Michael Willard, writer, painter, columnist, entrepreneur
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The Accidental Headline


In November, 1999, Presidential candidate George W. Bush answered - or didn't answer - a series of questions that launched a tidal wave of emails suggesting the future leader of the free world was dumber than a potted plant.

The story by now is familiar. When I bring it up in any one of my media training sessions, whether with Americans, Romanians, Pakistanis, Russians, or Brits, they smile knowingly. It made the highlight reel for political gaffs.

How should he have answered questions from the reporter from Boston's WHDH-TV ? For those who were on Mars during the 2000 election campaign, a quick recap:

Reporter Andy Hiller, a political correspondent known for his off-the-wall questioning of candidates asked then Governor Bush if he could name the leaders of Pakistan, Taiwan, Chechnya, and India. On camera, Bush looked as if he has swallowed a persimmon. He was between pique and outrage as he struggled for an answer.

His first mistake was just that --  he attempted to answer the question as framed. His training on such possible unexpected  queries failed him; common sense was on vacation south of Key Largo.

Can you name the general in charge of Pakistan?" asked Hiller. He was inquiring about Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf, who had seized control of the country in a military coup a month  earlier.

"Wait, wait, is this 50 questions?" asked Bush.

"No," responded Hiller, "it's four questions of four leaders in four hot spots."

Bush then proceeded to give a partial answer, thus compounding his problem with a semi serious foreign policy faux pas.

"The new Pakistani general, he's just been elected – not elected, this guy took over office. It appears this guy is going to bring stability to the country and I think that's good news for the subcontinent."

Whooaaaa!! Governor and would-be President about to play hopscotch through a land mine field.

Foreign policy, quite often, is nuances. In essence, what Bush said was correct, but it gave the Democratic camp of Vice President Al Gore a hole big enough to fly a B-1 bomber through. He not only flunked the pop quiz – he got only one country right as to its leadership –but he misspoke on a critical foreign policy issue. He seemed to say that the military coup had brought stability to western Asia. A spokesman  came to the rescue shortly after the session, saying that Bush emphatically opposed the overthrow of democratically elected governments.

While the Bush example is probably one of the more obvious demonstrations of loss of concentration, every day politicians, government officials,  personalities  and business leaders meet the media unprepared. They take that golden opportunity, and often misuse and abuse it.  Often, they walk away thinking they have done a good job, when, in fact, they only have committed their message points to the possibility of print or broadcast.

The answer to Hiller's pop quiz – and a gaggle of similar legitimate but "gotcha" questions -- and the ability to move on to your own message points, is rather simple methodology. It employs common sense and focus. Common sense to place the off-putting question in perspective, and focus to move on to message points without becoming befuddled or defensive.

One has to realize that there are some questions to which few people would know the answer, even those in policy positions in government, even those in the political leadership, and even those running for the highest office in the land. Additionally, when it comes to an honest interview, the words "I don't know" can be beautiful compared to a mish-mash of indecision as an interview jumps gazelle-like through a forest of confusion.

 My own advise on  Hiller's question would have been straight forward, honest, slightly humorous, and a leap toward real message points of the moment: "You know, I don't know the leaders of all the 200 plus countries that make up our globe. But I can tell you this, by the time I raise my right hand and am sworn in on inauguration day, I will know. But what is really important to the American people is a tax cut this year. My program is for $1.6 trillion. We took it from the taxpayer– let's return a healthy junk and keep faith with our people."

Listen to the question. Answer the question. Bridge to your message points.

You will be seeing that phrase a lot in this narrative.  In a nutshell, it is the essence of media training, and this is what this book is all about – the ability to communicate messages in a concise, interesting manner such that they carry the day on the airwaves and in the print pages. The fact is, the Hiller interview took nothing away from Bush's intelligence quotient in the long run. What it did do was to suggest at this particular time, the candidate was woefully unprepared to meet the press. If this becomes a pattern, that which is vaguely endearing becomes comedy which then becomes ridicule. Ridicule is nuclear meltdown for either a highflying CEO or politician. As example, one of the more common sense minded politicians of the current generation and a man who should have had a leg up to the presidency, Dan Quayle, today is a gag line in the political forum.  This is an unkind cut, but is the pragmatic truth of the accidental headline.

