Stanford GSB with Hoover Tower in the distance. Photo courtesy Stanford University

Dealing with the media: Here’s the advice I gave future CEOs at Stanford’s business school

As part of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University, each fellow is given the opportunity to sit in on classes across the Stanford campus. I’ve had the pleasure of attending Managing Growing Enterprises each week in the Graduate School of Business.

The class is led by JetBlue chairman Joel C. Peterson — and each week a business leader come in to help students dissect past challenges they’ve faced in the business world.

Recently Joel asked colleague Zeba Khan and me to give “crash course media training” to the students. Zeba had a scheduling conflict, so I flew solo. Joel reminded me that these bright folks are future CEOs, business owners and board members.

Photo courtesy Kara Jackson

“So I need to make this count,” I thought to myself.

I’ve spoken to many groups over the years — but never one that took such copious notes. Here’s the advice I doled out in my allotted few minutes:

  • Like most things in life: Make friends or make enemies. Doing the right thing is a central tenet of doing business for most — and it should apply to the media.
  • The media isn’t usually your enemy. They just want to tell good stories and bring information to light.
  • Cultivate a relationship before something goes wrong. This can be hard, because reporters, like most folks, are busy. But if you can provide value to them before something goes sideways, you are more likely to get a fair shake at crunch time.
  • Most reporters understand that you won’t always be able to comment or fully illustrate a situation. But if you are up front with them, tell them what you can, and don’t stonewall them — they will generally respect you and that plays to your favor.
  • Be mindful that most media deadlines are now. If you can’t help right away, loop in the appropriate person, a VP, your PR team etc.
  • Don’t be afraid of being interviewed. Be respectful.
  • Prepare in advance for the tough questions you think you might face. Practicing before the moment you are on camera or on the record will make your answer stronger at crunch time.
  • You are ALWAYS on the record unless you specifically say the words “This is off the record” before you make a statement or comment.
  • Always assume you are being recorded — especially in phone conversations.
  • The term “on background” means a reporter can use information you give them but can’t quote you directly. This could be attributed “a senior company official” etc.
  • If being interviewed on camera, don’t look directly into the lens (unless you are instructed to — i.e. for a remote interview). Look at your interviewer and maintain eye contact with them. If you look nervous it will hurt your credibility. If you don’t usually wear makeup, you may want to — regardless of gender. StudioFix by MAC is a popular option.
  • Simplify! Focus 2 to 3 key points.
  • Speak concisely and like a real person — avoid jargon at all costs. If you are hard to understand, you can sound elitist. Don’t talk down either — find that key middle ground.
  • Get media training. It’s valuable and will help. Practice!
  • And most importantly — never mislead or lie. It will always make the situation worse.

Don Day is a 2018 Stanford John S. Knight Fellow. He has twenty years experience in media — leading teams, producing award-winning journalism and innovating in the digital journalism space. He currently is the publisher of BoiseDev.com.