Media training 101: expect the bleeding obvious

One of my least favourite things about some political interviews is that the interviewee fails in their basic duty: making their opinion clear. The example above, broadcast yesterday, is a classic example.

The question was presumably about Labour’s view of Brexit and interviewer Paul Brand has pretty clearly added that he doesn’t think it’s very clear. Immediately the interviewee, Jenny Chapman MP, opens her mouth it starts to go downhill. Let’s take a further look.

Media training basics: be polite

The first thing she does is to say she gets irritated. I’ll be frank. If you’re one of my media training clients, the advice will be never, ever to show that you’re irritated, no matter how you feel. The job of the interviewer is to anticipate the questions his or her viewers, readers or listeners might have. If you’re saying you’re irritated with us, unless we’re asking particularly obtuse questions, you’re telling the readers you’re irritated with them too.

Also, this is an opportunity. In this instance, the question was about what the policy was all about. Brand might as well have said “Here’s some free space to talk about your policy. Speak now.”

It can’t be a surprise that Europe is coming up in political interviews. And yet, when offered an open goal, Chapman fudges it. For such an obvious question she really needed a couple of sentences, condensed, to offer. Instead she is tied in knots.

Not everybody is a stellar performer, reasonably enough, but I’ve had this in interviews when I ask what a company actually does. “Oh, well, a number of different things…” the answer sometimes comes, followed by an interminable explanation that’s longer than the actual interview itself.

Do yourself a favour. Whether in politics or in business, anticipate the obvious questions and memorise a few quick answers. In the instance above in particular, there’s plenty to discuss and it will get quite complex of its own accord; never mind not knowing your basic policy from the start.

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Beware your media comment, it will haunt you

Today of all days, be thankful you’re not Toby Young. If you’re unaware of the guy, he;s just been appointed to the board of a higher education watchdog. As you can see from stories such as this, it’s not a universally popular move.

Part of this is due to his politics. He is a self-declared Conservative and the incumbent party of government always gets it in the neck. Also because he was allegedly viciously critical of state educated kids in this Spectator piece a few years back. He’s added a final paragraph at some point which kind of digs him in further; if you have to explain something wasn’t offensive, it probably was.

Essentially, you can’t disown something once you’ve said it. A provocative journalist like Young will understand this.

So what if you made an unhelpful media comment?

The problem is that some of us who’ve been around in the 1960s and previously might have said all sorts of things, whether in the form of a media comment or otherwise, over a lengthy-ish period of time. So, what do we do about them?

The first thing is to check them at the time. If someone has genuinely quoted you out of context, make the point, politely. However, make sure it really is out of context; wishing you hadn’t said something does not make it out of context at all.

For example, when the foreign secretary said his comments about whether a British aid worker was on holiday or training journalists were “taken out of context” when doing a bit of wriggling before Christmas, it was wrong – the whole interview is available and the context is clear. “Out of context” does happen but not that often. I’ve done it myself but only for humorous effect; many years ago Lord Alan Sugar had an issue in which people were complaining that his Amstrad computers were overheating. He denied this and came out with the quote: “We don’t need fans, it’s all rubbish, but if people want them, we’ll put them in.” Then he bought the football team Tottenham Hotspur, so the magazine on which I was working at the time resurrected the quote – deliberately and in a humorous section, so nobody thought he was actually talking about Spurs fans. It was out of context but on that occasion harmless fun.

So, is something out of context or not?

Second, allow yourself to change your mind. Just say so. Nobody should mind as long as you don’t do it all the time about things you said only last week.

Third, allow yourself a screw-up or two. Last year, Prue Leith accidentally gave away the winner of the Great British Bake-Off on Twitter (she was overseas, got her timings mixed up and thought the episode had been broadcast). Her response when questioned was “I f***ed up”. It was unfortunate but she didn’t wriggle, she faced it head on.

By now we’re all aware of how quotes can follow us around so my final thought is to suggest drafting something and then leaving it for a while. Does that thing really need to be said, even on Twitter? What’s your objective, and would it be better served by a polite rephrase?

That last point might have cost Donald Trump his presidency if he’d heeded it during his campaign, so let’s not pretend every rule applies everywhere. Mostly, though, it pays to be aware that everything you say in public may be repeated and scrutinised just when you don’t want it to be. Be prepared, have a response and remember, they were your words so you must have meant them at the time!

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Media targeting: read the paper

Getting into the media can do a lot for your business. One of the better ways can be to place an article. You write it, so although it will be adjusted for style (so that if they write % rather than per cent it will be consistent throughout the publication) you’re in control, nothing’s going to be taken out of context.

