Tag Archives: communication

Cameron turns a drama into a crisis

The current turmoil surrounding UK prime minister David Cameron, including five different announcements about his tax affairs over the last seven days and culminating in the release of his tax return details, is a masterclass in how not to do media relations.

The root of the story is simpler than the hype might have you believe. His father owned a business and made an investment on the young Dave’s behalf. Dave sold the shares before he became Prime Minister alongside all the other shareholdings he had, and paid all appropriate taxes. Unless you have an objection to buying and selling shares, and I know some people do, that’s it. Experts have confirmed that the “offshore” element was not a tax dodge.

So on Monday the official line was that it was a private matter, said a spokeswoman. On Tuesday Cameron himself clarified that he had no shares. On the Wednesday the government issued a statement saying he and his family did not benefit from offshore funds and then added a further statement to say they wouldn’t in future.

On Thursday the PM confirmed that he’d owned shares and sold them and over the weekend he published his tax details.

Ridiculous delay

I have some sympathy with Cameron this time, but in spite of his request that people blame him rather than his advisors, who on earth was advising him about this?

Here’s a little trick if you want to avoid this sort of flare-up when you’ve done nothing wrong. Ask yourself: what’s the worst that could happen? In this instance, the worst that could happen was that people would find out that nothing illegal and probably not immoral happened. Had he come out with the whole lot on Monday and said “Of course, nothing to hide, this was actually reported by the press in 2012 but let me get you my tax details so we can have full disclosure as they do in America…” he would have looked a lot more transparent.

As it is he looks kind of shifty. The damage done is going to last a while. The PM needs to be seen as trustworthy, particularly with the EU vote coming up and although it’s evident that there has been no wrongdoing, he’s left a smell of “why was that such hard work, is he afraid something else will come out?”

For someone who was in the Conservative Party’s PR operation in the John Major years this is pretty embarrassing. The lesson the rest of us can learn from this is to play the “what’s the worst that can happen” game on ourselves; what if we give a full, honest and frank answer to a difficult question so it won’t come and bite us later?


My thanks to Alan Burkitt-Gray for the correction on the timing of the prime minister’s years in PR, also for the information that he was working for the Conservative Party and not the government at the time. I have amended the text accordingly.

Do you need help with your media engagements? Fill in the form below and I’ll get in touch – or call on 07973 278780. Unless you’re Prime Minister, in which case get an advisor to do it and I’ll coach them too.

Image: Flickr: Brett Jordan

Media mistakes 10: Your media trainer won’t write about you

“I would never hire a media trainer who didn’t guarantee to write about my client immediately afterwards, I wouldn’t be doing my job.” This was the dismissal I had a few years ago from a formerly trusted contact who’d seemed interested in using my services. It was wrong on so many levels.

I don’t come across it often but it happened so it’s worth addressing. Here’s the deal with ethical, proper media trainers:

  1. We’ll tell you that nothing is off the record when you’re dealing with journalists – except when we’re training you. On that occasion we’ll keep confidences as we’re acting as your contractor (or if you’re going through a PR company, a subcontractor).
  2. Very importantly, we’re in your pay while we’re doing this contract work for you. No, I don’t care if there’s no formal contract, a court will recognise the fact that we’ve been hired as contract enough. We therefore can’t claim to be independent or unbiased – you owe us money,  we have a vested interest in your continued existence. And even if only for a few hours, we’ve been insiders.
  3. Now, our only value to editors is as unbiased sources of information – so, would you commission a writer with vested interests if you were that editor?

Of course you wouldn’t. And no decent media trainer will pitch stories about companies they’ve trained for months after the training has happened. One guy with whom I trained a decade or so ago told all his clients not to bother pitching to him for six months after the training session, he had a distinct cut-off point.

