Tag Archives: interviewee

Media training: Journalists might not have an agenda!

I come across a lot of strange preconceptions in media training sessions – strange to me anyway. One of the biggies is that people often assume I’m up to something. This means one of two things: either they’re really getting into the interview role play exercise, or I seem really untrustworthy!

It goes something like this. We set a scenario – often I’m playing a journalist at a trade show who’s wandered onto the client’s stand. I introduce myself and ask something like “So, tell me about yourself and your organisation.”

This, believe me, is effectively a journalist clearing their throat. Which is why the reactions can be pretty odd.


A few years back I had a woman saying “Can we stop the exercise? I can’t answer that! Why would you want to know anything about me? What’s behind this?”

What was behind it was a journalist trying to find out who they’re talking to. A name and a job title, and preferably a one-sentence summary of what the company does, would have been admirable.

I’ve asked IT hardware companies how they distribute their goods, directly or through indirect sales channels, and they’ve seen an agenda creeping in and gone cautious. I’ve asked how long people have worked for a company and been perceived as being “up to something” and I’ve asked where a business is based and been told “I wondered what was behind that question”.

The answer is really simple. In most cases there’s nothing behind it, a journalist just needs to get their job done and any background information is on the “essential” side of welcome.


My first ever media training session was with Microsoft in 2002. It became apparent quite quickly that the delegate – with whom I’m still in touch – could tell me what he was trying to say after the exercise, but when the big bad “interview” word was in his head he flustered a little.

Is this you? Do you panic just a little and overthink every question when confronted with a straight question from a journalist? Try thinking again, they may not be as loaded as you or your client (if you’re in PR) thinks.

I can help you with your media interview difficulties – talk to me on the phone on the number on the side, email me by clicking this link or fill in the form below. I’ll look forward to coaching you – many thanks.

What to tell the press when you’re fired

Occasionally people face the media and it’s apparent that their last job didn’t go well. Football managers are routinely announced as “fired” all the time; businesspeople have to face it too. They then carry on and launch something else – but what should you say if you’re in that position and a journalist asks you about your previous job?

Here’s where I believe Jeremy Clarkson has got it right. On the BBC this morning, he described his dismissal (actually the non-renewal of his contract) as “his own silly fault”. You can read about it here.

I don’t know Mr. Clarkson and I’ve expressed my opinion on his sacking before. This time, though, he’s behaved in the only way possible to emerge with any dignity or – crucially – employability.

A confession

Here’s a bit of a confession. I don’t like being fired. It’s happened before and every freelancer faces the prospect of a client finding someone cheaper. Competition for content creation from people based in lower-funded economies can be fierce.

However, when someone makes that decision I always withdraw politely as they may need me again, and I always say something pleasant about them on social media.

To do the opposite is to complain bitterly in public. I’m no cricket buff but have a look at this article by Kevin Pietersen, who basically accuses everybody he spoke to of dishonesty. You can think this, by all means; in sport it probably does no harm to vent a little as the audience doesn’t expect the same professionalism as they might in business. Do Google the story, there’s been acres of coverage, which is the other thing that happens when someone takes an aggressive stance. Journalists won’t leave it alone. Once again, this is probably acceptable to sportspeople who are expected to be massively skilled at their game but not necessarily polished presenters.

In business it’s different. Your communications are important and you have to make future employers look forward to working with you. Your social and Internet footprint will mean any complaints you’ve aired in the past will be easy to find. If there’s a suspicion you’ll turn around and trash your previous employer, or client, you’ll find it more difficult to find the next one.

So no matter how you feel, be gracious. Use bridging phrases when asked what you think about previous bosses: “Obviously we didn’t share a vision of how the company should go forward, and I wish her every success. What I’m focused on now is…”

But don’t be defensive or overly critical. It’s great for the journalist, we love a row, but not so good for your prospects or reputation. This time, Clarkson has manifestly got it right. Whatever he feels, he’s said it was his fault and that really leaves journalists nowhere else to go.

Robert Downey Jr. needs interview training but not from his current team

In a media interview yesterday for Channel 4 News, the subject being the new Avengers movie, Robert Downey Jr. walked out. Here’s the clip, if you haven’t seen it (skip to about 5 mins 30 to watch it go really sour, he walks a minute later):

The reactions have been fairly polarised. Either Channel 4 is an independent production company according to some, so the questions are fair, or they were supposed to be talking about the movie and it got personal.

I’m on the side of the journalist to an extent. It’s a free country and he’s allowed to ask what he wants (and Downey has every right not to answer, stemming from the same freedoms),

The thing is, like Christopher Eccleston a few weeks ago (the link there is about Eccleston hanging up on a journalist who wanted to talk about Doctor Who rather than a current project – although Eccleston has happily covered his Doctor Who year with the BBC, Radio Times and others so there’s presumably more to that story), the star had his expectations mis-managed.

Publicists and expectations

Journalists are obliged to be independent. We’re not part of a film company’s marketing department and our editorial sections are not advertising spaces for a business. Marvel and its movie entourage will not have paid for a space on the Channel 4 News programme. If they’d offered to do so there would have been a firm “no thanks”.

