Media Moxie

Training Helps IT Execs Sharpen Message on TV, in Print

Sandy Levine

"When you prepare to deliver information, if you take the time to write it down, you discover whether or not you have a firm grasp of it."
? Greg Dicks, Entrust Inc.

Sitting under hot, bright lights, Kevin Blakeman carefully answered probing questions about SurfControl Inc., where he serves as president of U.S. operations. A camera peered over the shoulder of the interviewer sitting opposite him. Was that a bead of sweat on his forehead?

This training session felt like the real thing.

"That was totally new to me: sitting in front of a camera, handling sound bites. I must admit I was very on edge when I sat down, but I was pleasantly surprised afterward," Blakeman said.

Increasingly in the modern media age, executives must be able to make a strong presentation on television, said Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Washington Post.

"Some of them, not surprisingly, tend to speak in jargon or are not conversant with the art of the sound bite, so a lot of companies are using media training to make sure the executives who represent them are ready for prime time," Kurtz said.

Blakeman's training preceded a press tour promoting his company's e-mail and Web filtering software. With help from trainers at Washington public relations firm Dittus Communications Inc., Blakeman and his staff learned to respond to reporters' questions quickly and succinctly, without the "ums" that pepper casual conversation and without dropping their eyes to the floor.

Increased media exposure has followed for SurfControl of Scotts Valley, Calif., Blakeman said, because he and his staff no longer shy away from opportunities to talk to reporters.

"We're getting more opportunities to meet the press, and I think we are doing a better job when we get in front of them," he said.

Media training "started to get big when times were booming, particularly for some of the dot-com geniuses who were software wizards but came across as rather geeky on the tube," Kurtz said.

Now, with the decline of the stock market and the demise of niche publications, it can be more important ? and more difficult ? to get press coverage, making media training even more popular and more important, instructors said.

The training can improve performance not only in print and broadcast interviews, but also in business meetings, briefings with industry analysts and congressional hearings, they said.

"In an economic climate where everyone is struggling to increase profitability, what you say and who you say it to can impact everything from your stock price to whether you get investors," said former journalist Penny Daniels, a media trainer for Ignition Strategic Communications in Washington. "There are fewer technology reporters now than ever before, and we're all clambering for their attention. Being able to quickly give those reporters the information they need in language that is compelling and quotable gives our clients the edge."

Dittus Communications responded to the demand in August by creating a four-member business unit dedicated to media training, including message development, presentation training, crisis communications and print and broadcast interviewing. Gloria Dittus, president of Dittus Communications, expects the new unit will bring in at least $100,000 in its first year and grow at a 30 percent rate annually.

Interest in media training is usually driven by one of three factors, Dittus said. Executives are not accustomed to the media attention they're getting; they face a crisis, such as a mass layoff or a defective product; or they feel they have not been communicating well with reporters or getting proper media coverage.

These executives are often brilliant businesspeople, but they don't realize the best way to deal with media and the public is to give them as much information as possible, as quickly as possible, said Sandy Levine, president and chief executive officer of Advice Unlimited LLC in Brookeville, Md.

"These are very bright people, very articulate. It's just a very different skill," said Levine, who honed her media training skills during the savings and loan bailout of the 1980s.

Media trainers help their clients understand the deadline pressures reporters face, and prepare talking points so that both the client and reporter get what they need. They use role-playing to combat stage fright and garbled delivery.

Levine, a former journalist, will play the reporter role first, asking questions that might come from, for example, a Washington Technology reporter, a Red Herring reporter and a TV reporter. Then the tables will turn, and her client will play reporter.

The experience paid off for Greg Dicks. Now vice president of federal systems for network security firm Entrust Inc. of Plano, Texas, Dicks took the training when he worked for business intelligence software firm Cognos Inc. of Ottawa.

"The whole notion of scheduling the meetings [with reporters] and preparing for them has made me crisper," he said. "When you prepare to deliver information, if you take the time to write it down, you discover whether or not you have a firm grasp of it. It's going to show up in print without the benefit of inflection or gesticulation, so the words have to stand on their own."

In some cases, Dicks would prepare with his technical team, which made him more knowledgeable about the company's products.

"You have great credibility with the folks that we want to talk to the most," said Dicks, who works in McLean, Va. "That's what drives the importance of it. What you put into an article will hit the desktops of thousands of people with the online and the print copy. It's very, very important that we deliver crisp, concise and quality messages."

Previously, a reporter had misunderstood Dicks, and the information he provided was not included in a story. Now, some reporters call Dicks directly, and he finds he's more likely to get a follow-up call because he was crisp and to the point in the first conversation.

"And Lord only knows, your name in the paper is a positive thing professionally and personally ? as long as you don't have your foot in your mouth," he said.

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