Media training: Journalists might not have an agenda!

I come across a lot of strange preconceptions in media training sessions – strange to me anyway. One of the biggies is that people often assume I’m up to something. This means one of two things: either they’re really getting into the interview role play exercise, or I seem really untrustworthy!

It goes something like this. We set a scenario – often I’m playing a journalist at a trade show who’s wandered onto the client’s stand. I introduce myself and ask something like “So, tell me about yourself and your organisation.”

This, believe me, is effectively a journalist clearing their throat. Which is why the reactions can be pretty odd.

Panic

A few years back I had a woman saying “Can we stop the exercise? I can’t answer that! Why would you want to know anything about me? What’s behind this?”

What was behind it was a journalist trying to find out who they’re talking to. A name and a job title, and preferably a one-sentence summary of what the company does, would have been admirable.

I’ve asked IT hardware companies how they distribute their goods, directly or through indirect sales channels, and they’ve seen an agenda creeping in and gone cautious. I’ve asked how long people have worked for a company and been perceived as being “up to something” and I’ve asked where a business is based and been told “I wondered what was behind that question”.

The answer is really simple. In most cases there’s nothing behind it, a journalist just needs to get their job done and any background information is on the “essential” side of welcome.

Overthinking

My first ever media training session was with Microsoft in 2002. It became apparent quite quickly that the delegate – with whom I’m still in touch – could tell me what he was trying to say after the exercise, but when the big bad “interview” word was in his head he flustered a little.

Is this you? Do you panic just a little and overthink every question when confronted with a straight question from a journalist? Try thinking again, they may not be as loaded as you or your client (if you’re in PR) thinks.

I can help you with your media interview difficulties – talk to me on the phone on the number on the side, email me by clicking this link or fill in the form below. I’ll look forward to coaching you – many thanks.

Why a good kicking helps my writing

Last week I pitched some articles to a commissioning editor. She’s the new contact to replace an old mate who’d been getting me to write regularly and for whom I’d enjoyed working. The workload was light, the money reasonable so nothing to dislike.

The new woman politely declined all of the new ideas. After a few years as a contributor it was basically a bit of a kicking. And was delighted.

The reason for this apparent contradiction is that when you’re too comfortable somewhere you can get lazy and start pitching second-rate ideas, mostly because you think they’re as good as the last one. They may be. That doesn’t mean they were ever good enough, it means someone found it easy to accept them.

A kick up the backside

It’s the same when you’re in PR pitching ideas to journalists you know – it’s easy to slip into an artificial comfort zone and assume that even if the hack moves, you’ll continue to get stories in. You may not. You’re as good as your last pitch, not the one that cemented you with a previous employee.

I’ve now agreed to go to a press conference tomorrow and see whether there’s anything relevant to the magazine to which I was pitching last week. If there isn’t, I’m not going to talk it up, I’m not going to pretend it’s something that it’s not. I’m going to have to try harder. This is stimulating and it’s going further.

It’s got me looking at all of my regular commissions. Am I too comfortable? Am I doing loads of research from my desk rather than getting out there and actually speaking to people? All of these are dangers to the overly comfortable journalist, and the same applies to our counterparts in PR.

Earlier this year I decided to try to spend a day a week at the IoD in London, making myself available to grab a coffee with anyone who wants a catch-up (please do contact me if you’d like to join me sometime). I did this without getting a kicking. This latest development from this magazine has spurred me to attend an extra press event per month on a “see what I can see” basis.

What have you changed this year to push yourself a bit further?

I will be hosting a one-day course on writing in London, for the Henshall Centre, in July – for details please click here.

PRs – knocked back? Keep talking!

If a journalist asks you why your pitch is relevant to their publication, do you back off`/

Twice last week I was approached with pitches for Professional Outsourcing Magazine, which I edit among my freelance tasks. I won’t disclose what they were about but they seemed to me to have little to do with outsourcing (there’s a clue in the title as to the publication’s focus.

I waited for the replies. Silence.

This is not how you engage people. Journalists get hundreds of pitches; if you get a reply it’s an opportunity to start a conversation. It’s the sort of thing that’s happened before.

In need of a case study

A few years ago I had a call from a PR person – someone I normally rated as quite good. He pitched a piece of technology for the small business market. I was interested and I said “I’d need a customer to talk to” – he said “Yeah, fair enough” and hung up.

I would have been happy to pitch his story to the Guardian if he’d come up with a case study for me – as it was he didn’t bother, his script was finished and that was it, onto calling the next hack and no doubt getting a similar knockback (or thinking that he’d been knocked back). Contrast that with the approach taken by another contact on another occasion, when listening got them a full page in the Guardian.

