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Why media training is rubbish

I recently saw a girl band being interviewed on TV and they were cruelly asked if they had ever had any media training. They said they had a few hours with Kate Thornton. God help us. Watching politicians like Ed Balls and his wife, Yvette Cooper, who respond to every question with a stock; “It’s the right thing to do”, I can’t help feeling Kate may have moved into politics.

Of course, we all know politicians are heavily media trained, to the point where they are incapable of giving any honest answer to questions and their mealy-mouthed denials or obfuscations are just seen as toeing the party line or downright lies by the electorate.

Sportsmen are also guilty of being trained not to think for themselves (Eg. Is there anyone more boring than multi-millionaire Lewis Hamilton?) and, with the rare exception, even sporting heroes are guilty of being banal cyphers for teams and sponsors and anyone who has their own opinion is seen as a dangerous maverick.

Unfortunately, media training has moved into the corporate world and may already have come to an office near you.

At leading business schools, the hottest course currently is ‘reputation management’. When banks and food companies routinely cheat their customers, aspiring executives are trained in maintaining a sustainable reputation; RBS, Tesco and Findus have recently learned that reputation management is not just a form of crisis management, it can be crisis avoidance. As the Harvard Business Review says; “Knowing about first-aid is not the same as protecting your health.”

Reputation is not just a piece of PR sophistry; the message matters, but only if it is authentic, something Barclays may need to consider. Following the Libor scandal, director, Rich Ricci, said: “We’ve always scrutinised our businesses based on their ability to generate returns. Now, however, I feel it is appropriate to modify that assessment by explicitly looking at reputational risk.”

Barclays, and its chief executive, Antony Jenkins, should consider that their priority is now to close the gap between what the bank claims to be and what it really is. In its attempt to re-brand, Barclays has come up with five buzzwords; respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship. All totally meaningless of course, unless they match some sort of reality.

Fundamentally, we all hate liars and reputational management could be seen by the cynic as just a way of covering up lies.
In the UK, it seems there is currently no-one in the establishment who isn’t involved in some kind of cover-up or serious misconduct. The police are accused of fitting up a member of the government, journalists have been phone hacking for years, the NHS seemingly puts self-interest and cost-control above patient welfare, MPs feather their own nests with fraudulent expense claims and the banks are busy screwing us all for their own mistakes and dishonesty.

The leaders, using their hour-long media training session with Kate Thornton, bang on in front of the camera about transparency and accountability.

The recent Stafford Hospital scandal, where one hospital was found complicit in the deaths of 1,200 patients, is the worst NHS scandal in decades, yet managers at the heart of the matter, continue to be employed in key roles and the bosses escaped punishment, the chief executive even receiving a £400,000 redundancy package.

Martin Yeates, who was that chief executive, refused to give evidence, citing stress, but in a TV interview, when asked if he should be held responsible for the deaths that happened on his watch, said; “That’s not true.” When asked about specifics, he used the scoundrel’s usual weasely get-out clause; “I can’t comment on individual cases.” This was the man who cut 150 jobs to save £10 million at a time when there were already serious safety concerns; he really gives media training a bad name.

So, what can we learn from all this? Well, reputation management for a company is important, but the key is to tell the truth and not to hide behind glib PR-speak, and it is absolutely essential for everyone, whether in the world of business, sport, politics or music, to avoid any training session given by ‘media-guru’ Kate Thornton.

Nigel Phillips

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