Media training: the “trap” question

Journalists will sometimes ask a question they know you can’t answer and it’s easy to see how damage can be done. Taking the politics out of it if we can, let’s use the example: “So, prime minister, will you be leading your party into the next election?”

The answer should, you might think, be reasonably straightforward. So consider, when he was asked in 2015, the ramifications when David Cameron said he wouldn’t serve a third term.

It’s easy to snigger and say “you were right there, mate” – but it was an honest answer to an impossible question. At that stage it looked doubtful that his party would win an outright majority, which of course they did – so he risked:

  • Looking arrogant if he assumed he would still be prime minister within months (the option he went for, in fact)
  • Looking evasive if he tried to dodge the question

Anyone who reads my Facebook posts will be aware I’m no fan, but the direct question in that instance was unanswerable. We’ll come back to the ramifications in a second but he wasn’t the first PM to face that question. His predecessor in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, was also approaching an election when she famously said she’d like to go on and on and on  as prime minister, and she was out within three years.

It’s a trap

Circumstances were different for Theresa May this week. Far from approaching an election, at least one of her choosing, she is fresh from losing her majority in one, two years into a Parliament when few people thought she could do as badly.

The question of whether she planned to stay long as PM was arguably reasonable because she could well have been on the brink of resigning only a few months ago after throwing her majority away. However, it wasn’t a fair one to ask.

Like Cameron before her, there was no good answer available to her. Immediately Cameron said he wasn’t staying, he was a lame duck. Going to the EU as he did to ask for a better deal prior to campaigning to remain in it was a waste of time when all of the leaders knew he’d most likely be gone within three years.  May is already damaged; if, at this stage in the Brexit negotiations (whatever you think of them and her) she’d effectively confirmed her intention to resign, her credibility and any need for the other countries to listen to her would have been severely damaged.

So she opted for the other extreme – telling the press ‘hell no, I’m staying for the duration’. and the backlash has been swift (here’s one clipping but you can find many more by Googling, including her own former party chairman Grant Shapps pretty much dismissing her on the Today programme.

The alternative was to confirm that she had her eye on the exit door and to lose all remaining authority in the process, Oh, and to trigger a long-winded unofficial leadership campaign among any prospective candidates

So what do you do?

You’re probably not prime minister if you’re reading this, but you may well be in a position in which a journalist asks a question that’s effectively a trap.

Unlike the prime minister you’re not accountable to the electorate and therefore you’re not obliged to answer a journalist’s questions. You can politely decline to help. You can say something is confidential.  You can use one of my favourite techniques, the bridge, although if it’s a direct question this can sound slippery.

But do watch out for those “trap” questions. Remember they’re designed to elicit a headline as today’s papers will confirm in the case of May – and for once I have some sympathy because she really couldn’t have said anything else.

Do you need help with your media engagements? Email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.


This article amended to reflect that Grant Shapps is the former chairman of the Conservative Party, not the current one, 16.13 1 September

Why I love training

The reason I became a part-time trainer, as well as a journalist in 2002, was very straightforward. I’d just had a bank statement and was therefore about to reach for the brandy and revolver (but realised I didn’t have either and couldn’t afford them). The phone went; it was Microsoft’s PR people, asking whether I offered media training. I looked at the bank statement and said, yes, I almost certainly did…

The remainder of this 600-word blog is on the Henshall Centre website here.

PR people, want to pitch? Then read the papers

I’ve been pitched to for the magazine I edit over the last few days and the standard has been mixed. It’s worth looking at a couple of (anonymous of course) examples. In the interests of fairness I should say that about four were completely on target.

Here’s an article, what do you think?

I felt quite bad for the first. I’d sent out a request to PR contacts through the Response Source service, asking for a pitch on a particular subject and mentioned that I would need 1500 words. So the PR exec in question put together a pitch, said she could come out with the small business angle on behalf of her client and make it very practical.

My magazine, Intelligent Sourcing, doesn’t cover small to medium enterprise. I had other pitches to follow so I did so, intending to follow up the “no thanks” ones with some feedback in the middle of this week.

Then yesterday she sends me a completed article by her client. 1507 words so the length is on the nose – but it’s aimed at entirely the wrong readership so it’s nothing I can use at all. I get that it’s frustrating when an editor hasn’t had the chance to respond immediately but getting your client to write (or perhaps more realistically sign off) a 1500 word article without checking the magazine first isn’t the way forward. She’d worked damned hard, by the looks of it, too.

Here’s a basic article on a related topic


Others made similar errors by sending in stuff that was really very basic. Still others made sure they were talking about the UK market alone (the magazine goes out in paper form to thousands of professionals in the UK but in electronic form it reaches thousands more in the US, Africa and mainland Europe, so ‘strong UK angle’ is a weakness rather than a strength for this publication).

