Press questions: be ready for the obvious

I’ve avoided discussion of the general election in the UK on this site for the most part – anyone who wants to see me ranting about it is welcome to check Facebook out. However, there have been a few lessons to learn in terms of communication.

One of these, as I’ve hinted in the the headline, is to be prepared for the obvious. So many politicians of so many different parties have missed this. Here is a four-leader, five-politician guide as to stuff that’s gone wrong – and in italics, where businesses can learn from them:

  • Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott: Know your figures. If you’re going to launch a policy, know them even better. If you have a notebook and an ipad with you, have them set/bookmarked so that you’re able to find them very quickly indeed. That’s so basic it’s embarrassing. (If you’re leader you have a better excuse for not knowing all the figures offhand than if you’re shadowing a specific department, but only just). In business, a journalist is bound to ask you for some figures. Have them to hand and know what you’re prepared to announce and what you’re not. But not by much.
  • Theresa May: Make sure everyone is au fait with a policy, whether it’s the so-called dementia tax or other taxes. Over the weekend Theresa May said taxes might rise and Sir Michael Fallon, widely tipped as a new chancellor of the exchequer, said they wouldn’t. Get your story straight before going public – it’s not as if someone else surprised you by calling the election. In business, if your colleagues are briefing a differing viewpoint from that of the company it can look bad – try to be consistent.
  • Tim Farron: People in this country have always obsessed about sexuality. You’ve been known in the past to abstain from some votes on the subject and are also known to be a Christian, a faith that is rightly or wrongly perceived as anti-gay. You’re going to get asked about this. When someone asked whether you thought gay sex was a sin in the House of Commons you said “I do not”. When journalists ask you, though, you say “I’ve already answered that”. It looks slippery when “I do not”, even if you just repeat it, wouldn’t. Don’t worry about repeating an answer as long as it’s true. In business there are some issues that won’t go away – if you’ve done nothing, be prepared to repeat that message rather than show impatience with reporters – they might personally be asking for the first time even if you’ve heard it seven times that week.
  • Paul Nuttall: If you’re going onto a panel of leaders, remember everybody’s name. Write them down if you have to. Frankly, mate, your party’s on its knees already without telling us that the leader thinks everyone is called Natalie. In business, although you don’t have to repeat a journalist’s name every thirteen seconds like some interviewees do because they think it looks sincere, getting the name right at least once is positive.

Do you need help with your media engagement? I can help – call me on 07973 278780.

How to stop me killing your pitch

Another day, another brutal murder of a public relations person’s pitch. Actually I killed two yesterday: one on the phone and one by email.

I’m not talking about the poorly-targeted piece of nonsense that told me about sales of “sex robots” in the UK – wrong sort of technology for my market I’m afraid. Nor any of the other irrelevancies: if you want to tell me which beer goes better with a barbecue that’s fine, just don’t expect me to write anything as I’m focused on technology and business.

No, these could have been relevant but I scared them off. And I did it with one question.

Ask yourself this first

The question was simple. Without disclosing any details of the pitches – it wouldn’t be fair – I asked the first person by email, “which of my outlets did you think this would fit into”?

That was 10.00am. By 5pm there was no response and I realised there wasn’t going to be one.

Later the same day I was in a supermarket and the phone rang. Hello Guy, is it a good time to talk, they asked: well, I’m in Sainsbury’s, I said…they laughed and carried on regardless.

(Mental note: PR people always think I’m joking when I say I’m in a supermarket, driving or whatever. Must be the way I tell them).

So she pitches – and I say: I’m not sure which of my outlets this would go into.

She falters, stammers, says “OK, nice talking to you” and goes away.

A question is not a dismissal

There may well have been something in the story or stories, I’ll never know. The thing is, I’d have been pleased to read and listen if they’d actually answered. Someone might well have noticed something about the publications for which I write that had escaped me, and if I end up with a commission that’s great – it’s how I earn my living.

Unfortunately they hadn’t thought through to the obvious questions. “Who’s it for” doesn’t just mean the journalist, it means think about the reader. If either of those people had given the matter any thought they could have come straight back at me, to our mutual advantage.

I can’t see that either of us has won as it is.

Do you need help with your PR pitching skills? I can help – fill in the form below or call me on 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Don’t pitch me a client, pitch me a headline

I led two masterclasses on pitching yesterday, at a PR company I won’t disclose because my clients are always confidential. One thing became apparent during the session: everyone wanted to pitch their client to me.

