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PR Face2Face: Andrew Gilman, President, CommCore Consulting Group

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Andrew Gilman, president of CommCore Consulting Group, has been a communications strategist and crisis counselor for more than twenty years.

Co-author of the best-selling book Get To the Point (Bantam 1990), Andrew is also a lawyer and award-winning journalist. He frequently is called upon to help senior executives prepare for media interviews, new business presentations, board meetings, testimony before Congressional committees and regulatory agencies, expert witnessing in lawsuits, appearances on TV and radio, road shows, analyst presentations, and investor meetings. Andrew also develops and directs the CommCore training and consulting services.

As a journalist, Andrew has experience as a reporter for trade and consumer publications, as well as a radio reporter and host. On radio, Andrew was a frequent contributor to National Public Radio’s award-winning programs “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.” His articles have appeared in The New York Times, National Law Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Risk Management Newsletter and the Washington Business Journal. He has received awards from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and has been nominated for Sigma Delta Chi and National Magazine Awards.

Andrew Gilman

Andrew is admitted to the Bar in New York State and Federal Courts. He has lectured at “Grand Rounds” Yale Medical School, Wharton School of Business, Harvard Business School Club of New York, American Bar Association, China External Trade Development Council in Taiwan, American Association of Advertising Agencies, New School of Social Research, American Society of Association Executives, Cable Telecommunications Industry Association and D.C. Bar Association. He is the Chairman of the Board of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. He holds two degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and a Masters of Science in Education. His law degree is from Fordham University.

How did you get into media training?

I guess you could say that I’ve made a hop, step and jump from high school teacher to public relations. If you can motivate 17-year olds at 8.00 AM when they would rather be sleeping, adults who are coming to learn are a little easier to work with.

When I started as a teacher – just out of college – I didn’t think I knew enough yet to be a really good teacher, so I decided to get a little more life experience. This prompted the move into journalism. I was working as a trade journalist – Travel Management Daily, a two-page newsletter with 25 stories a day. I left the newsletter to become a freelance reporter – I wrote for airline magazines, Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, among others. While freelancing, I was going to law school at night, and then started doing a lot of NPR journalism. I was basically a permanent freelance reporter.

Just before I graduated from law school, I wrote an article about media training – a fledgling business in the 1970′s – and while writing the story, I saw that it was a good combination of teaching and journalism, with a fair percentage of legal issues thrown in.

Those three disciplines – teaching, journalism and the law – worked very well to get me where I am.

How did CommCore Consulting get started?

I was at first an independent media trainer for two or three companies, and I then went off with a business partner to start CommCore, Inc. That business split up and I formed CommCore Consulting Group. This is now our 20th anniversary of operations under the CommCore name.

It’s a lot more fun to own your own place than to work for someone else.

What is the biggest issue you have while media training professionals?

One of the questions we get asked is “can we see the questions in advance or the story before it is published?” Executives like control and want to see the final product. We have to explain that this request is against journalism protocol. We say, if you want total control, buy ads. But if you want the credibility that reporting offers, do the interview.

While a few trade publications may send you the questions, that’s pretty rare. The Internet has changed this practice a little bit. Some e-zines and Web-based publications will email you questions and allow you to submit your answers.

In rare instances, people have been sent the article – but that is usually for very technical stories that need to be fact checked.

So while you won’t see the exact questions, part of the preparation is to anticipate the subjects and the questions and think through the answer. One of our jobs is to train people on how to think like reporters – think through the process and what will survive for the reader, viewer or listener.

On a related point – a media interview is not a place for creative thought. Don’t try out a new anecdote, a new answer in front of a person that is going to publish or publicize what you are saying. The best sound bites are already prepared.

We try to explain how the press is going to think, how the press is going to react. We are a sponge for the newest trends and approaches to working with the press, and try to pass on that knowledge in media training to our clients. The press isn’t biased to the left or the right, they are biased toward conflict. If you understand that, you can prepare for negative and positive conflict.

If you understand where the press is coming from, it helps you position yourself better.

