Media Training: How to Be a "Spokesperson"

Schools often look to the financial aid director when the media needs a quote or background on a story about student enrollment, finances, or even student loan debt. Being seen as a local or national leader on financial aid policy and delivery can bring instant credibility to your office. 

As you review these suggestions, remember that financial aid isn't about money, debt, or tax dollars; although those are usually subtopics that prompt the interview or media in the first place. Financial aid is always about the students and their hopes and dreams. We're truly in the "people" business, and messaging should not lose sight of the human focus. The media tend to focus on dollars and cents, but you should try to drive the conversation back to the student — because that is who applies for and benefits from financial aid. 

Know Your Message

  • Develop a communication objective — what do you want the headline or key takeaway to be?
  • What is the key point you want to make? If the reader or participant takes away only one piece of information, what do you want it to be?
  • From that objective, identify one key point or home-base message that you can always circle back to.
  • Draft two or three supporting data points or examples to support your key message.
  • Take the time to run through your message points and rehearse your answers before the interview. Practice both what you want to say, your main message point, and answers to what you expect them to ask.
    • Anticipate the tough questions:
      • Draft answers to tough questions.
      • Practice answers to tough questions.

Deliver Your Message

  • Be message-driven, not question-driven.
  • It is important to remember: Every conversation or interview is an opportunity to tell your office/institution's story; to inform audiences about what it is doing and how you're working to serve your state, the country, and the world in ways that are unique to your institution's mission.
  • Every question is an opportunity to deliver your message.
  • Communicating your office/institution's message well during proactive, positive conversations is just as important as being prepared to respond to questions during the difficult and more challenging times.

Tactics & Strategies

Bridge to Key Messaging

  • This is a technique that can help you stay on message even if the reporter is steering you away from what you want to talk about or asks a potentially dangerous question. By using a transitional phrase to take back control of the interview and reintroduce your key points, bridging helps you stay on message.
  • Bridging phrases to make your own:
    • "I can't speak to that individual's experience, but I can say our focus is…"
    • "I can't speculate on a hypothetical, but what I can tell you is…"
    • "I'm not the best person to speak to that. But I can try to get more information for you."
    • "What matters most right now is…"
    • "The issue we're focused on right now is…"

Flagging

  • Flagging is a verbal cue that points out when you're saying something of particular importance. It allows you to highlight your key messages throughout the conversation and helps prevent people from drawing their own conclusions.
    • "The most important thing to remember is…"
    • "There are three main objectives: one…two… three…"
    • "I really want to emphasize…"

Addressing Factual Errors

  • If inaccurate information is presented, politely correct it then return, or bridge, to your key message or points.    
    • "I'd like to clarify a point you just mentioned…"
    • "Thanks for sharing that – I think it's important to share more information because that's not actually the case. In fact, on our campus we've seen…"  

Key Takeaways

The Dos

  • For phone interviews, have talking points in front of you.
  • Pause and think. You don't have to rush to answer a question. Pause to collect your thoughts, take a second to think, breathe and then answer. Speak slowly and clearly.
  • It's okay to say, "I don't know." If you don't know the answer to a question, say so. It's okay to say, "I don't know, let me get back to you on that question." Better to say you don't know than to give inaccurate information or speculate.

The Don'ts

  • Never lie, never guess, and never speculate.
  • Don't repeat negative comments or statements. Avoid red-flag words (i.e. scandal, fraud). If you answer a question using those words, they can sometimes be used out of context.

Your (Public) Audience

  • Open Meetings – Anything you say in an open meeting is on the record. Members of the media are often present at these meetings and even when they're not, the information presented or shared during an open meeting becomes a public record and is also noted in the meeting minutes, which are shared publicly. Keep this in mind when giving presentations, sharing updates, or answering questions at any open meetings.
  • Remember Your Audience – The reporter is a channel to the reader or viewer. Remember who you're speaking to and the message you want to convey to the audience.
  • Speak in Layman's Terms – Keep in mind, the audience hearing or reading the interview won't necessarily have the same level of expertise you do.  Avoid technical or industry jargon.

For Media Interviews

  • Avoid the temptation to fill silence.
  • Be ready for the last question, "Is there anything else you'd like to add?" Sometimes you can use the last question as an opportunity to repeat your message. Don't feel compelled to say something new. It's also okay to simply thank them for their time.

On-Camera Interviews

  • Make eye contact with the reporter. If it's a live interview and there isn't a reporter, look directly into the camera.
  • Sit with both feet on the ground and be aware of your body language.
  • Place your hands in your lap.
  • Minimize distractions by avoiding busy patterns or accessories that may make noise as you move. Make sure your devices are silenced.
  • Be yourself and be confident in what you know! You’re the subject matter expert.

Resource

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