So the idea that a journalist will stick to what the subject wants to talk about rather than anything else they he or she thinks may interest the readers is plain wrong. The question that remains is: who’s telling these spokespeople otherwise?

My guess is that their publicists are assuming the papers and broadcasters will co-operate and brief the performers accordingly. As the Eccleston and Downey examples illustrate, the media doesn’t always do so. There’s actually no reason it should. It doesn’t work for the movie companies and if those movie makers want to threaten to withdraw interviewees, they’ll find we can interview someone else and fill the pages.

Like any business conversation it’s about compromise and understanding where the other person is coming from. In my view the Downey interview should have taken another turn when it became apparent he was uncomfortable and not going to answer in some areas; you can always switch back to talking about the film. There’s every reason to hope, but no right to insist, that he would be willing to answer the more personal stuff. Equally, though, I wish some interviewees, in the business world as well as in entertainment, would grasp the simple truth that the press is an independent entity in its own right and not an extension of their marketing operation.

For information on my media training offerings please click here.

Image: Flickr: JD Hancock

Five media training tips from the General Election campaigns

This entry updated 8 May after a Conservative win. 8 May comments in italics.

The run-up to the General Election in the UK has made for fertile ground for communications specialists and media training companies such as mine. Here are some key lessons, both from delivery and from the messaging point of view – my own politics may show through here, which is not my intention; I’m aiming to offer neutral insights on all of the howlers that have been dropped.

  1. Don’t insult your audience. Last week UKIP leader Nigel Farage accused his audience of being left wing and referred to them as “this lot”. He’s now asked lawyers to investigate. Let’s leave politics out for the moment; even if he’s correct, he handed everybody else the moral high ground by dishing out insults. If you’re presenting on behalf of your business and you feel the audience has been stacked against you, remain above it – don’t hand them a moral victory without a fight. I stand by this one. Farage could have kept the audience on side and failed.
  2. Take part. The Conservatives have tried to paint David Cameron as Prime Ministerial and above last Thursday’s debate; however, in absenting himself he left the other leaders to say what they wanted about him unfettered. For him it’s a calculated risk, for you the gamble might not be worth taking. If there’s going to be a debate that concerns your brand, make sure you’re there to put your side when given the opportunity. I’d stand by this one too except three of the other leaders in the debate have now resigned. Whatever your politics, I suspect you have to concede that Cameron and his team read this exactly right.
  3. Don’t assume the other people will fall to pieces when you want them to. I have no inside information but it looks a lot as though the Conservatives gambled on two things. First, they assumed the rather awkward Ed Miliband would fall apart in election debates. Second, specifically last Thursday, they assumed the other parties, without the coalition members present, would end up bickering and a sprawling mess and put the public off. Neither thing happened. All Miliband has had to do during this election, and all he and the other leaders had to do last week, was to look averagely eloquent and civilised and undecided voters were left wondering whether these people were such a bad alternative..? If you’re pitching your idea to the public or to the press, make sure you’re not assuming the others will screw up and leave you to it. They may not. Make your own case. I’d still suggest clients make their cases properly but, once again, I suggest Cameron and the team read the electorate’s collective view correctly.
  4. Stick to your message. Since neither main party has pulled significantly ahead, we now have Labour claiming to be the party of economic competence and the Conservatives aiming for the workers’ vote. Now, I don’t believe for a moment that the previous caricatured extremes were ever true – but the sudden switching of priorities looks cynical and artificial. If you’re promoting your business and detect a lull in interest, don’t panic and change all your messages – nobody will believe you and your clients are bright enough to know panic when they see it. See above. It’s a gamble and a gamble that paid off for one side and may have been part of the disaster for the other.
  5. Prepare, even if you’re under the impression it’s an interview about stuff you know. The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 had an excruciating interview on Saturday, not with a politician but with a community leader(ish) of a group of American émigrés in Scotland. James Naughtie asked her about comparisons between our current election and the forthcoming US Presidential version; it was clear from the umm-ing, the aah-ing and his attempts to finish sentences – not putting words in her mouth but trying to help – that she’d put no thought or preparation in at all. That didn’t matter this time around, she wasn’t pushing anything or standing for election. However, if you’re ever invited to take part in a media discussion, even if you have only a short time to prepare, you need to make sure you have something to say. Make a point, be memorable – whatever you do, don’t let your first word be “Ummm…….” This remains completely right!

Need media training? Talk to me – check my media training page here or just email or phone 07973 278780.

You don’t work for us

Do you ever get calls from journalists, feel you have to drop everything and respond? We’re very good at making you feel that way – hey, we earn a living getting our names into print the whole time, what do you think? Of course we can make our lives and jobs sound disproportionately important.

But although I spend a lot of my training sessions persuading people we’re not obliged to carry their marketing messages, that we’re independent people who don’t work for you, there’s another unspoken truth that I’ve put in the headline. You don’t work for us either. Many people behave as if they do, and I wonder how productive it is.

