Tag Archives: communication

Don’t let me ask this question

When I’m writing something for the press there’s a question I ask myself after every paragraph. That question is: “Why am I telling them this?”

If I can’t answer that question then I abandon the paragraph and start again. Frankly if I can’t see the point of a section of an article I can’t expect the readers to do it for me. And yet so many people don’t seem to worry; this is particularly true of some sections (by no means all) of the PR community.

If I’m reading your press release and wondering why you sent it to me, you’ve frankly lost me and I’m going to be hard to get back.

Reasons I may not be interested

There can be many reasons I won’t be interested in a particular release and many are easy to eliminate. Here are some of the more frequent offenders:

  • The poorly-targeted release: Just before Christmas I had a lavishly-illustrated press release on hand-designed-and-painted silk scarves for women. To the right journalist this had everything including images. To a business journalist writing about SMEs, Outsourcing and a number of related areas like me, it was of no interest whatsoever. The fact that someone has “journalist” in their job title doesn’t mean you can send them just any old thing.
  • The poorly-written press release: These are in the minority, fortunately. I still get the poorly-spelled and punctuated release from time to time and I try to rise above them. More seriously I receive releases in which the main point isn’t clear from the headline, the thrust of the release is buried in the third or fourth paragraph or the point of sending it in the first place just isn’t clear.
  • The release is of interest only to the stakeholders: A good PR person is a consultant as well as someone who just does the bidding of the client. So if you’re aiming to be a good consultant, please do tell your client that their new regional manager or their ten per cent uplift in sales is interesting mostly to the people working for them. Outside the business is anyone really going to care who heads up the sales team as long as they don’t cause a problem?
  • The release with no point: Sometimes I get sent a release that just tells me a client has an opinion on something. There is no effort to find out whether I might be writing about the topic in question, I’m just offered opinions. I suspect the client is standing over the hapless PR person insisting the release be sent; these releases fail the “why am I telling them this?” question immediately.

A lot of these issues are caused by clients who think that if they pay a PR person, coverage will follow immediately. They are compounded by the journalists moving about so much: yes, I get a lot of poorly targeted stuff but no, I wouldn’t particularly want the job of keeping tabs on all of the thousands of freelancers like me in the industry. We get commissions in the short term that might well leave us appearing to be specialists in something we’re not. That’s the job, though, and the PR community can’t afford to let itself off the hook because keeping track appears a bit difficult.

So before you send your next release out, ask why you’re telling the journalist this stuff. If you can’t answer, you might do well to redraft it a bit.

Do you need help with your PR writing and interaction? I can help – fill in the form below, click here to email me or call 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.


Learning at school

Today I had the pleasure of speaking to some students at my daughter’s school on journalism as a career. They were happy to attend – fair enough, there were croissants – and listened well, engaging in discussions too.

I hope I was able to pass on some learnings. Like all the best speaking experiences, though, I took away something unexpected myself. Today’s lesson for Guy was about expectations: people won’t always agree with a point of view just because it looks obvious after a few years’ experience as a hack.

Here’s a widely-known video clip. I’ve used it on this site before – regular readers might recall it. If you don’t have time to watch, it’s the one in which the owner of the Cereal Killer restaurant in Camden doesn’t want to answer a question:

I asked: just out of interest, who “won” that interview?

I was surprised by the response. It was about 50/50. Now, in my mind, the interviewee – who uses a PR company so presumably wasn’t “doorstepped” but entered the interview quite willingly – is unprepared, he’s not devoting time to the interview and is completely thrown when it turns out he’s not just going to get a free advert for his restaurant. Not all of the students agreed.

One suggested there are more polite ways of making a point. Actually, “sneaky” was the phrase she used. Another thought it was a plain rude question.

Now, as a journalist I feel very strongly that at its best, my trade helps hold people to account. I have to accept, though, that not everybody is going to share my view.

So, what if the public agreed – that the interviewer was overstepping the mark, that we as a trade don’t show enough basic decency to our subjects? Remember, all the guy had done was open a restaurant, it’s hardly a criminal offence.

If you write for a living like I do, how do you make sure you’re in tune with your readership?

The illustration above is a stock picture in the public domain – the young women to whom I spoke were someone else entirely.

