All posts by Guy Clapperton

Media training: is your news timely or just new?

News, you might imagine, is something that is new. The word itself – although actually derived from the initials of the four compass points – has a clue in the name, a patronising creep of a news editor once told me. (I’m not bitter).

Except when your audience isn’t ready for it. A couple of decades ago, the Internet and email were brand new, or at least just coming into popular public use. I’d been freelance for a few years and was pitching to the Independent.

A story came in from the US, about how the .co.uk and .com addresses were going to run out by about 2001 (we now know this was not right, but we didn’t at the time). I pitched it and then editor of the technology section thought it might be interesting.

I wrote the story and was surprised when something else appeared instead. The editor had spiked my story and put in something about how to set up your email address for the first time, something I’d assumed was already pretty elderly for the national papers.

If it’s news to your audience it’s news

The editor may have been right of course. In 1997 or whenever it was, home computing was just starting. The fact that web addresses may or may not have been in danger of running out may have been a refinement too far for the readership at the time. Many would be buying their first computer, wondering what an ISP was and connecting to the rest of the world for the first time.

If you’re in PR or are pitching stories to the press yourself, it’s worth asking not just whether something is new but whether it’s newsworthy. This means it’s relevant to the readers and not something that may be relevant in a few years. Certainly it shouldn’t be something that they just won’t understand yet.

It’s possible to risk patronising the readers as a result. In 1997 I just don’t know whether that editor was talking down to his readers or whether the story I’d pitched would have been way over their heads (why he commissioned it in the first place is a question I still can’t answer). But always, always try to understand your target outlet and address it rather than address the things that might seem important to you or your client.

Do you need help with your media engagements? Contact me, I can help.

Online interview course goes live

I’m very excited today because my online media training course has just gone live. It’s a preview version at this stage. There’s a new page on this website devoted to it but just to summarise, it’s aimed at:

  • People who want media training but may not have the budget to get me in person (but you can book personal interview practice over the phone);
  • People who want to learn to prepare interviews but who learn better in bite-sized chunks
  • Clients who can’t spare the time for a full-blown media training session or who can’t co-ordinate diaries internally for a group due to other people’s commitments
  • People who want to learn about media tips and how to make the most of an interview and who prefer to learn on devices

It’s formatted as a “build your own journey” thing, so you decide where you’re going to go and what you’re going to do. There are video clips, sample interviews and analysis, downloads, text-based hints and tips and the opportunity to schedule telephone interview practice if you would like it.

I did this in conjunction with the Henshall Centre, whose owner Liton Ali and I are pretty excited about this. There is a special price while we’re in preview mode – once we launch properly there’s likely to be a substantial increase.

We hope you’ll enjoy what we’ve done!

How do you deal with nerves before a press interview?

Tomorrow I’ll be presenting at the Professional Speaking Association’s spring convention and nerves may be an issue. People often ask how I deal with them and the answer is that I don’t, always. It’s not even a big piece of presentation.

Whether you’re about to be interviewed by the press or waiting to go on stage, nerves can be a problem. Here are five points to help you manage them:

  • Embrace them. Nerves basically mean you want to give of your very best, make a good impression and deliver what the person or people in front of you want. You’re not arrogant enough to take your ability to do so for granted. Good. Your nerves are a reminder that you respect the audience and want to give them something good.
  • One theory a comedy mentor once relayed to me is that we go back to our instincts often. We’re still cavemen underneath it all, so where there’s a crowd, we expect to be facing the same way. At a press conference or anywhere there’s an audience, the crowd faces us. Instinctively, at some level, we think they’re going to kill us. They’re honestly not. Recognising where your nerves come from is one way of combating them.
  • A good way to overcome nerves is by preparing. First, make a list of the questions you’re anticipating and make sure you have answers. Second, make a list of all the stuff you’re hoping they won’t ask – and have an answer for those too. If they don’t come up, that’s fine.
  • Remember the people asking the questions may not have a particular agenda other than finding stuff out. I once did a media training session in which I kicked off by asking one of the delegates: “Tell me about yourself and your organisation.” She freaked out, asked to stop the interview, and asked why I wanted to know anything about her. In fact I was just warming up, a name and job title would have answered my question perfectly, but in her mind there was a dangerous agenda being set. Watch out for overthinking and assuming there’s going to be this big agenda before you’ve even started.
  • Don’t give interviews or presentations for which you’re unprepared. Now, “prepared” could mean a bit of deliberate prep for the interview backed by 25 years in your industry, but make sure you’re the genuine expert in what you’re speaking about. The people to whom you’re speaking will then want to hear from you and no matter how hostile they may look (and a straight face from someone who’s just paying attention can look very hostile if you’re feeling tense), they’re mostly on your side.