So why do so many people not bother doing the basic research?

Size matters

A couple of weeks ago I had a pitch from someone for a magazine I edit. It seemed a pretty good pitch and the subject was more or less in the area we write about. I had a quick call with the PR person who said she’d get some bullet points back to me so we could sharpen it up.

So far, 10/10 for process and approach.

An email then arrives.

Her client had gone ahead and written the article ahead of the briefing. BIG MISTAKE. Even if you’re going to write an article in advance, no editor is going to want to think your piece is that unfocused. We want to publish articles that target our readers exactly, so it’s in your advantage to give us the impression that you’ve taken our requirements into consideration.

I open the article. The word count tells me everything. It’s 650 words long.

The publication I edit works in 500-word blocks because a page takes roughly 500 words (it’s still on paper).  Yes, an editor can always cut, but we don’t publish single-page articles either.

I made the point by email to the PR executive. I haven’t heard back – given that the guy had written the article in advance she’s probably hawking it around elsewhere hoping someone will take it. She has little choice.

Time to push back

The difficulty really came up when the client decided to write something without taking the target into account. This is where the PR consultancy needs to take the word ‘consultancy’ seriously. The value you can offer is in pointing out that some things just won’t work, and writing a neutral article hoping to catch a niche readership is one of them.

Of course the client might then decide that risking a tailored article, useless to anyone other than the target title, with no guarantee of publication, is not a good use of their time. At least you have them thinking about what is good use of their time!

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Media training: bridge, but do it gently

In my media training sessions I often tell people they need to “bridge” – get from an uncomfortable topic to one with which they are more comfortable. I stand by this but would urge people to do it gently. Here’s an example of how not to do it – do click on the video, it’s awful:

The guy gets it wrong in so many ways. He’s known to be anti-equal marriage and they’ve just had a vote. OK, he takes a particular view and he doesn’t want them to focus on it.

His transition could have been reasonable. Something like “Of course things are likely to change but there are really pressing and life-threatening things happening out there”. Or “I appreciate there are strong views but we have to prioritise our energy and time. For example…”

Instead you get the screwed-up face and the complete personalisation of “But I ain’t going to spend any time on it…” and of course the sudden rather than smooth change of topic. This is an object lesson in how not to change the subject if you don’t want a TV studio full of people laughing at you. Bridge by all means, but do it carefully and tactfully.

Don’t assume rights you don’t have

A close cousin of the over-zealous bridge is the aggressive assumption of rights that don’t actually exist. My friend and colleague Kate Bevan was the first to highlight this painful piece to me this morning. Here a harmless interview is turned into a battleground after the event. A founder of a company assumes he has the right to veto an interview (which would have done his company nothing but good, from the look of it) and also to decide that something is off the record retrospectively.

The answer to all of which is no, no, no. The published piece will have been through the legal mill and passed as fit to put online – before you speak to a journalist or blogger, remember you’re likely to see your words coming back to you in print.

Do you need help talking to the media? I have been a journalist since 1989 and a media trainer since 2002. Email me by clicking here.

Media training: you know what you mean, but will I?

Media training twice last week was a treat. The best sessions always throw out something new and this was no exception.

I asked one of the delegates what he did. He said he was the head of SE for his business. That’s interesting, I said. What areas in the South East specifically?

He and his colleagues roared with laughter. They thought I was joking. SE meant sales engineering, and he was in charge of Europe plus bits of Africa. I’d been about to ask him about his prospects in East Grinstead.

The point is, I wasn’t joking. When I hear SE I think “South East” as a reflex.

Media Training for comprehension

This is why I always encourage people to take any jargon they may have in their interviews out and shoot it. SE isn’t the only example. A couple of years ago I was in a proper interview, all grown up. There was a PR person, the director at their client and someone they introduced as one of their “SMEs”.

OK, I thought, small to medium business, this is good, he’ll be here because he’s used the service. So I started by asking what he did for a living. He looked puzzled, shrugged and said he was one of the company’s SMEs. Yes, I said, but what do you actually do?

After a while it emerged that SME in this case meant “subject matter expert”, he worked for the PR company as an expert witness might work for a court.

There are probably plenty more of these and the difficulty is that when you’re at work, you probably use them without a thought. They’re common parlance. If you’re talking to a journalist, however, be very clear and spell out any acronyms, or better still don’t use them.

The exception is when you’re writing something and want to make a point. I was once writing a white paper for a client and they asked for a glossary. I put as the heading: “Why TLAs cause confusion”, and the sub-editor insisted I spelled TLAs (three letter acronyms) out. It made sense but it sort of filleted the headline.

