“In my nearly forty years of experience, I have yet to meet anyone for whom media skills come naturally,” writes award-winning journalist and media and crisis communications expert Jeff Ansell in his new book, When the Headline Is You: An Insider’s Guide to Handling the Media. Effective interaction with the media requires a specialized skill set that Ansell capably helps readers to cultivate. The book offers readers tips on navigating the complex landscape of contemporary news and media management, guiding them to avoid common pitfalls and fatal mistakes.
To provide context for his advice on how to craft—and deliver—compelling messages and how to respond in difficult situations, Ansell delivers keen insights into how news is made, reported, and interpreted. The book explains how to handle a wide variety of media situations, often dispelling myths and faulty conventional wisdom about how to deal with the press. For example, Ansell argues that the typical strategy of ignoring tough questions and repeating scripted lines tends to backfire, making subjects come across as evasive and unresponsive. “This approach to communicating—or rather the lack of it—has led to record levels of skepticism and distrust among the general public,” writes Ansell. “To be better communicators, newsmakers and spokespeople must learn how to answer confrontational questions with integrity while still limiting their exposure to the sensationalism of today’s media environment.”
Using a values-based approach, Ansell develops a useful and sensible framework for responding more effectively. Along the way, he provides plenty of handy tips for crafting compelling messages (use simple words, keep sentences short, and avoid qualifiers and “buts”) and for delivering them successfully (breathe, pause, talk with your hands, make eye contact, practice speaking your messages aloud).
The final chapter, titled “Twenty What-Ifs,” reflects on the questions and scenarios that most frequently frustrate or fluster spokespeople and offers strategies to effectively manage them. For example, what if you’re asked about a rumor, a lawsuit, or your personal opinion? How do you handle yes-or-no questions or an interruption in the middle of your answer? When the Headline Is You is chock full of practical guidance and advice, gleaned from decades of experience in the upper echelons of the communications and media industries.
The book is packed with special features, tools, reproducible templates, worksheets, and sidebars to help readers put its lessons to work. It is a must-read for anyone who interacts with journalists and reporters, but it is especially relevant for politicians and operatives and for behind-the-scenes staffers who are routinely tasked with developing media messages in challenging, newsworthy situations. As Ansell puts it, “People who talk to the media are only as good as their worst quote.” While the book is ostensibly about managing media situations, it is more generally about public speaking and effective communications overall, and the advice Ansell provides can be applied more broadly to situations political professionals face daily, both on and off the campaign trail. In short, When the Headline Is You is required reading for professionals interested in developing the core skills necessary to become persuasive communicators.
Mark Ruggiero is a freelance writer who resides in New York.