Experience Media Consulting is a 25-year-old boutique media training and crisis communications consulting company based in Los Angeles, CA. It serves clients across the U. S. and worldwide. Experience Media was founded by George Merlis, who uses his 40-year career as a top-ranked journalist in both print and television to inform his teaching. The company’s clientele range from rock stars to rocket scientists – literally. The firm is the go-to trainer for the entertainment industry and NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and Kennedy Space Flight Center. Clients have also included firms in the aerospace, computer, insurance, chemical, industrial and medical sectors as well as a wide range of NGOs and nonprofits. Every Experience training workshop is conducted by founder George Merlis, who is joined by a veteran with similar credentials for larger groups.
George Merlis has served as the day city editor of the largest-circulation afternoon newspaper in the United States and is an Emmy-winning executive producer and director. He has executive produced Good Morning America, the CBS Morning News and Entertainment Tonight. He began his 40-year media career after graduating from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with an MS degree in journalism. He has covered such major stores as the building in 1961 the Berlin Wall and its destruction in 1990, the flight of Apollo 11, the first moon landing, and numerous elections. He produced investigative reports for ABC on food additives, oil imports, unsanitary imported meat and automotive safety. International assignments have taken him to Britain, Haiti, France, Japan, New Zealand and Germany, among others. He has conducted or overseen more than 10,000 interviews and he uses that background as the basis for his media training workshops. He uses his wide experience as an investigative reporter and producer to inform his crisis communication consultations. In addition to Experience Media Consulting, Merlis founded J-NEX Media, a Los Angeles based video public relations firm generally credited with having initiated the satellite media tour. He sold J-NEX more than a decade ago. For the last ten years Merlis has focused exclusively on media training and crisis communications consulting. He is the author of two books on the subject: “How to Make the Most of Every Media Appearance,” published in 2003 and “How to Master the Media,” published in 2008. He has also written a novel, “VP,” and is co-author of two how-to books on energy saving.
The editorial team at eBrandz had an opportunity to interview George and these are excerpts from the interview:-
How did the idea for Experience Media Consulting come about?
I decided to help spokespeople by media training them after years of conducting and supervising more than 10,000 interviews. As a journalist, I always wanted my interview subjects to do a good job of communication; after all, it made my job easier. Eventually, I decided to take what I knew about interview preparation, codify it and teach it.
How important have good employees been to your success?
I conduct all Experience Media Consulting workshops. This hands-on approach has occasionally forced me to turn down business because of scheduling conflict. But I feel that my clients have come to the company to take advantage of my professional experience. For larger groups (five to seven participants), I hire a colleague. Here is where the importance of good employees is key. I only work with people who have similar credentials to mine, who are in sync with my teaching style and who are dedicated to helping our clients. This seriously narrows the field, but I owe it to my clients to engage the services only of the best possible trainers.
What three pieces of advice would you give to college students who want to become entrepreneurs?
1.Only work in a field you love.
2.Identify a need that is not being served or is being served inadequately.
3.Keep your overhead as low as possible. People are paying for expertise and service, not for elegant offices, costly accessories and first-class travel and hotels.
If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
There is little I would do differently insofar as my media career is concerned; all-in-all, it was quite successful. But as an entrepreneur, had I to do it all over again, I would have taken greater care to keep overhead low so that I was working for myself and not for the landlord.
What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?
1.The ability to see trends and develop products or services that serve those trends.
2.Flexibility; you can’t be too dogmatic, you have to be able to learn from both your successes and your failures.
3.Communication: you need to be able to make your vision accessible and understandable.
How long do you stick with an idea before giving up?
I will stick with an idea until I see a trend line indicating that it is a bad idea. I won’t just abandon it, though. I will analyze why the idea didn’t work and see if it can be tweaked so it will work. Sometimes this is a matter of hours, sometimes a matter of months.
How many hours do you work a day on average?
Difficult to quantify. In my business when I am reading a newspaper or watching an information television broadcast or reading a nonfiction book I am, in effect, working – finding ideas, finding prospective clients, finding good and bad examples to use in my media training and crisis communications consulting. The typical workshop runs four hours for one-on-one to eight hours for larger groups. But to get to those workshops requires as many as 30 or 40 hours of research and prep time.
How has being an entrepreneur affected your family life?
It has had a very positive effect because I am master of my own schedule. When I worked in television, my days were long and out of my control. When you are executive producer of a broadcast that goes on the air at 7 a.m. and ends at 9 a.m., you begin your workday at 4:30 a.m. or 5:00 a.m. and usually don’t get home until 6:00 p.m. You are a stranger to your family working under those conditions. The only time to catch up is on the weekend and then you are usually so exhausted that you can’t really connect. My entrepreneurial life has been much easier; if I need to take time off, I take it. If I need to take a family member to the doctor in the middle of the day, I can do it and finish up my day’s work in the evening at home. I can also hire family members if they are qualified without having to fight with a corporation’s unreasonable HR regulations.
What motivates you?
Learning. I never do a workshop or a consultation where I don’t feel as if I’ve learned at least as much as I’ve taught. As a journalist, I’ve always had an insatiable curiosity about a vast variety of subjects. Both of my careers have helped me feed that curiosity.
How do you generate new ideas?
I rarely read a book, see a TV show, hear a conversation that doesn’t stimulate some new idea. I can’t tell you what the process is, but there is some sort of filter at work that is always posing the questions: “How can I use that information?” “How can I help with that process?” “How can that be said better?”
What are your ideals?
Fair and accurate and enterprising journalism is my ideal. I despair because I see so little of it today, especially on television which is becoming a wretched exercise in opinion-mongering instead of news coverage.
How do you define success?
