Lawyers Need Media Training Too
When I do media training, I tell everyone it's not their job to tell the reporter what they should ask, or criticize the questions coming from reporters. I remind them it's the reporter's job to ask the questions and their job to answer them. Clean and simple and it works well.
Using the same reasoning, when somebody holds a news conference, trying to tell reporters what questions they should ask, or who they can talk to isn't a smart thing to do. It's the reporter's job to ask questions. That's what they're paid to do.
Last week in Vancouver, there was a news conference where the lawyer who organized it forgot those simple rules of engagement and it didn't turn out well.
It's a News Conference, But Don't Ask Questions
Last Thursday, lawyer Rishi Gill held a news conference in Vancouver for convicted attempted murderer Jaspal Atwal. Atwal is the man who made Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent “Mr. Dressup Tour” of India go from bad to worse when he showed up at an event put on by the Canadian High Commission in India. He was seen in several photos, including one with Trudeau’s wife Sophie, even though he was involved in an attack on an Indian minister of state years ago.
What was said and reported on at that newser isn’t what I want to get into in this week’s blog. I want to comment on the way Gill conducted the news conference and the nasty exchange he got into with a Vancouver Global TV reporter.
When Gill started the news conference, he told reporters that Atwal would be entering the room shortly and would read a prepared statement but would not take any questions. He said if reporters had a problem with that they should leave. He also told reporters if anyone asks a question “It won’t be a cool thing.” Atwal entered, read his statement and Gill started taking questions until this exchange occurred.
It's Not How the Game is Played
Let’s take a look at Gill’s plan. He thought if he told reporters that Atwal wouldn’t be taking questions and figured if nobody complained up front then the news conference would go the way he wanted. Reasonable to assume, if you’re a lawyer and not a media or communications professional, who understands the game isn’t played that way.
Gill shouldn’t have expected every reporter in the room to comply, especially since Gill himself needed to get a few answers from Atwal to respond to the media. It was a bit of a ridiculous situation quite frankly. Atwal had just shown he could speak English by reading the statement, and if he couldn’t at least answer some basic questions, he shouldn’t have been part of the news conference.
Gill would have been far better off not have Atwal there to begin with. He could have read the prepared statement from Atwal and then have taken questions from reporters. If he was asked why Atwal wasn’t at the news conference, he could have had a couple of answers prepared in advance, including whether Atwal would speak to reporters in the future.
Getting Good Advice
The reality is, many lawyers don’t understand how the media works. Some do and when it comes to media relations, they’re worth their weight in gold to the law firms they work for.
Gill incorrectly assumed that if he laid the ground rules out in advance, they would be followed, but that’s not the way news conferences work, especially if the star of the show is sitting right there.
Gill is no media rookie. Far from it. He has done tons of media interviews. His website even takes the unusual step of asking reporters to call him if they want a comment on a legal case in the news.
What transpired was a nasty exchange between Gill and Global TV reporter Jordan Armstrong, who by the way, is paid to ask questions. Armstrong was just doing his job by refusing play along with Gill’s plan.
Gill came off as looking awkward, belligerent and like a bully with the two-minute exchange with Armstrong. That exchange grabbed headlines and definitely took away from the message he was trying to leave behind for Atwal.
There is a Better Way
Two other thoughts come to mind. The first is that lawyers shouldn’t try to run news conferences. It would have been well worth the investment to hire somebody with media and public relations knowledge to assist. Any knowledgeable PR professional would have told Gill it wouldn’t be a good idea for Atwal to sit there like sack of potatoes and not take any questions, regardless of how Gill set the stage. It may have been better for Gill, or the pr firm, to email Atwal’s prepared statement on behalf of Gill and say that Atwal wouldn’t be available for interviews.
The other thing that certainly could have been done, was to get media training for Atwal so he could take a few questions from the media. Even if he doesn’t have a great command of English, reporters would immediately recognize that despite the language challenge, he was doing his best to answer many of their questions. If there were difficult questions that Atwal wasn’t sure how to answer, Gill could have stepped in to give him some help.
I’ve made a career of getting people ready for media interviews. They key is to understand the questions you’re going to get and practice your responses. Although Atwal isn't able to speak English very well, he could have answered some basic questions.
Perhaps Atwal didn’t want to answer difficult questions related to terrorism, international politics and the controversy related to the Trudeau junket, however when you’re convicted of attempted murder, it comes with the territory.
Reporters shouldn’t be told not to ask questions, because if the day ever comes when they stop, we’ll all be in trouble.
Photo and video credit: Global BC News
And for lawyers who are wanting to get some basics in media training, Grant was kind enough to participate as one of the resources in the Canadian Bar Association's Legal Media Relations training series. You can order the three-part videos here: https://www.cba-alberta.org/Professional-Development-Resources/Savvy-Lawyers-Series/Legal-Media-Relations
Great series with some really smart people on media relations. I was happy to be part of it.