All posts by Guy Clapperton

Giving gifts to journalists – our ethics

Sometimes when I’m media training I’m asked about giving gifts to journalists. This is something that’s changed over the years and, I believe, it’s better now. The simplest advice is not to do so.

In the late eighties when I started as a tech journalist, there wasn’t a year without a case of wine or something turning up at the office for Christmas, usually from the marketing department of a company about which we’d written regularly. There was no linkage in our minds between this and the coverage.

There were also more overt gifts. One editor I knew rarely paid for his own laptop computer. He explained that a few PR people and he regularly planned that he’d be the last person to review a unit, and by the time it had been pulled apart that many times it wasn’t cost-effective to retrieve it. Hence, free laptops for years.

There are exceptions of course. Food and drink journalists can’t reasonably write about their field without tasting, and expecting them to send back the remainder of a bottle of beer would be absurd.

The tech-based generosity all came to a halt a couple of decades later. First, the financial crash happened. Second, a lot of marketing departments did some thinking.

Are you drinking someone’s job?

Two things happened. It started to occur to people on both sides of the fence that if money was being spent on journalists then it wasn’t going on the core business. When people were losing their livelihoods all over the place, it was less comfortable when someone biked a bottle of bubbly or something over.

Second, during the late 1990s the Internet became more popular. It had always been known that the UK and the US had different cultures when it came to “freebies” (they were much more strict than us). Being in closer contact with each other held us in the UK up to the light and we could see how this looked to other people.

That said, there may be times when you want to give someone a little thank you. Here’s something that happened to me only a couple of weeks ago.

Say it with as little money as possible

I was interviewing someone and we were getting on well. He was interesting and I warmed to his subject. He told me there was a book I’d really enjoy, and asked for my email address. I gave it, politely, expecting information on the book.

When I checked, he’d sent me the audiobook. Now, has a promotion so that you can send someone a copy of your favourite book free of charge, I believe (it’s obviously promotional but you do get the whole book).

I found I had a gift that was: a) personal and thoughtful, because it was a result of an actual conversation, and also b) free to the sender.

Meanwhile my wife works in the public sector; their stipulations, if someone insists on giving them something, are that it has to be declared if it’s worth over a fiver and unless it’s perishable, they tend to put it into a prize draw for their nominated charity anyway.

On the “perishable” theme, when someone gave me some help with a contract once and wouldn’t accept money, I sent a box of cookies. I had to query non-delivery so the company sent out another couple of boxes to be certain. By the time the fourth box had arrived my contract friend was begging for them to stop.

In fact the more I think about it, the more I think “just a really good story thanks” is about right for most journalists I know.

Should you stop annoying journalists?

Last week I asked readers what they’d like me to cover in a webinar I was due to host this week. That’s now postponed for a fortnight but one request caught my eye: someone wanted to know how to avoid annoying journalists. Maybe oddly, I’ve concluded that a good PR person should be an annoyance occasionally.

Let’s just be clear before I get slaughtered: I’m not talking about annoying us for the sake of it, calling every five minutes (one PR company took to calling me every day when they’d issued a press release a while back, and that achieved nothing for them or their clients). But there are others who call when they have something distinct and useful to say and that’s welcome.

I’ve seen people on Facebook and elsewhere offering advice like: don’t call journalists. Don’t follow up a press release, ever. Don’t delegate journalist contacts to young women, older male journalists know what you’re up to (genuinely, someone hinted at this on a Facebook group only last week).

I have another suggestion.

Don’t forget who you work for

I get that I’m not going to win any popularity contests among some of my colleagues for saying this, but: who do some of these journalists think they are? We have the word “journalist” in our job title and this, to my mind at least, implies that people who believe they have interesting stories may get in touch.

Of course, “interesting” in turn implies that you’ve found out about my readership and what I actually write about. Scattergunning any old release at all journalists whether they’re likely to give a whatsit or not is counterproductive.

I speak to a lot of PR people, though, who listen to journalists chanting the “don’t call me” mantra but when you ask quietly they confirm that relevant press releases followed up by a call tend to produce better results than those not followed up at all. And the job is to get a result, not necessarily to butter up an insecure hack who has forgotten that he or she doesn’t employ you so their best interest is in friendly co-operation rather than in outright hostility. That doesn’t mean responding positively to every approach; it means declining politely when something doesn’t appeal, and giving a reason why where possible.

