Media Manager to VCs and CEOs: Expose Yourselves

In the midst of a deepening financial crisis, media training may not be top of mind for most VCs and CEOs, but Vickie Jenkins, a media maven who has worked with dozens of companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, says it’s more important than ever to know what you’re going to say before you say it.

I just spoke with Jenkins, who spent 20 years as a radio morning news reporter, anchor and director in San Francisco before setting up her company, Performance Power Media Coaching, in 1999. Among other things, I asked her where CEOs tend to need the most help, how they can justify hiring her in today’s climate and what she charges.

I’m sure many people view media training as an unnecessary luxury at a time like this. How do you convince them otherwise?

Because headlines are being made with or without you. Either you jump into the public debate or you don’t. That information hole has to be filled every day; it’s a giant monster that has to be fed constantly, and people are always looking for that interesting story, that other point of view, that someone who is willing to tackle something big and talk about it.

No one wants to be lunch for the reading or viewing public, though. And with so much bad news out there, our readers might be thinking: “Do I really want to expose myself?”

This is what I teach: That you want to jump into that debate in both good times and bad, and that you can always find good news within your company. A lot of times, you’re just too close to it and don’t see it.

But you can’t deliver your good news, then abruptly hang up on a reporter.

That’s why when I work with a client, I also help them to work with reporters by acting like one. I ask the tough questions, so we can drill down to the real story of what’s happening with their company and why it makes a difference to its industry and the population at large.

You can’t spin reality, though, not when you’re talking with a good reporter. What if bad news comes up? What do you teach your clients to do?

I worked with a Valley company and on a follow-up session, I went in and the CEO and COO told me they didn’t make their quarterly numbers and didn’t know what to do about an upcoming analyst call. I said, “You’re going to say that you didn’t meet your quarterly numbers, and explain why.”

Reporters don’t always expect good news, but they do want to know that you’ve drilled down to the why and that you’re being honest about what that is. If you come out and immediately respond and list what actions you’re going to take, problems dissolve in the media much faster. Conversely, hiding can potentially create a huge nightmare for a company, as we’ve all seen many times.

I understand that. So, apparently, does Mark Zuckerberg, who’s become much quicker to respond to flare-ups over Facebook. But does someone need to hire you to understand that lesson?

You can’t simply go out and say, “here’s what happened.” You have to be prepared for very tough questions. And media training is a physical practice, not an intellectual one. If you want to be a runner, you don’t sit and read a book. You go and train every day and you practice.

Physical practice: are we talking about someone staring into a mirror, holding a fake press conference? I think we have a reader named Mike who does that.

No, I’m saying you have to go through the process of vetting out the issues surrounding the particular problem. I also mean you need to get grounded and focused. That means clearing your desk, shutting down your computer, and focusing on the task at hand. When you’re talking to the media, you can’t be doing five things at once.

I’m sure it’s very helpful, your playing the role of reporter in your sessions with clients. But what happens the next time, when you’re not there to prepare them for what a reporter might ask?

That’s the psychological shift that I teach. I don’t do their thinking for them; I get them to think like a reporter, so they understand what a particular audience needs and what message they need to deliver.

I’m curious: In working with your clients, do you suggest they meet with reporters in person or over the phone?

I tell them that the telephone is a microphone, and that when you pick up that phone, the microphone is hot, and you’re on until the end of that call, so you’d better be sure that everything about that call is clear: your voice, the audio, and especially your message.

Who hires you, typically? The executive? Investors?

Typically, it’s the marketing and communications team or a company’s external PR firm, because I can look at the situation without the same vested interest. Since I don’t work full-time for the company, I don’t have to couch my comments. I can say to someone: “that is never going to sell.”

I can see that being a big benefit. At that same time, you’re probably not dealing with terribly shy people, or people who are unaccustomed to communicating their vision with others. Where do they usually need the most work?

It’s that commander mode that can often be the problem. You’re used to running a company and representing it to those who report to you, but that’s a very different talent versus being the best spokesperson for your company.

You see, if your opinion is that you’re always the commander in a situation, you can’t have a one-on-one conversation with someone in the media without getting defensive that that someone is questioning something about you and your company.

I often see the opposite problem, too, where my clients think conversations with reporters serve solely as target practice on them. It’s an equally extremist, and damaging, point of view. It’s never the case that you have no control, or all the control.

What if someone doesn’t really want to be trained, but their staff thinks it’s necessary?

You can’t train someone who doesn’t want to be trained. That, I don’t do. Often it means me sitting down with a potential client ahead of time, so they get a sense of who I am and that I know what I’m doing and that I care about their advancement. But there must be buy-in.

And if they decide to move forward, what do your sessions look like?

I custom-design each session, but they’re typically day-long training sessions, on-site at the client’s office. I will train groups, too, but not more than three people in a day because I need to have a lot of face time with each person.

As for what’s involved, I videotape, of course. I conduct phone interviews, playing the role of different reporters, and we record them and play them back so the CEO can hear what’s going on and what’s working and what’s not. The sessions throughout the day are about practicing, answering questions, and allowing the executives to get more comfortable with their own process, as well as to better understand the process of the reporter, depending on the outlet. For example, I want them to know how to talk comfortably, and appropriately, when speaking with a trade publication versus an all-news radio station versus a consumer blog.

And may I ask what you charge?

It depends on how much time the executive or executives are able to spend with me, but it’s typically $2,000 to $4,000 for a day.

Thanks, Vickie.