Category Archives: magazines

Five strategies for awkward press interview questions

A good press interview should serve your business well in terms of branding but it can go wrong. What do you do, in advance of the event and during it, to make sure things stay under control? Here are my top five tips:

  1. Accept that it’s not completely within your control. The journalist, blogger or other influencer doesn’t work for you so a control-freak approach isn’t going to help. Offer us the tools to build you a good piece of engagement and we might well respond, but we’re not your marketing department.
  2. Before the interview, make a list of questions you think we’re likely to ask and prepare an answer. Make another list of questions you’d rather we didn’t ask and prepare answers for those, too. Forewarned is forearmed and that sort of thing.
  3. If you can’t tell us something, say so. “That’s company confidential”, “We don’t disclose that as a matter of policy” and other honest declarations are fine. We might not like them but if we don’t work for you, it’s equally true that you don’t work for us. If you can’t help, say so.
  4. Be aware of what you can and can’t answer, and above all be aware if something is in the public domain. I once asked a guy about his company profits. He said they were confidential. I pointed out that I could just go to Companies House. He replied – and I treasure this moment – that all Companies House would tell me was the figure he’d given them, his actual profit was much higher. I was very young at the time and didn’t quote him on that. I’ve regretted it ever since.
  5. If we’re really pressing on something with which you’re not comfortable, remember you’re the expert in your business, not us. You can lead us into your comfort zone with phrases like “I think the important point is..” and “My customers are actually telling me…” – I can’t argue with customers.

Those techniques ought to help with some of the trickier questions. Of course if you’ve been siphoning the company pension fund off and we’ve got wind of it and am writing a story about it, there probably isn’t much you can do about it but we’re probably the least of your worries!

Do you need help engaging with the media? I can help; contact me on 07973 278780 or fill in the form below:

What do you mean when you offer an “exclusive”?

I had an offer of an exclusive story last week. It wasn’t huge but nonetheless the idea that it was coming to my publication and my publication only was appealing. So when a press release with all the details went far and wide just as I was typing the story up, I was livid.

The PR company didn’t seem to understand why. So here are some details.

I had a call from the PR people. They offered me a story exclusively and I said I’d be pleased to look at it. It was interesting and two days later they called back and I said yes, I’d like it as an exclusive. They agreed. So today I was in the middle of typing it and, as I say, I received the release – I checked with them that it hadn’t gone elsewhere and I found that it had indeed, and that this was part of their normal conduct with an embargoed story.

So what’s an exclusive?

A Facebook conversation I started seems to be quite divided about this. There are people who consider that the “exclusive” may have meant “nobody else sees this before it’s released so you get extra time to write it” – which means the sites that just publish press releases get it at around the same time I did because they don’t put the research in. Meanwhile I get about 30 seconds as the only person with this story on the Web.

There were people who considered that I should have published earlier – dead on the stroke of midnight – to ensure the exclusive (because all of my readers are poring over my stuff at midnight, of course). Many people thought the executive had confused the fact that there was an embargo with the notion of an exclusive.

Exclusive means exclusive

So here’s the news, if you’re in PR or organising your own publicity. Exclusive, to a journalist, means only one thing: you’re not giving the story to anyone else. In the trade press and in the case of a huge story, this can be a silly thing to promise. Unless you have metrics to prove that appearing in a particular outlet will benefit you or your client more than any other, or if a major outlet will only cover the story if it’s exclusive, why would you do it?

But don’t, really don’t, tell us something is exclusive and then send out the general release when we’re typing up the story. Irritation and a general reluctance to deal with your company again will inevitably follow.

Know your terms

It reminded me of an occasion ten years or so ago when I was invited to a press briefing. “We’re having a day of exclusive interviews,” the PR person gushed. I asked, reasonably I thought, how you could have a whole day of exclusive interviews. “Oh, the interview Accountancy Age does will be exclusive to them, your interview will be exclusive to you…” she said.

Which might have been accurate but it was so general that it devalued the whole day, which would probably have done quite well if it hadn’t been overhyped. Likewise today’s “exclusive” – I would probably have gone for it anyway. I’ll now be looking twice at any press release coming from that particular PR company.

“Exclusive” if it is no such thing is actually a damaging promise to make. Like “off the record”, if your understanding of it is not the same as that of the person to whom you’re talking, it can be a very bad thing. If you’re going to offer an exclusive, be very sure that you and the journalist know just what that means.

And if you’re sending it anywhere else, why do you think it’s exclusive?

Do you need help engaging with journalists? I can help – drop me an email by clicking here or fill in the form below.

Journalism is not part of your content strategy

I had a discussion with a contact the other day. He wanted to place some journalism as a precursor to doing something commercial with a publication.

Seen from the marketing position only it looks reasonable enough. Magazines and websites are mostly commercial enterprises and will form part of your content strategy.

