Category Archives: Tips

You’re telling me too much

I once media trained a company and started by asking them what the company did (I always do my homework but wanted to see how they’d handle it in their own words). They paused and started with “well, that’s a difficult question…” and took me on a verbal tour of the business’ history.

This is never, ever a good idea. First because anyone who can’t tell me what their business is or does goes down in my book as “well-intentioned but an over-thinker”. Second because the damned question was only my way of clearing my throat before an interview in the first place. If I need to know what your company does I’ll look at the website, you’ve put it there to help me and it’s appreciated.

If I’m talking to you in an interview then I’m mostly looking for quotes. And those quotes will need to be relatively brief.

Background

I’m a journalist, I get a lot of people approaching me. Let’s guess that I receive around 60 press releases a day and that more than a few of them are well-targeted.

So even before I speak to you or your client I’m sifting in my head, working out what’s relevant and helpful, what may be useful in passing and what’s frankly ridiculous (if the people who send me a daily press release on marital infidelity are reading, I’ll leave you to guess which category is yours). Logically I’m going to need simplicity from you because my brain is only going to cope with so much.

So, before you talk to me or any of my colleagues you really need a couple of things straight, and “what you do for a living” is among them. You could even pretend I have a narrow attention span (journalists tend to) so you need to avoid dwelling on the dull stuff I can find out elsewhere and move to the bits that only you can give me, pronto.

Complexity

The biggest problems of this nature happen when someone works in a large, complex organisation. The temptation is to try to tell me that you do a bit of IT outsourcing, you operate a telecoms division and also supply domestic Internet and phone but you’re there to speak about cloud technology on that particular day.

True though all this is, I’d rather hear the cloud bit first and then offer to put me in touch with other people if I want the full corporate picture. This has two beneficial effects other than the simple “getting to the point is better” effect. First, I’m less likely to make a mistake and attribute the wrong bit of your company to you (it happens on tight deadlines).

Second, even more fatally, it means I won’t find another part of your organisation more interesting than yours and start asking about that instead. On a couple of occasions I’ve had someone accidentally tell me a much more interesting story than the one about which they were hoping I’d write and they’re very disappointed when I won’t go back to the dull one.

Of course I won’t. I’m accountable to my editor and serving my readers. So keep it simple – even if it’s complex, just tell me the bits I need whilst making it clear there’s a bigger picture in the background – keep it clear and keep on topic.

Details of Guy Clapperton’s media training courses are available by clicking here.

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.

No you can’t check my copy

A major bugbear for a lot of journalists, which comes up often in my media training sessions, is that people want to check what we’ve written before it appears in print. They then get quite puzzled when the answer is a polite but firm “no”.

There are a number of reasons journalists won’t and shouldn’t show you an entire article before it appears. I should make it clear that this is about independent journalism rather than sponsored articles and supplements – when you’re paying it’s a different matter.

I wish I hadn’t said that

My first journalist assignment, some 27 years ago, was to write a piece for a small magazine given away free in W. H. Smiths, to publicise releases of CDs and videos (this was pre-DVD). It was 1988, it was the 25th anniversary of Doctor Who and I was briefed to talk to as many of the leading men as I could.

I remember Colin Baker in particular and will always be grateful to him as the first interviewee to give me a break, particularly given the circumstances under which he’d left the part. He gave me time on the phone and was terrific. Being new, I sent him the quotes to check and he changed something from a story about what brought him into the “eyes” of the Doctor Who team to what brought him into the “world” of Doctor Who.

Now, I’m not precious. This didn’t matter a jot and the piece was fine (where “fine” means bland “first attempt at journalism written by a star-struck fanboy”, but that’s a different issue). However, it does illustrate that many people when checking things will come back to what they wish had happened, what they might have said with hindsight. That’s not the function of journalism.