While I have worked for various democratic politicians, I hope this book has a nonpartisan flavor. As you read on, you will see that it is my intention to impart examples of the good, the bad and the ugly regardless of politics. Untamed kerfuffle when it comes to facing the media is non partisan.

In 1980 Sen. Edward Kennedy challenged the sitting democratic President Jimmy Carter in the primaries. At the time, Carter was generally regarded as vulnerable. The economy was in a rut. He had suggested that the problems were not his fault, but that the country was suffering from a malaise. Though Carter had had considerable success in foreign policy with the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties, the Middle East Peace Accords and normalization of relations with China, none had direct impact on Americans' pocket book. Additionally, the Ayatollah Kommani had returned from Paris to his native Iran on the heels of a revolution in which a Shah fled and militants took American embassy personnel hostage in the embassy compound.

Kennedy was the great hope of the liberals. He carried the Kennedy charm and, some thought, the legacy. However, when he sat for an important interview with correspondent Roger Mudd, then of CBS, the question was posed: "Senator Kennedy, why do you want to be President?"

It was the most elementary of questions, and Kennedy was a seasoned politician, as well as a policy guru on many social issues of the time. He was Chairman of the Senate Health and Education Committee. He supposedly had one of the most high powered staffs on Capitol Hill. And yet, he blew it. He could not come up with a clear vision for America, and why he felt he should be its elected leader. Mudd later described Kennedy's answer in an interview with Brian Lamb of CSPAN with this bit of hyperbole: "His answer to the question, in effect, was because ‘the sky is so blue and the grass is so green and the water is so cold'. That's basically what he said, and the answer did not make sense."

 From that point on, Kennedy's campaign for the nomination was stuck in first gear, though he later gave a stem-winder of a nomination speech at the Democratic Convention in New York that brought back more than a hint of the Kennedy luster.

Sometimes it is the easiest and most general  of questions that trip up the otherwise competent politician and the usually well-grounded company executive. Throughout this narrative we will be giving various examples, some glaring, some subtle, some political, and some business. This is not intended to be so much a book on style – though some of that will be included – as it is in content of what is said.


My own media training and counseling has taken me around the globe. In fact, I spent several evenings in that same US Embassy compound in Tehran, Iran, a few months before the Shah fell.

 My advice to my boss, Senate Democratic Leader Robert Byrd, was not to meet with the press. At that time, Ambassador, William Sullivan was urging Byrd to make a public statement that the Shah would survive his problems. My view, and that of another advisor, Hoyt Purvis,  was such a communique  would be less than a finger in the dike. Byrd, however, had already made this prognosis, and we slipped out of Tehran for a meeting the next day in Cairo with President Anwar Sadat.

My work has allowed me to take many first hand experiences and label them as life examples. Additionally, I have not hesitated to take from other sources for this book when I came up with a dry hole. However, the lynchpin of knowledge tends to be where one has shared the most experiences, and mine have been, either as an affiliate company president or as a senior executive, with the worldwide public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, as well as with various experts with whom I have teamed in training sessions.

This account, though, will not be a scripted one from your basic media training handbook. Such are readily available, though usually at the conclusion of an exhaustive day of training. Additionally, this book is not a substitute for that exhaustive day. My belief is that one can and should compliment the other. I have tried with this effort  to bring to life the material categorized in the manuals.


All He Wants To Do Is Sell Newspapers

For some reason, there is a tendency to blame the media for interviews that go astray. A staff member working for a CEO or an elected politician will sometimes curry favor by suggesting that the "questions" were not good, or that the interviewer was somehow at fault because of the direction of the interview. Then there is the classic: "All that reporter wanted to do was to sell newspapers."

I began working for newspapers as a teenager on the city desk of the Orlando Sentinel, writing obituaries and covering what was then called the Cop Shop. I have worked as a reporter or closely with reporters for thirty-five plus years. The only time I was interested in selling newspapers was when I was in junior high, delivering the Mobile  Register door-to-door on Eglin Air Force Base in the Northern Panhandle of Florida. It was a hard sell.

Such a term as wanting only to sell newspapers is simply not in the lexicon of newspaper reporters, though perhaps publishers would wish it the other way. Reporters want – not necessarily in this order – recognition for doing a good job, to see their by-line on a story above the fold of the newspaper and to sometimes influence events by aggressive or investigative reporting.  They also want to have their good efforts pay off either in monetary reward or with  by-line clips that will help secure a job in a more interesting, exciting market.

