What I learned about media training from Wayne Bennett

by Peter Kelly

I started my career as a television sports journalist the same year as the Brisbane Broncos were formed. That meant I cut my teeth as a young journalist interviewing Brisbane Broncos’ coach Wayne Bennett.

He has a reputation of being difficult with reporters but I understood he was simply working to his agenda, not theirs.

I learned plenty about how to ask a question, and also about how good media performers answer them. Here are a few insights.

1.  Think carefully about your audience

Bennett understood better than I did that his primary audience was not all rugby league fans…but his 17 players who would take the field next week.

He rarely talked up his players or their form because the last thing he wanted was complacency in the ranks. For that reason, he was usually had more to say after a loss than a good win.

His secondary audience was the team they were playing next week. So he never had anything to say about them. To say something complementary might build their confidence, and to say anything not complimentary might motivate them. Bennett always said virtually nothing.

For some of my clients, their audience might be a single decision maker. They need to think about their key messages with that person in mind.

2.  Don’t let journalists put words in your mouth

Bennett was quick to spot a leading question. A question that started something like “Would you say that…” received a short answer: “No”.

Journalists love to put words in your mouth…that’s how they get a headline. Wayne always chose his words and refused to let a journalist choose them for him.

3.  Understand the media is an opportunity

In the Broncos’ earliest years, Bennett understood the media was important to establishing the club’s brand and was readily available. He didn’t hold up training to do media interviews, but he was available. In the first year, he even held media briefing sessions over lunch on Monday. A barbecue at training in the morning before a match made journalists feel welcome.

He built a relationship that was not one of friendship, but regularity and reliability.

So respond to media enquiries with courtesy, respect and timeliness.

It’s rarely good enough to call journalists back at the end of the day – the opportunity will have passed.

4.  The answer can be independent of the question

When Bennett had something to say, in many cases about the way the game was being administered he didn’t wait for the appropriate question. He was quick to drop it into the interview, effectively ignoring the questions being asked and running his own agenda.

In preparing for an interview it’s about developing key messages and sticking to them.

5.  Don’t hide in times of crisis

After a bad loss as Australian coach, Bennett chose to give the media the slip at the airport by sneaking out a back entrance. Not surprisingly that just made him a bigger media target. Journalists were furious and the issue became news for days.

A short sharp statement was all that was needed for the media to move on to other things, like next week’s game.

Ultimately, he admitted that was a mistake and apologised. That’s an unutilised media tactic too…simply saying “sorry, I was wrong”.

6.  Don’t drop your guard

Bennett was not really interested in being too friendly with the media. He could be genial, humorous, accommodating. But he understood anything he said, even when the cameras weren’t around, might end up in the public domain.

My warmest conversation with Wayne was after I moved on from Channel Ten, I suspect because he was no longer being wary of a journalist.