I was media training a client the other day. This senior executive had no prior experience conducting media interviews. So, we spent a lot of time discussing 'the basics,’ including how journalists sometimes take meaty phrases or sound bytes that an interviewee might provide, only to use them in the absolute wrong context or another unintended part of a story.
This is either done because the reporter simply ‘screwed up’ and amateurishly forgot where the sound byte should have been used. Or, as is often the case with broadcast media, it happens because that reporter has to find a way to prove his or her story. I would say the latter point is all about a reporter having a preconceived agenda. But, in either case, they both illustrate a real degree of unprofessionalism.
The client asked me what's the best way to stop this from happening. Unfortunately, I told him there isn't a foolproof method. But, if the interviewee is focused on his/her core messages and doesn't get led astray to discuss sensationalistic or non-relevant topics, he/she will have a better chance of controlling the outcome of the story.
CNN really disappointed me on Tuesday morning with its coverage of the AIG bonus mess. I used this case in point to show the client how even one of the more prestigious national networks can be guilty of committing this shameful act. And, in this case, there was nothing anyone could do to prevent it. The story focused on (what else) how and why AIG would have the gall to dole out $165 million in bonuses. Naturally, CNN was attempting to work viewers up into a tizzy through this segment.
That part didn't actually bother me. (I'm used to the media taking the role of consumer activist now.) What did upset me is how the piece started off. The anchor said that Fed Chair Ben Bernanke is steaming hot about AIG's mishandling of this entire affair. Then CNN showed a clip that was taken two days before during a 60 Minutes interview with Bernanke. In the clip, he openly discusses his anger with AIG for causing its traumatic mess (that's it). With this dramatic effect made, CNN then moves on to report further on the public and political outrage to these bonuses. The piece ends with the anchor asking the question as to whether the administration will find a way to "get the money back."
Here's the rub: Ben Bernanke was interviewed on 60 Minutes solely about the government’s continued involvement in helping this behemoth to survive. His quote (and that clip) about how he is mad at AIG had absolutely nothing to do with the bonus issue. It had everything to do with AIG's responsibility in creating this mess and the government needing to bail out the near bankrupt insurer. It couldn't have been about the bonus issue at hand because the interview with Bernanke was conducted before this news ever went public.
Yet conveniently, some unprofessional producer at CNN decided to use this Bernanke segment his/her way to make this story as controversial and one sided as possible. And, do you know what? It worked. I'm sure many in the public are that much more outraged because they believe the Fed chairman is mad as hell at AIG on this very issue. It's really shameful because we don't even know if Bernanke is actually mad at AIG senior management about the bonus issue. And, through irresponsible reporting, CNN has undoubtedly influenced countless more people with erroneous proof points.
The only lesson I can take away from this is that if your organization is in the heat of a crisis, understand that there are no holds (or ethical rules in this case) barred as far as the media are concerned. PR professionals and their senior executives need to understand that some media will do whatever it takes to build that perfect story. And thus, one needs to approach any media relations strategy with a real understanding that even if your organization has valid points to get across, it might not entirely matter with those journalists.