Press spokespeople need to have good communication skills if they're to relay their organization's message to the public. If they lack these skills, their responses to journalists' challenging questions can appear awkward and bungled. The public exposure, on the other hand, has great potential for bringing about changes in society. For the public relations staff at the Bonn-based International Paralympic Committee (IPC), the next major event, with its attendant press furor, is the 2016 Paralympic Games to be held this September in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
A DW Akademie media training workshop helped prepare IPC staff for public appearances, interview situations and for dealing with difficult questions. Transparency and candor are always priorities – even in crisis situations. Eva Werthmann is IPC's Senior Manager of Operations, jointly responsible for public relations and communication at this umbrella organization for 177 national Paralympic Committees.
What are the challenges for IPC when it comes to public appearances?
Right now, public opinion of international sports organizations isn't particularly good, and the Fifa scandal has made it even worse. This has affected us as well and we're facing accusations, especially on the issue of doping.
How are you reacting to this?
By trying to deliver a positive message to the world. The athletes come out and do their best and our job is to make society aware of them, to say, “Look, look at what they can do. We are all the same, whether we have a disability or not.” We can point to social injustices and make changes in society.
Disability is a sensitive topic and one that's often connected to political or social issues. What can the Paralympics bring about?
In China, for example, the Paralympics prompted a number of changes. While there, we were told that prior to the Games, people with disabilities were mainly hidden away at home. After the Paralympics, however, they felt that they could appear in public. China's Forbidden City and parts of the Great Wall were also made barrier-free. Developments like these show that the Paralympics can bring about changes.
Practicing how to formulate a key message
How important are the media in this?
It's really important to work well with the press, not to see journalists as enemies even if they're making accusations or publishing negative reports about an organization. We need the media to get our message across to the public. It's basically a give-and-take relationship.
What is your approach in countries with limited freedom of expression?
Media landscapes differ according to where the Games are being held. The media handle the Paralympics in various ways. We knew that the media in London could be very aggressive, and that China and Russia have limited freedom of expression compared to our own. Still, our approach never varies: we talk to all journalists in the same way and get our message across.
Coming across confidently on camera
Getting your message across was the focus of the media training. What were the most important “messages” that you took away from the workshop?
That you have to convey your key message within the first three minutes, that you have to formulate your message clearly and concisely, and that if possible, you should surprise your audience for a moment in a way that gives them pause for thought. Mention something that they'll want to pass on to others. It's a way to win over audiences.
What was the biggest challenge for you in the workshop?
It was being confronted with difficult questions. I was asked about scandals and bombarded with suggestive questions, and that's pretty stressful if you're on camera, in a studio or speaking to the public. It was helpful to practice scenarios like these, so if I encounter them in Rio or elsewhere, I'll now know how to respond.