Tag Archives: independent journalism

Journalism is not part of your content strategy

I had a discussion with a contact the other day. He wanted to place some journalism as a precursor to doing something commercial with a publication.

Seen from the marketing position only it looks reasonable enough. Magazines and websites are mostly commercial enterprises and will form part of your content strategy.

Only…that’s not how journalism works. Here are a few reasons why not:

  1. Our only selling point as an entity in our own right is our independence. Immediately we submit ourselves to being part of someone else’s content strategy, we’ve failed in our basic mission.
  2. Our readers trust us to be independent on the same basis. It might sound as if I’m taking this a bit seriously but we do, genuinely, care about the readers – which is why, whenever there’s an advertorial placed, it will have “in association with” or something written above it. In a well-resourced magazine or website, the editorial content will absolutely stand on its own.
  3. One argument I’ve heard is that if we’re commercial enterprises we need to be flexible in order to be viable. OK, but if we started giving away editorial as part of a “commercial” arrangement, where would the advertiser’s incentive to spend money come from? We’d be giving away our crown jewels for nothing – and undermining their only value simultaneously.
  4. It’s possible or indeed probable, particularly if you’re a tech company, that the publication’s brand is older and arguably more valuable than yours. No journalist will ever say this to your face but have a think: you reckon the Times or Telegraph are going to risk their brand reputations for a couple of thousand quid’s worth of promotion you might one day throw their way? (Or not..?) We’re businesses in our own right, with our own objectives and values. Marketers who regard us as extensions of their own operation will get short shrift.
  5. You can add the journalist’s personal reputation to point 4. None of us want to be thought of as the sort of person who’ll sneak a plug for a client in on a promise of further money rather than writing exclusively in the interests of the readers, although as this blog post outlines some way in, I’m aware there are some dubious practices around.

Honestly, your position as an advertiser or prospective advertiser with a magazine or website won’t matter to a decent editor or journalist. When I was in the trade press years ago the ad team would constantly try to find out what we were reviewing, what we were writing about, with a view to selling ads on the back of it. Other than general subject guidelines and sometimes a public features list (if we were doing a round-up of printers, for example, then of course we’d let the ad team know – but we wouldn’t say which models we were looking at or whether the reviews were positive) the contents of the magazine were confidential to the editorial team until publication day.

By all means there are a few poorly-resourced magazines that will throw editorial into a commercial deal and not tell the readers. The readers will eventually twig, they will stop trusting the magazine, the magazine will go under. The vast majority of reputable publications will not, repeat not, use their editorial content as a pawn in a commercial game.

Do you need someone to work with you on understanding how to work with the media? I can help – contact me on the form below or on 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

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 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.

Kids Company: a communications disaster

The BBC broadcast a programme last night on the collapse of the Kids Company charity. If you’re in the UK you can catch it on iPlayer. I’d recommend it as a fascinating study into a person’s drive and detachment from financial reality or the logistics of running a large organisation.

This blog isn’t about that. It’s about communication and it’s here that a slew of major errors on the part of the charity’s founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, and crucially two big ones from her communications manager, made a dire situation worse. Continue reading Kids Company: a communications disaster

Do journalists and PR people have to “believe”?

Someone asked me a question on Quora, the social “question and answer” media network, recently. They were in PR and they had been asked to represent a politician whose views they found abhorrent. What, they asked, should they do?

A number of people also tagged in the question responded. Be true to yourself, some said, while others said swallow your pride, it’s only a job. I have no idea how extreme this politician’s views were but I’d stick with the one answer. Or rather I’d ask one question.

Do you believe in democracy?

It’s not about me

A couple of years ago I was editing a few supplements for the New Statesman on the subject of Gibraltar. It was a fun assignment and I still edit the magazine’s web hub on the Rock after one year edited by someone else. We wanted something from an MEP for one of the supplements.

The obvious person was from UKIP. I should confess to a certain bias here; I regard UKIP as a political fan club for a leader who can’t even master the art of resignation. You don’t have to agree, but you can see where I’m coming from.

So you might think I had a dilemma. I didn’t. I got in touch with the guy’s press officer, who was more than helpful, and we ran the article that was submitted on time and to length. I made minimal cuts for length. If the press officer or MEP are reading, this will hopefully be the first indication they’ve had that I wasn’t 100 per cent behind them.

The thing is, I’m a journalist. I’m not an elected representative and anyone who is – much though I might disdain their view – has more legitimacy than I do. Unelected people seeking election also have a constitutional right to be heard.

As a journalist I regard it as part of my job to make sure they’re heard. In the same way, if they want to pay a PR person or company to get their message out there, as long as it’s not actual hate, that’s legit. The media and its support agencies are the messenger, not the originator, most of the time.

I’d welcome other people’s views.

Media mistakes 4: house style and advertorials

I edit a couple of publications, one regularly (Professional Outsourcing Magazine) and I’m one of a group of people editing supplements for the New Statesman. Sometimes we have external contributions from people, occasionally in the form of “advertorials” in the New Statesman (although we don’t carry those in Professional Outsourcing).

I enjoy both positions and have edited sponsored supplements for other publications, too. If I could change one thing about corporate contributors to either of them then it would be the view that says we will adopt the writer’s house style every time. We won’t.

Here’s an example. Someone was writing a piece for the one of my magazines a while ago and said they wanted their picture to appear by it. Now, unless you’re a regular staffer on the New Statesman (in which case you might well have a picture byline in the main magazine), that’s just not something the magazine does.

The writer’s logic was that he/she was paying to take part in an advertorial and should therefore be able to dictate terms. This isn’t actually how it works. If you’re writing for an established publication it will have its own style, and will adjust your copy to accommodate it. This might be as simple as changing every reference to the number “2” to “two”, or putting job titles in lower case (I’ve actually had complaints from people for not putting their job in capitals before now). But the house style is going to stay – it’s got our brand on it, and the Guardian, Times, Professional Outsourcing or whoever you’re writing for will want to stay consistent.

Publishing rules count

The other matter on which we’ll be very strict is libel. Even if you’re taking part in an advertorial, we won’t let you slate your competition or – as one company once tried to do in a magazine I won’t name – accuse a government of intimidation without rock solid evidence.

We’ll have been trained in the laws of libel and will know what you can and can’t say. Unless there is proof, the fact that something is true may not be an actual defence in court because the perpetrator will be regarded as innocent until proven guilty. And saying – as happened with one client – “We’re paying X amount so you’ve got to publish what we say” – isn’t going to cut it. We’d rather send the money back than compromise our publication.

None of this means you won’t get to state your case. You’ll simply be bound by the same ethics and legislation that controls the rest of the journalistic world. Generally these are there for a very good reason, such as protecting the genuinely innocent.

So if you’re going to get involved in advertorials here are some general guidelines:

  • It’s not an advert so you can’t just put in any old thing. Excessive mention of your brand, for example, will be frowned upon.
  • The magazine, newspaper or website may want to put its own house style into your item. This is a good thing as it will make the whole enterprise seem more professional and your article is more likely to be taken seriously.
  • Try to make a point and offer thought leadership rather than “we’ve got this new product or service”. You want people to read this rather than write it off as an advert.
  • Try to understand that the editorial team doesn’t always welcome the imposition of advertorial articles from the commercial side. It’s one of those professional tensions that exists in publishing – accept it, respect that the journalists to whom you speak might not have read every word of every advertorial and you should get on just fine…

Do you need help writing for or talking to the press? I can help – email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.