No one would purposely drop their CEO or other top leader in the middle of the ocean without a life jacket. Right? Yet, you continually see unprepared leaders go on camera for important news media interviews. This just happened to former Baylor University Chancellor, Ken Starr, during an interview with a local Waco, Texas news reporter about the University’s scandal involving rape allegations by multiple female students. Starr was terminated from his role as Baylor president and then resigned his post as chancellor due to accusations that the school discouraged the reporting of sexual assaults, especially those against football players. Starr has been a high profile leader most of his career – he was the famous independent counsel in the 1990’s during the Monica Lewinsky scandal that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
“Leaders need ongoing media coaching to
keep their skills fresh and ready to go.
The old saying is true –
“If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Starr’s interview results were disastrous – his own media coach had to stop the interview in front of rolling cameras to coach him some more! Yikes! This proves that last minute media and crisis coaching doesn’t always work during the heat of a crisis. Media interviews require a special set of skills to succeed and leaders need ongoing media coaching to keep their skills fresh and ready to go. The old saying is true — “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
What if a leader is in the middle of an interview and something goes terribly wrong? What if he looks like a deer caught in headlights like Starr did during his interview? Here are some things you can learn from Starr’s media train wreck:
1. Be Honest!
It is fine to have a professional coach with you during the interview, but don’t lie about their professional identity. Just be honest and tell reporters they are part of your communications consulting group. Starr introduced his coach as a family friend, so the reporters were confused and surprised when the “family friend” started asking them not to use certain comments made by Starr – and then told Starr to leave the room for a minute when she wasn’t pleased with his answers.
2. Never Ask…
Never ask a reporter to promise not to use a certain portion of the interview – that backfires ninety-nine percent of the time! You can guarantee that portion of the interview will be included in their report and will most likely go viral. If they truly misspeak, correct that later. Our video library is full of these types of misguided interviews, and one of the most colorful examples happened years ago when a former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney thought she could order a reporter to not use some of her off-the-cuff comments.
3. Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
If a leader messes up during an interview, let sleeping dogs lie – as they say – while the cameras are rolling. When an interview is stopped and a leader is escorted out of the room for corrective coaching, you are guaranteeing more media and public attention! The reporter asked Starr if he had received an email from a former Baylor University student telling him she had been raped while attending the school. Her email subject line read, “I was raped at Baylor”. Starr responded, “I honestly may have. I’m not denying that I saw it.” That’s when his coach ordered him to leave the room with her. While Starr’s answer was terrible on many levels, yanking him out of the room only made things worse. First of all, he should have had a better answer and avoided this situation altogether. Secondly, any corrections should have been made after the interview, either in a one-on-one conversation with the reporter or with an immediate written correction – but not while cameras are rolling. That’s like throwing gasoline on a fire.
4. Avoid Bad “B” Movie Scripts
Leaders should never ask their coach how they are doing during an interview! Of course, when Starr returned to the room, the reporter asked him the same question as the one that caused his coach to escort him out of the room – and this time he denied any recollection of receiving the email from the former Baylor student saying she had been raped at the school. Then, Starr asked his coach, “Is that OK?” She had to tell him to look at the reporter and not at her! It was like a really bad B movie script, but true.
5. Stay Home!
Last, but certainly not least – never let a leader go on camera unless they are properly prepared. Starr should have either been better prepared, or should have simply declined the interview. You cannot undo the damage of a bad news media interview.
“Just as you cannot go snow skiing one time
and expect to be an expert skier, leaders
cannot go through media coaching once every
two years and expect to have solid results with
the news media.”
Just as you cannot go snow skiing one time and expect to be an expert skier, leaders cannot go through media training or coaching once every two years and expect to have solid results with the news media. Journalists greatly influence public perceptions, and once the damage is done it takes years to rebuild credibility. BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward, caused immense damage to his company’s reputation when he told reporters, “I’d like my life back,” in the wake of the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that claimed eleven lives and caused vast environmental damage. Unfortunately, those sort of inappropriate comments live on forever on the Internet.
Having worked for many corporations over the years, we know firsthand that some leaders resist investing in their media and communication skills. Yet, those who do are a great asset to their organization and can make all the difference with emotions are high and media attention is intense.