Not just trainers

I’ve seen a number of dubious practices over the years. The PR person who approached me with a view to getting stories placed, which would involve payment to me and there was no need to tell any editors as this was “commercial reality” that “most journalists” would understand. I didn’t bother calling him again. The people who called me once about how much I’d charge to write about them in the national press and who were genuinely surprised when I told them any payment would come from the publication, assuming there was a decent story in it. They’d apparently been paying another journalist good money every time their name was mentioned and hadn’t been aware that the paper would have been paying for the work, too. Then there was the journalist who couldn’t be bothered to write anything so got a PR person to write an entire article, to which he added a first and last paragraph – and took full credit and payment from a national newspaper.

None of these practices are ethical or fair to the editor or reader, both of whom have the right to know what they’re reading.

So no, if you want to hire me as a media trainer there’s no point in insisting I should write about your client immediately afterwards – that would be a clear conflict of interest and no decent journalist will do it. A PR person will do this and will declare their interest to an editor, so there’s no difficulty because everyone is aware of the circumstances. But if a trainer claims they’re going to place an interview with you in a publication shortly after your session with them, be careful – if the editor finds out about the deal ,the piece probably won’t appear, and your trainer will vanish shortly afterwards.

Do you need help understanding how the media works? I can help – email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Media mistakes 9: (Most) Journalists aren’t trying to trap you

Why did you hire me for media training? That’s a question I ask every training delegate I come across and the most common answer is that they want to avoid the traps journalists will lay. They’ve done interviews before and they weren’t sure of the journalist’s agenda or what he or she was up to.

They are often disappointed when the answer is “nothing, mostly, just trying to write a decent story for the readers”.

The most extreme example of this was when I asked one candidate to “tell me about yourself and your organisation”. She panicked, said she couldn’t answer that, asked to stop the exercise and said, accusingly, “Why would you want to know anything about me?”

The answer was that I didn’t. A name and job title would have been fine, then move on to the company information she wanted to press.

Another time – a favourite story, this – I asked a guy the same thing during a session. “Tell me about yourself and your organisation”, I said. “Ah, I think I know what you’ve heard,” he said. “And it’s a fact that if you asked my last boss whether I resigned or whether I was pushed he’d disagree with me, but let me tell you, I resigned!”

I was no longer remotely interested in anything else he had to say. I just wanted to know more about his sacking SORRY resignation.

Sometimes the agenda is in your mind

In both of these cases the difficulty was in the mind of the person answering the question. In most of my media training sessions my first question is “Tell me about yourself and your organisation” – it’s me clearing my throat, trying to lower the temperature, just to make sure we have the basics covered. There’s nothing more to it than that.

Most journalists, in fact, will approach businesspeople with a view simply to writing the story up (or broadcasting it, webcasting or whatever they do). They aren’t looking to stitch you up, trash you or humiliate you.

One or two might, and of course a lot of the tricks they play and the strategies to deal with them are very much at the heart of my training offering. A lot of the time, though, you’re going to have straightforward questions from people who aren’t playing mind games, they’re just doing a job, the same as you.

Do you still need help with your media interaction? Want to know what to do when a journalist asks that question you were hoping they wouldn’t, or fails to ask the question that would lead in to your big sell? I can help – call me on 07973 278780 or email by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Media mistakes 8: The interview won’t be on your terms

Press interviews can go wrong for a number of reasons. One I’ve seen often is that the interviewee believes that by stating what they want to be interviewed about, they can stop the journalist asking difficult questions or straying into other areas.

I heard an interview on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme once in which someone had a press launch of an innovation coming up at 10.00am. Their PR had got them a slot on “Today” when they said they would be launching at 10 – the interviewer pointed out that they’d come on a radio show at 7.30, so presumably had something to say, and the interviewee declined to comment any further. The obvious question, which the interviewer was too polite to ask, was: in that case, why are you on this programme?

Another time they had an interviewee on talking about something and they slipped another question in at the end. The answer was “That’s cheeky, you’ve already asked me to come on and talk about that and I refused.”

The fact is, we don’t work for you – we might well co-operate and it can work really well, but we’re not your employee and you may not tell us what we may and may not discuss.

We’ll think it’s our interview

When I had a staff job in the 1990s I had one of the worst interview experiences ever. The idea was promising: a PR person had a client who sold into the education sector. They suggested my magazine should sit in on, and report on, a negotiation. We all thought that was a terrific idea.

