What can CEOs learn from Biden's first press conference? - Copper State of Mind

Episode 2

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Published on:

30th Mar 2021

What can CEOs learn from Biden's first press conference?

Whether you are President of the United States or the president of a small business, managing media relations and fielding questions from journalists requires careful planning, preparation, and practice. There are tried and true communication tips and techniques everyone can use whether you are being interviewed by the media, addressing your investors, or communicating internally with your employees. In this episode, Abbie Fink and Adrian McIntyre share media training strategies and examples to help you prepare to meet the press.

Additional Resources

Copper State of Mind is a project of HMA Public Relations, a full-service public relations and marketing communications firm in Phoenix. Need some assistance with your interviews or presentations? HMA offers customized media training sessions designed to provide you with the expertise and know-how to share your organization’s key messages across a variety of media platforms. 

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B online radio station and podcast studio in Phoenix.

Transcript
Adrian McIntyre:

Welcome to Copper State of Mind. I'm Adrian McIntyre. Preparing for interviews is challenging. And when all eyes in the nation and the world are on you, it's even more challenging. The President of the United States, Joe Biden, gave his first press conference as president on Thursday, March 25. Abbie Fink and I are here to talk about that, and to talk about what we can learn -- what folks who lead companies and organizations can learn -- from this performance and from some of the challenges they face. Abbie, how are you?

Abbie Fink:

I'm doing good, yourself?

Adrian McIntyre:

Doing really well. This is a world that you live and play and work in all the time. You're often working with clients, executives, spokespeople, folks who represent a variety of different companies, organizations, government agencies, and so forth. And they're often in situations where they need to address the media. There's been a lot of talk about Biden's first press conference, but you want to take a different approach to discussing it here on the show. What's on your mind? And how do you want to get into this?

Abbie Fink:

Thanks, and yes. We can certainly debate the information that was shared during the news conference. But for me, there were some really valuable lessons to be learned if YOU are in the role of communicating a message to a small group of individuals, a large roomful of investors, journalists, or others that are interested. I mean, public speaking is not comfortable. Most people would would rather do anything but address an audience. But if you are responsible for that role within your organization, or if it's your company, there are going to be times when you have to address the audience. And so, you know, one of the things that was really quite interesting, as I was watching the news conference was, he's standing at a podium, and it's clear that he has notes in front of him. And my guess is the notes were topics of conversation -- those things that they anticipated he would be asked by the members of the press corps -- and the message points that he wanted to make sure he can brought across. Ideally, I suspect, there was also a seating chart, right, to know who was in the audience, the name of the individual, the media outlet that they represented, and where in the room they were, so that he could properly address and respond to the questions. Exactly what we would recommend to anyone that's getting prepared for a news conference or a presentation. We sit down with our corporate clients, with the organizations we represent, and we talk about what messages do we want to share today? What are the key points that we want to get across, and we work with them on who's going to be in the audience. This is Reporter A, they come from this media outlet, they've covered these topics in the past, this is what they know about what we're talking about. This is what we want to share with them. This is why they're there in the first place. And so although it may have appeared that Biden wasn't prepared, in my view, it was just the opposite. He was completely prepared, in that he had all of this information in front of him. This is how we would advise you get ready if you have to do a media interview.

Adrian McIntyre:

It's worth saying that what one sees has a lot to do with one's specific knowledge of what's happening. And unfortunately, we live in a time where political journalism has become something of a bloodsport. There's a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking and commentary about what was said and not said, and how it was said, and who said it. And that's all fine. That's perfectly fine. People are welcome to embrace that kind of entertainment or anger or whatever it is, as it plays out for them. But for professionals who work in the field of media relations and communication, we see different things when we look at this situation. We're not here to take a point of view as to whether it was a good performance or bad performance, etc. There are some interesting observations we can make. What did you think of the questions? Again, not the substance of the questions, but the style, the way in which the press engaged with the chief executive of this very large organization, the United States of America. Is that something typical of what you would see in a corporate or nonprofit setting?

