What journalists understand by “production”

I do a little corporate writing work as well as journalism and one of the things I always used to ask was: do you have production sorted? The answer would generally be “yes”, but it would turn out that they hadn’t. I’ve given up using the word outside newspaper and magazine offices but a lot of my colleagues still will. This is because to a journalist, “production” is something the production editor has organised alongside the editors and subs.

Too often you ask whether there will be production staff, the answer is “yes” and then the commissioning person goes into near-apoplexy when there’s a single typo. By “production”, the client often means the physical production of the magazine, in other words “have you hired a printer”.

So it’s worth explaining the journalists’ standard processes.

How we work

We get commissioned, we research, we write and we send the copy off electronically. That much is pretty obvious. The features editor, news editor or whichever commissioning editor we’re talking to reads through for sense and relevance – basically if we haven’t followed the brief or misunderstood it, this is the stage at which we’re weeded out.

Assuming it’s reasonably OK, our copy is then passed to the sub-editors. It’s here that the pieces are bashed into shape, checked for length and house style (is the first number written 1 or one? Are companies singular or plural?) and also for sense. Here’s where you’ll get queries coming in from someone who’s a grammar specialist rather than a subject matter specialist, and although the subs don’t welcome copy with typos, they’ll sort them out. So will their boss, the production editor.

Of course they’d rather have clean copy and I always try to send it. But if there are multiple deadlines then it’s only human to think “someone else is going to be looking over this, two people in fact…” and hit “send” to keep to timing.

Now, if you’ve given the writer the impression – using the word “production”, generally after going on about how much you know about journalism (I get this a lot from contract publishers but also corporate clients offering flannel about how well they know hacks and their world) – that this process will be intact, you might therefore get some copy in which the typing is less than 100 per cent. It’s not something we journalists should do and certainly not something of which we should be proud but it happens and it doesn’t mean we’re neglecting our job – just assuming there’s a decent safety net below.

Pictures

The other thing a handful of corporate clients haven’t understood is that journalists are very good at finding things out and expressing them clearly, and after that we come to a halt. I was on a call a few months ago after writing a piece. On the call was me, the end client and the client’s digital agency – nobody from the writing agency that had employed me directly (and which itself reported to the digital agency) was there.

Embarrassingly, the client’s agency asked me to talk the client through my approach. I didn’t have much to say other than “I had the brief, I interviewed the client and I followed it”. But how, the questions ran, did I see this being laid out and what was I going to use to illustrate it?

The only accurate answer was that the writing agency had professionals with a vastly better visual imagination than mine, who’d be laying out and sourcing illustrations accordingly. And no, none of this would happen free of charge (although I was approximately 100 per cent convinced the cost would already have been in the contract). The digital guy clearly hadn’t taken any brief as to how the thing worked, and ended up making himself and me look ridiculous in front of the client.

So if you’re ever commissioning a journalist:

  • Be clear about what’s expected. If there are no production people to proof and double check, we can handle it as long as we know.
  • Be aware of what journalists do. We’ll be pleased to ask interviewees for pictures and come up with ideas for illustration if you need it; we may not be proficient in page layouts and if we claim to be photographers, watch out for quality, that’s a skilled job using specialist equipment and it takes years to master.
  • If you find the odd typo, point it out by all means but don’t pick at it like a running sore – we’re a bit mollycoddled by other people picking these up for us and not saying anything, and probably didn’t know how bad our typing actually was..!

Natalie Bennett’s car crash interview

Sometimes when someone gets something wrong you have some sympathy. Sometimes you may not, and when someone is seriously of the opinion that they should form part of the next Government, you might feel like giving them a little less leeway.

This is the position in which Green Party leader Natalie Bennett found herself yesterday as LBC’s James Ferrari asked her some pretty basic questions on costing her policies. The clip on this BBC reportage pretty much sums up her performance and it’s not good. For once Ferrari wasn’t being unduly tough – so what happened?

Bad day at the office

Bennett’s own explanation is that she had a bad cold, things didn’t come together, her memory blanked and she basically had a bad day at the office. This is pretty much beyond dispute. The question is what she could have done to avoid it – and whether someone who’s going to have such bad days is actually an appropriate leader for a political party.

There are a number of tips I can offer on preparing for an interview of this sort, although I’ve never briefed a politician. The first is simple: you don’t have to do the interview at all. If figures aren’t your thing or if you’re unwell and know you won’t do the subject justice, don’t do it.

The second is prepare, prepare and prepare again. The query about costs was not a surprise but the fact that Bennett didn’t know them was stunning. She probably did know them – but then claimed houses could be built for around £60K, which as Ferrari points out, would get you a small conservatory.

