Is there a reason you can’t answer my interview question?

A while ago I did an interview a guy who’d sold his company. He had every reason to be very pleased with himself. Having started a small software operation he had, his PR people told me later, gone off on a world cruise, bought a yacht, you name it.

I asked, not unreasonably, whether all of the staff would be moving over to the new owner. “There may,” he answered very stiffly, “be some duplication and so not everybody will find a role. We will try to look after everybody.”

Given a company acquisition, and bearing in mind he was a business owner rather than a social enterprise, I thought that was a fair answer. So I asked: will you be staying on with the company? “There may,” he answered very stiffly, “be some duplication and so not everybody will find a role. We will try to look after everybody.”

I tried again. How many of the staff will be moving over, I asked? “There may,” he answered, as if you hadn’t already guessed, “be some duplication and so not everybody will find a role. We will try to look after everybody.”

No need to avoid an easy question

Now, in my media training sessions and indeed my online offering I offer techniques to people who need to get around a difficult or impossible question. This wasn’t one of those, though.

The techniques are relatively simple, and if you can’t answer a question then saying “I’m unable to answer that question” is, believe it or not, a perfectly good solution. It may be due to stock exchange rules, it may be because of client or staff confidentiality, there can be a number of reasons. Just tell me – you don’t work for me, I should accept it.

But don’t make it difficult for yourself. Apparently once I’d left the room this particular guy got quite a rollicking from his PR people, who felt they spent enough time protecting him from genuinely awkward questions. They didn’t have time to protect him from harmless, straightforward ones as well.

There isn’t always an agenda. The journalist isn’t out to get you and not every question is loaded with traps. If you can answer a question in an interview straightforwardly and harmlessly, just do it.

Do you need help engaging with the media? I can help with coaching – fill in the form below or email me.

Free pre-interview checklist

Psst…want a free checklist of things to do before a media interview?

It’s here:

Media Interview Checklist

And yes, it’s on the Henshall Centre website, so of course it’s there to attract people to the online media training course I’ve blogged about and to which this page of this site is dedicated.

But it’s a useful guide – do click through and have a look. And while you’re there why not consider the online media training course?

If you’d rather have me media train you in person, I’m on 07973 278780 and you’re welcome to get in touch – or use the contact page to schedule an initial call.

General election lessons: watch what you’ve said

This isn’t a political blog so I’m not going to comment on the wisdom or otherwise of calling an election right now (there will be no definitive verdict on that until 9 June, no matter what the pundits say). However, from a communications perspective there is much to learn.

If you’re going to stand up in public often, it’s worth keeping an eye (or ear) on any pronouncements you might have made before.

There will be no 2017 election…

As I type it’s about three and a half hours since prime minister Theresa May announced she was going to try calling a general election on 8 June. Rumours were already circulating so the Independent had already put this piece online, demonstrating just how many times she’d said she was going to do no such thing:

She is far from the only one of course. Inevitably Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters will be calling for loyalty from their party – and will have the fact that he personally rebelled against Labour’s then leadership no fewer than 428 times from the back benches.

This stuff is well known. But does it tell us anything about how you can communicate about your business?

Consistency is everything

Obviously stuff changes, and May will no doubt argue that stuff has definitely changed since she backed the Remain vote less than a year ago. In business things change as well but when they haven’t, your position had better be consistent.

In the 1990s I interviewed a guy from IBM, who had just started running their desktop division. I pointed out that when at Toshiba – then a leader in laptop manufacturing – he’d said the desktop was dead.

He denied having said it and dismissed my comment as a nice journalistic jab but not a reflection of what he’d said. On checking when I got back to the office I found the press release; he’d either said it or authorised it as a comment on his behalf.

Google changes everything

You now don’t have the luxury of waiting until a hack like me gets back to the office, is on deadline and so hasn’t got the time to call you back so the comment doesn’t get into my article. Anyone with a smartphone (and every journalist will have one) can check up on you now.

The way around this is to ensure you’re well briefed, you have a corporate message and you stick to it.

That said, a few years later I saw a guy presenting in his new job, having previously worked for a competitor. One of the audience asked whether he was telling the truth now and had been lying to them previously or the other way around. He spread out his hands, cast his eyes to the heavens and said: “The truth changed!”

He got the biggest round of applause of the day and a lot of laughs. We all know the game, you’re sending messages out because it’s your business and that can change – but try not to contradict yourself, from the same job, in a matter of weeks or even days.