The trouble started when the client’s client turned up 45 minutes late and claimed my publication had changed the time (which was entirely fictional). He then produced an old copy of the magazine, from a time before I worked on it, and said he was following up the interview that had been published in that issue.

This was of course drivel.

He then accused me of not doing my research, said I should have spoken to his PR person who would have explained this was a followup to the original piece. My guess is that this was how she’d sold the idea to him; when we put it to him that we should witness a negotiation, he said that was out of the question.

It wasn’t a great interview and I don’t think we ran anything. I suspect the main culprit was the troublemaker’s PR, mis-selling and failing to explain stuff to the stroppy individual in question and no doubt hoping he’d co-operate once he was on site. He didn’t.

His own problem was that he assumed (wrongly) that his PR person had set the meeting up, but even if she’d done so, his assumption that the journalist would be writing what he wanted us to was flawed.

Freedom of speech

The thing is, our duty as journalists is to our readers. We have obligations to our sources and subjects of course. If I write something inaccurate about you, I won’t enjoy hearing about it but I’m human and I know I can make mistakes. I will want to correct it very quickly indeed. I am also obliged to be fair. If someone is saying something about you and your company, I owe you the right of reply if I intend to report their comments.

But we have the freedom to ask and write whatever we wish beyond those parameters. Obviously you have the right to decline to answer a question, or to refuse an interview that’s unlikely to be good use of your time. Those things stem from the same freedoms that allow us to ask the questions we want in the first place. And very often it’s in our interest to ask about the things your business is promoting – when it works, it works very well.

But when you’re inviting a conversation with a journalist, remember we’re independent, we don’t work for you any more than you work for us and we’re going to ask whatever questions we think our readers would want us to address. That’s how it works and it’s unlikely to change. And that’s why it’s important to prepare for interviews and have strategies in place in case the conversation starts to move away from the areas you want to discuss.

Do you need help with press interaction? Email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Media mistakes 7: I’ll take as much time as I want

I was listening to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 the other day and it happened again – one of the interviewees came out with “Let me finish my answer”. I’ve had this, too, and it’s easy to assume journalists are being rude if they’re trying to hurry you along.

So here’s the news: nobody wants to be rude to you deliberately. So why do we hurry you sometimes – and what can you do about it?

Be engaging

There actually isn’t an easy way to put this: if a journalist interrupts or hurries you, it’s because they’re bored with your answer. Now, there’s a good argument that says we’re not there to be stimulated but to report your view, but we’re human. If we get bored we’ll try to move on.

It’s also possible that we’re trying to get a smarter quote out of you. We don’t have the luxury of using as many words as we’d want; if a news editor has said “do this in 300 words” we do it in 300 words, that doesn’t mean 300 words per quote. And if the script of a radio show says we move onto the next item at 8.13 then that’s what we do. We therefore know that you’ve got 90 seconds to go on your item and you’re still warming up.

So the first thing to do is to understand the medium you’re in, spend less time clearing your throat and get to your point quickly.

Stick to your agenda

There may be times, however, when a journalist has their own agenda and you need to override it and get back to your point. If you’re reading this blog, which is aimed at business clients, you’ll probably be interviewed only because of some sort of expertise you have, so you have the right to take a certain measure of control.

Your problem is that telling the journalist to let you finish your point is always going to sound aggressive.

The key to making it work is to acknowledge the fresh question but finish the previous point, and signal that you’ll be doing so. So you might say “I’ll answer that in a second but first I need to finish the original answer”…or “That’s an important point too and I’ll get to it, but first your listeners/readers need to understand…” and then continue.

Always be calm, always sound positive and always get back to answering the new question as well as finishing the last – then everybody’s happy and, truth be told, you’ll probably sound more reasonable than the journalist.

Do you need help with press interviews? I can help – check my media training page for information.

Should you shut up if you’re out of step?

