Media Training’s No.1 Rule

It’s the oldest and most golden rule in the media training handbook: if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Yes, just like other parts of business and life, you need to face reality: if you don’t want to find yourself on the front page of the Sunday Times, moderate your behaviour accordingly. If you can’t or won’t, then you have to be prepared to deal with the consequences.

For example, have you noticed how many God-fearing, self-righteous, conservative American politicians are turning out to be gropers, sex pests and even downright child molesters and rapists? Quite a few equally self-righteous journalists, too, and understanding how the media works, you’d think they would have known better.

Locally, the list of names associated with state capture grows longer and longer. From our friends, the Guptas, through to KPMG and most of the board of Eskom, all the way to Dudu Myeni and Lynne Brown, it’s a veritable who’s who of ANC royalty. Not forgetting, of course, uBaba or Number One, if you prefer.

I’ve been a media trainer for many years and a couple of things always astound me in these circumstances.

The first is the guilty party’s belief that they will certainly get away with it – whatever it is.

That might have been true in years gone by – think John F. Kennedy and his string of extra-marital affairs, some of whom, it is now alleged, were laid at his feet by the Mafia. Google ‘American presidents’ affairs’ and you’ll find quite a few other well-documented references going all the way back to George Washington. Reporters working in the White House were well aware of what was going on, but the convention of the time was to keep quiet about such things. Until very, very recently that was also the way things worked in France, where President Mitterand kept a mistress right through his stay in the Elysée Palace. She even bore him a child, although this only emerged at his funeral.

Looking the other way is no longer an option. With Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and the rise of the so-called ‘citizen journalist’, wrongdoers have almost zero chance of going undetected. Ask one of Mitterand’s successors, Francois Hollande, if you don’t believe me.

The second thing that amazes me is that, almost invariably, the guilty party thinks that bluff, bluster, downright denial and a pack of lies will save the day.

They never do. Witness Lynne Brown’s recent performance during the Parliamentary Enquiry into Eskom. The media reaction tells you that no-one believes a single word she said.

So what do you do if you are caught in a pickle like this, largely of your own making? Is there a way to handle it from a media point of view so that you don’t look too bad?

The starting point is to embrace a concept called ‘Outside-In’ communication, rather than the more standard ‘Inside-Out’ version.

What does this mean?

‘Inside-Out’ communication springs from a place deep inside you, the individual, or within your company. ‘Outside-In’ communication is developed when you look at the problem through the eyes of the people affected.

A classic example came from BP Chairman Tony Hayward, in the middle of the Deepwater Horizon crisis. If you recall, several people had died and the oil spill had coated a large part of the coast of Louisiana with evil, black gunk.

Hayward was being interviewed by a TV journalist, and immediately he apologised to the people of Louisiana – that’s good. But then, instead of shutting up, he said ‘No-one wants this thing over more than me – I’d like my life back.’

Ka-boom! From deep inside Tony Hayward – understandably – ‘I’d like my life back.’ It’s the sentence he’ll carry with him to his grave.

So what should he have said? Simple: ‘The people of Louisiana would like their lives back.’ That’s what ‘Outside-In’ communication is all about and had Hayward understood the process, he might have kept his job. It was never about you, Tony, it was always about the people affected by the spill.

In Lynne Brown’s case, of course, to reach for ‘Outside-In’ would have involved confirming that the testimony of former Eskom chairman Zola Tsotsi, implicating then-SAA chair Dudu Myeni and President Jacb Zuma, was accurate. Had she gone that route, understanding that it was not about her or Zuma, but the taxpayers of South Africa, she might – just might – have emerged smelling of roses.

She didn’t and the result is that the net around Zuma is tightening. Brown herself runs the risk of being scooped up by it, and she is now left holding a full-scale P.R. and media disaster.

As I said at the outset, when it comes to handling the media, if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.