The thing is, we need stories. We need information and we can’t function without it. You may be precisely the person to offer it and if our needs are a slightly different shape from the pitch you had in mind, don’t worry – be flexible, it might turn out quite well for you.

But if a journalist gets in touch, always think of it as a starting point rather than a brush-off.

Does your company need coaching on pitching to journalists? I can help – why not drop me a note using this form?

Keep your message to the media consistent

I’ve been on my travels and at a product launch two people from the same manufacturer contradicted each other directly, on a matter of policy.

Last week I attended a press launch with loads of journalists. At one of the stands I asked about a particular piece of technology, sold only off the company’s website, and whether it would go through a mainstream sales channel eventually. No, said the guy in charge of marketing; we want to focus on explaining the story to the customer so we’ll be keeping this to direct sales only.

Fair enough. Except, chatting on the same stand to someone also involved in marketing, I checked “and this will be going direct-only” – and he said no, they’d be looking to sell through the established channels as soon as possible, they’d be crazy not to.

Ahem. My headline could so easily have been “New manufacturer in disarray over sales policy”, “Row breaks out over sales channel at manufacturer X” – and although I could have substantiated it from my notes, I doubt very much that an argument had actually broken out. Thing is, they needed to have a conversation before going out in public.

Things you need to ask yourself

I’ve seen this more than once. I once attended the launch of a watch, and the manufacturer had just gone over to having everything manufactured in Switzerland. I asked the sales director why and he said Swiss watches were precision-made, they were beautiful, they were exciting. I asked the managing director why. He said the market research said people would pay more for a Swiss-made watch but frankly if it had his name on it a Chinese-made watch would be as good. In fact every product from his business would be excellent but if the customer wanted to spend more money that was fine… Who would you believe?

I have no doubt both men perceived their answer as honest and correct, and to be fair the one doesn’t directly contradict the other in that instance (although the sales director’s response was distinctly salesy). But since they were moving their manufacturing, had they only had the conversation that said “What if a journalist asks why we’ve done this?” and stuck to a single reason, they’d have had a better story to tell the papers.

It can be a very good idea to ensure that you have a consistent message before making it public. These companies clearly hadn’t. I generally advise media training delegates to prepare three documents; a FAQ based on client feedback. a list of questions a journalist is likely to ask on behalf of the reader and a third list of questions they’re hoping the journalist won’t ask. Then establish the company line on all of them and stick to it.

Can I help you with your media engagements? Click here for information on my media training course.

How do you manage a crisis?

The incidents in Corfu currently hitting Thomas Cook so hard are beyond the remit of a media tips blog, they’re too serious. Irreparable damage has probably been done to the company’s reputation and it would be trite to try to address it with a glib blog on media tips.

However, it’s worth looking at what companies in general can do to manage a crisis when one arises. There’s actually quite a lot, and here are some ideas.

Crisis management

  • First, go into lockdown without appearing to do so. Only a handful of people in your business should be speaking to the press anyway; when there’s a crisis, make doubly sure all the staff are aware of this but have a statement on your website – have them refer journalists to this rather than offer them “no comment”, which never works.
  • Second, don’t dodge the issue. Your starting point is that something bad has happened and you’re determined to find what went wrong. If you can’t comment while your internal inquiry is going on, say so but stress that your thoughts are with whoever has had the rough end of the problem.
  • Third, and this is vital, empathise. The people listening to you will be very much in sympathy with anyone who’s been wronged. I heard of a case, years ago, that could be apocryphal but it makes the point. A 90-year-old woman had lung cancer and was suing a tobacco company. The lawyers at the tobacco company found she’d worked with asbestos in the 1950s and there was a perfectly reasonable case to suggest that in this instance tobacco wasn’t to blame. They suggested not only refusing her compensation but suing for defamation, and they’d have had a chance of winning. The PR department stepped in and pointed out that no matter who was factually right and wrong, the big tobacco company suing the little old lady was never going to play well, so they backed down immediately and paid compensation regardless.

I’m not saying the Thomas Cook incident is similar to that of the woman in the tobacco company case. Every case is different. However, its apparent view – that the family has been compensated adequately with a payout one tenth the size of that which the company itself received – is worthy of comparison because it’s a big company being perceived as pushing the little people around.

No matter whose fault something is, no matter how you might feel your company has been wronged, it’s worth taking a little time out to empathise with the other people. Communicate this at least, and you might get to limit some of the damage that might otherwise happen.

Do you need help with your company’s communications? Click here for information on my media training service.

Media training: Polish your press release quotes

Do the quotes in press releases matter? I believe so, although I didn’t always.