The same is true of broadcast journalists. They hear the siren call of the next market larger than the one in which they are currently toiling, and eventually hope to gain a reportorial or an anchor spot on one of the proliferating networks. The connection between viewers, the selling of commercial space, station revenues and the up or downward tick of the stock never concerns them until layoff notices are handed out. As I write this, CNN has laid off 70 of its news staff following the America On Line/Warner Brothers merger, including several seasoned and talented reporters.

One of those reporters was Carl Rochelle,  an 18 year veteran who covered the Gulf War. I have known Carl for 25 years, from the days he covered Capitol Hill for ABC radio. All he ever wanted to do was a good job.

 In some ways, reporters – both broadcast and print – are performers. They take pride in the informative and entertaining value of their stories. They want, above all, for the stories to be accurate, but they are also playing to the crowd. In a tangential way this relates to selling newspapers, but it is an unintentional by-product of a more basic yearning.

For instance, I refer again to my long ago acquaintance, Rochelle. He is one of the more milder journalists I have met, and yet, on paper, he is an adventure seeker. Few civilians have been passengers in a jet aircraft landing on a rolling aircraft carrier. Rochelle, a certified pilot,  has. Few people have covered the range of news from wars to civil disorders up close as has Rochelle.

When I was young and the Vietnam War was in its full fury, I yearned to be a combat journalist, even as I covered the hum-drum of Tennessee politics as a reporter for United Press International. I wrote H.L. Stevenson, at that time editor-in-chief of UPI, and said I would pay my own way to Bangkok if I could be rehired and sent on to Saigon. It never happened for a variety reasons, the official one being that Frank Frosh, a reporter out of the UPI's Southern Division, had just been killed. "We're no longer sending reporters with families," he wrote back. Though disappointed, I was the point man for UPI in Tennessee for covering racial disturbances, and there were several such riots that broke out in Nashville and Chattanooga. CBS anchor Dan Rather was asked by CNN talk show host Larry King what he enjoyed most about his job: "The opportunity to be a combat reporter," he said. This from a man who arguably has the most glamorous news job in America.

Rochelle's story, or mine for that matter, dance around the fringes of what this book is all about – training on how to better communicate with the media. However, I will continue to pepper this discourse with people experiences to demonstrate a reporter's attitude and demeanor as it relates to his or her job and to life in general. Admittedly, there is no common denominator, though there are linkages we will explore.

The Value of Media Training

Media training is one of the more tangible exercises we do in the field that goes by the moniker public relations, a rather obscure term in and of itself. I have failed in pinpointed when such an exercise was first used, but one can guess that, in some form or another, it has been around for decades. Obviously public relations pioneer Ivy Lee gave the Rockefeller family advice on how best to respond to the press when faced with  a series of labor disturbances in the early 20th Century.  Much has changed in how the press does its job, however, in the ensuing decades.

My first experience came when I was offered and accepted a job with Sen. Byrd, a West Virginian with whom I went to work just prior to his being selected by his colleagues as Senate majority leader. The leader, whether republican or democrat, would meet with the press each day the Senate was in session. The on-the-record chat would occur in front of the leader's desk about 10 minutes before the Senate was called to order. It was the only time the news media was allowed on the Senate floor. Usually the questions had to do with the scheduling of legislation, but any topic was fair game.

Prior to the session, I would visit with Byrd, going over possible questions and suggesting possible answers. While I was not schooled in media training at the time, there were certain elements back then that today I incorporate in my program. From the outset,  Byrd's dictate to me was as follows: "If it is not in the newspapers, if no one heard it on radio, and my wife, Erma Byrd, didn't see it on television, then it just didn't happen."

One, of course, can take this to the extreme, and the extreme is not unusual in politics, particularly in the fever of an election. I served as a communications director to John D. Rockefeller IV in 1983 when, after two terms as governor of West Virginia, he ran for the US Senate. He had a half day of door-to-door scheduled in the North Central city of Clarksburg. For about 30 minutes, a camera crew followed the lanky politician as he rang door bells in an outlying subdivision. When the WBOY-TV reporter and crew packed it in, however, Rockefeller's interest in the morning's assignment evaporated, and he wanted to go back to the hotel and watch a couple of innings of the Atlanta Brave' game on cable television.

Truth was, Rockefeller could knock on doors throughout the entire campaign in the small state, but if the media did not tag along to record the event, it was a near waste of time. The 60 second clip on television would reach several hundred thousand people in the small market, but a week of simply knocking on doors and facing off barking dogs would connect with only a few hundred.

The point, however, is that the object of the game is to make news. News avoidance must be for a strategic reason.

Media training helps make the most out of an opportunity to tell a story. Everyone has a story to tell, even the man shining shoes at the airport terminal, and the airman returning from duty overseas to his home town. Those are natural flowing stories under friendly conditions. However, a good reporter responds to conflict, to irony, to hypocrisy, as well as to human interest. The old saw that dog bites man is not a story but man bites dog is a story is a simplified truth.

An interview is an adversarial situation, though it need not be an unfriendly one. The reporter is on the look out for an angle that will enhance his story, and if the interviewee does not guide him toward that angle, he will discover one himself. It is the goal of media training to help the interviewee focus on a limited number of important messages he wishes to convey. The reporter is a filter through which this information is imparted to a target audience.

In 1993, I, along with colleague Don Cunningham, a media trainer with Burson-Marsteller, flew to Atlanta, Georgia for a day-long session with a man being appointed plant manager for Georgia Pacific paper company in West Virginia, a heavily unionized state that takes its college football seriously.  As I recall he was a large, bear of a man with an easy going nature and winning smile. He was, however, rather nervous. He had never before participated in this kind of training, and was skeptical from the outset.

As was our practice when we double-teamed on sessions, we opened with a benchmark interview, with me playing the role of a reporter from the Charleston (WV) Gazette.

I came right out of the box with a toughie: "Who do you think will win the Sugar Bowl?"

"I have no idea. I don't keep up with that. I really don't care," he replied, smiling as if that made him a scholar or something. 

 West Virginia was playing Florida in the Sugar Bowl in three days, and the state was awash in Blue and Gold. To not be interested was heresy.

Second question:  "Mr. Brown, what's your general philosophy on unions?"

"They may have done some good at one time, but now I think they have too much influence," he replied, perhaps thinking I was writing for the National Manufacturers' Association internal newsletter. 

I remember this particular media training because the gentleman was so awful in the beginning. By the end of the session, he was a scab-hating West Virginia Mountaineer, God bless him.

The story demonstrates another point in meeting the media. It is not an intellectual exercise. It is not a debate with the reporter. It is not a tete-a-tete between two colleagues. It is a professional exchange whereby a reporter is charged with getting an interesting and accurate story and the interviewee has the opportunity to gain access to target groups through the use of focused messages.

Accidental Headline: Gore Discovers Internet

"Mr. Vice President, thanks for joining us on Late Edition." Thus intoned Wolf Blitzer host of the CNN television talk program On March 9, 1999.  "Glad to do it," Al Gore responded.

In retrospect, Gore probably wishes he would have skipped this particular program, but with his bent toward exaggeration, the vice president most likely would have announced his discover of the Internet on a similar broadcast.

Gore was asked a rather general question why voters should support him in the Democratic Presidential Primaries rather than his former colleague in the U.S. Senate, Bill Bradley.

"During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet," he replied. "I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country's economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our education system."

Gore overreached. It was to become a metaphor for his campaign, and a throw-out line for every George W. Bush surrogate who appeared on the campaign trail. The fact is, Gore had been one of many who had been important in the development of the Internet. He need not have exaggerated his role. The specific of "inventing" the Internet was certainly not one of his message points.

After this CNN interview, every line of Gore's remarks were digested to see if he were making an exaggerated claim.

Charlatans Abound

Most agencies in the PR business have in their product mix media training. On the whole, some are very good, and have considerable experience in the field. Others, however, lack the necessary experience. I believe a mixture of journalism, politics, and public relations is crucial for a well-rounded trainer. Just because someone knows the words to "I Want To Hold Your Hand" doesn't mean they can sing like Paul McCartney. The same is true for media training.