Katie Hopkins: publicity master?

This week, a group of students at Brunel University first stood up and turned their backs on, then walked out on former candidate on “The Apprentice” and now columnist Katy Hopkins.

Hopkins has built herself quite a reputation. She is right wing and has made numerous controversial comments about refugees, women, overweight people…I could go on. She behaved pretty badly during “The Apprentice”, trying to plot the downfall of a couple of the candidates. And failing.

She is also a master at publicising herself and making a great deal out of what appears simply to be a particular outlook on life.

If I were here I’d be thanking those students at the moment. Look at what it’s done for her. She would have been unlikely to get into the Guardian and the Independent without their actions, these papers are not her spiritual home. She would also not have had the ammunition to launch an attack on universities and freedom of speech in her Daily Mail column, in which she has some justification for accusing the students of having closed minds and not researching other speakers with the same diligence. There’s an important lesson about handing people the moral high ground in there.

How do you solve a problem like Katie

It’s an old difficulty: how do you efficiently protest against someone without drawing attention to their views? There are a number of ways, and the students in this instance blew most of them.

First, you ignore the speaker. Just don’t invite them to speak and they won’t force themselves on you.

Second, if your uni or other organisation has invited them to speak and you object, don’t go. An empty or poorly-attended hall is not a news story.

Third, if you do turn up and want to object, give the speaker a chance to make his or her point first. Whatever objections you have, walking out before he or she has spoken is always going to look unreasonable. Putting a film of it on YouTube is going to hit the papers – Hopkins can probably charge a larger fee as a result of the last couple of days’ notoriety.

What Katie should do next

On the other hand, you might be the Katie figure rather than the listener in this case. If I were advising her or someone like her, I’d suggest:

  • Turn up to anything to which you’re invited and get a friendly colleague along with a camcorder, DSLR, phone with good video recording or something like that. Get any protest on disk.
  • Stay calm and be reasonable. Don’t allow yourself to look flustered. It’s your right to express an opinion in a democracy and the fact that I wouldn’t vote for you/buy your newspaper/whatever takes nothing away from that right.
  • If there’s a walkout, make it a bigger news story than it is – as indeed Hopkins appears to have done. Wait and see whether someone uploads their own footage for sharing, and use the copy you’ve made only if they fail to do so – so it doesn’t look like self-publicity.

I hold no brief for Katy Hopkins. The audience, however, has handed her an incredible win. I suspect this wasn’t their intention.

Do you need help handling an awkward audience during your business presentations? I can help – fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

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Is body language important?

Media training candidates sometimes ask me whether body language matters. Some candidates (and more problematically their PR advisors) think there are fixed rules.

My only rules are as follows: first, try to watch yourself on video. Second, don’t get too hung up on what you see.

Try not to look like Thunderbirds

A couple of years ago a colleague and I were media training a CEO from a large international company. He was a nice guy and listened to people. Unfortunately one of the people to whom he paid most attention was his public relations person.

That should have been a good thing and it was, until we started filming him. Then she started giving instructions out. He looked relaxed, so she told him to sit up. He’d been speaking with his hands all the way through the session – so she told him to keep them rigidly by his side.

Honestly, by the end of it he looked like a particularly stilted puppet. It just didn’t work.

If you’re concerned about how you might look when you’re being interviewed, first bear in mind that everybody else feels the same – we hate to watch ourselves on television. Second, if you look comparatively relaxed, don’t formalise it too much – you’re better off looking human.

We all umm and aah a bit in conversation. Take it all out and you look as though you’re doing a speech rather than a genuine interview. The audience can spot a prepared question at some distance.

Be natural, be yourself, be prepared and well-briefed. It’s pretty much all you’re going to need. I can help with practice and interview techniques if you need them.

Do you need help with your media interactions? From December, all media training sessions with me will include a filmed HD interview – fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

Learnings from New York

So I was in New York this week, as you’ll have gathered from the picture above. That’s Central Park and it could be the Trump Tower in the background.

