Is it really eleven years ago that Cyprus became a member of the EU, during the largest-ever round of enlargement? I have a fairly vivid recollection of 2004, a turning point in Cyprus political history. The referendum rejection of the UN reunification plan by the Greek Cypriots had as result the complete isolation of the tiny Republic in international politics.
I was then Press Officer at the EU Permanent Representation and the Embassy of Cyprus in Brussels. Therefore, I fully understand now the frustration of Greek Press Officers for not being able to function properly due to the eurozone anti-climax and the political and economic isolation of Athens. It feels like the only people who professionally love you are your co-workers, the Russians and the North-Koreans. You can never win an argument - regardless of whether you are correct. Nevertheless, Press Officers do not make policy. Lawmakers do.
Here are seven tips for sustainable media relations and reputation management for leaders:
1. Understand your media
Look with attention to the targeted media in order to understand the sort of content they cover and find out the kind of stories they are interested in. Explore media profiles and define which groups you need to target. Make some research on journalists before contacting them and before giving interviews in order to avoid PR disasters. When you are finance minister of a certain country which is almost bankrupt and a part of the population is malnourished, an interview in Paris Matchseems to me not a good idea. Paris Match is a celebrity lifestyle magazine essentially covering news about royals, famous artists, distinguished actors and the rich of the planet.
2. Be transparent
Transparency is the best measure that organisations and governments can employ to either avoid or reduce negative publicity. Trying to mask the truth is a recipe for trouble. Information usually comes out anyway and a lack of transparency could reinforce suspicions and make it worse. One of the most known unfortunate political denials is this of US president Bill Clinton. In 1998 he told Americans, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." Clinton later confessed that he did indeed have an "improper physical relationship" with Monica Lewinsky. In our days even the most seemingly insignificant detail can go viral with minutes and reputations are more and more at the mercy of social media. Telling the truth is paramount.
3. Stay focused on your message and keep it simple
It is not the job of the media to make you look good. In fact, they may score more points for reporting something bad about you. Remember the enduring news industry motto, 'if it bleeds, it leads.' During the aggressive BBC interview at the end of January the new Greek finance minister Varoufakis seems capable of handling it in a fair way. However, I believe he has still things to learn about TV interviews. In my opinion inexperienced interviewees should practice beforehand with an expert. This can show what someone will look like to its audience and help him or her correct possible issues like content ambiguity, speech, expression, eye contact or slumped posture. If, for example, you speed up your speech whenever you get excited or nervous, pause, count to four, take a breath, and respond slowly and clearly. Stay focused on your message and keep it simple. Do not use jargon, especially in EU context.
4. Keep your promises
When working with the media you have to be patient and courteous. Provide the press with more background information. Don’t blame other people or minimize the situation. If a journalist asks a question you can not answer, be honest and say so. Then go back to your content and bridge the conversation to your message. Never make promises you are not able to keep. If you promise something you can not deliver this might damage your relationship with the press. Respect deadlines. Do your best to give journalists the information they need well in advance of their deadline. However, if you are not able to deliver on time, let them know as early as possible.
5. Anticipate tough questions
It is important to keep your credibility intact. You should be clear and transparent. Be prepared for any question. Especially the ones you consider difficult to answer. Dealing tactfully with questions benefits you and your organisation. It boosts your professional profile and your reputation, and helps your organisation to reach the targets you want to achieve. Write down a list of questions that might arise. Choose a few key points you feel will be most relevant and outline them for yourself before the interview. If during the interview, the conversation deviates from them, make sure to steer it back in the most diplomatic way you can.
6. Avoid stereotypes
Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever found out last week that race and ethnicity are delicate and ambiguous subjects. In an interview at the Belgian TV VRT De Wever said that racism was not a cause but a result of a number of negative perceptions and experiences. He added, while referring to people of North African descent, that racism is relative and is often used as an excuse for personal failure. Most Belgian parties, including those being in the government coalition together with De Wever’s party NV-A, condemned his remarks as not appropriate for an important politician and a mayor who should be uniting people in stead of dividing. It is paramount to avoid cultural stereotypes while talking to people from other cultures. Stereotypes are generalizations, or assumptions, which people make about the characteristics of all members of a group, based on an image about what people in that group are like. Stereotypes are contra productive and make things worse. True leaders should give the good example.
7. Get media training
Warren Buffet once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Hire a well experienced specialised agency or a consultant. If you worry about specific questions, ask for assistance in preparing answers. Media training can give you : a good idea what to expect, experience a mock interview and tips to prepare your contribution. If you feel insecure, media training will boost your confidence and you will sound much more relaxed during interviews.