Which sounds perfectly logical. But it’s not.

One of the delegates came out with something like this: “Hi, I’m calling with a photo-opportunity. My client is coming to the UK and will be making a speech to his/her employees, and you’d be welcome to come along with a photographer.

Her colleagues congratulated her on the pitch and her manner was indeed superb. The pitch, however, would most likely have died on its backside.

The pitch isn’t about you, it isn’t about me

The problem with the pitch above is twofold. First, it’s all about the client. It doesn’t have to be about me, whatever some journalists tell you, but it’s absolutely got to be about my readers. Consider it again: there’s a photo-opportunity (which sounds a bit manufactured anyway), there’s a chief executive and there’s a speech.

I know nothing about the content or whether it’s going to be relevant to my readers at all at this stage.

The second problem is related to that first one: the delegate had actually pitched me the process, the mechanics of what his or her client was doing, and stopped there. You get limited time with a journalist on the phone. Why would you focus on the process rather than the content? (Come to think of it, why do so many people phone me and start “I’m just giving you a call”? I know that bit already…)

Start at the end

Here’s the way I’d do it. Start from the final output you’re looking for. Imagine you’ve prompted me to write an article. It’s in the paper, on the web or wherever, and you’re happy with the coverage and the headline.

Ask yourself: what does the story say? And what’s the headline?

Now back in the real world, pick up the phone and pitch me that headline. Never mind the process, never mind that your client has done a survey of 3000 clients, never mind that your organisation is in the top ten widget suppliers to the small business market in the UK – that’s background.

Lead in with the story. Tell me that your client has found that half the people who believe they understand IT security still have the default passwords on their phones. Tell me that your business has enabled someone to increase productivity by 30 per cent, meaning they’ve avoided making redundancies. Tell me why someone’s life is better because of your client.

In fact, just tell me the story. If it’s a good one I may well be interested.

Do you need help pitching to journalists? My pitching masterclass is ready to go – fill in the form below or call me on 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Giving gifts to journalists – our ethics

Sometimes when I’m media training I’m asked about giving gifts to journalists. This is something that’s changed over the years and, I believe, it’s better now. The simplest advice is not to do so.

In the late eighties when I started as a tech journalist, there wasn’t a year without a case of wine or something turning up at the office for Christmas, usually from the marketing department of a company about which we’d written regularly. There was no linkage in our minds between this and the coverage.

There were also more overt gifts. One editor I knew rarely paid for his own laptop computer. He explained that a few PR people and he regularly planned that he’d be the last person to review a unit, and by the time it had been pulled apart that many times it wasn’t cost-effective to retrieve it. Hence, free laptops for years.

There are exceptions of course. Food and drink journalists can’t reasonably write about their field without tasting, and expecting them to send back the remainder of a bottle of beer would be absurd.

The tech-based generosity all came to a halt a couple of decades later. First, the financial crash happened. Second, a lot of marketing departments did some thinking.

Are you drinking someone’s job?

Two things happened. It started to occur to people on both sides of the fence that if money was being spent on journalists then it wasn’t going on the core business. When people were losing their livelihoods all over the place, it was less comfortable when someone biked a bottle of bubbly or something over.

Second, during the late 1990s the Internet became more popular. It had always been known that the UK and the US had different cultures when it came to “freebies” (they were much more strict than us). Being in closer contact with each other held us in the UK up to the light and we could see how this looked to other people.

That said, there may be times when you want to give someone a little thank you. Here’s something that happened to me only a couple of weeks ago.

Say it with as little money as possible

I was interviewing someone and we were getting on well. He was interesting and I warmed to his subject. He told me there was a book I’d really enjoy, and asked for my email address. I gave it, politely, expecting information on the book.

When I checked, he’d sent me the audiobook. Now, Audible.com has a promotion so that you can send someone a copy of your favourite book free of charge, I believe (it’s obviously promotional but you do get the whole book).

I found I had a gift that was: a) personal and thoughtful, because it was a result of an actual conversation, and also b) free to the sender.

Meanwhile my wife works in the public sector; their stipulations, if someone insists on giving them something, are that it has to be declared if it’s worth over a fiver and unless it’s perishable, they tend to put it into a prize draw for their nominated charity anyway.

