MAY 2023
Keep it short, and mind your Achilles heel
Bill McGowan
4 min read
April 12
Bill McGowan, founder and CEO of Clarity Media Group, offers crucial advice on preparing your principal for a media interview.
Strangely enough, my first lesson in on how to effectively prepare a boss for an upcoming media interview or speech came from disgraced TV host Charlie Rose.
I was a Producer at CBS News in Washington for the overnight show Nightwatch that Rose hosted. After booking an interview guest for the show, it was my responsibility to put together what was called a ‘packet’ – a series of prep documents containing all the information needed to make Charlie look intelligent and informed. I took a lot of pride in making my packet extensive, chock full of notes from pre-interviews I had conducted, scripted questions for him to ask, and lots of background articles. That sense of pride deflated like a punctured tire one day when I caught a glimpse inside Charlie’s car. There, on the floor of the back seat, ignored and disposed of like a gum wrapper, was one of my packets. It hadn’t even been looked at.
… the more you give them, the less likely they are to look at it.
There is no bigger waste of time in executive communications than a chief of staff or chief communications officer burying a CEO in an avalanche of prep materials. What the sobering episode with Charlie taught me was that the more you give them, the less likely they are to look at it. There is little-to-no skill involved in putting every possible contingency and scrap of granular information in the prep materials. Yes, it is a great way to cover your bases and safeguard against the finger of blame getting pointed at you in that dreaded ‘why wasn’t I briefed on this?’ moment. But you’re not actually helping your CEO, and you certainly aren’t making the prospect of future interviews or speeches more appealing.
This is a conundrum I hear chiefs of staff voice frequently. They need to get their CEO ‘out there’ to raise their profile or to highlight the company narrative, but too many other demands are vying for white space in the CEO’s time-starved calendar. So, without sufficient time to properly prep, the chief of staff is faced with only one option: forego the media opportunity. That’s a big mistake, because if you don’t take the lead in framing your company’s narrative, others are sure to fill that void, possibly in a way that’s at odds with how you want it positioned.

The dangers of insufficient preparation

Going ahead with the media opportunity without sufficient prep is also not an option. No CEO reinforces that theory more than Brad Irwin, the former North American CEO of Cadbury.
Back in 2013, Irwin accepted an invitation to appear on CNBC’s Squawk Box to discuss the impact that rising commodity prices were having in the confectionery industry. There was just one problem. When Cadbury’s legal department heard about the interview, they instructed Irwin not to say anything about climbing cocoa prices and other commodities. At that point, the chief of staff should have pulled the plug on the interview, even if it ruffled a few feathers with CNBC producers. But the decision was made to go ahead anyway and just try to steer the conversation away from the topic of commodities. Unfortunately for Cadbury, Irwin steered the conversation right off a cliff. Each time the anchors asked him for his reaction to rising commodities, he tried to pivot and say that the company was just focused on having great innovation in bringing new products to market. The clumsy bridging attempt resulted in Irwin getting eviscerated by Joe Kernen, who openly mocked him for stonewalling on a simple question they put to him repeatedly.
That leaves only one sound course of action: accept the media invitation and prepare in a thorough yet efficient way. This means scrapping the traditional ‘suggested Q&A’ document, which is often 65–70 questions long and contains verbatim answers to every question. It doesn’t work as an effective preparatory tool because in the middle of a live Q&A, no executive is going to be able to pair a question they hear with the corresponding sample question that was possibly buried on page six of the suggested Q&A document. The chances that your CEO is going to have that degree of granular recall is somewhere between slim and none.

Know the likely topics of conversation

A better approach is to agree on between six and eight topics of conversation that are likely to come up in the interview. You can get a fairly accurate read on what those will be by having the chief of staff initiate a pre-interview call with the reporter or producer in advance. While most members of the media consider it taboo to share their questions in advance, the question they probably will answer is, ‘my CEO is looking forward to the interview next week; would you like to give me a sense of what you’d like him/her to be prepared talk about?’ You make it sound like the inquiry is done for the benefit of the interviewer, but what you’re seeking are the handful of topics that will be the focus of the conversation.
Think of your new streamlined prep document as GPS directions for how they are to navigate through each topic.
Once you have the topics, set aside 45 minutes on your CEO’s calendar and audio record a meeting in which you ask them to articulate the point they’d like to make on each topic. Then ask them for their preferred way of illustrating that point. Is there a story they can tell, an example they can share or perhaps a data point that lends engaging and credible support to their point? Then cherry-pick the best material and lightly add crucial company messaging that may have been overlooked. Keep the written content for each topic to no more than fifty words. What you’re providing is not a fully written script to memorise; instead, think of your new streamlined prep document as GPS directions for how they are to navigate through each topic. The goal is for them to faithfully stick to the game plan but have enough conversational leeway to have it feel as though it is their content.

The ‘doomsday question’

The one topic that must be considered in every media prep is the ‘doomsday question’. Every company has some Achilles Heel subject that they don’t want to talk about, but that they will almost certainly be pressed on. For this, overload on the content, with not just one way of establishing your point, but two other synonymous ways of making the same point that are phrased differently to avoid sounding like you’re clinging to just one response. You may very well be asked about this issue repeatedly, so the more versions of the same point, the better. When all the content is set, format it on to one page, like the big, laminated card that NFL head coaches have that contains every play they could possibly call. Give that to your CEO a couple of days before the interview and arrange to spend 30 minutes in role-play rehearsal so they can get familiar with how the answers flow. The following day, in the car heading to the interview, role play again in the back seat to get your CEO warmed up. After the interview, sit down together and watch the recording to provide constructive feedback on how well they executed on the game plan.
If a gifted communicator like Barack Obama can’t get away with skipping the prep, what makes any of us think we can?
If your CEO remains resistant to dedicating time to even this streamlined approach, tell them the story of what happened to Barack Obama when he shortchanged his prep and rehearsal time in advance of his first presidential debate with Mitt Romney in 2012. Obama assured his concerned senior strategist David Axelrod that he was a game-day player, that he would show up at game time. He didn’t. That night, Obama underperformed, and by most analysts’ assessments, got trounced, casting new doubt about his chances for reelection. If a gifted communicator like Barack Obama can’t get away with skipping the prep, what makes any of us think we can? As the chief of staff, it is your job to sell this new form of prep and get by-in from your chief executive. In the twenty-plus years I have been coaching CEOs to handle Q&A, it is by far the most efficient and effective method out there.
Author Bio
Bill McGowan
Founder and CEO of Clarity Media Group
Bill McGowan, founder and CEO of Clarity Media Group, is a two-time Emmy Award-winning journalist who has produced and reported for ABC News 20/20, CBS News 48 Hours, Dow Jones Television and MSNBC.
In front of the camera, he has anchored hundreds of hours of news and information programming and has conducted thousands of interviews with newsmakers, CEOs, celebrities, doctors, book authors, attorneys, and professional athletes. Bill now uses that experience to coach clients on how to exude more confidence and command on television and in front of an audience. Those he has trained include Eli Manning, Sheryl Sandberg, Jack Welch, Mary J. Blige, Karlie Kloss, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the CEOs of Facebook, Airbnb, Snapchat, Coach, Spotify, Calvin Klein, Lyft, Sesame Workshop, Whole Foods, etc.