Media Training 101: Lessons from the Campaign Trail

We’re nearing the end of the 2012 election season, and it’s been quite the race so far. From political scientists to journalists to the mom next door, everyone seems to have a different opinion on how well the candidates are representing themselves and getting their messages across. The last few presidential debates in particular have had traditional and social media abuzz: Were the candidates successful in remembering their media training lessons? Was Joe Biden’s incessant chuckling a tactic to endear voters, and did it work? Did Mitt Romney win points for trying to get the last word?

As media relations experts, we often coach executives before interviewing with a reporter or appearing on camera. Based on the media training tips we share with our clients, we polled Affect’s management team for their take on Monday night’s presidential debate. By majority vote, poor body language and ineffective messaging techniques won out as the biggest media training misses of the night.

Check out their comments below:

Melissa Hurley, Senior Director

– Speak within the time you’re allotted. If they say two minutes, it’s two minutes. This isn’t a campaign speech, but a debate.
– Stay on message. Answer the questions. Think on your feet and when needed, revise your messages. It’s best to think in sound bites.
– Always be aware of body language. Romney frowned too much (might be because of the lights) and Obama didn’t make enough eye contact. Body language was a big factor in the VP debate. Facial expressions were distracting and actually overshadowed any of the messages delivered.

Breanne Thomlison, Account Director

When doing media training analysis on a political debate it’s important to focus on how the candidates portrayed themselves and how they delivered their arguments:

– Romney was more effective in using trending, memorable words and phrases.
– Romney spoke directly to Obama, which demonstrated confidence; Obama looked at the camera, which enabled him to speak more directly to voters.
– Obama focused on statistics, which sometimes muddled his messages; Romney repeated his messages often to drive them home, but was often viewed as not actually providing any new information.

Kate Ryan, Senior Account Supervisor

Body language is everything. Though media training often focuses on the verbal cues, body language is just as important. As we saw in many of the debates – including the VP debate – ignoring non-verbal cues can completely change the way a comment is perceived. We see this all the time in training executives too: substantial commentary coupled with either a head down, or shaking of the foot, can change the strength of a response.

Rosemarie Esposito, Senior Account Supervisor

As public relations professionals, we often tell our clients to block and bridge when handed an unfavorable question during an interview. This tactic was in full force during the debates, but the candidates blocked expected and completely warranted questions. Focusing on, for example, the US economy during a foreign policy debate alienated voters and positioned the candidates as being above the topic at hand. The candidates could have used better bridging techniques to address the questions being asked before relating back to their own key messages.

Kelly Davis, Account Supervisor

We’ve all advised clients on how to “bridge” to a topic they’re comfortable addressing when asked a question they might not want to answer. On Monday night, Mitt Romney frequently used the phrase “let’s take a step back,” to steer the conversation back to his talking points. It’s important to remind clients that this technique should be used sparingly, as dodging multiple questions will frustrate the audience – whether it’s an interview with a reporter or a national debate. It’s important for interviewees to have a few different transitional phrases at their fingertips so as not to repeat the same bridge and draw attention to the fact that they’re avoiding questions.

What do you think about the candidates’ performance during the debates? Were they effective in delivering their messages?

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