It’s not fair to expect the PR community to know every website and every magazine. I do understand that. Nonetheless, if you’re pitching to an editor there are some fundamental questions:

  • Ask yourself whether you’re familiar with the publication. If not, no sensible editor is going to mind being asked a bit about it. If it’s easily available, get hold of a copy (do not ask the editor of a national newspaper if you can see a copy, go and buy the damned thing).
  • If it’s unclear who the readers are, ask. In the Internet age you can’t assume a single-country readership. In a subject such as the one my magazine covers, sourcing, it might apply to any size of business. Ask rather than guess.
  • A related point is to find out the level of the readership. Earlier this year I had a pitch that started “you’ve probably never thought of using Microsoft Lync”; first, yes my readers have, and second, if you really were an expert you’d know it’s been called Skype for Business for years. Bit of a giveaway, that.
  • Consider the sort of article you’re being asked for. Recently I was looking for something for a regular column on Brexit. As it’s a regular column, anything that started “In March 2017 the UK will be leaving the EU” or “On 26 June 2016 the UK voted to leave the EU” is inappropriate; the readers know, it’s a regular column on the subject, they don’t need an introduction.

Of course there’s a very good argument that says it’s my job to edit out the clearing-the-throat guff and make sure the article gets to the point at the right level. This is fair and  correct. However, it’s equally true that if I get multiple submissions for a slot and two or three are spot-on because they’ve done the research in advance, those are the ones that will appeal to me most.

Do you need input on pitching or writing for the media market? I can help with both – call me on 07973 278780 or fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

Do journalists like facts and figures?

Media training a couple of weeks ago I was struck by one delegate’s insistence on coming out with a statistic for everything.  He was a businessperson, the readers were businesspeople, they’d welcome everything being backed up by a solid fact.

It’s difficult to argue with that on the surface, but I’ll have a go. The fact is that businesspeople might not like dry facts with everything but they need them. Let me put it this way: the business community deals with facts and figures all the time but only when it’s pretty much being paid to do so.

The journalist’s job, in the majority of cases, is to take up what happens after that.

Would you read dry facts over coffee?

Basically the dry business stuff is dispensed with, the coffee comes out and someone picks up the paper, the tablet, the phone, whatever they want to read on. At that point they’re interested less in the raw data and more in the stories behind it.

This is why, for example, when  I was writing extensively for the Guardian’s small business section, they always asked me to get pictures of the people involved even when the story was about the difference the technology made.  All of their research said that people buy from people and people want to read about people, so putting human beings on the cover was better than a screen grab or picture of a shiny new phone or something.

Technology has changed but that central truth hasn’t. So if I’m interviewing you about a new widget you’ve invented and your stat says it enables a 10% time saving, why not tell me about what someone did when they’d saved that time? Or how they were able to grow the business steadily without employing someone they could ill afford, or something like that?

Show me a human face and tell a story whenever you can. By all means use the stats to support the story, but that’s what they are – a support. My job is to relay stories; tell me a few and it could be to our mutual benefit.

Do you need help with storytelling or engaging with the media? I can help, just leave your details here and we’ll talk

Are people interested in what you’re saying?

People waste a lot of time in the media and that’s true of the professionals as well. So, we find, the BBC pays people a lot. And the new news site, Unherd, kicked off last week with a deep dive into the news industry. But if you’re not a journalist do you care?

Maybe you do in the first instance as you pay your TV license fee, but I have to ask how important the second of those things is to anyone not involved. I’d love to be mistaken but it looks a lot like journalists writing about journalists to me. And now I’m doing it.

I have always advised my media training delegates to consider the audience above all else. And that doesn’t mean the journalist in front of them.

Take aim, fire

All too often I find people have gone for an interview because the opportunity presents itself, then they’re surprised when they answer all the journalist’s questions but the sales don’t come in. This is often because they’ve ended up allowing the journalist to take full control and, if they’re honest, they didn’t start with a proper objective anyway.

Here’s how it works at best. You or a PR specialist assess your objectives. Never mind which papers or websites you want to appear in – you consider what you want to achieve. It may be mind share, it may be sales, it may be investment, it may be something else. Nonetheless, you assess what it is that you’re trying to do.

Then you look at readerships. At this stage a few things will become clear: a computer company is not going to get investment from the end user press any more than a smartwatch company is going to sell loads of cheap watches to the readers of the Financial Times.

So you start to match your target readership/viewership/whatever to your objectives. Only after that do you start to look at pitching to journalists, bloggers or whoever – and when you go in, you use some of the techniques described in this blog and in my media training sessions to steer the topic to whatever is going to make your objective happen.

There are no guarantees of course – but if you have an objective and a few techniques, at least you can say whether or not it’s worked.

Do you need help with your media engagement? Click here to email me or fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

Corporate writing: some “rules” which are actually not correct

A week or so ago I hosted a session on corporate writing for the Henshall Centre. It’s a good gig and the people were terrific. They suffered from one thing, though: they’d believed everything they learned at school.

