Media training used to be one of the first items of discretionary expenditure axed from a public relations budget in a recession. Hunkering down and weathering economic downturns required the opposite to those fluent communications skills honed by specialist media trainers and former journalists, went the argument, so why not preserve funds for use in an upturn?
If such a strategy ever worked in practice, it is much less likely to bear fruit in the 24/7 global economy in which companies increasingly operate nowadays.
'The 24/7 news culture reinforces the need to have a well trained team of spokespeople who can act and react quickly to the changing news agenda,' says Warwick Partington, managing director of media training consultancy MTM Communication Skills Training. 'They should be taking advantage of media opportunities as they arise and responding to reputation management issues appropriately and responsibly when the media are chasing an issue-based story.'
Like many other agencies, MTM recommends that at least three of the senior management team in any business should undergo specialist training so they fully understand how to adapt their messages and style communication to the specific requirement of the circumstances that the media opportunities create.
'The media's soundbite culture actually needs people trained in how to deliver such soundbites effectively,' adds Partington. 'That's not a natural skill and it needs technique, training and practice to perfect in front of broadcast cameras or microphones.'
Few training providers would disagree, but within the generality that media training helps protect reputations in times good and bad lurk two clear trends in the sector, according to Richard Rivlin, the former Financial Times and Sunday Telegraph City journalist who founded content consultancy Bladonmore.
The first is that media training given to chief executives, chairmen and other personnel at the very top of corporations is increasingly expanding from the 'media' part of its title to encompass a wider brief of oral communications with other external stakeholders such as investors, customers, regulators and politicians as well as internal ones like employees.
'Many CEOs who are coming to us on a quarterly or six-monthly basis under the umbrella of media training effectively view it like a visit to the dental hygienist to stay constantly at the top of their game,' he says. 'They have a broader feel for what communications means, using media skills to connect with their communities and across their marketplace.
'Chief executive officers, like top sportsmen, find it absolutely natural to have coaching in specialist skills. While golfers have putting coaches, chief executives are having communications coaching so they can hone their skills for key moments on their calendar. This has become in excess of 50 per cent of our media training business.'
Other media trainers agree that their craft is becoming a tool that equips executives for product launches and internal communications audits, as well as the dreaded hard-core grilling by seasoned hacks.
Training for the team
Rivlin's second major trend sees media training driving much deeper down the pecking order of executives, managers and key staff. For client Virgin Active, this means training not just the chief executive, board members and senior team but also some individual gym club managers. More sensationally, Bladonmore's media training services to casinos and entertainment group London Clubs International and its American parent Caesars Entertainment has involved tutoring nine Playboy Bunnies in facing the press.
'The experience was eye-opening, not just for the Bunnies but for LCI too,' adds Rivlin. 'It's one thing to have a practice run in an office across a table. It's a whole different ball game when you're in a blacked-out sound-prodded TV studio with hot lights glaring in your face and a hostile journalist firing difficult questions.
'Practice in a real studio setting allows you to get used to what can be an intimidating, unsettling environment. Get over that and, Playboy Bunny or chief executive, you can focus on the task in hand of getting your message across in the most effective way possible.'
Peter Coë, managing director of communications training agency Media Speak, argues that this trend of media training becoming broader at the top and deeper at the bottom of organisations has been fostered by the advent of the 24/7 global media. 'There's recognition in large organisations that responses and the corporate messages that lie behind them have to be constant throughout organisations,' he states.
'If you don't raise the awareness of the importance of consensus right the way down the organisation on matters of external communications, particularly when talking directly to the media, people can easily go off-message and come up with ill-considered responses.'
Of course, the task of convincing clients that media training is always a necessary, rather than discretionary, budget item, is eased considerably by the media blunders that even the biggest and most high-profile organisations continue to make.
Electric Airwaves, the UK's largest media training agency with more than 40 FTSE 100 clients, including Royal Bank of Scotland and Rio Tinto, has gone as far as commissioning adverts highlighting the obvious mistakes of executives ranging from former BP chief executive Tony Hayward (blaming others for the company's crisis) to England football manager Fabio Capello (thinking that he always has to answer everything the media asks).
Other bite-sized advice from the firm is to think before you speak, never to trivialise small issues and to remember that even media professionals can get communications hopelessly wrong. 'In the three years since the credit crisis hit, we have done an ever-increasing amount of media training, both in the recession or the current anaemic growth environment,' says managing director Andrew Caesar-Gordon.
The reasons, he believes, stem from an increasing acceptance that how companies communicate during periods of crisis is part of their long-term reputation-building activities, not an understandable exception from the norm.
'Ten years ago, something like media training was easy to clip from the budget,' he says, 'but now it is seen as critical to the success of a communications strategy. And whenever there is a high-profile gaffe by spokespeople, it always prompts a spur in the number of chief executives who decide that a little bit of refresher media training would not go amiss.'
Incorporating multiple channels
Meanwhile, the 24/7 news environment, aided and abetted by the ubiquity of social media where professionals carrying press cards are no longer the main conduits of mainstream information, means that the communications skills of key business personnel need to extend to many more channels.
'We have always been very TV-focused and we still find that video feedback is very useful in helping executives with their body language,' reports Tom Maddocks, founder and course director of Media Training Associates, which carries out training for financial services groups including Skandia. 'But now a lot of publications have a video element on their websites so we nearly always incorporate video training into our programmes, even for people who just want training for dealing with the press.
'The increasing pressure on news organisations also means that journalists' beats are a lot wider and there are fewer specialists. It is sometimes hard to get clients to understand how quickly the news cycle is and how important it is to get the message out as quickly as possible; otherwise their voice will not be heard in the story.'
Everybody with access to a mobile phone or laptop computer is a potential news conduit in the Twitter and Facebook era, adds Graham Leach, co-founder of media training agency HarveyLeach.
'The speed of response at organisations needs to be a lot faster now than ten to 15 years ago. When something happens that affects your organisation, you just cannot afford to go into hiding,' he says. 'If a story breaks at 7am and your board meeting is not until 2pm, the issue is not going to go away in those seven hours.'
Neither, it seems, is media training. In fact, the ever changing nature of our media seems to be having the opposite effect. 'The common perception is that training is the first thing to be cut in a recession,' adds Partington. 'In reality, a specialist communication skills training team is pretty recession proof. Our clients know the value of what we do.
'When the going gets tough and the world is changing around you, effective communication is the difference between success and failure.'