On the “perishable” theme, when someone gave me some help with a contract once and wouldn’t accept money, I sent a box of cookies. I had to query non-delivery so the company sent out another couple of boxes to be certain. By the time the fourth box had arrived my contract friend was begging for them to stop.

In fact the more I think about it, the more I think “just a really good story thanks” is about right for most journalists I know.

Should you stop annoying journalists?

Last week I asked readers what they’d like me to cover in a webinar I was due to host this week. That’s now postponed for a fortnight but one request caught my eye: someone wanted to know how to avoid annoying journalists. Maybe oddly, I’ve concluded that a good PR person should be an annoyance occasionally.

Let’s just be clear before I get slaughtered: I’m not talking about annoying us for the sake of it, calling every five minutes (one PR company took to calling me every day when they’d issued a press release a while back, and that achieved nothing for them or their clients). But there are others who call when they have something distinct and useful to say and that’s welcome.

I’ve seen people on Facebook and elsewhere offering advice like: don’t call journalists. Don’t follow up a press release, ever. Don’t delegate journalist contacts to young women, older male journalists know what you’re up to (genuinely, someone hinted at this on a Facebook group only last week).

I have another suggestion.

Don’t forget who you work for

I get that I’m not going to win any popularity contests among some of my colleagues for saying this, but: who do some of these journalists think they are? We have the word “journalist” in our job title and this, to my mind at least, implies that people who believe they have interesting stories may get in touch.

Of course, “interesting” in turn implies that you’ve found out about my readership and what I actually write about. Scattergunning any old release at all journalists whether they’re likely to give a whatsit or not is counterproductive.

I speak to a lot of PR people, though, who listen to journalists chanting the “don’t call me” mantra but when you ask quietly they confirm that relevant press releases followed up by a call tend to produce better results than those not followed up at all. And the job is to get a result, not necessarily to butter up an insecure hack who has forgotten that he or she doesn’t employ you so their best interest is in friendly co-operation rather than in outright hostility. That doesn’t mean responding positively to every approach; it means declining politely when something doesn’t appeal, and giving a reason why where possible.

So here’s my guide to not annoying journalists. First, accept that some will always be annoyed. A handful are resentful of the fact that they need PR people at all, considering them somehow “impure”. Ignore them, they’ll never be happy with you. Focus instead on the politely responsive, and tailor your pitches; have an idea of where you’re aiming your story and why it will appeal. Be selective about when you call. If it’s after every release the call becomes white noise. If it’s only after the ones you really think deserve our attention, we’re likely to listen.

And difficult though it is, don’t let us get away with patronising you. You don’t work for us, we don’t work for you but we can share aims on occasion so an atmosphere of understanding the other side and its objectives will help everybody. If we’re treating you like an idiot because we think you’re 20 years younger than us, that’s our problem – journalists with that attitude probably think 40 is “young”.

Actually, now that I think of it, I wouldn’t mind being 40 again…

How do you keep a webinar lively?

Media training yesterday, a lively event, and one of the delegates asked me how he should make his webinars lively. He found them difficult because there was no immediate comeback from the audience. I agree; I’ve sat through a number of them and am presenting one to fully launch my online media training course, currently in preview.

It’s an issue. My colleague who’s arranging Wednesday’s event has attended webinars in which the text box has been full of people not talking business but arranging where to go for a curry in the evening. So here are some tips that I’ll be using as presenter:

  • Find some typical audience members beforehand and ask what they would like to see in terms of content. Address it and address them by name during the webinar. The audience needs to know you’re listening as well as broadcasting, and talking to them.
  • Watch that text box and don’t blame people if they’re distracted – it’s my job to keep them engaged, not their duty to support me.
  • Keep it short and all points brief. Allow for the audience to have different priorities from mine.
  • Have an expert handle the technology while I handle the content. Yes, I could “pilot” the thing reasonably well but no, if I’m trying to focus on presenting as well I don’t think that will work.
  • Don’t single people out and ask them questions – I’ve seen this in webinars, someone’s suddenly handed the chance to speak and unless they wanted it, it just embarrasses them.
  • Keep the pace going – lapses in energy are emphasised rather than helped on video.
  • Take all the feedback I can so the next one is even better!

And of course if there are any media training or press interview issues people would like me to address at 3pm on Wednesday you’re more than welcome to leave them as comments to this message – more details on how to log in will follow.

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.

From senior UK journalist Guy Clapperton

LinkedIn Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com