Bernard O'Riordan, Media Trainer
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg sure knows how to court controversy.
The 34-year-old tech titan, who has been largely silent since the Cambridge Analytica privacy breach in March, burst back into the media spotlight last week and fell face first into a new and damaging PR crisis.
In a podcast interview with the technology website Recode, Zuckerberg used the example of Holocaust deniers to make a point about allowing fake news to be published on the Facebook.
You can read the full transcript of the interview here.
Looking at this purely from a media skills perspective, it's difficult to understand how someone who has been in the media spotlight for so long could find himself so deep in a mess of his own making.
Not once was Zuckerberg asked about the holocaust by the reporter; he volunteered it as an example during a discussion about fake news.
It was a self-inflicted moment of madness that could easily have been avoided with expert media training and a good dose of common sense.
I can only imagine Zuckerberg, who is Jewish, thought he was being helpful by offering up an example. But the example he used was always going to be highly divisive and fuel outrage among Jewish groups and anti-racism organisations.
It was not strategic (it’s difficult to image it was a pre-planned message) and it drowned out any other important points he might have made.
To make matters worse, Zuckerberg's attempts to revise his comments were straight out of the Trump playbook: a clarification masquerading as an apology. We'll leave that for another day.
Navigating your way through a high stakes media interview can be tough at the best of times, particularly when you are anticipating tricky, left-field questions from a reporter.
So why make it harder on yourself by offering up explosive views or insights without any prompting?
Here are a few gentle reminders to keep you on the straight and narrow in a media interview:
Have a Game Plan
Whether you are a seasoned media performer or a first timer, it's crucial to always plan for a media interview so that you don't wander aimlessly or talk about things that are likely to create uproar. Planning will help you clarify the issues you should focus on - and the curveball issues that could bring you or your brand undone that are best avoided. Given his track record, I can't help but wonder whether Zuckerberg wings it when he deals with the media. In 2010, he walked onto stage at a conference and was bombarded with questions about Facebook abusing privacy and data. He was unprepared and was caught out several times by a panel of highly-experienced tech reporters. Eight years later and Zuckerberg has either learned very little from his past mistakes or he is way too comfortable in the media spotlight.
Don't Self Sabotage
Don’t risk sabotaging a good media opportunity by veering off course or talking unprompted about left-field or sensitive issues, as Zuckerberg did. Conflict is a reporter's favourite news value, so if you play in that space that’s all the story will be about. Stick to your strategic game plan. Have some interesting insights and some stories or anecdotes to support what you’re saying. Just make sure the examples you give are safe, and memorable for all the right reasons. It helps to anticipate any left-field issues that might come up so that you can respond appropriately. Just don't steer the conversation there yourself.
Hone Your Media Skills
If you’ve been out of the media spotlight for a while or your media interview skills are a bit rusty, have someone put you through your paces with a role-play interview. Work with expert media trainers who can provide objective feedback and give you tools and techniques to perform at your best during an interview. Because Zuckerberg is far from a natural born communicator, he had special coaching from a team of lawyers at WilmerHale before his testimony to Congress earlier this year. They prepped him on questions he might be asked and how to react if interrupted. It’s just mind boggling that a company rated as the world’s 4th most valuable brand doesn’t take the same proactive approach to dealing with the media day in, day out.
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