Should architects receive media training prior to speaking with the press? It is a question that looms more every day as designers embrace activist roles, take on sensitive projects, and strive to make a name in the competitive marketplace. Here, several architects and public relations experts share their thoughts.
Improve Your Messaging
Media training can help architects deliver a more coherent, gripping message while avoiding common missteps such as neglecting to mention key contributors, leaking confidential project details, or unintentionally slighting clients.
Tami Hausman, architectural historian and the founder and president of New York–based marketing and PR firm Hausman, says that while some architects are naturally gifted speakers, many are not as effective as they could be at reinforcing key messages that help differentiate their firms. “The most basic lesson is be truthful,” she says. “We also tell people to be very respectful and helpful to the interviewer.” At a cost of “several thousand dollars and up,” depending on the service length and rigor, Hausman’s firm offers videotaped mock interviews, tutorials, talking points, and role-playing sessions to prepare practitioners for media interviews and high-profile speaking engagements.
Todd DeGarmo, FAIA, CEO and principal of New York–based Studios Architecture says small group trainings with Havre de Grace, Md.–based media consultant MarketPoint, including videotaped and critiqued speaking assignments, have helped firm associates discuss the practice’s work to the press corps and deliver convincing project pitches to commercial clients, which include large media and technology companies. DeGarmo has learned it can be best to let their clients' PR teams outline the story’s key themes prior to media interviews. “Very rarely do we talk to a publication if we haven’t talked to the client first,” he says. “With how many times [these clients] get touched from media, we’re absolutely fine to let them coordinate all that. We just want to make sure were mentioned in the story.”
Understand Press Protocols
John Patrick, founder of Detroit-based communications firm Above the Fold, notes that a consultancy can help identify aspects of a project—such as new materials or structural innovations—that might attract the press’s attention. “The media is bombarded with inquiries and information,” he says. “You want to be as specific as possible so they don’t have to work so hard. Those who make it as easy as possible get more media.”
Knowing when to say nothing is also important. Though most media outlets respect “off-the-record” comments as ethically prohibited from publication, these remarks may still damage a firm’s reputation, Hausman says. She references recent New York Times article “What Does ‘Off the Record’ Really Mean?” by Matt Flegenheimer who notes that a journalist’s impressions of a source in off-the-record moments can provide context, even if the conversation is never made public. “You never know what someone is going to use or not.”
Hausman provides clients with a training document titled What to Do—and Not Do—During Media Interviews for more detailed instructions. “Don’t say anything you don’t want to see in print. Don’t feel compelled to fill every silence. Don’t let an incorrect statement go unchallenged. Don’t say anything negative about another person, your competitor, or your client. Don’t speculate. Just stick to facts.”
Taking a Stance
With architects and firms becoming more vocal in their responses to social and political issues, such as the #MeToo movement and the proposed U.S.–Mexico border wall, media training can help practitioners who wish to speak out to modulate their message.
Though opining on controversial topics is no longer taboo, Hausman says, architects must clarify whether they are speaking personally or on behalf of their firm, and comment strictly on issues rather than on individuals.
Patrick agrees: “You can close a lot of doors by speaking through social media and other channels about things that don’t necessarily reflect your work. An architecture firm’s Instagram account is not the appropriate place to express political thoughts, unnecessarily.”
Cost vs. Reward
Media training is not free, of course. Patrick estimates the cost of three to four months of comprehensive press services at Above the Fold at $9,000, depending on the terms of the agreement. Speaking training is included in the package.
Another consideration is staff time. Philip Chen, AIA, principal at Boston-based Ann Beha Architects, says his firm had hired Joanne Linowes, head coach and founder of Westwood, Mass., executive presentation firm Linowes Executive Development Institute, to lead a group-speaking training. “Having your whole office in a workshop for half a day—that’s the greatest cost,” Chen says. “We don’t regret it, but that’s one of the concerns.”
Even with professional training, firms should not expect instant results. “The thing we found important is the follow-up, putting the lessons into practice,” Chen says. “It was useful to have an outside consultant come in and coach us and offer a different perspective. But you need to reinforce those things continually.”