So here’s my guide to not annoying journalists. First, accept that some will always be annoyed. A handful are resentful of the fact that they need PR people at all, considering them somehow “impure”. Ignore them, they’ll never be happy with you. Focus instead on the politely responsive, and tailor your pitches; have an idea of where you’re aiming your story and why it will appeal. Be selective about when you call. If it’s after every release the call becomes white noise. If it’s only after the ones you really think deserve our attention, we’re likely to listen.

And difficult though it is, don’t let us get away with patronising you. You don’t work for us, we don’t work for you but we can share aims on occasion so an atmosphere of understanding the other side and its objectives will help everybody. If we’re treating you like an idiot because we think you’re 20 years younger than us, that’s our problem – journalists with that attitude probably think 40 is “young”.

Actually, now that I think of it, I wouldn’t mind being 40 again…

How do you keep a webinar lively?

Media training yesterday, a lively event, and one of the delegates asked me how he should make his webinars lively. He found them difficult because there was no immediate comeback from the audience. I agree; I’ve sat through a number of them and am presenting one to fully launch my online media training course, currently in preview.

It’s an issue. My colleague who’s arranging Wednesday’s event has attended webinars in which the text box has been full of people not talking business but arranging where to go for a curry in the evening. So here are some tips that I’ll be using as presenter:

  • Find some typical audience members beforehand and ask what they would like to see in terms of content. Address it and address them by name during the webinar. The audience needs to know you’re listening as well as broadcasting, and talking to them.
  • Watch that text box and don’t blame people if they’re distracted – it’s my job to keep them engaged, not their duty to support me.
  • Keep it short and all points brief. Allow for the audience to have different priorities from mine.
  • Have an expert handle the technology while I handle the content. Yes, I could “pilot” the thing reasonably well but no, if I’m trying to focus on presenting as well I don’t think that will work.
  • Don’t single people out and ask them questions – I’ve seen this in webinars, someone’s suddenly handed the chance to speak and unless they wanted it, it just embarrasses them.
  • Keep the pace going – lapses in energy are emphasised rather than helped on video.
  • Take all the feedback I can so the next one is even better!

And of course if there are any media training or press interview issues people would like me to address at 3pm on Wednesday you’re more than welcome to leave them as comments to this message – more details on how to log in will follow.

Is there a reason you can’t answer my interview question?

A while ago I did an interview a guy who’d sold his company. He had every reason to be very pleased with himself. Having started a small software operation he had, his PR people told me later, gone off on a world cruise, bought a yacht, you name it.

I asked, not unreasonably, whether all of the staff would be moving over to the new owner. “There may,” he answered very stiffly, “be some duplication and so not everybody will find a role. We will try to look after everybody.”

Given a company acquisition, and bearing in mind he was a business owner rather than a social enterprise, I thought that was a fair answer. So I asked: will you be staying on with the company? “There may,” he answered very stiffly, “be some duplication and so not everybody will find a role. We will try to look after everybody.”

I tried again. How many of the staff will be moving over, I asked? “There may,” he answered, as if you hadn’t already guessed, “be some duplication and so not everybody will find a role. We will try to look after everybody.”

No need to avoid an easy question

Now, in my media training sessions and indeed my online offering I offer techniques to people who need to get around a difficult or impossible question. This wasn’t one of those, though.

The techniques are relatively simple, and if you can’t answer a question then saying “I’m unable to answer that question” is, believe it or not, a perfectly good solution. It may be due to stock exchange rules, it may be because of client or staff confidentiality, there can be a number of reasons. Just tell me – you don’t work for me, I should accept it.

But don’t make it difficult for yourself. Apparently once I’d left the room this particular guy got quite a rollicking from his PR people, who felt they spent enough time protecting him from genuinely awkward questions. They didn’t have time to protect him from harmless, straightforward ones as well.

There isn’t always an agenda. The journalist isn’t out to get you and not every question is loaded with traps. If you can answer a question in an interview straightforwardly and harmlessly, just do it.

Do you need help engaging with the media? I can help with coaching – fill in the form below or email me.

Free pre-interview checklist

Psst…want a free checklist of things to do before a media interview?

