Does reading the newspaper generate blips on your stress meter? Does watching local TV news encourage you to dive for the remote control? (And let's not even talk about the networks!) Does the prospect of actually doing an interview with a reporter spike your anger response mechanism?
Go ahead and answer “yes” if you're so inclined. No one but you will know the answer. That is, unless you actually undertake the interview and reveal your feelings.
Consider Jim. Jim is an executive with line management responsibilities in a medium-size manufacturing firm. Before reaching the corporate office, Jim managed several field manufacturing facilities. You probably don't want to mention the news media to Jim. For the unfortunate soul who does bring up the subject, Jim's response never varies. His eyes narrow, and you can see the veins in his neck begin to pulse. All the air suddenly leaves the room.
Jim's experience is not unlike that of many executives. At an early point in his career, a local reporter for a small-town newspaper near Jim's plant asked repeatedly for an interview. Jim managed to avoid the “confrontation” for months. Finally, he relented and did the interview.
Unfortunately, Jim made several critical errors. Having no experience with reporters, he assumed his intimate knowledge of the subject made preparation for the interview unnecessary. Getting professional training in media interview skills was out of the question. Jim also never took time to anticipate the questions he could be asked, let alone develop a set of messages points he wanted to advance during the interview.
Jim expected a bad article. And that's exactly what he got. The content isn't important, nor is the wording of the headline, which played on a stray comment Jim made during the interview. What is important, at least to Jim, is that the article made him look foolish. When the clipping wound up on the desk of Jim's bosses back at headquarters, feeling foolish was the least of his worries.
If you can identify with Jim, the fact is you're not alone. Despite the ubiquitous nature of news media today and its ever-growing interest in business, many business people continue to harbor animosities toward the news media in general and reporters in particular.
When asked their reasons for those feelings, business managers and executives are quick to respond with a litany of complaints including bias, media arrogance, invasiveness and intrusiveness, lack of accuracy, and seeming prejudice against business. Many, like Jim, have a handy anecdote or two about the time they finally let down their guard and actually talked to a reporter, only to find themselves misquoted, facts bent beyond recognition, and headlines written seemingly before the interview was ever conducted.
Little wonder these folks stay as far from the news media as possible and tend to snarl when someone suggests an interview.
No doubt there are some lost causes out there, business managers and executives who will never get through an interview without threatening to toss office furniture in a reporter's general direction. But for most, the media anger reflex is one that can be controlled with a simple change in approach.
Oddly enough, the very characteristics that make business people good at their jobs often make them poor subjects for a news interview. Successful business people are by nature hard working, dedicated, and extremely loyal to their organizations. It's this intense personal identification with the business organization that can cause an executive's emotions to flare and cause the interview — which could have been an ideal communication opportunity — to spiral into a battle of wills.
Reporters ask questions. It's their job. Sometimes the questions seem downright nosy. Questions may sound biased and accusatory, even if the reporter doesn't intend them to. The executive being interviewed begins to feel attacked. As the questions continue, he or she ceases to draw the line that distinguishes the individual from the organization.
Simply stated, the ego gets involved. But when it becomes personal, any potential good that could have come from the interview is lost.
To overcome the media anger reflex, the executive must take the ego out of the interview. When the questions no longer sound personal, emotions remain under control and the interview takes a decidedly positive turn.
If you are a business manager or executive wrestling with the media anger reflex, don't worry. It can be conquered.
One easy, yet effective way to do this is to spend 10 minutes before a news interview making two lists. First, make a list of all the things about the news media that irritate you. This is usually the easiest part of the exercise. But try to keep your answers short so your list will be as long as possible. Don't hold back. Let it flow.
Now, while the juices are still flowing, make a second list. This time, jot down all the things about the news media that you like or appreciate.
This list may be shorter than the first, but do not allow yourself to stop until you've thought of at least three to five things about the news media that you appreciate. If you're having trouble coming up with items, just look back at your first list. You'll probably be amazed at the number of distressing things about the news media that also have a positive side. For example, if on the negative list you wrote “intrusive,” you may find yourself thinking that this characteristic also allows a reporter to dig more deeply and present the human side of a story.
Now, put the lists in your desk drawer. Go do your interview, but leave your personal animosities toward the news media behind.
When the interview is over, you may be surprised at how much better it went than you expected. For some reason, the reporter's questions didn't sound so negative. It seemed there was less bias than you anticipated or experienced in other interviews. You didn't have that feeling of being attacked by the reporter.
The difference wasn't in the reporter. You effectively examined your attitudes and opinions about the news media, parked them somewhere outside the interview room, separated your ego from your organization and turned the interview completely around.
Try keeping these points in mind when your next media “opportunity” presents itself:
* Conquering the media anger reflex doesn't mean you have to change your opinions about the news media. The way you feel is the way you feel. And often, just expressing those feelings can enable you to set them aside long enough to conduct a successful interview.
* Remind yourself before and during the interview that the questions being asked aren't personal. Unless you're a news story in your own right, you're there with the reporter to represent your company. Keep that distinction clearly in mind.
* Have confidence in the validity of your own messages. They may be better than the ones the reporter thinks he or she wants to hear. It's possible that a reporter's questions are based on misinformation or the simple lack of information. An interview is your chance to correct mistakes and fill information gaps before they see print.
* Instead of getting angry, get determined. Let your determination to get your own messages across guide you through the interview.
* Anger is always a choice. You can choose to interpret a reporter's questions as accusations or insinuations, or you can choose to hear opportunities to get your points across.
* If you're not speaking for your organization, who will? Refusing to do an interview out of anger at the media may be abandoning your only shot at shaping the story positively. Don't give that up. Use it to help your organization.
Anger directed at the media and its representatives is a common and sometimes justified response. If you experience it, you're in good company. It's how you deal with the anger that counts, and you have three choices. You can:
* Avoid the news media and abandon what may be your only shot at preventing the spread of misinformation.
* Do the interview and vent your frustrations on the reporter, which means that you and your organization will surely look bad in public.
* Recognize your media anger reflex, but park your animosities at the door, and do the interview while staying on message.
The decision is always in your hands.
Terry Hadaway and Eric Seidel operate TMT/The Media Trainers, an Atlanta training organization.