I was chairing a round table discussion for Professional Outsourcing Magazine, which I edit. We run these in London frequently, an invited group of experts come to hear a speaker over dinner. It went well but there were a number of learnings about working in America for the first time – I thought they may help if you’re presenting over there for the first time:

  • It’s well understood that in spite of the language commonality and shared ancestry, modern America isn’t simply a bigger version of modern UK. So when the main speaker, based in New York, said “let’s make this interactive”, they really went for it. In the UK I find getting people to participate is a slow start, then they go for it – it wasn’t like that over there.
  • The drop-out rate for evening events appears to be the same in the US as it is for the UK – we’d planned accordingly and still had a full house.
  • If you’re planning an event over a meal, it’s important to find out what time the local participants will expect to eat. In the UK we’re fine with a 6.00pm-and-onwards arrival, drinks, sitting down to the speaker at 6.30, Q and A at 7.15 and the first course arriving towards 8. Our feedback from our American planner was that we couldn’t possibly hold off until 8 to start the food, people would be hungry.
  • For this reason as well as many others, having someone local working with you is essential. Read up all you want, only someone steeped in the culture will know about all of the smaller points.

Oddly it was the second-last point that took me by surprise, which is crazy when you consider that I know perfectly well that (for example) Spanish people will expect to eat at around 9pm. Why should someone on another continent keep similar hours to ours?

It went well – as you’ll gather we had someone local which I believe is essential. Our next stop (other than the regular London events) will be Chicago – and I’m not taking it for granted that they will have the same expectations as their New York counterparts.

Do you need a facilitator for a round table event? I can help, drop me a mail by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Five tips on writing

Do you have trouble with your corporate writing style? It’s what I do for a living but even then I have potential clients who don’t like my style. A lot of it is a matter of taste, but there are some rules that will help.

Last week I spent a very pleasant day coaching a client on case studies. Here are some of the tips he needed – and if you’d like a similar one to one coaching session in London do get in touch by clicking here and I’d be pleased to help.

  • Be brief. Short sentences are good. It’s often a good idea to put a slightly longer one in the middle to vary the tone otherwise it becomes monotonous. But mostly, short is good.
  • Start with the main clause, the main point of your story. Let the subordinate clause – the section of a sentence that is less important than the rest – be subordinate. So sentences or stories that start “In a move designed to shake up the opposition, David Cameron has…” aren’t great. Just tell me what he’s done and spend less time clearing your throat.
  • Be active. Active and passive is a distinction that isn’t always clear to everybody; to put it another way, stick to a structure of subject, verb, object. “The cat sat on the mat” is clearer than “The mat was sat on by the cat” in which we go passive.
  • Write for your audience rather than your company. A few years ago someone asked me for feedback on their website. The first paragraph was all about how they’d decided to move from being a sole trader to being a limited company. That might well have been a superb idea but why should the customer care? Tell the reader something that concerns them, not something that concerns you.
  • Always read things out loud. The writer Graham Greene once said he always did this and if it sounded bad, it was bad, no matter how grammatically correct it might look on the page. This is more important than ever now in a word processor-led era in which we write, rewrite and add bits all the time so a sentence can be cobbled together over days. How many times have you accidentally left an unnecessary word from a previous draft in a document?

Be present in an interview

I had this interview scheduled. I attended in person. It was that kind of day.

I was there bang on time, which is pretty usual I’m pleased to say. The interviewee was just finishing his previous meeting but his colleague brought me coffee, which was thoughtful. I sat. I drank coffee.

15 minutes later the interviewee came in. OK, it happens. I was happy enough. He then said he was expecting a delivery and asked whether I’d mind if he broke off during the interview. I said that was fine and his delivery appeared immediately.

I expected him to sign. He did. He took his package to his colleagues. He talked them through it.

Finally we did ten minutes of an interview. His colleague came through. There was a call – he’d scheduled it, apparently. He asked to be excused for two seconds.

20 minutes later he sauntered back in. He apologised for the delay and by this time I’d been there 50 minutes and had 11 minutes of interview in the recorder.

20 minutes later I left. Nobody will be able to tell how I was treated from the content of the written interview, that would be unprofessional – but if I ever need a second quote for a feature I know where not to bother going.

If you can’t spare the time to do an interview properly, don’t do an interview.

Do you need help preparing for interviews or dealing with the press? I can help – email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.