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Quake and empathy in media interviews

23 November 2016

If there’s one piece of advice I could give to leaders who are thrust onto the media stage when crises hit, it’s to make their first message a statement of empathy for victims. After the recent earthquake, some used this well while others didn’t have the knowledge or skill to express it.

The problem is that reporters will never ask you a question that requires a direct answer that focuses on empathy alone. You will be asked questions like, “What happened”?, “Whose fault was it”?, “What are you doing about it”? and so on. You should answer all the questions you can, but your focus must also be on your message.

This is where untrained spokespeople get into trouble. They see a media interview as purely a Q and A, or if they do have a message, they don’t have the skill or knowledge to get it past media gatekeepers.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. A reporter asks you, “What exactly happened here”? You are quite entitled in that situation to respond like this (But don't make a habit of it). “Before I answer your question, I’d like to say that our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and we’ll be doing all we can to support their families and friends.” Then you answer the question.

Your message should have 3 points to it. Empathy should be the first one, while the next one must be what you are doing to support the victims. As I said, you still answer the questions that you can, but then deflect back to your points. You also need to dress up these points into media-friendly language. Deflecting back to these points is difficult and requires practice.

It’s very clear after a crisis who has the necessary media skills. They understand that a media interview is a conversation and an opportunity to get some valuable information through to audiences. It also grows their reputations.

Those who don’t have the skills let the reporter dictate the entire interview and lose this opportunity. They are then understandably nervous when it comes to reading the subsequent newspaper story or TV news bulletin. That’s because they have no idea what parts of the interview will make it into the story.

If you want to learn the five steps to pain free media interviews, download my White Paper at this link.

Written by

Pete is a leading New Zealand media trainer and regular blogger for his company, Media Training NZ . He has helped leaders from all sectors of society communicate with the media and other stakeholders. Pete is a former daily newspaper reporter and press secretary in the New Zealand government. From these roles, he understands the media process from both sides of the camera.

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