I don’t know where you’d have to be living in order to have missed the fact that David Bowie is no longer with us. This isn’t the place for tributes, of which there have been plenty. A couple of people, though, put a contrary view. This can be valid – but I do wonder, is it wise every time?

Your engagement with media, social or traditional, will reinforce your personal reputation. If you’re engaging with the media then people will walk away with some impression of you. So let’s take an example.

Julie Burchill wrote this piece in the Spectator, for example. She makes the valid point that Bowie spent his life making a good living doing stuff he loved, which is entirely to be celebrated. She spends a lot more time, though, criticising other people for writing stuff, going onto social media and pouring out their views on the great man. In her view they have nothing to say. But what’s really going on here?

One element of what’s happening in that article is that Burchill continues to brand herself as a distinctive voice which is out of step with the masses. Fine, that’s how she makes her living. I have no evidence to suggest she is provoking deliberately, I’m sure her reaction is genuine enough, but she has a reputation as a bit of a provocateur to sustain. This piece does the job admirably. Other people have written stuff that might reflect less well.

Beyond Bowie

 

The I newspaper, for example, carried a piece poking fun at people who didn’t know who Bowie was. This was a bit reminiscent of the time Sir Paul McCartney worked with Kanye West and the media became quite sniffy about younger people not knowing Macca. (This story was largely discredited here but it’s the sniffiness, not the accuracy, about which I want to make a point).

What the I and, in the McCartney example, the Daily Mail, seem not to have realised is that they’re not just highlighting people not knowing about music written 30 years before they were born. They’re illustrating their own intolerance of people not knowing “their” stuff. I find that tells me quite a lot about them. Individuals and business owners are taking to social media and making similar declarations about stuff all the time.

You can agree with them or not. The question for business owners and people who value their reputation on social media is whether they want a contrarian comment, sometimes clashing with the vast majority, to influence their reputation for a long time to come. It’s very difficult for social media to forget things.

Personally I prefer to leave my provocative comments to the stuff that really matters to me. If I’m going to put someone off working with me then let it be a gun lobbyist or a racist – I don’t mind annoying them. Putting a provocative view out there that will alienate people is something that needs careful thought before you do it.

Having said which…Jerry Hall to marry Rupert Murdoch? Seriously..?

Image from Flickr: Sarah Stierch

Media mistakes 3: It’s a good idea to answer at length

One of the frustrations I often face as a journalist is that people answer my questions as thoroughly as they can. I’ve just got off the phone with a guy I’m covering for the New Statesman; he was genuinely interesting and had a lot to say and I’m going to share as much as possible with the readers.

Note, “as much as possible”. In other words I’m going to have to be selective, cut a bit, eliminate repetitions and turn it into journalese.

In this case that won’t be a problem because the guy was himself a journalist. He was, consciously or otherwise, aware of my need to make an article out of his comments. Not everybody is as informed.

Read the papers, look at the quotes

When I first started writing, I naively thought the seasoned commentators would speak in pure quotes. They don’t, of course. I was quite shocked when I asked a guy why he’d chosen to sell a particular gadget and he came out with about 200 words.

I did my best to select what the readers would need to know and probably got it about right at the time. That was, however, a risk on his part.

It’s worth looking at the newspapers, magazines and online sources, whether multimedia or otherwise, that you’re targeting. How long are the quotes that they use? There are unlikely to be any strict rules but you’re bound to notice there isn’t much waffle. More than 15 words in print is going to start looking like a soliloquy.

This needn’t be a problem to the journalist, we’re used to cutting and getting to the nub of the story. It’s what we’re paid for. But…do you want our choice of your words speaking for you, or would you rather have yours? The only way to ensure I use your choice of quote, that will serve your company well, is to make your point briefly and then, politely, stop speaking. And the only way to make sure those words work for you is to prepare carefully.

If I have a choice of 200 words, I’m going to choose those that fit my story the best. I won’t sabotage your quotes but my idea of “best” may not be yours. If I have only 30, I’m pretty much forced to use your choice.

So, how thoroughly do you generally answer questions?

Do you need help with interview technique? Contact me on 07973 278780.