Media Relations

Avoiding Main Character Syndrome: Why Media Training is Necessary

By Afrika Nieves-Bentley on July 1, 2024

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CW: This story contains mentions of mental illness, suicide, and pregnancy loss.

When I think about the importance of media training, my mind immediately goes to fun projects, like if a client ever landed a cover shoot for Vogue. Unfortunately, it’s most important to make sure your client is comfortable in front of the camera when you’re dealing with crisis communications. You don’t want a disaster compounded by an easily avoidable mistake.

I love writing fun pieces for this blog, but this time, I’d like to strike a more sombre tone while I discuss why media training is vital to a communications strategy.

Moving forward after tragedy

When I decided to write about this topic, I was reminded of my second year at university. I was a residence fellow (also known as a don or RA, depending on the school). The year before I had enrolled at this school, a student had gone missing and died in a high-profile case. She had lived on the floor I was now in charge of. By the time I lived there, CBC and other media outlets were investigating how the university had handled this woman’s mental health concerns. They wanted to know whether her death could have been avoided. My manager said I was to let her know if any reporters were trying to get into the building. Apparently, someone was trying to interview students who lived on campus even though they were only supposed to talk to the residence office’s communications professional.

I’m usually a stickler for the rules so I wasn’t going to disobey her, but I did wonder if it was right for her to try to block an investigative journalist’s access to a potential source.

Now that I’m older and more mature, I see how right she was. Here’s why: not everyone talks to a journalist for the right reasons.

Some people can’t rise to the occasion

The story of the deceased young woman had to be presented very carefully because it involved mental illness, a criminal investigation, a miscarriage and suicide. It would be cruel to the woman’s family if anyone failed to take the story seriously.

Some students on my floor immediately failed to take the story seriously. And they were cruel.

These particular students, all 18 or 19 years old, came up to my residence room door with sheets covering themselves and said in fake spooky voices, “Ooh, I am the ghost of [the deceased].” I wish I had taken disciplinary action against them, but I didn’t know what to do at the time. I just told them off, and they went on their way.

The point I’m making is that it is fair of a university not to want people like that talking to the media on behalf of their institution. They were misinformed, callous and just immature. The story deserved to be told by better people than that.

I want folks to remember that there is a reason why communications directors and publicists want their clients to be trained in media relations before they go on the record. It’s not just to avoid silly blunders or awkward photos. It’s because some people will twist the news into entertainment in the worst way, and innocent people can be collateral damage.

Proceeding with caution

I admire investigative journalists and want them to be able to do their jobs. I am glad that communications professionals and reporters can work together to ensure worthy stories are told. What I worry about is giving people a platform when they don’t need to be centred within a story. That’s why I agree with institutions’ insistence that only trained leaders talk to the media.

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