Press release quotes matter. That’s something that’s changed during my time as a journalist and media trainer. In a way I regret it, but press released quotes are now very important. I’d like to explain why.

When I started as a media trainer over a decade ago, the Internet was around but social media wasn’t, or not in its current form. Google was certainly in place but although we felt flooded by information we were nowhere near the glut we’ve reached now.

The result was that a lot of journalists operated as I prefer to. They’d receive a press release where appropriate but use it as a starting point rather than an end point. The quotes in it might serve as a guide as to the view of the person we’d like to interview but we’d want to speak to them ourselves rather than regurgitate the same words everyone else would have received.

Flash forward to 2015 and it’s a bit different.

Rolling news

The fact is, the Internet has grown. You’ll have realised that. There are hundreds of news outlets out there, and they’re consuming news announcements like anything. Many simply cut and paste press releases – so suddenly, those words nobody was actually going to see are right in front of the reader.

The cannier companies will also add their press releases to their blog. So the target reader might well see them; they’ll certainly read them if the blog has enough SEO on it so Google finds it. Never mind journalist intermediaries, people can come straight to your website and see what you have to say.

So, those words have to be polished and usable – and nothing you’ll regret saying later, as a story I told last week illustrates.

It’s a shame in a way. I miss the notion that journalists would always call a press release’s originator to check facts and get their own quotes. We live in the current world, though, not a more leisurely past, and journalists will cut and paste those quotes with abandon even as your target clients read them on your site.

Make them stand out!

Do you need coaching on your quotes and media technique in general? I can help – have a look at my media training page.

Media training issues: Is a ghost-written blog OK?

Many large organisations get people to write blogs for their executives. Is this a good idea?

I was media training a great group of people in the Midlands yesterday and one of them asked about the importance of blogging. He blogged quite a lot, he said, and always made sure he wrote it. His question was about whether journalists would pick up corporate blogs in their research (answer: in theory yes, in practice if it’s for a short news story there may not be time) but for me this raised a more important issue.

I’ve been asked from time to time to ghost write blogs for corporate clients, which then come out under their name. This is, subject to a good briefing, of course. But is it OK?

From my point of view of course it’s OK. I’m not doing anything wrong and as a freelance writer I’ll take most jobs on offer for which I have the right competence, which are straightforward and honest and for which the fee is right. I’d question whether it’s right for the client companies, however. Other people’s words can get you into trouble.

Authenticity and consistency

Before I even heard the word “blog” I received press releases regularly, as you’d expect. One was from a laptop manufacturer whose MD said, very stridently, “the age of the desktop computer is dead”. It was a good quote and a strong view so the release worked well – until something very particular happened.

The MD in question got a job at a desktop computer manufacturer. As you might guess, I found this highly amusing and threw his quote straight back at him. He denied having said it in the first place, he suggested he’d spoken about market growth for laptops rather than the decline of the desktop. He said it was a good journalistic dig but I’d got it slightly wrong. When I checked the original release back in the office, of course he’d said no such thing – the desktop, he’d declared, was dead. So what went wrong?

The answer was almost certainly that a PR person worked up the quote for a quick sell into the news pages (and it worked), the executive signed it off and thought no more about it. In the 1990s there was every reason to think a quote would be dead within a couple of weeks – he was just unlucky I’d remembered (and I was even unluckier I hadn’t brought the press release). It’s very different now.

Blog your own thoughts

Now, if you put something down on a blog, it’s semi-permanent. After I’ve published this piece of writing, anyone can read it and many can copy it onto their site (they shouldn’t without permission but I’ve had this happen to me – and as long as there’s a link back here I don’t mind). I can delete my copy and take it off this site but it might hang around for a while.

This is why it’s important to me that I write my own blog, and it’s why my client yesterday was determined he should write his own stuff. He was right. Contrary to my interests though it may be to advise people not to use ghost writers, having someone else put words and even views into your mouth can be counterproductive. If a journalist asks you what you meant when you wrote something that you didn’t actually draft, and they can produce the article on their phone or tablet and it has your name on it, it’s difficult to envisage a good ending to the interview.

If you don’t have the time to blog and absolutely have to use someone else, here are some thoughts:

  • Everything is in the briefing. Telling them you want “something about added value” is not going to produce a very precise article. I’ve had those clients!
  • The article should sound as though it comes from you. If there are certain words and phrases you never use and the writer slots them in, take them out.
  • Familiarise yourself with the message. By all means change your mind about something later and tell us so, but don’t be like my desktop computer man and deny you ever said something.

Need help with your media interactions? I can help – here’s my media training page.