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.

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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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Media interviews: When you’re right, shut up

Some of you might recognise the quote in the headline up there. It’s from a poem by Ogden Nash and the complete quote is “when you’re wrong, admit it; when you’re right, shut up”. But what has this to do with interviews?

The fact is, it’s useful advice for media interviews as well as life in general (it’s probably saved many marriages). Your competitor may well be going down the pan. People might actually be stupid to spend money on a named brand rather than your offering. But is telling them so through the media going to do any good?


You’ll probably be familiar with the president of the USA’s Twitter habit. Earlier this week he used the social network to respond to criticisms about how he handled a conversation with a war widow – a Gold Star widow in American jargon. She said he made her cry by saying her husband knew what he was getting into and not remembering his name. Here is his Twitter response:

Now, I don’t know Trump and I wasn’t there. I’m no fan but in fairness, some of the comments on his Tweet indicate that there is a recording and transcript around (I do ask myself why) and that Trump may have a point.

From which I conclude that a distressed widow might not have been thinking completely rationally. This isn’t a surprise.

Let’s assume, then, that Trump is factually correct on this occasion. I still contend that the president of the USA, the most powerful man in the world, going onto Twitter and implicitly suggesting that a gold star widow is being dishonest, is unwise. He has overlooked the weight his office carries, he’s forgotten the emotional state she is likely to be in. His wording is actually quite moderate but it doesn’t matter – in the context of his other Tweets, this is seen as lashing out.

I’ve come across other examples. There was an elderly woman in America who gave interviews about how the tobacco companies, by marketing their product as harmless in previous decades, had effectively killed her. The lawyers cottoned on to the fact that she’s worked with asbestos so it wasn’t clear-cut. The PR people’s counsel was that it didn’t matter whether the tobacco people were right or wrong; massive cigarette corporations going after an elderly, dying woman in the courts was never going to look good.

Your interviews

So let’s take an example that might occur in a more everyday situation. A disgruntled and fired employee is spreading malicious gossip about your company.

You can dismiss these as from an unreliable source. You have proof of his or her dishonesty and can furnish the press with it. But should you? Is this going to look any better than the most powerful president in the world criticising a widow for inaccurate recollections at probably the most difficult time of her life?

OK, it’s not going to be that bad. But sometimes, even when you’re right, shutting up can be the better part not only of valour, but of coming out looking reasonable at the end.

Do you need help with interview practice or media communications? I can help – email by clicking here and I’ll look forward to working with you.

What sort of editor should you be?

If you ask me to work as editor on an article, magazine or book, what should you expect? A vague tidy of grammar and punctuation or a full-blown rewrite?

I’ve had both as a writer. An old news editor of mine took to rewriting every story I wrote. He’d print it out, hand it to me and say “see”? It may have been intended as training; it came out as belittling. He’s no longer in the business, I’m happy to say.

My own style is somewhat different. I’ve been writing full-time for 28 years so yes, there’s a good chance I could rephrase something a new person brings to me and make it a little more elegant. One thing would be missing, though.

People have seen my version of loads of things before. But they haven’t seen that new writer’s take. Or yours, if you’re thinking of hiring a ghost writer or getting someone to tidy your copy up.

The editor will watch house style and grammar

That said, there are still a few things that should be taken as read. Put bad grammar in and a good editor will correct it (and I mean genuinely bad grammar rather than following a few rules slavishly, as I explain in this post). Fail to adhere to house style and there will be tweaks. This won’t be big stuff, it will be changing “per cent” to “%” in Economist style, or the other way round for Guardian style.

If you’re writing an opinion piece to publicise your company there will be other stuff too. When I started as a freelance and ghosted several such pieces for clients, one of my favourite editors had a strict rule; any more than three mentions of the company name and she’d start zapping them.

Unlike the guy I mentioned earlier, she was keen to hear the voice of the writer and didn’t recast everything as if she’d written it herself.

If you’re writing for magazines, newspapers and other people’s websites, you might find either extreme or somewhere in between when your work is edited. If you’re commissioning an editor for your own work, to beat it into shape, it can be worth considering the above and making sure you know what sort of edit you need – and putting it into the brief.

Do you need help with editing or with coaching on your business writing? I can help – drop me an email by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Media training: is there an obvious question?

If you’re going in front of the media you should know what you’re going to say. But have you thought about what the interviewer is going to ask? Elsewhere on this blog and in my media training sessions I highlight the need to get back on topic and take control of an interview. The journalist will be quite capable of pushing back if he or she needs to.

Ideally there need be no surprise about the questioning, though. It’s worth preparing by making a list of obvious subjects, not just the ones that will work for you. The ones that don’t are equally important, if not more so.

And it’s here that we introduce our old buddy Theresa May.  Here she is in an excruciating exchange with Ian Dale of LBC radio:


The trouble with this latest car crash is that it should have been an easily-predicted question.  The prime minister has made speeches about how no deal is better than a good deal, she was full of the “Brexit means Brexit” sound bite when she first got the job and her tone in her February speech in Lancaster House was strident. The text is here and towards the end she’s all but telling the EU off.

So she’s taken a strong position in the past. Holding her to account by asking “Would you vote for this again” is not a question that took a lot of imagination. It’s a justifiable and obvious line to pursue. It looks as though it caught her completely on the hop in spite of having all the resources of 10 Downing Street at her disposal.

Never mind which side of the debate you’re on. There are places to debate that (come to Facebook and I’ll shout at you anytime). As a piece of communication this was shoddy in the extreme. The prime minister really, seriously, ought to have been ready for something so basic – if you’re going into an interview to promote your business, have some answers ready for the obvious stuff.

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