Career interviewees

Since starting in the press in 1989 I’ve come across a number of people who will fall over backwards to help the press and expect nothing in return. You call them, they duck out of a meeting, they give you a quote. It’s brilliant and helpful to me personally.

I always try to push media training candidates to the next level, though. To ask themselves why, specifically, they are involved in a particular engagement. What’s it going to do for your business if you’re marketing to end users and I quote you in, say, Professional Outsourcing Magazine?

There can be numerous reasons to talk to a journalist if you’re in the business world:

  • Thought leadership/awareness of your brand
  • Increase sales
  • Increase likelihood of external investment
  • To build relationships with a particular journalist or publication

I’ve no doubt readers will be able to come up with other examples. If you can’t think of any, though, if there is genuinely no benefit to you, you’re entitled not to take part.

Equally, no matter how pressured I sound, I shouldn’t be piling pressure on you because I’ve left things until the last minute (as if…). If I or one of my colleagues/competition have to have quotes now and won’t give you even five minutes to take stock and ring back, you’re under no obligation to participate.

Have a think, consider what you need to get out of the call and call back, with notes in front of you to make sure you get what you need from the call.

One more time: you don’t work for us any more than we work for you. If we can work together, great – but there isn’t necessarily a match every time.

Hire Guy Clapperton as your media trainer – start by clicking here.

Stick to your subject

An issue facing a lot of my media training clients and also the people who write for the magazine I edit is that they don’t know what they’re talking about. I should rephrase. They know what they need to talk about and are consummate experts on it. Then they talk about something else.

Let me give you an example. On my magazine we have a lot of experts writing for us – academics, analysts, definitely experts. They want the exposure but they buy completely into the idea that we are independent. It works, with the occasional hiccup – like a few weeks ago when someone sent an article in saying “I thought, rather than write about the subject set, I’d do something related.”

Alarm bells time. The writer had no idea what else might be going into the publication. So by deliberately moving away from the set subject he risked duplication. This is all but never going to work.


There’s a related issue when interviewees accidentally tell me something more interesting than they should. I had a guy in my media training sessions once and asked my standard warm-up question/call to action, “Tell me about yourself and your company”.

His response was” “A, I think I know what you’ve heard. It is a fact that if you asked my last employer whether I was sacked or walked out, there would be a disagreement between him and me – but let me tell you, I was not sacked…”

Beyond that point I was not remotely interested in anything his current company had to say. He had made the mistake of interesting me in something completely irrelevant at best, to his detriment at worst.


Both of these issues can be overcome by preparation and targeting. Always prepare for an engagement with the press by thinking: what is the magazine, who are its readers and how do I engage with them? After this, apply your marketing messages. How do you make your points whilst still fulfilling our needs? There is almost always a way.

That way you get to deliver your thought leadership or marketing messages without telling us you’ve written something off-topic, and if you’ve done your thinking beforehand you won’t accidentally tell us something more interesting than the thing you’d like us to write about.

It’s about picking a subject, pointing yourself at it and then continuing down that path, regardless. It sounds easy, but how often, if you talk to the press, do you do it?

For information on Guy Clapperton’s media training sessions click here.

I don’t work for you

As you’ll see from the pic, I’m working away from home today – once a week I try to work at the IoD, of which I’m a member. I can do this because I’m self-employed. In other words I work for myself, or more realistically for a series of clients; what I don’t do generally is to work for the people I’m interviewing.

This can come as a surprise to some of them. A while ago I explained why I won’t show people my copy in advance (and nor should any journalist); some of the expectation that people should be able to do just that appears to come from the belief that we as journalists are part of an overall marketing machine.

Movies are the worst

There was an incident just recently in which director Quentin Tarantino threw a bit of a wobbly in a Channel 4 News interview because they were asking questions he didn’t like and this was supposed to be, he believed, an advertisement for his movie.

Uh-uh. No it’s not. It’s independent journalism.

It gets worse when a handful – a minority, I suggest – of PR people fail to manage expectations. Someone must have advised Tarantino to expect an advert for his film; it wouldn’t have been a journalist and particularly not one from Channel 4 News. And yet it’s mostly the hack that gets it in the neck when things are perceived to have gone “wrong” in this way. It’s a free country, we’re allowed to ask what we want, and yet we still get people thinking they can prohibit certain areas. Of course you’re free not to answer, that’s as much your right as it’s ours to ask.

It can be useful to learn a few bridging phrases:

“That’s not a point of view I hear from my customers. What they’re saying is…”

“Our experience actually reflects something different…”

Or in Tarantino’s case, “What really matters is what the public thinks of the movie, and so far reception has been good…” would have been pretty unarguable.

Instead, the suggestion that we’re doing something wrong in not acting as an extension of someone’s marketing department gets in the way and people feel we’re being obstructive when actually we’re just doing our job.

I’ll finish with a truly awful example of someone who thinks it’s their interview rather than an independent event in which the journalist can ask what they like. Again, it’s from Channel 4 News; consider what a bridging phrase or reference to the packed premises full of happy customers might have achieved. For information on my media training offering, click here after wincing at the video.