Abbie Fink:

Well, what was interesting, of course, is you know, the presidential press conferences is an ever evolving situation, right? And if you think back before television, presidents were addressing the nation, and they were having press conferences. It was just we couldn't see it happening -- it was done via radio or in print -- so we didn't get to see it happen. As it's evolved and television cameras became more commonplace, we get more of the interplay with the audience. And the press corps, who in this particular case had not had access to the president for three and a half plus years. There was probably some nerves on their end as well to have the opportunity to have been in the room. But much like the person that's being asked the questions has to be prepared, so do the journalists, right? And good journalists that are assigned to cover a corporation, an organization, a CEO, an event, do their research. And they go into it with questions that they want to ask and a viewpoint they're trying to get information from, and lead the questions or lead the responses so that they get the information that they're looking for. So generally speaking, the overall demeanor in the room was positive as in collegial, good questions, good answers back the back and forth. There are always going to be questions that are perceived, and this happens in a corporate environment as well that are a little more, we call them a softball question, you know, something you just toss out, get everybody comfortable with the with the dialogue, and then you dig in a little bit deeper. So I commend any press corps that is being asked to go into a situation and talk to and address the leader of an organization -- with their peers also in the room, right, so there's a little bit of that going on. But both sides of that dialogue, have to be prepared for the conversation. And so if you are going to be addressing the media or your other target populations on a regular basis, the more you do it, the better you get, the more comfortable you are at at doing that. You understand the role that you play and why you are being sought out for your information. I mean, there's some of that. We bring information to the table. And the more opportunities you have to do that, the better you become. So we always talk about, let's practice these interviews. What do we anticipate are going to be the questions and how do we make sure we as in the counselor to the organization, how do we make sure our spokespeople put their best foot forward, have as much information as they can possibly have in order to do this, and do it well and represent the organization well. And each interview that we conduct, at the conclusion of an interview, we do a recap. The microphones are down, we've said thank you to everybody for coming. And then we do a little bit of an analysis. What did we say? Could we have done it better? What other points do we want to emphasize the next time we have this opportunity? And what kind of things can we learn from that experience to make the next time a little bit better. And the next time after that.

Adrian McIntyre:

There's a special skill set involved in juggling one's thoughts, and trying to keep one's mouth pointed in the right direction as you're doing it. It's certainly something that I have experienced in the past. As a press officer, as a spokesperson, who was doing a lot of media interviews around high profile international events. You get asked questions that, as much as you had prepared for the interview, you know the things you don't want to talk about in many cases, and you're trying to steer the conversation onto the messages that are important, that you've agreed with the organization are your top talking points. But sometimes things come out of left field and you have to deal with them right there on the spot. And you can't do it by being rude or refusing to answer. You can't play the "no comment" card if you're in the hot seat like that. You have to steer the question from the answer somebody was looking for -- that you may not want to give or that you may not be able to give, you may not know -- you have to steer it to something that is a contribution and does forward the conversation.

Abbie Fink:

The technique is called bridging. It's acknowledging that the question has been asked, and bridging to a topic that you would prefer to respond. "So Adrian, that's a fantastic question. And I think one that deserves an answer, but let me tell you about ..." and then you move right back to the things that you wanted to be talking about. There's also nothing wrong in an interview with admitting that you do not have the answer or admitting that it is an it is an answer that I am not comfortable in sharing at this time. And the truth is, we all we all know what it feels like to be asked a question we don't have an answer to or a question we would prefer not to answer, whether we're doing it on an interview situation, or we're just chatting with some friends. There's some things we just don't want to talk about. But how we respond to that and then truthfully, what we do after the fact to close that loop. So if a question is asked, and you prefer not to answer the question, you can say "Adrian, I'm really sorry. But that's a question I'm comfortable answering at this time. But I will get back to you with something very specific when we're ready to do that." And hopefully you walk away with that as saying, okay, I didn't get my answer, but I got an answer that I can live with. If you don't know an answer, you certainly don't want to try to make one up on the fly. And so, "you know what? It's fantastic question. I really don't know the answer right now." And what I guarantee you is happening, if that in that situation, is your PR person is in the back of the room going, "Oh, goodness, write this down, we've got to get an answer quick. Why didn't we remember this one." And we'll make sure we get it out to that reporter, right? You know, their job is to get the information and our job is to help them get it. And so there's plenty of ways to be helpful and provide information and stay on track and stay on point. And if we go back to President Biden, what will evolve for him over the next four years, or three and a half years now, whatever it is, he will develop a relationship and he will develop the rhythm. And the reporters will recognize what that is. And those those news conferences will have a different feel as they go on. And they'll be very topical, more likely. This one was kind of all over the place, because it was his first one. But he will address certain topics at certain times. He has a fantastic communications team that are addressing the country on a regular basis and are walking into that press room and hosting that that activity on a regular basis. And that happens in business as well. The CEO of an organization is asked to speak on very specific topics for very specific reasons. But there are a whole host of other individuals, typically, that have part of their responsibilities as addressing the media and responding to media inquiries. So it evolves. And there are reasons for bringing the CEO to the forefront, and there are reasons when others on the team should be speaking. And we will watch that evolve there at the national level with the President and his press team as we watch it happen with other major organizations. Or, you know, local small businesses as well will find themselves sometimes having to address the media. And the advice and the techniques and the practice and the training are all the same. Whether you are the President of the United States, or you are the president of a small business here in Arizona, the same rules apply.