Will my readers really be interested?

Targeting matters if you’re trying to get a journalist or blogger’s attention. Several times this week alone I’ve had pitches that start off “I’ve enjoyed your writing” and then continue with “your readers will be interested in my/my client’s viewpoint/product…”

In principle this should be excellent. The sender has thought through who my readers are, which publication I write for and why the readers will want to hear from them. I should be excited.

Except that one of the pitches was for a toy (I have almost never written about toys, certainly not for five years or so). Another was for a restaurant launch (I am a technology and business journalist, you can argue that a restaurant is a business but it’s tenuous).

One of the pitches that might actually have been in my area but was a bit vague prompted me to respond: where exactly were you pitching this? I do write for more than one outlet, after all.

Good targeting enables you to send a good reply

Dismally, I didn’t get a response to that question. Literally nothing. This was a shame because I was prepared to listen and, once I knew a bit more about the story, consider where it might work best.

Presumably, bothering to send a response would have been too much effort. A second possibility is that the PR person involved took my query as a rebuff; I’ve had that before. I once told someone with a reasonable pitch that we needed a customer to talk to in order to make the story work, and he said “Yeah, I suppose you’re right” and hung up – when I’d have used him in the Guardian quite happily if he’d gone and done the leg work.

A third possibility, and I fear the most likely, is that the pitch hadn’t been targeted at all. The fact that it might have worked for me was a coincidence, and I was one of many journalists getting the same “This might work for your readers…” pitch, when the sender had no idea who the readers were.

Always, always find out about the readership you’re approaching through a journalist or blogger. You’ll be able to have a much more intelligent conversation afterwards if you have an idea of what you want to get out of it.

An open letter to George Osborne of the Evening Standard

Dear Mr. George Osborne,

Many congratulations on your new position editing the Evening Standard, one of the free newspapers in London. It’s going to be an exciting ride for you – if you’re allowed to do it properly.

There are a few issues you’ll need to look out for. First, let’s clear one thing up; you once wrote a piece for me for a supplement I was editing at the New Statesman and frankly it was excellent – independent, no puff, on time and to length. This bodes well.

However, that’s not the same as editing someone else’s piece. And editing a single piece is not the same as envisioning and putting together an entire publication.

Newspaper process

I’m not normally a fan but Guido Fawkes has published a set of potential conflicts of interests that are going to face you from day one.

The one that leaps out at me is the fact that you’re due either in your constituency or at the House of Commons during the time that the main news meetings will be taking place for the day.

News meetings are important, they decide what’s actually going into the paper. This isn’t a simple paper exercise; juggling exactly what’s going on the news pages and how to prioritise them is how you sell the paper.

It’s a process that can be learned, by all means, but do you really have the time and inclination? There are some who think it’s time you got a proper job, but you may not be one of them.

Conflicts of interests

The Fawkes piece highlights a good few conflicts of interests, but here’s another. According to the papers, you’re pulling in £650K per year from BlackRock and a shedload more from speeches.

I don’t resent that like some people do. As ex-chancellor your appeal probably has a limited shelf life, I don’t blame you for making the most of it while it lasts. But do you really believe it’s my business to know the amount? If not, you’re in trouble, because it’s in your paper’s interests to report it. And what if it’s one of your friends? It’s no secret that you got on fine with David Cameron as prime minister. What happens when someone feeds you the fees he’s earning?

Are you prepared to end your friendship for your readers’ sake? Editing and writing about your friends can be dangerous, and many of your friends and ex colleagues are public figures.

Should you stand down?