You have offices in New York City, Washington, DC and Los Angeles. Are there any differences in how you practice media training in those cities?

It’s not about where we are located, as the world of media training is about taking a plane to the client location. On the other hand, having offices and trainers in a number of cities can help clients who need to schedule at the last minute and always want to cut down on travel costs. Clients prefer to spend their money on services, not on expenses. Our model has been to have a team of trainers – one as good as the next – to assist clients.

In DC, though, we have a bigger footprint with not-for-profits, government agencies, and associations – many of these are located in DC. While DC is where my office is, we do well in NYC and LA.

NY specializes in health care, consumer goods, technology and financial services. Last time I checked, NY was still the largest US city and it’s no surprise that it’s also our largest office by revenue. Our Executive Vice President, Jerry Doyle, has done a great job building the NY practice.

With the LA office and the diverse California economy, we can be doing a little bit of entertainment media training one day, and the next day it could be a defense contractor, the video game industry, or biotech.

Which client or client moment are you most proud of?

The PR answer is that we love all our clients equally. The answer from my heart is a not-for-profit, pro-bono client. I am the Chairman of the Board of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.

Why? My son has food allergies – and every time our efforts help someone learn about food allergies and how to prevent severe reactions, I feel that I have done something good and possibly saved someone’s life.

Media training is an interesting field, but at times one that seems to be thought of as something that anyone can do – what differentiates your firm?

Media training evolved out of the oil crises of the 1970′s, and while there had always been Dale Carnegie and Toastmasters for executives, all of a sudden the PR industry had an event where the media didn’t want its answers from PR people. You had accountants, engineers, roustabouts running the oil companies, who needed to be trained to speak – and that is pretty much how early media training started.

In the early days, we’d rent a studio, have the big fancy cameras running, and have the six executives lined up to be interviewed. We gave them training on how to get comfortable and survive an interview.

Today, most people have been interviewed before, and/or have a high exposure to the media. So the art and science of media training has evolved to increasing the odds of what the client wants surviving the editing process and showing up in the article. This means more time on developing and honing of the message. Another aspect of training – just like using the skills of a lawyer, my background – is to figure out what questions you would prefer not to address or answer.

A lot of media training is product-based, where you highlight your own products. You don’t want to bash the competition or talk about them – you want the journalist to write about you. That’s providing the conflict.

Every client is entitled to representation and training – it’s the foundation of our legal system, and should be the basis of our media process as well.

The question that sometimes does come from a journalist is “were you media trained for this event?” The response should be “you prepared to come to interview me; I had to prepare to be interviewed.”

Why is it that when PR people talk, it’s called “spin”? When lawyers speak for a client, it’s “advocacy.” We help our clients advocate.

Isn’t this the job of a PR firm?

Many PR firms have media training departments, and many of them are quite good. There are business reasons for not having a media training department, such as the media training person isn’t 100 percent billable.

Media training used to be a “what is that?” part of the equation. Now it’s built into the PR plans. The smaller firms recognize that they need to have partner firms that provide the highly specialized skill.

We want to come across as a partner with the client or with the PR firm. We all have important work to do – the skilled general practitioner offers a full variety of services, and that may include calling in a media training specialist. When we work for a PR firm, our job is to reinforce the firm’s and the client’s relationship.

What makes a good media trainer?

The question I always get asked is “what makes us different?” Sometimes other media training services have better brochures. Or, someone’s client list is equal to mine. But the real difference comes in the media trainer’s ability to work with individuals and groups. I tell clients that when we start a session, we have about four to five minutes with the executives in which they calculate whether their investment of time and money is going to be worthwhile. It’s the ability to work with the people, to pull out a sound bite or message to connect with them that’s essential. I have met many outstanding reporters who can’t quite figure out how to teach a client how to best conduct an interview. The credential is a starting point, but it’s the teaching side that’s the differentiator.