For me success isn’t measured exclusively in income; it is measured in seeing clients benefit from my input. (However, earning a living helps, too.)
What is the best way to achieve long-term success?
I think if you can make a decent living doing something you love you have achieved success.
Where did Experience Media Consulting’s funding/capital come from and how did you go about getting it?
I kept overhead low so was able to self-finance both my earlier company and my present enterprise. That said, it is extremely foolish to exclusively self-finance a venture that requires an investment that seriously strains your resources. Never invest more than you can afford to lose.
How do you build a successful customer base?
The vast majority of my new clients come from recommendations made by satisfied customers and from repeat business. Search engines that have led people to my site, http://www.masterthemedia.com, have yielded a number of new clients. I find new leads by reading newspapers and blogs, listening to broadcasts. I promote business by sending prospective clients detailed proposals, a biography and a copy of my book, “How to Master the Media.” The book usually seals the deal, although I did have one client who selected me above a competitor because I had won an Emmy award for television excellence. Although I was happy to have the business, an Emmy award is not a valid criterion for selecting a media trainer; the excellence it rewards has nothing whatsoever to do with the skill set needed for successfully teaching someone how to master the media.
How did you decide on the location for your business?
My two biggest clients, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the entertainment industry (specifically record companies) are located in Southern California. I had moved here to become executive producer of Entertainment Tonight, so it was only logical to remain here and base Experience Media Consulting here. However, because of the nature of the business, any hotel room anywhere in the world can become an operating base.
Do you believe there is some sort of pattern or formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur?
For myself the pattern has been to identify a need that my expertise can serve and to then develop a way to serve that need and then market that service.
If you could talk to one person from history, who would it be and why?
Narrowing it down to one is difficult. I would like to be able to speak to both Presidents Roosevelt: Theodore and Franklin D. Both were masters at communication and speaking with them might offer some insights into what gave them that gift.
Who has been your greatest inspiration?
Edward R. Murrow. He is the person who made television news respectable. Although I suspect today he is spinning in his grave at what the medium has become.
What is your favorite book?
Romain Gary’s “Promise at Dawn,” a tale of survival and heroism.
What is your favorite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Not having to answer to executives who have no idea what they are talking about, not having to cover my tail with every decision I make, not having to agree with dumb ideas just to keep my job, not having to walk on corporate eggshells.
To what do you most attribute your success? What would say are the five key elements for starting and running a successful business?
I attribute my success to my curiosity and my ability to market that curiosity. The five key elements for starting and running a successful business – at least for me have been:
1. Vision: Finding a service or product that my unique skill set can address.
2. Economy: Keeping overhead low enough so I can self-finance the start-up and not have to compromise my ideas.
3. Connections: Knowing the right people to call upon for help, guidance or recommendations. (For example, when I wrote my book, I was able to get endorsements from Diane Sawyer, David Hartman (original host of Good Morning America), Leonard Maltin (film critic at Entertainment Tonight) and others with whom I’d worked in the past.
4. Dedication: Keeping at it until your idea or marketing clicked.
5. Consistency: Making your service the best every single time you render it.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
My most satisfying moments are seeing people I’ve media trained being interviewed and watching them deploy the skills I’ve taught them so they can take full advantage of the interview opportunity. There is no one moment because many of my clients have given me that great satisfaction over the years.
What do you feel is the major difference between entrepreneurs and those who work for someone else?
An entrepreneur is free to pursue his vision, someone who works for a corporation has to bend and compromise that vision to mesh with his superior’s vision. Even if the superior’s vision works, you are still left wondering whether your solution would have been better. It can be very frustrating.
How do you go about marketing your business? What has been your most successful form of marketing?
My most effective marketing has been word-of-mouth from satisfied clients. Next most effective has been my book, “How to Master the Media.” Right behind that is website marketing. Lately I’ve taken to writing a blog and notifying my entire client base each time I do a new post (I keep it to once every two weeks so they are not inundated.) I have found that posting the blog frequently jogs a client into remembering that he needs a brush-up workshop or has someone new in his organization who could benefit from media training, etc. You can see the blog at: http://blog.masterthemedia.com
What kind of culture exists in your organization?
How did you establish this tone and why did you institute this particular type of culture? Informal, open to ideas, never dismissive of others. I came to it after having worked for bosses who were formal, closed to ideas and always dismissive.
What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?
Read, write, and play with my seven grandchildren.
What makes you happy?
Playing with my seven grandchildren.
What sacrifices have you had to make to be a successful entrepreneur?
I suppose I earn considerably less money as an entrepreneur as I would have earned had I kept at the executive producer business. But it is worth the differential in salary to have the freedom to do my own thing the way I want to do it; to not have to report to fearful little men who are afraid to make a decision lest it be the wrong decision; to have the flexibility to work when I want to and how I want to instead of being at the constant beck-and-call of someone else.
Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?
For its products and vision: Apple. However I find their public relations policies are awful: their attitude toward the media is just this side of North Korea’s.
Where you see yourself and your business in 10 years? 20 years?
Hard to say because what I teach has to vary with the current media environment (When I began media training, there was no such thing as a blog, Facebook or Twitter). I would like to be doing what I’m doing today, only updated to keep it abreast of the latest methods that the public selects to be its news sources.
How do you think we can level the playing field so the biggest guy doesn’t always get the first bite out of the apple?
Going up against a larger, more established competitor is always challenging, always difficult. You might be tempted to knock the competition, but this is an unwise approach; you don’t get business by putting down the other guy but by differentiating yourself and building up your own credentials. By diminishing your competitor, you call into the question of the prospective client who has, in the past, been using that competitor. The best approach is to study the competitor’s offerings and explaining how your services will be different. It might be that you are faster, less expensive, more attuned to the modern marketplace.