Your Media Miranda Warning:
Law & Order-Style Public Relations

© Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion...

My favorite part of the televison series Law & Order is the detectives' strategy sessions and interrogations. They have no problem bending the truth and misleading people, then taking the information to build a case. That's what can happen in a media interview if you're not prepared. If you want to be more like the cool defense lawyers rather than the unwitting suspect - here's your media Miranda warning.

It never fails to amaze me the number of people who will talk to the media with absolutely no knowledge of how the game is played, then complain bitterly about how they were portrayed. This is similar to the kinds of people who get arrested (in this day and age of more police television shows than ever before) and still manage, as a lawyer friend of mine used to put it - to get themselves convicted with their own mouths.

If you are a high-visibility professional, executive or entrepreneur, you probably have a greater chance of being interviewed by the media than being arrested (I would hope), but the media is not going to give you a Miranda warning - they are under no obligation to do so, or to spoon-feed you reality. However, occasionally they can and will use Law & Order style detective techniques to get you to open up. Of course, you could ‘take the Fifth' - using the ever-available ‘No comment' - but that seldom serves the purpose. If the media is going to interview you, under hostile conditions or not, you want to be mindful of how your remarks can be portrayed and used by someone who edits the tape (even relatively tame subjects such as the Civil War re-enactors found this out the hard way when they were filmed for the History Channel movie The Unfinished Civil War - they and their hobby were depicted in less than glowing terms.)

So here are some tips for your interrogation by Detective Briscoe and company. This is for when they assure you that: "We just want to get your side of the story..."

Get a lawyer - in other words, have a public relations professional brief you on the media interview process, some ways to control the agenda and discussion, and how to deal with it. If it's serious enough, do some role playing and video tape it. You'll be surprised.

Always have an agenda and a plan for when you talk to the media - never, ever, wing it. That will get you in trouble. Keep your remarks tight and focused. Jeff Bezos of Amazon could take some lessons here - his off-the-cuff remarks to a British televison show recently wreaked havoc on his company's stock price.

Consider all possible options for their agenda, and look for tell-tales - anyone who has an agenda will tip their hand by the nature of the questions they ask. But you have to listen carefully. The media knows, as do the police, that people just don't listen. One way to spot this is when you are arranging the interview, ask them what they are looking for, in as much detail as they will give you. Then pay careful attention during the interview to whether they are following that script or taking it somewhere else. Most are straight shooters - the ‘off script' ones will become apparent pretty quickly.

Expect the unexpected - a be prepared to deal with it - there are occasions where things can go out of control - such as an unanticipated ‘ambush' interview or totally off-the-wall interview. Although somewhat rare in normal interviews, this is more common in highly-charged ‘advocacy' issues. For example, the issue in the movie The Unfinished Civil War was the display of the Confederate battle flag. If you encounter this kind of situation, you always have the option to end the interview. But don't pull a ‘Bill Gates' and rip off the microphone and emotionally walk off the set with the cameras running (as he did to Connie Chung a few years back.) If you're going to pull the plug, abruptly thank the interviewer for the opportunity to discuss the issue (as if they had indicated the interview was over), and invite the viewers to your web site for additional information. Then smile and diplomatically remove any microphone and leave. Even with the cameras running, it will appear to be a normal end to the interview. Do not stay and continue to engage. You'll lose out - almost always - because now you're ‘winging it'.

There's only one take - you can't edit the tape or get a re-take - Stay highly focused - as soon as you get off script and start to formulate answers - you're going to let something slip, or say something that can be taken out of context. That's why all the responses have to be ‘framed' and put in proper perspective. By the way - regardless of what you are told or led to believe - nothing is ‘off the record' - and consider the microphones and cameras to be running all the time. Even Ronald Reagan once forgot this - in his classic "The bombing starts in five minutes..." remark.

Learn to answer the question you wanted to have asked - not what was asked The best way to deal with this is to have answers that are in fact, prepared speeches. That's how you get your message across, and avoid getting tripped up. Think of it as having a mental collection of index cards, and you simply pick the right one to read to answer the question. If they repeat or rephrase the question - you repeat the answer - that's all that John Ashcroft did. And he got confirmed.

Assume nothing - tightly embed lots of explanatory statements for the viewer - highly intelligent people, professionals and those closest to the debate are very guilty of ‘assumptive answers'. In other words, they assume you have the same level of understanding that they do. This is very, very dangerous. They forget that much of what they take for granted is unknown by the viewer, and in many cases, the media. In the 1992 presidential campaign, the hand-held sign "It's the economy, stupid" was a populist slogan to remind the politicians to stay focused. (George Bush apparently didn't read it.) ‘Dumbing down' is really a translation exercise - and the better translators are those who get their message across.

So the next time Detective Briscoe or the media come calling, "...just to get your side of the story..." and you decide to engage - remember that it's ‘show time', give yourself a media Miranda warning and make it a point to be prepared.

Sure beats trying to cut a plea bargain later on.

© Copyright 2001, Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

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