Remembering Mike Wallace: Lessons from a Master Interviewer
Journalism and the world it serves lost a great man this past weekend when television news pioneer Mike Wallace passed away at age 93. Much has, should and continues to be written about his accomplishments, interviews and determination. The most touching tribute I’ve seen or read aired on CBS this Sunday night – a segment from his long time CBS and 60 Minutes colleague Morley Safer:
I will leave the obituaries to those who are better equipped to tell the story about the life of one of the true broadcast news greats – sharing rare air with Murrow and Cronkite. This post extracts and summarizes lessons for PR, IR and Corporate Communications pros from the man who was sometimes an intimidator, other times an interrogator … but always an interviewer in pursuit of the story.
1 Do the Right Thing
“Mike Wallace is here to see you.” As a PR professional that was the last thing you’d want your client to hear from the receptionist. It may very well be the last thing because at that point it was usually too late for words and there was no time for communications strategy or tactics to counter the dirty or dubious deeds that led the persistent game show host turned newsman and his crew to the lobby in the first place. Better than being ambushed in the parking lot … but not by much. With that in mind the most important thing the great newsman taught the people who lead and represent businesses (and perhaps presidents, terrorists and cheaters) is tell the truth and do the right thing. Ok, mom taught us that. Mike reminded us of the consequences.
2 Serve the Audience
“Many people who weathered a Mike Wallace interview grew to respect him greatly,” Fox News Channel Chairman Roger Ailes said on Sunday. “He actually was trying to serve the audience, and that’s what made him great.” Part of being a great storyteller -on 60 Minutes or in corpoorate communications – is the ability to know the right questions to ask and answer. Mike had a way of asking the obvious question – obvious that the audience wanted an answer; more obvious that the person asked did not want to answer it truthfully. Do not avoid the obvious questions your audience wants answered, even the tough ones. Give them what they want and will find with or without you – information and answers.
3 Be Prepared
Wallace didn’t think he had an unfair advantage over his interview subjects: “The person I’m interviewing has not been subpoenaed. He’s in charge of himself, and he lives with his subject matter every day. All I’m armed with is research.” Mike was able to tap the vast resources at CBS to make sure he had his facts straight before making claims he wasn’t fully prepared to back up. Research, research, research. Don’t risk your reputation if you don’t know what you’re talking about. When you separate the fluff from the facts, the rumors from the reality and have a plan … then go to battle (or market) with confidence.
4 No Bullsh#t
“Come on”, Mike would say/ask with a skeptical upturned eyebrow. Those two words helped Wallace strip through layers of BS to get to the truth. There may be room for BS in baseball, politics and maybe even in other marketing disciplines but there is no room for BS in corporate communications. Franklin Delano Roosevelt captured it best when he said “Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated.” FDR was not one of the 7 US presidents Wallace interviewed, but his wife Eleanor had the pleasure.
5 Be Charming
Mike was tough. He made people nervous. He asked uncomfortable questions. He ambushed people for crying out loud! But we liked, maybe loved and certainly respected him because he was genuine. He wasn’t malicious or vicious. He was righteous, consistent, fair and yes … charming. If not charm, something that was powerful enough to soothe a seething diva. How else could he possibly tell Barbra Streisand that the question people have about her many years of psychoanalysis: “What is she trying to find out that takes 20 years?” She was taken aback, maybe offended … But she answered the question: “I’m a slow learner.”
RIP, Mr. Wallace. I’m glad I was able to see you (on TV, not at my office door).
Larry is president of Latergy, a video services boutique that provides multimedia content strategy, production, distribution and measurement services to professional communicators. Prior to Latergy, Thomas pioneered online video marketing and PR as co-founder and president of PR Newswire’s MultiVu and COO of Medialink Worldwide, a NASDAQ company that was sold to a VC-backed competitor. He lives in NJ with his wife, Sherry Lynn, and their plethora of pups. Contact him at lthomas@Latergy.com.
Published: April 9, 2012 By: