Category Archives: public relations

Five media training tips from the General Election campaigns

This entry updated 8 May after a Conservative win. 8 May comments in italics.

The run-up to the General Election in the UK has made for fertile ground for communications specialists and media training companies such as mine. Here are some key lessons, both from delivery and from the messaging point of view – my own politics may show through here, which is not my intention; I’m aiming to offer neutral insights on all of the howlers that have been dropped.

  1. Don’t insult your audience. Last week UKIP leader Nigel Farage accused his audience of being left wing and referred to them as “this lot”. He’s now asked lawyers to investigate. Let’s leave politics out for the moment; even if he’s correct, he handed everybody else the moral high ground by dishing out insults. If you’re presenting on behalf of your business and you feel the audience has been stacked against you, remain above it – don’t hand them a moral victory without a fight. I stand by this one. Farage could have kept the audience on side and failed.
  2. Take part. The Conservatives have tried to paint David Cameron as Prime Ministerial and above last Thursday’s debate; however, in absenting himself he left the other leaders to say what they wanted about him unfettered. For him it’s a calculated risk, for you the gamble might not be worth taking. If there’s going to be a debate that concerns your brand, make sure you’re there to put your side when given the opportunity. I’d stand by this one too except three of the other leaders in the debate have now resigned. Whatever your politics, I suspect you have to concede that Cameron and his team read this exactly right.
  3. Don’t assume the other people will fall to pieces when you want them to. I have no inside information but it looks a lot as though the Conservatives gambled on two things. First, they assumed the rather awkward Ed Miliband would fall apart in election debates. Second, specifically last Thursday, they assumed the other parties, without the coalition members present, would end up bickering and a sprawling mess and put the public off. Neither thing happened. All Miliband has had to do during this election, and all he and the other leaders had to do last week, was to look averagely eloquent and civilised and undecided voters were left wondering whether these people were such a bad alternative..? If you’re pitching your idea to the public or to the press, make sure you’re not assuming the others will screw up and leave you to it. They may not. Make your own case. I’d still suggest clients make their cases properly but, once again, I suggest Cameron and the team read the electorate’s collective view correctly.
  4. Stick to your message. Since neither main party has pulled significantly ahead, we now have Labour claiming to be the party of economic competence and the Conservatives aiming for the workers’ vote. Now, I don’t believe for a moment that the previous caricatured extremes were ever true – but the sudden switching of priorities looks cynical and artificial. If you’re promoting your business and detect a lull in interest, don’t panic and change all your messages – nobody will believe you and your clients are bright enough to know panic when they see it. See above. It’s a gamble and a gamble that paid off for one side and may have been part of the disaster for the other.
  5. Prepare, even if you’re under the impression it’s an interview about stuff you know. The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 had an excruciating interview on Saturday, not with a politician but with a community leader(ish) of a group of American émigrés in Scotland. James Naughtie asked her about comparisons between our current election and the forthcoming US Presidential version; it was clear from the umm-ing, the aah-ing and his attempts to finish sentences – not putting words in her mouth but trying to help – that she’d put no thought or preparation in at all. That didn’t matter this time around, she wasn’t pushing anything or standing for election. However, if you’re ever invited to take part in a media discussion, even if you have only a short time to prepare, you need to make sure you have something to say. Make a point, be memorable – whatever you do, don’t let your first word be “Ummm…….” This remains completely right!

Need media training? Talk to me – check my media training page here or just email or phone 07973 278780.

Know where you’re going in a media interview

Sometimes I ask people a question in an interview and they give me a direct answer, just telling me what I want to know. This is always pleasant and a bit of a surprise. The problem with it from the media training/corporate messaging point of view is that it serves me well but the interviewee doesn’t actually work for me. Their employer might well think that they’ve wasted their time.

Now, I’m not one of these trainers who says “ignore the question and make your point” – we’ll see plenty of that from politicians over the next few weeks and you can already see through it as a technique. People aren’t daft, both interviewer and ultimately reader/listener/viewer will know you’re avoiding questions.

However, in no other business conversation would you have to answer the question and then shut up. This is partly because people don’t think there are special rules in other conversations, but mostly because in every other conversation you have an aim in mind.

