Answering the Tough Questions, Firms Turn to Advisers in Dealing with Media

by Martha Nolan

The first phone call James Palmer received when he arrived at his Anchorage office in early April was the stuff of executive nightmares. A reporter on the other end wanted to know about a 30,000-barrel oil spill that was seeping from a British Petroleum super tanker in Prince William Sound.

Palmer was not mired in another Exxon Valdez incident. He was taking part in a drill designed to train BP executives to effectively deal with the news media during a crisis.

Palmer, director of government and public affairs for British Petroleum’s BP Exploration division, and his colleagues practiced turning a tide of negative publicity into a steady stream of accurate, timely information that highlighted BP’s response to the “accident.”

“In our day-to-day dealings with the press, the values of honesty, quick response and helpfulness should spill over to our day-to-day dealings with everyone. It’s a positive thing,” said Palmer.

Companies all over the country are turning to media trainers to help them prepare for everything from a highly publicized corporate crisis to an interview on a local TV station.

The BP drill was coordinated by The Communication Counsel of America Inc., a firm based in Carrollton, Texas, that specializes in media training. Communication Counsel has seen its business increase 20 percent in the past 12 months even as more companies are jumping into the field, said company president Ronald Gossling.

“I can’t say the field is flooded, but the water level is rising at a rapid pace,” said Gossling.

Corporate necessity is fueling the boom.

While most business executives would sooner sign up for a root canal than for a press interview, they are increasingly becoming the focus of news stories.

“There are more spotlights on executives than there have ever been before,” said Jackson Bain, senior vice president and director of electronic media and communications training in the Washington office of Hill and Knowlton, a public relations firm. “And there are lessons to be learned from recent history, such as corporate leaders who have not done well on a single media interview and watched their stock drop because of it.”

The field of media training has grown so much it has splintered into specialized niches. Some media trainers focus on helping companies prepare for congressional testimony, others work with executives preparing for a hostile public meeting, and still others target pharmaceutical executives who must present new drugs to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“Media training has become a basic staple of executive development,” Gossling said. “Niche specialists are where the action is now. The field is becoming highly specialized.”

Perhaps the hottest area of specialization is crisis communication, such as Communication Counsel’s work for BP. Watershed events, such as the Three-Mile Island accident and the Exxon Valdez spill have fanned interest in crisis communication. In addition, a December 1989 study by the National Academy of Sciences called “Improving on Risk Communication” gave the technical community poor marks for communicating risks to the public.

“The knee-jerk reaction to a report like that is to hire a media trainer,” Gossling said.

But whether an executive is fielding hostile questions in an ambush interview or talking with a talk-show host, the basics of dealing with the press are much the same, media trainers say. And for anywhere from $500 to $5000 a day, they’ll be happy to teach executives the ins and outs of talking to the media.

“I’m the guide to a foreign country,” said Jonathan Schenker, senior vice president and director of media services for Ketchum Public relations in New York. “I teach the language, the nuances of that country. I help you speak in that foreign country and be understood.”

The first rule in dealing with the press is to deal with it. Ignoring it can be dangerous.

“Companies that tell the press to go away can take a lesson from the bunker mentality of the Nixon White House during Watergate,” said Bain of Hill and Knowlton. “It doesn’t work. The press is not going to go away.”

David Altman, manager of public information for Atlanta-based Georgia Power Co. agrees. “Being available to reporters is really the only way for you to provide your side of the issue,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the New York Times Syndicate, Feature Production Service.

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