The third thing is that if you fluster, if you realise it’s coming to an end, stop. Take time. Make an excuse, take a sip of water – Bennett had a coughing fit, she could have taken advantage of that, had some water, apologised, all of which would have bought her time to gather her thoughts.

As it is, she made the classic mistake of speaking too quickly and then speeding up, allowing herself even less time to catch up with her thoughts. If you can feel your interview running away with itself, slow down – again, it allows you some time to think. She apologised later but she hasn’t done her party any favours.

As I type, she’s still leader. But at the beginning of the week I could have typed “Malcolm Rifkind is still in post”. Were I a Green Party member I’d be wondering about the person taking us into the General Election and how she’d cope if the questioning got any tougher.

Information on Guy Clapperton’s media training sessions is here.

I don’t work for you

As you’ll see from the pic, I’m working away from home today – once a week I try to work at the IoD, of which I’m a member. I can do this because I’m self-employed. In other words I work for myself, or more realistically for a series of clients; what I don’t do generally is to work for the people I’m interviewing.

This can come as a surprise to some of them. A while ago I explained why I won’t show people my copy in advance (and nor should any journalist); some of the expectation that people should be able to do just that appears to come from the belief that we as journalists are part of an overall marketing machine.

Movies are the worst

There was an incident just recently in which director Quentin Tarantino threw a bit of a wobbly in a Channel 4 News interview because they were asking questions he didn’t like and this was supposed to be, he believed, an advertisement for his movie.

Uh-uh. No it’s not. It’s independent journalism.

It gets worse when a handful – a minority, I suggest – of PR people fail to manage expectations. Someone must have advised Tarantino to expect an advert for his film; it wouldn’t have been a journalist and particularly not one from Channel 4 News. And yet it’s mostly the hack that gets it in the neck when things are perceived to have gone “wrong” in this way. It’s a free country, we’re allowed to ask what we want, and yet we still get people thinking they can prohibit certain areas. Of course you’re free not to answer, that’s as much your right as it’s ours to ask.

It can be useful to learn a few bridging phrases:

“That’s not a point of view I hear from my customers. What they’re saying is…”

“Our experience actually reflects something different…”

Or in Tarantino’s case, “What really matters is what the public thinks of the movie, and so far reception has been good…” would have been pretty unarguable.

Instead, the suggestion that we’re doing something wrong in not acting as an extension of someone’s marketing department gets in the way and people feel we’re being obstructive when actually we’re just doing our job.

I’ll finish with a truly awful example of someone who thinks it’s their interview rather than an independent event in which the journalist can ask what they like. Again, it’s from Channel 4 News; consider what a bridging phrase or reference to the packed premises full of happy customers might have achieved. For information on my media training offering, click here after wincing at the video.

You’re telling me too much

I once media trained a company and started by asking them what the company did (I always do my homework but wanted to see how they’d handle it in their own words). They paused and started with “well, that’s a difficult question…” and took me on a verbal tour of the business’ history.

This is never, ever a good idea. First because anyone who can’t tell me what their business is or does goes down in my book as “well-intentioned but an over-thinker”. Second because the damned question was only my way of clearing my throat before an interview in the first place. If I need to know what your company does I’ll look at the website, you’ve put it there to help me and it’s appreciated.

If I’m talking to you in an interview then I’m mostly looking for quotes. And those quotes will need to be relatively brief.

Background

I’m a journalist, I get a lot of people approaching me. Let’s guess that I receive around 60 press releases a day and that more than a few of them are well-targeted.

So even before I speak to you or your client I’m sifting in my head, working out what’s relevant and helpful, what may be useful in passing and what’s frankly ridiculous (if the people who send me a daily press release on marital infidelity are reading, I’ll leave you to guess which category is yours). Logically I’m going to need simplicity from you because my brain is only going to cope with so much.

So, before you talk to me or any of my colleagues you really need a couple of things straight, and “what you do for a living” is among them. You could even pretend I have a narrow attention span (journalists tend to) so you need to avoid dwelling on the dull stuff I can find out elsewhere and move to the bits that only you can give me, pronto.

Complexity

The biggest problems of this nature happen when someone works in a large, complex organisation. The temptation is to try to tell me that you do a bit of IT outsourcing, you operate a telecoms division and also supply domestic Internet and phone but you’re there to speak about cloud technology on that particular day.

True though all this is, I’d rather hear the cloud bit first and then offer to put me in touch with other people if I want the full corporate picture. This has two beneficial effects other than the simple “getting to the point is better” effect. First, I’m less likely to make a mistake and attribute the wrong bit of your company to you (it happens on tight deadlines).

