Unification Sermons and Talks
by Reverends Kiely
How to Meet the Press: A Survival Guide
by Michael Kiely-Barrytown, NY
You may not become "Sam Donaldson's breakfast" anytime soon, as William F. Buckley, Jr. put it, but if you are a professional, business, religious, educational or virtually any other kind of leader, you will probably encounter the press sooner or later. For those who have not learned the skills of press relations and carefully prepared for press interviews, such moments of truth under the lights can be an embarrassment even a disaster both for themselves and for the organizations they represent.
While Unificationists are articulate, heartistic and genuine, many of us are also camera shy and reasonably media illiterate. We are not ready for what is probably inevitable for many of us in the near future, a press interview. For example, in PBS's Front Line January 1992 attack on True Parents and Unificationnist activities and organizations, unificationists' statements on camera were taken out of context and misconstrued. With media training and vigorous preparation, interviewees could have made such abuse by PBS more difficult. By contrast, our detractors, such as the Cult Awareness Network, actively and skillfully cultivate press relations and regularly appear as smooth "experts" on television and radio. Those experts make slanderous and even libelous allegations about True Parents with impunity and, until recently, without rebuttal. The press often treats them with deference on camera and gives their message full coverage.
How can we deal with a sometimes nasty press and survive? Or better yet, come out on top? Being an inspiring lecturer or preacher, being articulate, sincere, devout, informed, witty and confident help, but there are other specific skills and knowledge that are required for effective press relations that are not taught in school. Without them, an interview, particularly on camera, is a high-risk proposition.
How can we acquire that knowledge and those skills? While experience in the school of hard knocks and training with an experienced interviewer are both desirable in the long run, an excellent introduction to media relations is the currently out-of-print How to Meet the Press: A Survival Guide by Jack Hilton, a media veteran who has trained scores of Fortune 500 CEO's to face the press. The book is a thorough and witty description of those skills and traits, laced with hundreds of illustrative anecdotes. William F. Buckley, Jr., says the book is "a lucid, readable account of on-camera pitfalls and opportunities, valuable advice for anyone who would prefer not to be Sam Donaldson's breakfast." J. Peter Grace, the President and CEO of W.R.Grace & Co., advises other CEO's "to read, and re-read, Jack Hilton's How to Meet the Press or consult a psychiatrist."
Following are several highlights from the book, but they are only hors-d'oeuvres. Each of us should get this volume and feast on it. What follows will serve only to whet your appetite for the main course, but is no substitute for it.
Here's the beef. While Hilton focuses on the television interview under lights and time restraints, he covers a variety of possible encounters with the media. In any such encounter several principles are important. In Unification terms, we, not the interviewer, need to maintain subject position. We call the shots, and no question posed by an interviewer is sacred. We don't need to answer any question, especially difficult ones, unless doing so serves our purpose. We can go into an interview with our own agenda, and we have a right to present our own program, quite distinct from that of the interviewer. According to Hilton, the key to success in meeting the press is to thoroughly prepare ahead of time in writing and then orally. His advice: Write down the points you want to make on the show. Support them with facts, experts' testimony, anecdotes, personal experience, supporting or similar history and other data. Write a treatise on each point. Anticipate all possible questions and prepare responses to them. Then rehearse exhaustively, preferably with an experienced interviewer. In this manner, you can be best prepared for whatever an interviewer may throw at you. This takes Time with a capital T, and you should plan accordingly.
Note that thorough preparation involves not simply content preparation but competent expression. Your goal is to create highly quotable, pithy and very short statements that a newscaster can excerpt (often only 15 seconds long). That takes crafting and lots of rehearsing so that you can say them under fire at the right time. Those quotable quotes may be the only part of your interview that makes the evening news and it may only last 30 or even 15 seconds.
Attitude going into the interview is key. In the few moments before the interview, don't wonder as you bite your nails, "What impossible questions is the interviewer going to ask me, and how will I possibly answer him or her?" Rather think, "I have this and this and this to say. How will I say it most succinctly, colorfully and correctly in 43 words or less. That's about 15 seconds. This is my opportunity to present my cause, not his or hers to fit me and my cause into the mold of his or her agenda."