Think about outcomes

The same will be true of the best interviews. The person answering the question will of course answer it, but will also make the point that will lead the reader or listener to a desired end point. This might be:

  • Eagerness to buy – the Apple watch is going to be a big hit because Apple is incredibly slick at marketing; they’ll answer questions about the watch but slide in stuff about how neat it looks and how much simpler it will make your life.
  • Willingness to invest: In the right context (we’ll come back to that) someone might want to plant ideas about financial solidity, profit performance, and prime readers that this is where there money should be going.
  • Branding: What, you’re a new company just needing to get your name out there? Fine, but build a few corporate strengths into your messages as well as answering the questions.

You’ll need to make sure you’re talking to the right people, too, which is where the expert advice of a switched-on PR company can be invaluable. Do you want investors? Try to get into the FT (good luck with that), or a paper whose demographic is the high-value individual. Do you want product sales in a local shop? A local paper would be a better bet. Those are obvious examples but you can grade others as you go.

Having an outcome in mind is vital. Only when you know where you’re going will you understand whether you’ve got there or not once the interview has been out there for a while. Know where you’re going and nudge the interview in that direction – you’ve every right to. But don’t do the politician thing of telling us what we should be asking and answering that instead; we, the readers and listeners and anybody else have seen it too many times and will see straight through it.

Need media training or interview sessions? My media training service is here.

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.


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.

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.

Watch where you’re pitching

So last week I get this pitch – it’s an infographic about…actually it wouldn’t be fair to identify the person who sent it, it’s just an infographic and it concerns a technology issue. The covering note says the PR executive thought it might work for my blog.

Nice though it would be to think that this blog is getting noticed, it would be a completely  wrong thing for me to include so I disregard it. My best guess is that many people have had a similar note because we’re on a list of technology journalists. That is of course fine and respectable.

Then this morning I get the follow-up note to ask whether it’s any use for my blog. I reply and explain I’m not sure which blog she means. “Your technology blog”, comes the response.

Pitch to something that exists

I’m racking my brain here trying to think of anything at all I write that could be construed a technology blog. Let’s discount anything that’s been dead (or which someone else has taken over) for a year or more; this is a paid, professional PR person and part of her job is to keep up to date with who’s doing what.

So I can confirm here: I do not and have not recently written a technology blog at all. You can pitch what you want at it, since it doesn’t exist I’m positive it will do you no good.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been aware of people pitching to nonexistent publications. A colleague of mine used to work on a magazine that closed down. She had a call from a PR person asking whether she’d be able to include the case of wine she’d just sent by courier (which my colleague hadn’t received). No, she replied, the magazine has closed. “But I’ve sent the wine now!” came the angry response; fascinating, said my colleague, where did you send it, since we no longer have an office?

Again, for several years I was associated with a section in the Guardian called “Small Business Solutions” (then “Business Solutions”, then “Business Sense”, but it remained focused on the small business market). I didn’t edit it, but was in it so often a number of people got the impression I did, so they sent me pitches. More than once I had a pitch offering me a new director of a small business client for the “people page”.

You know what’s coming next. I worked on that supplement for nine years and we never, literally never, had a people page.

Do your research

Here’s now it works. PR people pitch ideas to journalists and whatever some hacks tell you about resisting the approach and getting sucked into the PR machine, we need it. Without ideas and fresh input we dry up, it’s as simple as that. So however reluctant or damned rude some journalists are, they need you but we do get a lot of pitches so they need to be sharp.

And one way you can sharpen them better than some of the competition – and as you’ll have gathered this was true as of this morning – is to make sure you’re pitching to a publication or part thereof that actually exists. This is fundamental market research. Yes, the amount of blogs out there makes it difficult to keep track of us all but there are press agencies out there which specialise in this sort of monitoring. It’s part of the PR job, and if you went into it voluntarily then it’s reasonable to expect you to make the effort.

Overall the quality of pitch from PR people has shot up in the 26 years I’ve been a journalist. But the schoolchild errors are still being made – and failing to check that your target publication actually exists is probably the worst.

For information on Guy Clapperton’s media training sessions please click here.