It’s here:

Media Interview Checklist

And yes, it’s on the Henshall Centre website, so of course it’s there to attract people to the online media training course I’ve blogged about and to which this page of this site is dedicated.

But it’s a useful guide – do click through and have a look. And while you’re there why not consider the online media training course?

If you’d rather have me media train you in person, I’m on 07973 278780 and you’re welcome to get in touch – or use the contact page to schedule an initial call.

General election lessons: watch what you’ve said

This isn’t a political blog so I’m not going to comment on the wisdom or otherwise of calling an election right now (there will be no definitive verdict on that until 9 June, no matter what the pundits say). However, from a communications perspective there is much to learn.

If you’re going to stand up in public often, it’s worth keeping an eye (or ear) on any pronouncements you might have made before.

There will be no 2017 election…

As I type it’s about three and a half hours since prime minister Theresa May announced she was going to try calling a general election on 8 June. Rumours were already circulating so the Independent had already put this piece online, demonstrating just how many times she’d said she was going to do no such thing:

She is far from the only one of course. Inevitably Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters will be calling for loyalty from their party – and will have the fact that he personally rebelled against Labour’s then leadership no fewer than 428 times from the back benches.

This stuff is well known. But does it tell us anything about how you can communicate about your business?

Consistency is everything

Obviously stuff changes, and May will no doubt argue that stuff has definitely changed since she backed the Remain vote less than a year ago. In business things change as well but when they haven’t, your position had better be consistent.

In the 1990s I interviewed a guy from IBM, who had just started running their desktop division. I pointed out that when at Toshiba – then a leader in laptop manufacturing – he’d said the desktop was dead.

He denied having said it and dismissed my comment as a nice journalistic jab but not a reflection of what he’d said. On checking when I got back to the office I found the press release; he’d either said it or authorised it as a comment on his behalf.

Google changes everything

You now don’t have the luxury of waiting until a hack like me gets back to the office, is on deadline and so hasn’t got the time to call you back so the comment doesn’t get into my article. Anyone with a smartphone (and every journalist will have one) can check up on you now.

The way around this is to ensure you’re well briefed, you have a corporate message and you stick to it.

That said, a few years later I saw a guy presenting in his new job, having previously worked for a competitor. One of the audience asked whether he was telling the truth now and had been lying to them previously or the other way around. He spread out his hands, cast his eyes to the heavens and said: “The truth changed!”

He got the biggest round of applause of the day and a lot of laughs. We all know the game, you’re sending messages out because it’s your business and that can change – but try not to contradict yourself, from the same job, in a matter of weeks or even days.

Do you need help with your corporate messaging or preparation for interviews? I can help – email me for details.

Pitching to the press: be careful of keywords!

I’m writing a small story for a new client at the moment. It’s a fun piece. It’s aimed at small retailers and it’s specifically about sale events (and yes, I’m writing this in advance so it won’t appear online until the piece is public).

The site is aimed at small independent resellers. There’s generally better money in writing for the big guns, they have more finance; I do enjoy writing for and about people who are tiny independent businesses like mine. It’s about sales – as in sale events, January sales, that sort of thing.

Some of the pitches have been very good. They took all of the above into account. Some are not.

Size can be important

One of them, for example, was from a major High Street store. Now, I have nothing against major High Street stores. But if someone is writing about and for smaller businesses, a pitch like “here’s how Sainsbury’s does it” is only so much use.

Another went: “The thing to do is to capture every customer’s detail from every sale. Track them, send them the relevant offers and ensure you have a relationship.”

All good advice in general but how does this relate specifically to the one-off sale event, I asked? Oh, came the reply, it doesn’t. I thought you meant selling in general.

Which wouldn’t have been so bad if they hadn’t already been back to their client to source several paragraphs of good but completely irrelevant sense.

You only read one word, didn’t you?

The problem in both cases, and yes I did ask, was that they’d just seen the word “sale” and sourced a load of verbiage that seemed vaguely relevant. They hadn’t done anything about the detail, so they’d missed the fact that the client was irrelevant in one case and the subject was way off beam in the other.

I have some sympathy. PR is a pressured job. But as I’ve often said to my daughter when she’s coming up to exams, taking the time to read the question first can literally save hours working on something that’s literally never going to produce anything like a good result.

Do you need help talking to the press and preparing messages? Email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.