It’s been 10 years, but Jeffrey Joseph still remembers the sense of panic.
He stepped off the elevator and opened the door. Suddenly the lights went on, and a camera was thrust in his face.
“I’d been ambushed,” said Joseph, senior vice president of communications for the Consumer Technology Association in Arlington. “The next thing I know, they started throwing out questions.”
He instinctively buttoned his blazer and answered the best he could. But the message was clear: A media gaggle could be lurking around any corner.
Bill Connor and Susan Tomai, both former TV journalists, have spent 20 years building Oratorio, a media training outfit in downtown Washington that caters to prominent executives, politicians and the scandal-ridden. Theirs is a company that is rarely credited when someone nails an interview or dodges a question, but there they are, behind the scenes, coaching Washington’s most formidable talking heads moments before they hit the airwaves.
Together, they train decision-makers ahead of their big moments on CNN or CNBC and in front of Congress. Their clients include a mix of Republicans and Democrats on the Hill, the heads of Fortune 500 companies, and scientists, economists and lobbyists.
This year, with the looming presidential election, business is booming even more than usual as political candidates and advocacy groups clamor for their help. Annual revenue, already in the high-six-figures, is expected to climb by 15 percent for the two-person company.
Oratorio’s role has evolved in recent years as video conferencing, Skype interviews and online presentations gain popularity. Connor and Tomai have updated their lessons to reflect a new reality. In addition to helping clients answer questions in a TV studio, they teach them to pay attention to things like lighting and background activity for in-home Skype sessions.
“So many more people are on video now than would have been even a few years ago,” Connor, 57, said. “There is great opportunity; you also have to be careful.”
Tomai founded Oratorio in 1987 after working as a news producer at Fox 5 in Washington. Connor, a former reporter and anchor who served as a White House correspondent for Hearst Corp. television stations during Clinton administration, joined 10 years later.
In the years since, they have created Oratorio University, an online portal that offers short videos on the basics, and they have lined up a steady stream of international work, traveling to more than a dozen countries, including China, Saudi Arabia and Chile, to provide their services. Next week, Tomai will travel to the Sundance Film Festival to meet with a longtime client.
“We work with a lot of people, but we are very behind-the-scenes,” Tomai, 58, said. “After people tell them they did a great job, nobody says, ‘Well, I have a media trainer’ or ‘Suzy and Bill wrote the opening.’ ”
Almost every training session at Oratorio begins the same way: With a clip from the soapy political thriller “House of Cards.”
“You should remember, these days, when you’re talking to one person, you’re talking to a thousand,” the character Zoe Barnes says.
That, Connor and Tomai said, is their underlying message. In this age of fast-moving news and phone cameras, anything you say can quickly reach the masses.
So what’s a talking head to do?
For starters, Connor and Tomai have created a mini-television studio in their 16th Street NW offices, where they simulate news interviews with clients. Connor, who typically plays the interviewer, rattles off predictable questions about the client’s campaign or company.
Then comes a twist: An uncomfortable question that brings unflattering details to light, or a line of inquiry into something off-topic. They watch how clients handle the situation, whether they take the bait or manage to answer the question and move on.
Tomai usually hangs back to observe, taking notes on body language — clenched fists, hand gestures, crossed legs — as well as voice inflections, overused words and other ticks and tendencies.
Later, they watch the interview together on a big screen, talking through what worked and what didn’t.
“You want to go from message to message to message without looking as though you’re manipulating the person on the other side,” Tomai said.
Phrases like “the key point here is” or “the bottom line is” can help transition from one idea to another, she said.
They offer other pointers, as well: Never say “I think” before stating your view. Be careful when you nod on air, unless you’re agreeing with someone. Get used to repeating yourself over and over and over again. Steer clear of heavy jewelry such as bangles and big rings that jingle when you move. Be thoughtful about how you end interviews. Often, the only thing people remember is the last thing you said.
“All of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oh, the interview’s ending. I better listen up,’ ” Connor said.
Connor and Tomai said they are part coach, part therapist. They often deal with delicate matters, such as speech impediments after a stroke. Sometimes they have to tell clients to wax their eyebrows or to buy clothing a size bigger. Once, someone called saying a talented young executive at his financial institution needed a more polished appearance, so Connor tagged along on a shopping trip to Neiman Marcus, charging his hourly rate.
“All of these things are important,” Tomai said. “If you’re going to be in the public eye, we need to refine what you’re going to wear, what you’re going to say, what your strategy is.”
A half-day session for executives typically costs $9,100, plus videography fees. Pricing is higher for full-day sessions and out-of-town engagements, although the company offers discounts for nonprofit and government clients.
“They’ve put together one of the most comprehensive programs for getting candidates, corporate executives or government officials ready to meet the press,” said Jonathan Collegio, senior vice president of public affairs for the National Automobile Dealers Association. “They can get you from zero to 80 in less than one day.”
Back in 2005, when he was a press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Collegio booked Oratorio to give a crash course to Rick O’Donnell, who was running in the 7th Congressional District in Colorado.
The training session began earnestly enough, with Connor asking run-of-the-mill questions on camera. Then he asked the candidate a question about his personal life.
O’Donnell took the bait.
“And before you know it, it’s five minutes later, and they’re having a goofy conversation about his girlfriend,” Collegio said. “Meanwhile, his political operatives were sitting in the back of the room snickering.”
The exchange was funny and lighthearted, Collegio said, but it made an impression.
“It crystalized just how easy it can be to get off message,” he said. “Sometimes it can be hostile, but even friendly conversation can make you veer off topic.”