Don’t get me wrong, credentials count. I still get calls based upon my experience with Tylenol – I was one of the consultants who helped Johnson & Johnson handle the crisis. I was the coach for James Burke (former chairman of J&J) for his “60 Minutes” interview with Mike Wallace. The credit, however, all goes to Johnson & Johnson for its credo and culture.

The best positive media training results will be having someone who cannot only handle the interview with confidence and pose, but also deliver the message and the pull quote. We have trained someone well if they can answer with that substance during the interview. There are the occasional difficult interview situations where “Do No Harm” is the goal–to survive, not to score. To this day, a bad quote or bad product announcement will do more harm than a good quote or good product announcement can do.

We prepare for a training session by reading all the stuff that is out there on the client: we read what’s out there on the blogs, what’s out there on LexisNexis. We do the competitive research, and come in with questions. One of the greatest compliments we can get from a client is that we knew our stuff, but that we also knew their stuff.

When SARS broke out, someone Googled me and I was asked to counsel the Canadian government. They looked at the Tylenol case, and brought me in because of the work done there.

One thing I hope is that you never see a Silver Anvil for media trainer – we do the coaching so that the clients do well. We are just like speech writers – they don’t take credit for what they have written, and we shouldn’t take credit for whom we have trained or the crisis that we prepare executives for.

Another reason we get hired is that we really make sure that we know what people are getting trained for – a Business Week roundtable? A webchat? A satellite media tour? It’s all about the performance and the results; and we need to stay on top of what the media and blogs are doing. We don’t cross over into the traditional PR realm – strategy, the pitch, campaigns, press conferences. We just specialize in media training.

There are a lot of media trainers out there – but we always have someone available. All of our media trainers have 20+ years of experience, and we always find new trainers that are already seasoned. You need that substance to media train a CEO.

Have you begun media training for Blogs or Blog commenting?

It is coming up more and more, and there needs to be a space to sound off besides the “letter to the editor.” Media training works beyond the comment or quote in the media outlet. Did you get in what you wanted? Did you get treated well? A blog is a good way to get that message. A blog is a good PR forum.

For crisis response preparedness, Kryptonite is a perfect example of the impact a blog can have, and how blogs can affect a company. Blogs are a tool, another way to communicate, and just like stories were broken in trade journals and picked up by large press, stories are now being broken in blogs and picked up by the mainstream press.

Is there that point where the person becomes too media trained or too polished?

I’m hearing more and more push back from clients that they can’t stand it when business people act like politicians. Spokespersons are getting more savvy and they often know that different types of messages and proofs need to be delivered to different audiences; the sales force is different than the business reporter.

So, yes, there is a risk that a spokesperson can come across as a little too wooden and mechanical. You have to work very hard to make sure that the spokesperson practices the “bridge” on the difficult questions, but that they are credible with the response to the initial question.

Bottom line, answer the question or tell the reporter why you may not want to answer the question, such as the question would require an answer that is speculative, proprietary, or subject to legal proceedings.

With any journalis – print, broadcast, blog – it’s about understanding how the game is played. We analyze the reporter and try to figure out the angle to prepare our clients. It’s just doing our homework.

As to over-prepping I’d rather do one more run through on the difficult questions than have a client say we didn’t anticipate a reporter’s line of attack. Media training is like the Boy Scout motto – “always be prepared.”

Anything else to add?

There are the three Ps to make anyone effective in media: Prepare, Practice (Q&A), and Passionate Performance – that energy with which you communicate is so important.

Media training is fun. You have a very intense half-day, one-day, two-day project with the client. At the end of it, their skills have improved, they have seen the change, and if you do the job right, they say thank you. The tool of videotape – even for print interviews – is critical because they can see how the spokesperson reacts, and then self-correct. It is nice once in a while to see the sound bite you developed on TV or in print.

Reader Comments…

Jeremy Pepper is the CEO and founder of POP! Public Relations, a public relations firm based in Arizona, USA.

He authors the popular Musings from POP! Public Relations blog which offers Jeremy’s opinions and views – on public relations, publicity and other things.

PR Face2Face: Andrew Gilman, President, CommCore Consulting Group
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