Second, even more fatally, it means I won’t find another part of your organisation more interesting than yours and start asking about that instead. On a couple of occasions I’ve had someone accidentally tell me a much more interesting story than the one about which they were hoping I’d write and they’re very disappointed when I won’t go back to the dull one.

Of course I won’t. I’m accountable to my editor and serving my readers. So keep it simple – even if it’s complex, just tell me the bits I need whilst making it clear there’s a bigger picture in the background – keep it clear and keep on topic.

Details of Guy Clapperton’s media training courses are available by clicking here.

How did Miliband repeat himself like this?

Have a look at the video above. It’s only a couple of minutes long. It’s Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, repeating himself and making the same point over and over again.

I show this to media training candidates and ask them what’s going on. Sometimes they respond: Miliband is an idiot.

So let’s leave party politics at the door for a moment. Let’s just assume the likelihood is that after May we will have one of two possible people as Prime Minister, and one of them is in the clip above. Even if he loses, becoming the second-likeliest Prime Minister after May isn’t something you achieve by being thick.

So what really happened? I wasn’t there but I can guess.

Find out about the interview

One excellent piece of advice I’ve heard a number of times is that people should find out about how a broadcast interview they give will be used. Ask the journalist: will you be using just my best quote or will you be putting everything out there, the full three minutes?

If it’s “just the best” then the standard advice is, no matter what the question, get your key messages out there.

This, I suspect, is what Miliband and his advisors were told before the above interview took place. So he’s dutifully brought every answer around to his central point; the strikes are wrong when talks are ongoing but the Government has behaved irresponsibly (disagree if you wish, but he’s expressing his view well).

The problem – and the refinement I’d add – is that someone, somewhere, will have a copy of all the repetitious responses and has the power to make you look (technical term coming up) a muppet. This is what someone’s done to Miliband above; according to some of the labels on YouTube it appeared in this form on Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe, a comedy/satire programme. They’ve just shown the unedited version with all of the identikit answers, and it looks absurd.

So what can you do to avoid this? In the context of a comedy programme Miliband still looks a fool; decontextualised he looks even more so. I’ve seen this circulated on social media without any reference to the comedy programme by people who genuinely get the impression that Miliband doesn’t realise he’s repeating himself. Don’t let this happen to you.

My suggestion to my media training candidates is that they answer the question. Prepare more than one message you need to get into an interview and push different ones. Respond to the questions rather than use them as cues for your spiel. They’ll naturally be different. You can still make your point.

You should end up with your message getting out there just as you’d hoped, but if someone gets hold of the unedited version then hopefully you won’t look quite as absurd as Mr. Miliband does in the clip.

It’s not his fault. He’s been manipulated for comic effect. However, by varying your responses, you can ensure the same thing doesn’t happen to you.

Details of Guy Clapperton’s media training course can be found by clicking here.

Pitching: it’s not about you (or your client)

I had a fine afternoon media training yesterday and in one of the exercises the PR team pitched their event to me. The idea was that they needed to get journalists to their show in another country, so they tried their real live pitches on me. Some were pretty good.

They all had the content. They told me about:

  • Speakers
  • Previous successes of the event
  • Other contacts in the audience

So, so far, so good. Except I would never have attended in a zillion years.

It’s not about ego, but…

If you’re talking to journalists, you need to be talking to us about our readers. Before we do anything at all we need to know there will be something in it for them, or else there will be no point in engaging.

Think of it as a headline and some bullet points. If your headline is “we think our event will be really interesting” then great, I hope you do – if you don’t, nobody else will. It won’t engage my attention, though, and I’m unlikely to attend. Massage that slightly to “your magazine covers X subject and there will be exclusive content at my event” and I’m slightly interested. Add “Your readers have shown interest in such and such a topic and the world specialist will be speaking exclusively for us” and I’ve gone past “interested” and am bordering on “fascinated”.

Then you introduce the detail. Who exactly will be there, what they’ll be speaking about and above all whether I can get some time with them away from other hacks – I’m looking for an exclusive story rather than something everyone else has as well.

Then feed me some proof points. At last year’s event, company X succeeded in getting its first round of funding, so it’s a heavyweight event (this is a real example from yesterday’s pitch).

Journalists get swamped with requests for our time so “no thanks” is still the easiest default answer. However, structure your pitch around my readers rather than around what’s important to you, and it’s a lot more difficult for me to write off immediately.

Guy Clapperton’s media training offering can be found by clicking here.