Guido Fawkes is calling for your appointment to be blocked. I’m not so sure. Your old friend the former prime minister has gone. You’re no great pal of his replacement and you’re still opposed to Brexit. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that view, I wonder whether you’d be in a better position to express it as the head of London’s free paper than as an MP?

Dig a little further and you realise that your constituency is among those under threat from the redrawing of the boundaries before the next general election. Unless there’s a sharp realignment from Theresa May between now and then, or unless she falls (and given the political events of the last couple of years I rule nothing out), I don’t see a way back for you. The publicity says you’ll stay MP for Tatton whilst being editor. Never mind waiting to see whether your appointment is blocked, I wonder whether pulling out early and provoking another byelection might be a better option, giving you a cleaner entry and kicking a political opponent in the teeth at the same time?

In fact I’m beginning to wonder whether you hadn’t already thought of all of that before any of this became public.

Oh, and if you need a media commentator I’m reassuringly expensive.

Yours

Guy Clapperton

Journalists: the non-specialists need to be informed

Journalists don’t know as much as you think. At least not every time. People assume we’re experts and that we know loads of stuff. We may have fewer resources than you imagine.

A friend of mine is a composer. He was on Facebook a while ago complaining that a noted contemporary composer had his name pronounced incorrectly on a small radio programme on the BBC. I pointed out that the announcer may have been stuck making his best guess, and my friend said “I imagine there’s a team of researchers for them to consult”.

Laugh, I nearly…

Journalists do their own research

Here’s the big secret: Google has pretty much killed any advantage journalists had in terms of research about an interview into which they’re going “cold”. You can see the effect in a few stories that came up recently in the news.

You’ll recall, perhaps dimly, that before the current news storm about the budget, it was all about Jeremy Corbyn’s tax return and whether he’d declared all of his income. He had not declared a full year as leader of the opposition.

Now, I’m also someone who submits a tax return, as a company director. So I’m well aware of the tax year running April to April and personal returns being due on 31 January, at least until the latest reforms kick in next year. People employed by other people don’t have to concern themselves as much about those deadlines.

So it was perhaps no surprise that the many staff reporters writing up the stories didn’t stop to think that if Corbyn submitted a tax return on 31 January it had to cover the year ended 6 April 2016. And since he wasn’t leader of the opposition for the full 12 months before that, it would actually be factually wrong for him to declare a full year’s income on leader’s pay.

So many of the press didn’t spot this. Likewise, they’re not all specialists in how legislation works. Today’s headlines (like the one in the Daily Mail: “Tory tax retreat after just 24 hours: Theresa May steps in to pause the £2billion Budget blow to the self-employed after a rebellion by furious Tory MPs”) refer to a climbdown by the prime minister. But is it?

The original plan was to increase taxes on the self-employed from April 2018. Instead of debating it now while everyone is furious the PM is now going to have the debate in October, which will allow plenty of time for new rules to be enacted before April, indeed there will be another budget at around the same time.

Remind me: what’s actually changed, other than the presentation?

You can make this an advantage

So, why am I telling you this? The answer, quite straightforwardly, is that you can use it. Journalists may have limited resources. They may not all be specialists in the area in which you work (some will be, never be afraid to get a PR company to find out). We need to sound authoritative when we write, and that’s where you can help.

Yes, you’ll want to push your company’s agenda. Yes, you’ll want to use an interview to publicise your business. You can also use it to brief the journalist on stuff he or she needs to know.

When I started as a tech journalist I wrote a lot about printers (livin’ the dream…). One contact was very helpful: not only did he tell me about his company’s products, he took the trouble to explain exactly how the printer worked and how the contents of the toner drum ended up looking like words and pictures on paper.

Obviously, every time I needed extra comment on the printer market I’d go straight to him. He picked up a lot of extra coverage for his business.

There may be ways you can do the same. Is there something in your announcement that may not be obvious to a non-specialist? Is the publishing professional in front of you really a specialist in your field?

If he or she isn’t, you could be in a position to pick up a hell of a lot of brownie points without even trying.

Do you need help speaking to the media? I can help – fill in the form below and we’ll see what I can do.