After all, this is not the Spanish Inquisition, it is an interview in which you as a participant play an active, not a reactive, role. Your right to free speech is protected by the First Amendment. But interview doesn't mean ad-lib. Your interviewer will have, or should have, done his homework. So should you exhaustively so you can say what you want to say, say it well, and say it without gaffes.
In the interview itself one important technique for moving from the interviewer's question to your own agenda is bridging. Be prepared to bridge, that is, use a smooth connecting phrase, clause or sentence from the interviewer's question to your topic. "Let me put that matter in a slightly different perspective" or "Let's consider the larger issue here" are candidates for bridges. If you are asked about prayer but want to talk about, say, providential action, you might respond, "While prayer is essential, even more important is what we do as a result of our prayer," which prepares for your words on the importance of action. So, bridging allows you to take initiative in the program in order to present your agenda.
While on the air:
Convey your conviction with vitality, intensity and enthusiasm.
Be factually correct in order to maintain your credibility.
Be anecdotal, telling stories in every-day language because you are not in front of a large audience but in a living room with a few friends; TV is "up close and personal," according to Marshall McCluhan.
Keep your cool under heat because audiences "usually side with the more composed of the combatants."
Keep in mind that no matter how sparkling your content and your performance, on television there is one thing that is more important than these: your appearance. After a visual disaster in his debates with John Kennedy in 1960, Nixon said, "Be sure you remember that more important than what you say is how you look on television." He told presidential aspirants, though he found it distasteful, before television appearances he always allowed his hair to be coifed and blow dried and his producer to apply make up and tell him how to sit and what to wear. While Nixon won radio audiences in 1960 because radio listeners judged his grasp of the issues better than that of Kennedy, he lost the much larger television audiences because of Kennedy's radiant tan and careful attention to appearance and Nixon also lost the election.
Speaking for John Q. television viewer, Hilton said this about appearances on camera:
As I observe you (up-close and personally) I'm apt to notice your posture, your wardrobe, certainly your general appearance, your facial expressions, your gestures, which are aspects of a comparatively superficial nature for me to like or not. I'll particularly notice if any of these strike me as odd or somehow wrong. If they are, at worst, I'll think less of you; at best, I'll be distracted from what you are saying. Don't let that happen.
Be comfortable in your chair, but not too comfortable. Don't let me surmise that you were dumped into it from an altitude of 1,500 feet. Sit up, cross your legs, lean slightly forward (toward me), and keep your hands in front of you above your waist. Just remember one thing. The picture of you that I see at home, at least most of the time, is bounded horizontally by the approximate width of your shoulders. Vertically it's from the top of your head to your sternum, maybe to your waist.
Choose mid-tone clothing, Hilton says: blues, greys and browns. Wear only one quiet-patterned item and no small tweed and herringbones (read page 60 to find out why. Does this sound like an ad from BottomLine Books?) Men always should wear knee-high dark socks and women, no bright colors (especially reds) and no patterns larger than an inch. In sum, wear what you'd expect to see on a bank vice- president. (Read the rest of chapter five for what to do with jewelry, make up [men, too] and hair.)
Now that you're properly dressed and the cameras are running,
"Be yourself," unless you want to appear de-Gaullian like Lyndon Johnson. And;
"Be liked" whether you have grace and wit like John Kennedy or warmth and affability like Ronald Reagan, whether you keep cool under fire and become an underdog to a bullying host or you are simply well prepared with crisp, clear answers and well-researched statistics. One way to appear friendly and intimate is to maintain eye contact, not with the interviewer, but with the camera lens, which is your audience at home. Think of it not as five million people but as a good friend or two back home.
Say you were spectacular on camera, and Mike Wallace went hungry this morning. What then? Press relations aren't just for under the lights but all the time. They are continual even if all you want to do is prepare for that dramatic moment when the press comes looking for you. In fact, they begin long before the interview or should. First off, don't hang up the phone on a journalist or say, "No comment." The viewer sees both as cowardly at best, and at worst, incriminating because you appear to have something to hide. Nor should you shun the press between crises. Rather, if your relationship with them is ongoing, then they will know you, and hopefully trust you, even when the chips are down. Of the reporter's standard questions Who, What, Where, Why, When and How, if they already know who you are, what you do, where and why, then in dramatic moments, they need only ask when and how. That makes your job, and theirs, easier in such difficult moments. So, keep in touch.
