With media, favor offense over defense

Copyright 2009

Recently I was helping to prepare a very senior executive for a major media interview. As we gathered for the coaching session I was struck again by the defensive attitude that was expressed by the participant and internal advisors alike because a secondary issue was hot and was likely to be introduced into the media interaction by the reporter.


The problem I’ve seen too often is that almost all preparation gets focused on the attack point. And, while excellent rebuttal argument may be built and bridging practiced to get away from the secondary issue and back to the core message, there isn’t enough core message available to sustain that move. In those cases it is easy for the reporter to make the attack dominate the interaction.


My approach to this is to ensure that the participant – the executive in this case – has a clear and very strong objective to accomplish in the interaction. In my training/coaching sessions I suggest participants think of the objective as a destination – something they must get to. No detours or obstacles should deflect them from getting to where they set out to go.


What I’m really trying to accomplish with this is to get their mind-set focused on offense more than defense.


To deliver on offense I believe the participant needs both the intellectual arguments and – as critically – the emotional, passionate energy to not only match the emotion of the attack but to use it to fuel their determination to reach the destination. This isn’t manifested by wild emotional outbursts. On the surface it could in fact seem rather cool, especially in the face of a spirited attack. But there is a belief in the destination that has its own passion and that is what usually drives the credibility of the argument on offense.


Back to the example I started with to illustrate this point. We didn’t need to start the session focused on the negative – everyone in the room had already spent lots of resource on the issue. Instead, we started with defining the destination. It wasn’t difficult to do, but did require some discussion and refinement. That exercize is the first step in conditioning the participant to think offense.


The next step is to review the positive story. Note that it should be a story – not just messages or facts. Story allows us to deliver both emotion and facts in a structure that can include the best interests of the viewing, reading, listening audience. It all depends on how we structure the story.


A technique for finding an appropriate and powerful structure that might counterbalance an attack is the concept of ‘The Other Goliath’. In essence, it means we need to find another, far larger Goliath than we are in the media’s story equation of David versus Goliath (good versus evil).


In another case I worked on recently, the company had already found this Goliath: threat to consumer safety. This was an alternative to the media’s equation, which was: consumer versus profit-driven company. In the new equation the company plays a different role than in the media equation. They had a good story about protecting consumer safety and could support it.


It’s not unusual for companies to try to find another bad guy to take their place in the equation. Sometimes the attempt is misplaced. They choose a completely irrelevant or inappropriate substitute to focus attention on. It doesn’t fly. In other cases, there isn’t any factual support for the premise that someone or something else is the real Goliath.


Premise needs to be proved. The story (it carries and develops the premise for comprehension) needs to be supported.


In the last case I mentioned, while the company had the premise right, they lacked all the supporting information to allow the full story to play out. It was available, but had not been integrated into the explanation. If I had been a reporter I would have pressed the company to prove its alternate premise (new Goliath) and if it couldn’t do it convincingly, with examples and facts, I wouldn’t have accepted it and may have dismissed it or minimized it in the balancing of the story.


One reason there wasn’t more information in the story was the quite legitimate concern of a senior communications manager that he didn’t want his spokesperson going into deep detail. I believe this decision came from a defensive mindset. To me there are no right and wrong approaches. Only options with pros and cons. You analyze their benefits and risks and choose one. That becomes the “right” one if you need that label.


I explained to the communications manager that in this case the positive story was not substantial enough without further detail (proof). So we simply added a very strong example to the story to support the threat to safety premise and to make a far better story. In fact, the logical place for the example was at the beginning of the story because it captured the problem statement for the consumer. After that, the company’s position became solution to the problem – rather than the problem as the media wanted to portray it.


There is nothing magical about this. As shown, the companies can be almost there with their offense.  The difficulty with getting to the best place is that too often the people involved are too close to the issue. They become susceptible to the negative, defensive mindset and focus too much time and attention on that side of the equation.


The other difficulty is not going far enough on the offense story. Sure, there may be problems with it, but that shouldn’t cause it to be abandoned or cut short. I tend to keep asking questions until I get enough information that either makes it go or supports finding another story. But, in asking these questions I often get information that the people close to the situation have forgotten or somehow dismissed as irrelevant or unnecessary. Maybe to them, but not necessarily to someone on the outside.


If, at the end of the exercize the media still doesn’t buy the story, but does give it good play as balance because it is fully formed, supported and delivered with energy, then the reader, viewer, listener gets to decide. And that can be the victory we’re after when we’re dealing with serious issues with the media.


As some sage has often been quoted: The best defense is a good offense.


Sounds good. What about investigative journalism? Different story. The best offense with investigative journalism is to communicate your story to your key audiences directly, because the media aren’t going to. Yes, they’ll ask lots of questions in research, ask for an interview with your most senior person, and try to curry favor to get the interview. If you refuse, the tone will change and you are likely to experience threats. If you refuse the interview, you should also expect the “ambush” interview, where they try to get to your executive directly – on the phone, in the parking lot, at the elevator, etc.


I don’t generally like to accuse media of having written the story before they talk to us. With investigative journalists, j’accuse. I believe they take a purely deductive approach – they know you are guilty and they’re only interested in the information that supports that premise. I strongly suggest only doing these interviews if a key constituency must have you engaged in the interview to defend a position. This rarely produces anything more than the media taking select bits out of the interview and through editing, using it to support the thesis. Better to send a written statement of your position and save a spokesperson’s psyche from the bruising they take before, during and after these interviews. Yes, the broadcast media will scream the loudest, but participating isn’t going to make them go any easier on you than the statement.



2 Responses to “With media, favor offense over defense”

  1. Linda Andross Says:

    Great column Pat. I wonder if you think with all the media closures/layoffs, things will change with how remaining media outlets approach “issue” related stories?

    • patrickmcgee Says:

      Linda, I think the media competition is heating up in the quest for ratings and circulation. On issues, I think they’ll go for more controversy and sensationalism. Key to our analysis will be when we engage and tell our story based on a calculated prospect that it gets fair treatment and when we don’t engage beyond a statement.

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