Do you need help with your corporate messaging or preparation for interviews? I can help – email me for details.

Pitching to the press: be careful of keywords!

I’m writing a small story for a new client at the moment. It’s a fun piece. It’s aimed at small retailers and it’s specifically about sale events (and yes, I’m writing this in advance so it won’t appear online until the piece is public).

The site is aimed at small independent resellers. There’s generally better money in writing for the big guns, they have more finance; I do enjoy writing for and about people who are tiny independent businesses like mine. It’s about sales – as in sale events, January sales, that sort of thing.

Some of the pitches have been very good. They took all of the above into account. Some are not.

Size can be important

One of them, for example, was from a major High Street store. Now, I have nothing against major High Street stores. But if someone is writing about and for smaller businesses, a pitch like “here’s how Sainsbury’s does it” is only so much use.

Another went: “The thing to do is to capture every customer’s detail from every sale. Track them, send them the relevant offers and ensure you have a relationship.”

All good advice in general but how does this relate specifically to the one-off sale event, I asked? Oh, came the reply, it doesn’t. I thought you meant selling in general.

Which wouldn’t have been so bad if they hadn’t already been back to their client to source several paragraphs of good but completely irrelevant sense.

You only read one word, didn’t you?

The problem in both cases, and yes I did ask, was that they’d just seen the word “sale” and sourced a load of verbiage that seemed vaguely relevant. They hadn’t done anything about the detail, so they’d missed the fact that the client was irrelevant in one case and the subject was way off beam in the other.

I have some sympathy. PR is a pressured job. But as I’ve often said to my daughter when she’s coming up to exams, taking the time to read the question first can literally save hours working on something that’s literally never going to produce anything like a good result.

Do you need help talking to the press and preparing messages? Email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.


Media training: is your news timely or just new?

News, you might imagine, is something that is new. The word itself – although actually derived from the initials of the four compass points – has a clue in the name, a patronising creep of a news editor once told me. (I’m not bitter).

Except when your audience isn’t ready for it. A couple of decades ago, the Internet and email were brand new, or at least just coming into popular public use. I’d been freelance for a few years and was pitching to the Independent.

A story came in from the US, about how the and .com addresses were going to run out by about 2001 (we now know this was not right, but we didn’t at the time). I pitched it and then editor of the technology section thought it might be interesting.

I wrote the story and was surprised when something else appeared instead. The editor had spiked my story and put in something about how to set up your email address for the first time, something I’d assumed was already pretty elderly for the national papers.

If it’s news to your audience it’s news

The editor may have been right of course. In 1997 or whenever it was, home computing was just starting. The fact that web addresses may or may not have been in danger of running out may have been a refinement too far for the readership at the time. Many would be buying their first computer, wondering what an ISP was and connecting to the rest of the world for the first time.

If you’re in PR or are pitching stories to the press yourself, it’s worth asking not just whether something is new but whether it’s newsworthy. This means it’s relevant to the readers and not something that may be relevant in a few years. Certainly it shouldn’t be something that they just won’t understand yet.

It’s possible to risk patronising the readers as a result. In 1997 I just don’t know whether that editor was talking down to his readers or whether the story I’d pitched would have been way over their heads (why he commissioned it in the first place is a question I still can’t answer). But always, always try to understand your target outlet and address it rather than address the things that might seem important to you or your client.

Do you need help with your media engagements? Contact me, I can help.

Online interview course goes live

I’m very excited today because my online media training course has just gone live. It’s a preview version at this stage. There’s a new page on this website devoted to it but just to summarise, it’s aimed at:

  • People who want media training but may not have the budget to get me in person (but you can book personal interview practice over the phone);
  • People who want to learn to prepare interviews but who learn better in bite-sized chunks
  • Clients who can’t spare the time for a full-blown media training session or who can’t co-ordinate diaries internally for a group due to other people’s commitments
  • People who want to learn about media tips and how to make the most of an interview and who prefer to learn on devices

It’s formatted as a “build your own journey” thing, so you decide where you’re going to go and what you’re going to do. There are video clips, sample interviews and analysis, downloads, text-based hints and tips and the opportunity to schedule telephone interview practice if you would like it.

I did this in conjunction with the Henshall Centre, whose owner Liton Ali and I are pretty excited about this. There is a special price while we’re in preview mode – once we launch properly there’s likely to be a substantial increase.

We hope you’ll enjoy what we’ve done!

From senior UK journalist Guy Clapperton

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