Remember to Breathe

Remember to Breathe

Three key media training rules for solid waste professionals.

The people that we see in the news, including Hollywood and sports celebrities, politicians, and business leaders, share something in common. Each of them was nervous the first few times he or she talked with the press. But through training, understanding the media, knowing why they want to speak to the press and practice, yesterday’s beginners can become tomorrow’s effective media representatives.

Below are three key rules that can ease this transition for solid waste professionals.

Rule #1: You Don’t Have to be Perfect to be Effective.

Oftentimes, newly trained media representatives, fearful of making mistakes, act like baseball batters who simply hope to avoid striking out. But good hitters go to the plate trying to get a hit; in short, they play to win. In the media relations game, winning means delivering your messages effectively.

As with most life skills, becoming an effective spokesperson requires good coaching and lots of practice. This means demystifying the media relations “game,” and understanding its rules. Solid waste professionals face many types of media ranging from trade publications to local papers and TV stations. Reporters are overworked, beset by deadlines and, in the case of local media, often unfamiliar with today’s solid waste management industry. Media representatives should understand the pressures reporters face and the ways they work. Moreover, they must craft messages that tell the industry’s story in clear, people-oriented ways.

A spokesperson may be subject to many different types of interviews ranging from phone calls, to stand-up interviews at facilities, to interviews in a TV or radio studio. No matter the format, an interview is not a conversation, though it should be conversational. It is not a discussion between two friends, though it should be friendly. It is an all-too-brief opportunity to state one’s case and repeat it.

This means the normal rules of conversation often do not apply. So we use the “block and bridge” technique that allows speakers to respond to awkward questions, and then quickly get back to their main points.

It is ironic that we have to teach this because everyone instinctively knows how to do this when they are teenagers:

Mom: Jeffrey! Have you cleaned up your room?
Jeffrey: (Using the “block”) Of course not. (Now, the “bridge”) Mom, just this morning you told me to do my homework as soon as I got home. Then you said I should take Rover for a walk and pick up Suzy at the bus stop. I focused on the things you said were most important. (And, if Jeffrey is really sharp, he might add…) So can I go to the concert next week?

But will this technique work for solid waste professionals?

Reporter: Isn’t it true that today’s garbage dump is still the same old threat to the environment?
Spokesperson: No. In fact, your premise is wrong. The key point is that the solid waste services industry has developed innovative landfill technologies to protect the environment. We are leaders in generating renewable energy from solid waste and in recycling and composting. America’s solid waste companies use science to improve the quality of life for everyone. That’s the big story today.

One of the keys to handling awkward questions like the one above is to know one’s messages and objectives.

Rule #2: Know Your Message and How to Deliver It Without "Performing."

Why should busy solid waste professionals talk with the media? Typically, they seek to explain how they are improving their services, protecting public health, safety and the environment, and working hard to make their communities better places to live. The National Solid Wastes Management Association’s (NSWMA) nationwide “Environmentalists. Every Day.” educational program offers a strong foundation for outreach to the press and to the broader community.

In addition, each company should have its own messages for customers and communities. For example, all solid waste companies provide services that protect the environment and human health. Many companies make vital philanthropic contributions to the communities that they serve. Some work closely with local law enforcement agencies, serving as “eyes and ears” in community watch programs. Others have developed innovative land use programs for reclaimed landfills. We encourage companies to tell their own stories to localize and support the broader national messages.

Presentation techniques, such as how to sit and talk for a TV interview, and how to support a statement with facts and examples, are important. But the most effective training teaches media representatives how to say what is important to them, their companies and this crucial national industry.

Rule #3: Practice! Practice! Practice!

It may seem obvious, but practice is essential for effective communications. Practicing in front of a mirror or making a video or audio recording can be very helpful. Preparing for an interview also can include rehearsing with a “coach” who can criticize statements and answers.

Develop a set of talking points focusing on the key messages you intend to deliver. Support those statements with examples and hard evidence:

“When I say our company is part of the community, here’s what I mean. Last week, one of our truck drivers called an ambulance for the driver of a car who was having a heart attack. He stayed with him until the ambulance arrived and helped save this man’s life.”
Update these talking points periodically, and keep them handy at your desk for phone interviews. Another good idea is to develop a

“Q&A” document that includes your most-feared questions. Use this and the talking points to rehearse.

A Final Thought

It is not easy for the businesspeople who run America’s solid waste companies to switch roles and become media representatives. Following these three rules will help. Strive to be effective, not perfect. Know your messages. Practice. And it is normal to be nervous, so just before the interview begins, remember to breathe.

Ben Zingman, Ph.D., is a senior consultant for John Adams Associates, NSWMA’s communications counselors. He has worked with NSWMA on its “Environmentalists. Every Day.” education program, including webinars. He can be reached at 443-802-8809 or

NSWMA members seeking additional media relations guidance may also email or call NSWMA Director of Communications Thom Metzger (, 202-364-3751).

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