Only…that’s not how journalism works. Here are a few reasons why not:

  1. Our only selling point as an entity in our own right is our independence. Immediately we submit ourselves to being part of someone else’s content strategy, we’ve failed in our basic mission.
  2. Our readers trust us to be independent on the same basis. It might sound as if I’m taking this a bit seriously but we do, genuinely, care about the readers – which is why, whenever there’s an advertorial placed, it will have “in association with” or something written above it. In a well-resourced magazine or website, the editorial content will absolutely stand on its own.
  3. One argument I’ve heard is that if we’re commercial enterprises we need to be flexible in order to be viable. OK, but if we started giving away editorial as part of a “commercial” arrangement, where would the advertiser’s incentive to spend money come from? We’d be giving away our crown jewels for nothing – and undermining their only value simultaneously.
  4. It’s possible or indeed probable, particularly if you’re a tech company, that the publication’s brand is older and arguably more valuable than yours. No journalist will ever say this to your face but have a think: you reckon the Times or Telegraph are going to risk their brand reputations for a couple of thousand quid’s worth of promotion you might one day throw their way? (Or not..?) We’re businesses in our own right, with our own objectives and values. Marketers who regard us as extensions of their own operation will get short shrift.
  5. You can add the journalist’s personal reputation to point 4. None of us want to be thought of as the sort of person who’ll sneak a plug for a client in on a promise of further money rather than writing exclusively in the interests of the readers, although as this blog post outlines some way in, I’m aware there are some dubious practices around.

Honestly, your position as an advertiser or prospective advertiser with a magazine or website won’t matter to a decent editor or journalist. When I was in the trade press years ago the ad team would constantly try to find out what we were reviewing, what we were writing about, with a view to selling ads on the back of it. Other than general subject guidelines and sometimes a public features list (if we were doing a round-up of printers, for example, then of course we’d let the ad team know – but we wouldn’t say which models we were looking at or whether the reviews were positive) the contents of the magazine were confidential to the editorial team until publication day.

By all means there are a few poorly-resourced magazines that will throw editorial into a commercial deal and not tell the readers. The readers will eventually twig, they will stop trusting the magazine, the magazine will go under. The vast majority of reputable publications will not, repeat not, use their editorial content as a pawn in a commercial game.

Do you need someone to work with you on understanding how to work with the media? I can help – contact me on the form below or on 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Tip Sheet: Before the media interview

Let’s assume you’ve done the tricky part and attracted the attention of the media. Whether local or national, you now need to prepare for the interview. Don’t assume you’ll get to see all the questions in advance (depending on what you might say, we don’t actually know all of them yet). It’s a free country and we’re going to feel free to ask whatever occurs to us on behalf of the reader.

So here’s a quick checklist of things to have ready before your interview.

  • Three clear messages. Ideally these should be tied to your desired outcome. If you’re looking for customers, tailor the messages around why buying from you is a good idea (but don’t be too salesy). If you’re looking for investors, prepare messages about financial solidity, and soforth.
  • Prepare techniques for getting back to your messages every so often. Don’t ignore our questions, you’ll look untrustworthy – but come back to your points, as you would in any business discussion. I look at techniques for doing this in my media training sessions.
  • Interviewed by phone? Great – have a list of your company’s figures and facts, and everything you really ought to know by heart but you know you’re going to be nervous.
  • Even if you’re going to be in vision, prepare a list of likely questions and make sure you can answer them.
  • Then prepare a list of questions you hope they won’t ask and prepare answers to those, too. If the journalist doesn’t ask, fine. If they do, you’ll be glad you prepared.
  • If you’re going to be seen on screen, remember patterned shirts and jangly jewellery can be distracting – blocks of colour and simple apparel is best.
  • If you’re getting a new suit/dress/haircut for the event, get it a few days beforehand so you’re used to it. Feeling self-conscious is the death knell for so many interviews.
  • Try to video yourself answering questions and without being overly critical, watch out for repetitious phrases and physical habits people might find irritating.
  • Take all the advice you’ve ever had about how to sit up straight and keep your hands to your side in an interview, and bin it. As long as you’re not actually assaulting the journalist you’re better off being natural.
  • Ask the journalist what his or her first question is going to be. If you’re live on a streaming audio or video show there’s nothing worse than the first response being “Umm…..” – I’ve been there, done that, it doesn’t end well!

Media mistakes 7: I’ll take as much time as I want

I was listening to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 the other day and it happened again – one of the interviewees came out with “Let me finish my answer”. I’ve had this, too, and it’s easy to assume journalists are being rude if they’re trying to hurry you along.

So here’s the news: nobody wants to be rude to you deliberately. So why do we hurry you sometimes – and what can you do about it?

Be engaging

There actually isn’t an easy way to put this: if a journalist interrupts or hurries you, it’s because they’re bored with your answer. Now, there’s a good argument that says we’re not there to be stimulated but to report your view, but we’re human. If we get bored we’ll try to move on.