Adrian McIntyre:

The bridging technique that you mentioned, we should probably do a deep dive on this on the show, because it's so valuable. And really in all areas of life. It's not only a way of avoiding things that you don't want to address. It's a way of getting from any question that you're asked to something you really want to talk about. And it's useful in interviews. It's useful in job interviews. I used to coach students who were applying for jobs or graduate school on how to use the bridging technique in in their interviews, or even in their oral exams in grad school. Because you have a panel who is going to ask you some questions. And some of them you don't know the answer to but you can't say I don't know, in some of those cases. So you need to say, "Well, that's certainly a very important area of research. It's not the one that I've most focused on. But it does lead us to ask some questions, such as ..." and then you start asking yourself some questions that you're now going to answer with your own answers. Things like that are important. I remember when I was a spokesperson for Oxfam, the big international relief agency. We were working in Darfur in the very early days ... 2004, 2005. I showed up for a BBC radio interview, a very energetic, even combative, we would say by our interview standards, that's just the style. And I'm in the studio in London, the music fades out. The guy comes on, he says, "With us now is Adrian McIntyre with Oxfam. Tell us, Adrian McIntyre, is Darfur a genocide?" Now this the last question Oxfam wants to be put on the spot for answering, because we're trying to work in Sudan, where the government is the one that's being accused of genocide, and the government's also the one giving us the right to be there, working in refugee camps and trying to save lives on a daily basis. So I can't answer this question, regardless of what I think. I have to say something like, "Well, that's certainly the question on everybody's mind. And I'm sure the best legal scholars and international affairs experts are debating that today. And that's just not what we do. What we do is help people living in these very difficult circumstances, try to survive when they need everything just to make it through till tomorrow." And I've now taken the conversation back on to something that Oxfam wants to talk about, which is clean water, sanitation, public health, you know, helping people in these extreme circumstances make it to tomorrow. So we got to dance with it.

Abbie Fink:

Sure. And there's a lot of prep work that goes on both sides of the microphone when an interview is about to take place. You also knew going into it, the type of interviewer the individual was and and likely what typical programs sound like with him or her whatever it was. So, you do your research and your homework before you go in. And you also know, in that circumstance, that these are the off-limit questions, these are the things I am not authorized to speak about. And here are my answers when those questions get asked. And I don't think there's, you know, it creates a conversation, and it keeps the conversation flowing and offline, you can talk to that reporter. And remember, there's no such thing as off the record. So even if it's not recording, everything you're saying is still considered usable, but you can talk through, you know, how I can help you get that information, or where else I can point you to, where someone can talk about those types of things. And here's, for me, what it comes down to: there is a role to play, the media has a job to do, that's to bring forth information. They are the protector of our first amendment rights, and they have the right to know and how to access information. And they have an incredibly difficult job made even more difficult by circumstances that we are in today. And those of us in the public relations role or the media relations role, we have a job to do as well, which is to get our information out into the community. And so we each need each other. But we have very different objectives in terms of how we're doing it. But I don't do my job well if I don't have good relationships with the media, and they don't do their job well, if they don't have relationships with people like myself and the others that do the work that we do. So when you can go into that situation with that in mind, I think you become a better spokesperson, because you realize you have the information. You are the only one that has that information. And the reporters want what you have to say. And so we can figure out how to work together in order to get that out. And a good ethical journalist understands that there are limitations to what that spokesperson is going to be able to say. They have to ask the question, that's their job. Our job is not necessarily to answer every question that we get asked. But it is to provide as much information as we can. And when we can't, we say that in a way that protects the relationship, protects the brand that we are responsible for, and keeps the door open for further conversations. And truthfully, when it all comes down to it, that's what we're focused on. I need to go back to that reporter again. If that reporter covers my industry, I'm gonna have to work with them again. And so I need these relationships to be a relationship. There needs to be give and take, there needs to be a good respect and understanding of what we each do in this dance. And together, we'll come out with a good piece of quality journalism that we are represented in, and where the information we wanted to share has gotten out in the way we needed to.

