questions in such an encounter—it renders judgments. How then can a witness survive sitting opposite such a tribunal of judges with righteous voices thundering?
In testimony of this type, the ability to absorb punishment without revealing callousness or weakness is the key survival skill. Where authority and competence cannot win the day, steadfastness and accountability must be in full view.
Here are three critical tools for media appearances where the odds are stacked heavily against you:
When a crisis hits, nonverbal behavior that says “steady as she goes” is a powerful reminder of your personal or organizational competence. Posture which indicates engagement, an unwavering focus on one’s questioners, a willingness to remain in the crosshairs without flinching, and especially strong eye contact, are key nonverbal messages that set of tone of accepted responsibility. Has corporate or institutional malfeasance led you to the witness box? All the more reason to send out an opposite message with every visual tool at your disposal.
In the long hours of his Congressional grilling, Mr. Hayward demonstrated this skill continuously. A general rule of media encounters is that the more vociferous your opponent is, the calmer you should become. Listeners hear reasonableness in steady pleasant tones, not in emotional storms. If your vocal inflection is muted and you speak plainly, your opponents will brand you as aloof in the face of disaster. Let them. Remain focused and deliberate as you add the third tool of survival:
Bridge and Stay on Message: “Bridging” means moving from the quicksand specially mixed for you by your questioner, to the solid ground of your prepared responses. Decide on the three critical points you want to hammer home in your interview or testimony. Then take every opportunity to get those messages out. Answer topics, not questions. Remember your strategy for this particular media encounter, and stay on that path despite the harshness of your opponents’ attacks.
By employing this approach, you will be using tools—three in this case—that are designed as practical applications of your media strategy. Above all, they will help you with the all-important goal of difficult media situations: staying in control and using the encounter to accomplish your aims.
In “survival media events” like the one discussed here, that strategy will only be achievable in the long run. But you must start the process now.