It’s also possible that we’re trying to get a smarter quote out of you. We don’t have the luxury of using as many words as we’d want; if a news editor has said “do this in 300 words” we do it in 300 words, that doesn’t mean 300 words per quote. And if the script of a radio show says we move onto the next item at 8.13 then that’s what we do. We therefore know that you’ve got 90 seconds to go on your item and you’re still warming up.

So the first thing to do is to understand the medium you’re in, spend less time clearing your throat and get to your point quickly.

Stick to your agenda

There may be times, however, when a journalist has their own agenda and you need to override it and get back to your point. If you’re reading this blog, which is aimed at business clients, you’ll probably be interviewed only because of some sort of expertise you have, so you have the right to take a certain measure of control.

Your problem is that telling the journalist to let you finish your point is always going to sound aggressive.

The key to making it work is to acknowledge the fresh question but finish the previous point, and signal that you’ll be doing so. So you might say “I’ll answer that in a second but first I need to finish the original answer”…or “That’s an important point too and I’ll get to it, but first your listeners/readers need to understand…” and then continue.

Always be calm, always sound positive and always get back to answering the new question as well as finishing the last – then everybody’s happy and, truth be told, you’ll probably sound more reasonable than the journalist.

Do you need help with press interviews? I can help – check my media training page for information.

Media mistakes 6: Don’t write the headline

I’ve been editing supplements and articles for clients again and one of the corporate contributors has been late.

This often happens so it’s just as well I lied through my teeth about the real deadline (experienced editors will know this is essential when dealing with non-journalists who have no reason to be accustomed to deadlines). The writer was a pleasant and professional person – she explained the delay was because she’d written the article but hadn’t put the headline or the subheadings in.

Another contact was writing a piece for me and made the headline into a question. The text started “That’s something I’m often asked, and the answer is…”

Uh-uh. That’s not how it works.

We have experts

Think about a magazine or newspaper for a minute. If you have one handy, pick it up and have a look at the headlines. It may not be obvious but they will be set out according to a particular font and a particular size depending on where they are in the paper. The headlines will also be set to a strict formula – in Professional Outsourcing Magazine, which I edit, you hopefully won’t notice but when I point it out you’ll see that all of the headlines are two decks (that’s journalist jargon for two lines), the straplines are three lines each.

It gives the thing a uniform feel. Now look at the sub-headings. Ask yourself whether they’re there to break up the text visually or there because of the sense of it. Ideally it should be both but – and it’s a big but – ask yourself whether there is a subhead at any point at the beginning of a column or at the end of one. If the subs and production people are doing their job, there won’t be. It looks messy.

So, back to my contributors. There was actually no point in putting the heading or subheading in – if it doesn’t fit exactly it’s going to be thrown out. Likewise, the subheads: unless you can predict exactly where a particular piece of text is going to fall in a column, we’re going to move them or rewrite them for neatness’ sake. And of course the same goes for tying a headline in too closely with the text.

It’s always useful to have a change of tone or subject emphasised, or a suggestion for a subject of a headline. I’d suggest, though, that you don’t bust a gut over it if you’re contributing an article; it’s quite likely to be used as a guideline and then jettisoned in favour of something that will showcase your article better.

Do you need help with writing for publication? I can help – call 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.


I’ve been taking part in a Facebook discussion on whether the press release is dead as a useful thing. My answer is generally “no” and a lot of my views are duplicated in this excellent blog from the Comms Dept:


The problem is that there are some pretty naff press releases out there. So if you’re writing one or are part of the team doing so, here are some of the things that would help me as a journalist.

  • A clear subject line. Too often (ie more than once) people try something clever. Just tell me what has happened: Company X lands major contract, Company B launches new product – whatever it is. If you can’t summarise it quickly does it really need to be said?
  • A good summary in the opening paragraph. I’m a journalist and I’m used to writing news. I therefore expect to read news in a newsy format which means the important stuff goes in immediately – who, what, when, where, how. I may read no further if I’m pushed for time so why not put everything important at the front?
  • Good targeting. Yes it’s difficult to keep track of journalists as their careers progress and they move from title to title. But yes that’s part of the job. If you want me to be interested in writing something you’d better have at least a vague idea of who my readers are.
  • Available spokespeople. A colleague recently replied to a press release and had an autoresponse message that made it clear that the sender was on holiday for a month and didn’t want to be bothered. OK, you’re entitled to your holiday and if you can afford to take a month off, good luck to you – but don’t bother me with a press release if you can’t be bothered yourself, OK?
  • Decent English. I know, I know, it shouldn’t matter, I’m looking for relevance rather than eloquence ideally. However, if you don’t know the difference between their, there and they’re, its and it’s, I might find it irritating. If you clearly don’t know your stuff I’ll be more so. Remember the security breach at married dating organisation Ashley Madison? I had two releases commenting on the incident at Madison Ashley. It just looked like opportunistic grubbing around after half-reading a headline.

Other than the targeting, it all ought to be fairly straightforward.

Do you need help with writing your releases? Email me and we’ll talk.