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Media training: are you being recorded?

Many journalists use voice recorders rather than take notes nowadays. So what are your rights as an interviewee if you find you’ve been recorded without your knowledge?

Personally I take a pragmatic view. Although in the UK, where I’m based, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) has all sorts of provisions for not telling someone you’re recording them, it’s not really about journalism. Here’s an article on how Australian journalists probably break their equivalents of those laws every day.

When I’m media training I’m a little cautious about the law and that’s because of the increased importance of untrained people doing the reporting. Only yesterday I was coaching a guy who’s involved in an area that attracts a lot of bloggers.

Unlike some older journalists I’m not anti-blogger at all. Many are excellent and have more influence than journalists because they know what they’re talking about, are the recipient of the service they’re discussing, and soforth. My client’s area attracts a lot of high quality bloggers.

The thing is, they’re not trained. They have log-in details for something like WordPress, perhaps like the one I’m using now; they have enthusiasm, they have knowledge, but it can’t be taken for granted that they know anything about RIPA or its predecessors, or any libel laws or other issues journalists take for granted.

Recorded and accurate?

This can lead to the odd difficulty. A few years ago a family member was involved in a voluntary organisation, as chair. She decided she wanted her time back so after four years she stepped down. I was surprised when, a year later and two chairpeople later, a local blogger suggested she’d been deposed in favour of the current incumbent overnight. I pointed out his error and his response was that the organisation hadn’t told him of the changes so it was therefore their fault. That would have been an interesting one to defend in court.

The problem was that the blogger had no real conception of it being his responsibility, not that of an outside body, to ensure that his words were true and accurate.

So we get to recording. Many bloggers and a number of self-taught journalists will be unaware of their obligations as regards recording an interview. Personally I tell people in advance and offer the interviewee a copy of the recording afterwards so that they can check their quotes for accuracy in the event of a dispute.

If I’m interviewing you, though, you need to assume I’m keeping some sort of record. It may be a written note or it may be a literal recording, but if I’m not keeping a record I’m not doing my job.

A side note is that journalists’ notes, like recordings, will stand up as evidence in the event of a court dispute. So it was bizarre when once I asked a psychologist if I could record our interview and he said he was happy with my taking notes but a recording might enable his clients to identify themselves and he had to be careful about this. About a decade later I’m still trying to work out why he thought this would be any more of a risk with an audible record than with a written one, as long as it was accurate. It makes no sense at all.

The main point, though, is that you have rights of course, and if you feel strongly I’m not going to suggest you don’t act upon them. But if a journalist or blogger isn’t going to keep some sort of record in order to quote or represent your view accurately, why would you be talking to them?

This Wikipedia page is informative and has many links to the laws concerned internationally.

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A bad photo paints a thousand words

I’m not going to reproduce that bad photo of Theresa May – she gets enough publicity from this blog. You know the one, she’s sitting on her own in Europe and there are flowers on the table and she’s looking miserable. I don’t own the copyright so wouldn’t post it here even if I wanted to.

The truth of the photo is here; she was not alone in the room, just the first to sit down. The snapper then did his job and put a telling picture together.

The infamous pics of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich are likewise covered by copyright but most readers will be familiar with them. People my age might remember when the then prime minister John Major visited Split in Croatia; he was going through an “interesting” time with his cabinet, and photographers took great pleasure in snapping him near the place name, “Split”.

Watch where you stand

I’ve seen many examples of poorly-judged photographs in the business world, too. The CEO who had a fountain in the grounds of his operation, so wanted (I guess) to be pictured near it. The photographer had the idea that the guy should be looking backwards over his shoulder over the camera, with his hands casually in his pockets; the resulting angle and water from the fountain made it look as though he was doing a massive wee. Less juvenile but no less unfortunate is the sheer number of pics taken at exhibitions in which vendors are accidentally standing near their competitor’s logo.

I always tell media training delegates to beware of the bad photo. Standing there and looking straight ahead sounds so simple but always, always have a quick glance behind you and consider how it’s going to look. Oh, and do spend three figures on getting something done professionally if you’re providing your own pics; as editor of a magazine I’ve had people sending byline pics done in photo booths (they look terrible and going onto the Web or into print makes them worse) and on one occasion we had to crop out a top hat as the guy was having his picture taken at a wedding.

My own byline pic (you can see it to the left of this text) cost just under three figures and has served me well for a couple of years – other than slightly greyer hair I’m pretty much the same. Magazines, newspapers and the web are visual media – how much care do you take when your image is going out into the world?

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