A few years later I was working on a computer trade publication and a guy setting up a computer manufacturer laid into people who spent a fortune on machines from IBM, Compaq and others. I wrote the piece and he called back, deciding he’d been unwise to tilt at those particular windmills. I told him it was too late (which was true), the page had gone – and anyway, he’d said it, unprompted. It’s our job as journalists to offer the truth about what was said, and also some insight – and this doesn’t mean giving an interviewee the opportunity to backpedal.

Exceptions

The only real exceptions are those in which there’s only one possible interviewee. Ironically, although he didn’t insist (and I suspect he wouldn’t), Colin Baker was among the few who could have demanded copy approval because at that point there were only five people alive who could give me an interview about being the Doctor on TV. If he’d said “not without copy approval” then I’d have had nowhere else to go. The example I use in media training sessions is that if I wanted an interview with Lady Gaga there’s only one person in the world who can grant it to me, so her terms would have to stand (I have no idea whether she insists on approval or whatever).

For others, particularly in business journalism, journalists are primed to resist copy approval, as it’s called. There are practical reasons too:

  • There is never enough time. You want to approve your quotes, fine; your comms department has to approve them too, less fine, because you’re building in layers of process we can’t accommodate.
  • The sub-editors and others in our process might change the quotes. Not with any malice but if a piece is overrunning by a line and we can fix it by cutting your words without damaging the sense, we might just (I’d resist this on the grounds of accuracy and change my words instead, but I’ve seen it done).

So those are genuine practical reasons not to allow copy approval, and that’s before we get onto the people who believe we’re part of their marketing department and therefore they should be allowed to “correct” any reviews we might write that don’t concur that their product or service is the best in the universe, ever.

Information on Guy Clapperton’s media training sessions is available by clicking here.

Deal with a journalist

Today I’ll be media training – by the time you read this I’ll be on the train en route to Cardiff. It will take me as long to get there as it did to reach Warsaw last week.

A few things come up quite frequently when I’m facilitating these sessions so here are some quick tips to make your media engagements pay better. All are based on experiences I’ve had in genuine press interviews:

  • Prepare but don’t overthink. People who have no idea what they need to get out of an interview and subsequent coverage have no way of measuring their success or lack thereof. However, I’ve run sessions in which, after a dummy interview, the client feeds back “I wondered what was behind the question”. Usually the answer is “nothing, I just thought the readers would be interested”, but people tie themselves in knots nonetheless.
  • Don’t assume the journalist works for you. I’ve had people call me after interviews and attempt to withdraw their quotes. You can’t actually un-say things and as long as I’ve identified myself as a journalist and obtained an accurate quote honestly I’m within my rights to use it. You can amend what you’ve said in marketing documents; an interview with a journalist isn’t one of them.
  • Related point: An interview isn’t an advert for your company. It’s independent so if you’re going to claim to be a market leader, number one in your field or anything related, expect to be asked for evidence.
  • Part of your preparation should be to reserve enough time to do the interview justice. Have a look at this video; it’s a disaster, fair enough, but if the cafe owner had been concentrating on the interview he could have done a great deal better.
  • A final related point is to work out the likely questions in advance. The video above is a terrible example; in a poor area of course someone’s going to ask about serving the local market. A prepared answer about offering a poverty-hit area jobs would have neutralised the issue completely. Instead we get a defensive reaction that does the interviewee no favours at all.

For information about my media training service please feel free to click on my media training page.

No I won’t go off the record

If there’s one thing I could change about so, so many of the interviewees I’ve met over the years as a journalist then it’s the jack-the-lad thing of telling me something off the record.

So, who are your key customers, I ask. Well, we’re about to sign someone big, comes the reply. I can tell you off the record.

I find this peculiar. I’ve identified myself as a journalist, why would you want to tell me something I can’t repeat? To ingratiate yourself perhaps – although why anyone thinks I’m going to be shouting “whoopee, a story I can’t sell or use” is beyond me.

Here are some unpleasant truths about “off the record”. They are why I always advise my media training candidates against even thinking about it.

