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Lights, Camera, Action

Qorvis Communications Seeks a New Niche: Media Training

Eight days ago, when Democratic Rep. Chris John squared off against Rep. David Vitter (R) and two other opponents in the first televised debate of a hotly contested Louisiana Senate race, it wasn’t the first time during the campaign that he’d matched wits on camera with Vitter.

John had already held a mock debate between himself and a stand-in Vitter at a new media training center run by the public relations firm Qorvis Communications.

“When you are running for the U.S. Senate, you have to be prepared for any question on the statewide and national level,” John said in an interview. “What they talk about a lot is being very succinct in your answers.”

At Qorvis, officials hope the new on-site media training center, which includes a full-service TV and radio studio, will help establish the upstart public relations firm as the go-to place for political candidates, corporate leaders, journalists and Washington personalities to burnish their on-air skills before facing the television lights.

The new center is the brainchild of Mike Petruzzello, the firm’s founder and managing partner, and is being overseen by Qorvis’ Rich Masters.

Masters, a former TV reporter and anchor who spent six years advising Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) on everything from campaign debates to floor speeches, joined the firm a little more than a year ago to head its media relations shop and Qorvis’ media training practice.

“Every time we did media training before this, we would hire out a media trainer and they would come in literally with a camera and set it up in somebody’s conference room,” Masters said. He added that such a backdrop was “not really the same” as being in a studio.

Other PR pros say Qorvis’ move suggests that the firm is eagerly pursuing a growing market niche.

“Qorvis has always been very aggressive,” said Ben Goddard, a veteran Democratic media consultant who helped create the famed “Harry and Louise” ad campaign. “I’m not at all surprised that they are doing this.”

Goddard said “there are only a couple” public relations firms in the country that currently offer on-site studio training to clients.

Masters added that the new endeavor will significantly increase the “profile of [political] candidates we can get in.” In addition, the program will allow Qorvis to provide better in-house services to its existing clients and serve as a “stand-alone … gateway” business for clients only looking for media training.

Beyond offering training in debate skills, the center consolidates a variety of services that were previously offered “ad hoc,” such as prepping for television and radio appearances, print interviews, Congressional testimony, speeches and other presentations.

The center’s coaches include Masters; Don Goldberg, an alumnus of both the Clinton White House damage control team and the House Government Reform Committee; Jennifer Stoltz, an ex-CNN producer; and Nina Donaghy, who joined the firm in July after being recruited from the BBC World Service in London.

Of the four, only Donaghy is devoted solely to outreach and training for the center.

“We really think we bring a unique set of skills,” Goldberg said. He emphasized that few media training outfits in Washington can offer coaches with experience not only in a variety of media but also with backgrounds in “adversarial positions on the Hill.”

So far, Qorvis’ clients have ranged from the Baltimore-based Internet and information security firm SafeNet to a Fortune 500 CEO to up-and-coming print journalists looking to polish their TV commentator skills, such as the Boston Globe’s Anne Kornblut.

“It makes sense to not only provide guidance on content [but also] to make sure you deliver it appropriately,” said Safenet Chief Operating Officer and President Carole Argo, whose firm has been a client of Qorvis’ for two years. Argo was prepped for a TV appearance and said the service kept her firm from going elsewhere to get studio training.

Officials from Saudi Arabia are also expected to make use of the Dupont Circle studio. Saudi Arabia is one of Qorvis’ biggest (and most controversial) clients. The kingdom forks over roughly $200,000 a month for Qorvis’ services.

Nail Al-Jubeir, director of the Saudi embassy’s Information and Congressional Affairs Office, said he planned to send his nine-person public relations team for a “refresher course” in the new center this fall (about half have already had some media training). A handful of staffers from other departments also will receive such training.

“Even our receptionist is going to do it,” he said, noting that as the embassy recruits more young Saudis to work at the embassy, it will offer the training as part of the employees’ on-the-job education. Al-Jubeir added that in the long term, Saudi Arabia was considering sending teams of public affairs officers from its ministries to receive coaching there.

The 1,500-square-foot training center is located in converted Qorvis office space just around the corner from the firm’s current headquarters at 1201 Connecticut Ave. NW. (The company moved in January due to an expansion.)

With a teleprompter and state-of-the-art sound, light and video equipment, the studio is set up to “resemble a network news studio or talk show as much as possible so we can simulate a ‘Today’ show-caliber interview,” said Donaghy.

For a baseline fee of about $5,000, clients can receive a half-day of coaching, which — depending on their needs — could include a TV interview that is taped, critiqued and repeated. The standard fee is flexible “if we thought we knew someone is going to be on TV a lot where we could kind of build up a reputation right now,” Masters said.

The following day, the client receives a written analysis of the performance and an edited “before-and-after” DVD.

Although the center is still in its early stages — the studio has been up and running for only two months — Masters said it’s just a matter of time before Qorvis competes with the best in the business, such as communications consulting guru Michael Sheehan.

“He’s kind of the gold standard here in town,” Masters said. “We’d like to give him a run for his money.”

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