However, if you want to do more than simply be ready for the press to come searching for you, if you have a cause you want to communicate to many people, then keeping in touch is not enough. You need to actively seek press coverage. As you do this, keep in mind that style counts more than content. You are dealing more with perceptions than substance. While the following list sounds altruistic enough, note the wording. You have the best chance of getting coverage if you can:
Demonstrate a perceived benefit to many people;
Package your cause to seem new, even if it is old;
Dramatically illustrate your cause. Create photo opportunities if you can; and
Demonstrate a particular expertise in talking about a subject of continuing public interest.
With these and other basics dispatched with by Chapter Six, Hilton delves into specific questions, situations and challenges in the interview. One does not have to answer an irrelevant question, but it is also important not to seem to be evading an issue. Then it will appear one has something to hide. Unless you are the president or close to it, most or all of what you say will be attributed to your organization or cause, not to you. If viewers remember anything at all, it will be what you represent, not your name. So, don't say anything you would not want to have attributed to your cause. On hot issues that have nothing to do with, say, Unificationism, it may be preferable to artfully and graciously demur, then bridge to your agenda.
"Iffy questions," as Franklin D. Roosevelt used to call them, ask you to speculate on a hypothetical situation. Dismiss them or alter them to suit your purpose. For example, "Until ...., it is premature for me to speculate what I might or might not do." Then bridge to your agenda.
If you are caught in an inconsistency like "But you said so-and-so last year...," don't try to demonstrate you have been consistent unless you have, in fact, been. We are allowed to change our mind once in a while about an issue, so admit it and say why. Also, beware of the Either-Or questions; the answer may be neither-nor or both, as well as either, which is what the interviewer wants you to believe. In other words, don't allow the interviewer to lock you into choices none of which is valid. Just say so. Nor should you take for gospel what he claims someone else said and base your response on it. His reporting may or may not be accurate, and relying on it can get you in a peck of trouble. (Are you lost yet? This is all very dry and challenging to follow without Hilton's dramatic, highly illustrative anecdotes. So, why don't you just find the book now if you can buy it and read it. Then you can use this letter as reference notes.)
The interviewer's preface to a question may be loaded or inaccurate. It is possible to be derailed from your agenda in the interview by attempting to correct the bias or error at length. But it is better to disarm the bias simply by disagreeing with it or briefly correcting the error of fact and then bridging immediately to your agenda. Remember that you have very limited time to make your points. If, after you do this, an interviewer or panelist interrupts you boorishly and will not allow you to finish your answer, read page 114 to find out how to cope effectively with this situation (including some "wicked back alley techniques" if all else fails and you're desperate!)
In the last third of the book, Hilton takes up other aspects of press relations. He cautions against press conferences, but tells you how to run them if you must. He suggests publishing articles with your byline to achieve media visibility and to get to know who's who in the media, particularly television. He quotes another expert's 18-point checklist of how to deal with the press in a crisis, reviews various types of non-television interviews and how to prepare for them, and makes suggestions on how to help assure journalists quote you correctly after an interview. He also encourages the use of simple words in writing and on the air.
Hilton concludes his book with several proposals for commanding press attention. In outline, he says:
Dramatize your message or appeal; Think pictures, not palaver; Look for free media, that is, programs willing to cover your cause as "news"; and taylor your message to the intuitions and mood of your audience.
Finally, in an epilogue Hilton appeals for us to become informed consumers of television. "If enough people understood its nature and limitations, it would be possible to set down some true guidelines on how television should operate to help its audience learn and its practitioners communicate."
This is simply a short, incomplete sketch of the contents of Hilton's book. While you may well find some of these ideas helpful, they do not do justice to the volume's content. The value of this book lies not simply in its detailing a long list of solid principles for press relations, but in fleshing out these bones with myriad real life stories that bring the author's points alive and help to cement them in the mind of the would-be interviewee you. This book is a must read for any Unification leader who may be contacted by one of the growing thousands of reporters across America and for any member who plans to make a difference in his hometown. The time to prepare to meet the press is now, not when Mike Wallace and his TV crew are camped on your doorstep!
Michael Kiely was an oversease correspondent and a journalist and editor with the New York Tribune in Manhattan for nine years. He has an M.A. in journalism from New York University.
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