Nobody understands it correctly. Oh all right, that’s an exaggeration, but some people don’t. Many years ago I worked on a computer trade magazine. Someone once told me, when I asked them a question, whether they could go off the record. I agreed, assuming I could write the story with “sources close to the company said…” and was stunned when the bloke who’d told me every fact I’d printed called up and demanded to know the source. I told him I’d never disclose a source but since it was he who’d told me everything I’d make an exception. He was livid; to him, “off the record” meant (correctly I now believe) “don’t use it at all”. I’d assumed it meant “unattributable”, an arrangement with which other sources had always seemed comfortable.

The counter-example from years ago was when John Lennon told a journalist off the record that he was leaving the Beatles. The journalist didn’t report it and Lennon was livid when Paul McCartney came to the same decision and it was all over the press – Lennon phoned the journalist and asked why on earth he hadn’t reported? “It was off the record”, came the slightly weak response.

So, what do you understand by “off the record” – and are you positive the journalist understands the same thing?

I may not be trustworthy. You might think I’m a nice man. I probably am. But I’m a journalist and am hungry for stories so if you tell me something very important that’s off the record, I have a decision to make and it may not end up in your favour. Or there’s the other reason not to trust me; I might make an honest mistake and forget a particular comment or fact was off the record. Why would you assume otherwise?

I don’t work for you. This is the killer, for me anyway. I don’t actually work for you, so why would I want to help manage the timing of your news announcements? This isn’t supposed to sound aggressive (although it probably does) – but seriously, why am I expected effectively to manage your press schedule?

Those are only a handful of the reasons why, if I’m interviewing you and you say “well, off the record…” I’ll stop you and ask for something I can use instead. If we both know we were on the record the whole time, neither of us has to do any mental juggling – it might sound a bit strict but honestly, it’s a load easier in the end.

I always advise my media training candidates that “off the record” doesn’t exist. That way it won’t catch them out later.

Information on my media training service is here. My thanks to Kate Warwick of PR Savvy for reminding me to have a rant about this subject!

“No comment” and other things you thought were a good idea

In media training yesterday I went through the usual things – with a strong candidate who had no experience talking with the press. He absorbed the lot, processing it by having to know the reason for everything, and the day was an absolute pleasure as a result.

One of the many things he queried then accepted was the idea of never saying “no comment”. He’d heard this and seen it and thought it should be acceptable.

I could see why, but have another think. If a journalist asks someone “do you beat your partner” and they respond “no comment”, does that look like a denial or a dodge? Loads of people will assume violence is indeed happening.

There are a number of techniques to get away from awkward or impossible areas, but “no comment” isn’t one of them. It always sounds defensive, and gives us (the journalists) an option to say you declined to comment on (fill in the sensitive issue of your choice here). Far better to bridge into something else if you can. “That’s an important issue but what’s really bothering our customers is…” or “There are always different views, but our focus is…” and then carry on with the point you needed to make.

Other misconceptions

Popular media has ironically given rise to a number of other bad ideas about the “rules” governing the press. Here are a few, and I’ll put more on future blog entries as they occur to me:

  • Saying “allegedly” means you can say anything. No you can’t, the libel laws apply to allegations – that’s the whole point. “Have I Got News For You” has used “allegedly” for comic effect – tell me I’m a thief, allegedly, and I can still sue.
  • You can instruct a journalist not to use a quote after you’ve said it. No, in the UK at least it’s our job to report what was said and to be accurate. We’re not your PR department so you don’t get to vet your quotes afterwards and amend them to reflect what you wish you’d said instead.
  • If you’re a blogger you can speak without the constraints of libel laws. Actually you’re covered by the same restraints that protect everybody else; your subject may decide you probably have insufficient funds to make it worth suing you, but that’s their decision and not something based on any extra rights you might have.

I’d welcome any other examples as comments.

Information on my media training sessions is here – get in touch any time if you have any questions.