 Too often, the inexperienced PR practitioner takes a cue from the fantasyland of television and movies, and sets out to intimidate the person being trained. They believe  that by  leaving a trainee a humbled and  quivering mass of jelly they have accomplished the purpose of teaching. They have not. They have humiliated and embarrassed individuals, usually in front of their peers, but have not educated them. If a training organization suggests this is their mode of operation, best to look for a more serious company.

Tough, hard questions are fair game during role playing, but dealing with the obnoxious and over bearing reporter – the one that asks three questions before you can answer one – is relatively easy to counter. My philosophy, having been a reporter, non-elected politician and public relations professional, is one of civility. We will go into more detail about the "Bill of Rights" of the person being interviewed in a later chapter.

Perception Versus Reality

Some time in the early 80s Rolling Stone magazine advertised itself in double-truck spreads with the tagline: "Perception is Reality." For many, the phrase was considered as if it were an ancient oracle, and not some cute line tossed out by a hip ad guy. Sadly, it launched a decade or two of PR firms thinking that managing perception was more important than solving basic problems. I have spent much of my career trying to dissuade company officials that "spin" is a serious exercise.

Perception is a moment in time. It is illusionary. Reality is a wake up call. When the two meet and are in sync it's a beautiful sight. Too often, however, the image is merely a fresh coat of paint on a problem. Because of this disharmony,  Motorola was out to lunch a few years ago on the semiconductor business, and the white shirts at IBM were so sure that Big Bertha was the past and the future, they almost bet the company on it. The Dot.Coms of today – and their investors – have learned the hard way that valuations, even in the Internet age, need more than the consistency and substance of cotton candy. Both Motorola and IBM have made several course corrections in recent years.  I have more faith than to call dot.coms "dot.bombs", believing over-reaction is a by-product of a perception driven society. Perception is fluid. Reality is a static denominator that is the true measure of a company or a person.

In relation to the above, one of the main goals of media training is the refining of issues. I have seen major policy changes come about as a result of a training session with a  CEO and his team. The training, in essence, is where and when  the rubber meets the road. It mirrors as closely as possible actual interviews with varying media and styles of reporters. It forces a continual reexamination of a company's basic issues.

Because of this, the more serious training focuses  like a laser beam on the development of creditable, interesting and news-making messages. Most companies look on media training as a time to discover clinks in corporate armour. It's too late once the battle is underway.

In the mid 1990s I was ask to participate in a training session with the Soybean Association of America. Yes, they too have burning issues. Unlike most training sessions where one to six trainees were involved, we had been asked to give a demonstration of media training to a large group. A seminar would be  first and then a couple of trainees would be put in the hot seat for a several short interviews.

One woman in her 40s was selected at random from the group. She was tense, and I tried to put her at ease with relatively easy questions before honing in on a "is it not true" question regarding a controversial issue. She became flustered, began squirming in her chair, and even though I was role playing, attacked me as if I were really out to nail the organization.

Lessons learned: Once the interview starts, there are no time outs to consult the rule books, and secondly, some people, regardless of how well they do their everyday jobs, are not suited to the role of spokesperson.

In this initial chapter, I have attempted to put down some of the basics of media philosophy and training. They are not frivolous to the exercise, but a foundation on which we construct practical drills.

My own experience in media relations and training began December, 1976, when I joined the Washington, D.C. staff of Sen. Byrd of West Virginia. Within a month, he was to become Majority Leader of the US Senate, and within a few more months, called by an opinion leader survey in US News and World Report the fourth most powerful person in America. Even today, at age 83, he is listed by George magazine as one of the 10 most powerful members of the national legislature.

Byrd had to think on multiple political levels, not unlike most CEOs. However, the majority leader situation is unique. He has a national constituency, including his fellow senators and a home state constituency, the folks back home who elected him to serve. Additionally, to some extent, he has an international constituency. In some cases, a majority leader's position can tip the scales on whether to build a new weapon or enter into a treaty with a foreign power. It was a constant balancing act, and together we had to enlist what I call the Titan Missile approach to responding to press questions, meaning simply, the political consideration of deciding how what one might say impacts various constituencies.

His words still ring in my ear: "Anyone can come up with the questions. It's the answers that are difficult."

Over the course of this book,  we will offer recommendations and suggestions on how to create a strategic plan prior to a news event. By a systematic approach, the answers – just like the questions – should not be all that difficult.

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