Adrian McIntyre:

There are probably very few press events here in Arizona that have the stakes of a national press conference featuring the President of the United States. But there are situations where the stakes are high. And the person at the front of the room at the microphone is being asked challenging questions, whether they are the CEO of a large company, or whether they're a small business owner, a nonprofit leader, a government representative. What are some of the takeaways from this example of President Biden's first press conference? What are some of the things we want to leave people with? You've mentioned some of them: preparation, media training, and so on. But what are some of the highlights there? What should Arizona leaders be thinking about in order to learn from this and to better their own performance?

Abbie Fink:

Sure, and let's look at it in the larger context, whether you're addressing the media as your target audience or you're addressing your employees or you're addressing investors, whatever that would mean. Clearly, preparation is going to be key to your success. What are the messages you want to get across? Be sure that you know them. And there is no shame in having notes, when you're doing these conversations, to look back on to make sure you keep on target. Know who you're talking to. Have a little bit of information about the audience you're speaking to, so that you address them in a way that makes the most sense. And probably the bottom line for me is to be open, honest and transparent. There is no good that comes from not sharing what you can share. And we will often tell people, it's okay not to know the answer -- as long as you tell people you don't know the answer, and don't try to make it up on the spot. So open, honest, transparent. Be prepared and know who you're speaking with. And I think the idea then, of knowing that you have the information, and you are the one to know it, to share it, should level the playing field a little bit, make you a little more comfortable in that situation. And recognizing the important role that both the communicator -- the spokesperson -- and the journalist or the audience you're speaking to, as a synergistic relationship. Both of us need both sides of that.

Adrian McIntyre:

Abbie Fink is vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations, the oldest continuously operating PR agency in the state of Arizona. If you know a business leader, a communications director, or a marketing director who would benefit from this conversation, please share the episode with them and subscribe to Copper State of Mind. It's our new podcast, and we're speaking directly to folks who could use these insights to help guide their own organizations. We look forward to seeing you again for our next episode. Abbie, thanks so much for sharing your insights with us.

Abbie Fink:

It was a pleasure.

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About the Podcast

Copper State of Mind
Public relations tips and strategies for communicating effectively in today’s business climate from Abbie Fink of HMA Public Relations, Arizona’s longest-tenured PR agency.
Copper State of Mind is a podcast for Arizona executives and directors of marketing and communications who want to increase the effectiveness of their public relations and marketing campaigns.

From messaging and media relations to content strategy and crisis management, the dollars your organization spends on integrated marketing communications are an investment that helps boost your brand, break through the noise, and drive business results.

Join Abbie Fink, Vice President/General Manager of HMA Public Relations, and Dr. Adrian McIntyre, cultural anthropologist and storytelling consultant, as they explore today’s communications challenges and share insights, stories, and strategies to help your message reach its target audience.

Copper State of Mind is a project of HMA Public Relations, a full-service public relations and marketing communications agency in Phoenix and the oldest continuously operating PR firm in Arizona. With more than 40 years of experience helping clients tell their stories, HMA Public Relations is committed to your success. Learn more at https://hmapr.com

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B online radio station and podcast studio in Phoenix, AZ. Learn more at https://phx.fm

About your hosts

Abbie S. Fink

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Abbie S. Fink is Vice President/General Manager of HMA Public Relations, the oldest continuously operating PR firm in Arizona. Her marketing communications background includes skills in media relations, digital communications, social media strategies, special event management, community relations, issues management, and marketing promotions for both the private and public sectors, including such industries as healthcare, financial services, professional services, government affairs and tribal affairs, as well as not-for-profit organizations. Abbie is often invited to present to a wide variety of business and civic organizations on such topics as media relations, social media and digital communications strategies, crisis communications, and special events management.

Adrian McIntyre, PhD

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Dr. Adrian McIntyre is a social scientist, storytelling strategist, and internationally recognized authority on effective communication. His on-air experience began in 1978 at the age of five as a co-host of "The Happy Day Express," the longest-running children's radio program in California history. Adrian earned his PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a Fulbright scholar and National Science Foundation research fellow. He spent nearly a decade in the Middle East and Africa as a researcher, journalist, and media spokesperson for two of the largest humanitarian relief agencies in the world. Today he advises and trains entrepreneurs, executives, and corporate teams on high-performance communication, the power of storytelling, and how to leverage digital media to build a personal leadership brand.