A lot of people do. Why would these teachers lie to you? Answer: because they fell for the same old guff as well. So here is a handful of stuff you may have thought was correct but isn’t:

  1. -ise is English, -ize is American. So many people have been brought up to believe, but not if they check the Oxford English Dictionary in which -ize is perfectly acceptable. Your use of it should depend on your house style, not whether someone happens to think it’s correct or not (NB: if the person who signs the cheques says it’s wrong, it’s wrong – I’ve done bits of writing and had a client send them back for “American spelling” and just changed them. The customer is always right).
  2. I before E except after C (and when the sound’s ‘ee’). Draw yourself up to your full height (that’s hEIght) add some weight (wEIght, you get the idea) and accept that there are actually more “ei” words than “ie” words in the English language, or so I once read.
  3. You should never split an infinitive. Good grief, did they make Star Trek and its “to boldly go” for nothing?
  4. Every sentence must have a subject, verb and object. Right. But “right” made sense there so it’s a sentence. Most sentences should have a subject, verb and object, and preferably in that order. They don’t all have to.
  5. You should always write one, two, three, four…until you get to 10, which is written in figures. That is actually a little like point 1 – it’s all about house style, and as long as it’s consistent it should be fine.

Anyone else got any confessions of things they thought were rules which turn out not to be?

Do you want to sharpen your writing skills? My writing skills course at the Henshall Centre is on their site here, see you at one sometime?

Writers and speakers: If it’s not yours you can’t use it

I’ve been part of a discussion on Facebook in which someone ghost-wrote something for a client, then found it appearing under someone else’s name entirely without the client’s consent. She has taken action and stuff is happening, because she stood her ground.

A number of people think they can use items that are already on the Web because it’s in the public domain, right?

Er…wrong. Copyright isn’t consistent around the world but one thing you can’t do is just help yourself.

UK and Europe

If you’re in the UK, you’re covered by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act ˚of 1988. This means that if you create something it’s yours. This blog post is mine, and as a jobbing freelance anything I write is mine by default unless I sign the rights over, even if someone pays for it.

People sometimes doubt this is correct but it is; consider wedding photographers, whose pics you are not allowed to produce because they are protected by copyright even when you paid the snapper hundreds.

The EU is slightly different as every country has a variation on the same laws; ultimately they all date back to the Berne Convention. All of this stuff predates the Web, of course, and presumably there will some day need to be some legislation that actually takes account of electronic publication. Someone out there has made two of my books available electronically; I don’t know where they are so it’s tricky to do anything about it.

Made in America

One complication that follows from the Web is that different laws apply in different regions. There is no reason, for example, to expect any European laws to apply on another continent. Lawyers will be able to unpick the American copyright laws; my layman’s understanding is that the bit that applies to writers is that until 1989 it was important to assert rights, in other words to put a (c) notice at the end. This didn’t apply in the UK. It can still be useful to do it in the US although it’s not mandatory (I am grateful to Steve Addison for correcting the first version of this post, which incorrectly stated that the ruling was still current – here is a Wikipedia entry on the subject).

This can still be important. I once had someone’s rights queried in a book I co-wrote because we’d credited them rather than their company as co-copyright-holders. The US lawyers thought this quite serious and pointed to the copyright assertion; I pointed out that the book was published in Europe rather than America and they were surprised to learn that copyright was automatic (this happened two years ago and I have left the reference in, even though the copyright assertion is optional in the US as per the paragraph above). After that, the issue went away.

It’s also possible that American bloggers etc. will see your work and copy part of it, not realising it’s in copyright because in their territory they may think it would need a copyright assertion at the end.

Fair use, common sense

In British law there is no such thing as “fair use”, which confuses people. I’ve known people who’ve had paragraphs lifted and attributed to them without their knowledge and when they’ve objected a British person has cited “fair use” – it doesn’t actually exist over here, it’s an American construct that applies to American law.

I also happen to think it’s a rather good one. It’s insane that a decade or so ago when I wrote “This Is Social Media” I had to clear every quote and reference with everyone, when I was only using a few sentences.This is where in my mind it all gets watered down a little; the strict letter of the law doesn’t allow for any repetition over here and that just doesn’t reflect the way communication happens at the moment (technically quoting a Tweet is a breach of copyright; you begin to see how unworkable this would be if we tried to apply it rigorously?)

So to my mind there’s an element of common sense to be taken into account. By all means use paragraphs or as much as instinct tells you in a longer piece, attribute and link where appropriate and someone would have to be very petty-minded to take exception.

Lift an entire piece wholesale as happened to my colleague and you can expect trouble. At the very least, when it becomes common knowledge, your reputation will be shot to pieces.

Oh, and if you want to lift my entire book and put it online, you’re technically a thief. However, anyone who takes a copy of an almost-ten-year-old book on social media and expects to build a business using it is technically a mug as well, so whatever…

Do you need help writing for your business? I can help – fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer – before assuming any specific element of the above is correct, get proper legal advice if your career depends on it.