Tag Archives: media training

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.

Free pre-interview checklist

Psst…want a free checklist of things to do before a media interview?

It’s here:

Media Interview Checklist

And yes, it’s on the Henshall Centre website, so of course it’s there to attract people to the online media training course I’ve blogged about and to which this page of this site is dedicated.

But it’s a useful guide – do click through and have a look. And while you’re there why not consider the online media training course?

If you’d rather have me media train you in person, I’m on 07973 278780 and you’re welcome to get in touch – or use the contact page to schedule an initial call.

What’s changed in communications for 2017?

Communications is something on which I coach people – and it may have changed irrevocably during 2016. Let’s look at the evidence.

The standard media training mantra is that you should bridge into your topic, away from others that cause controversy, and make your message known. You don’t criticise the competition, you tread carefully and ensure you’re seen as reasonable. You need good relations with the press.

So far, so sensible. Now let’s examine a few key players in 2016.

Communications get Trumped

We might as well start with the big beast. President-elect Donald Trump has been anything but reasonable. He has not only criticised his opponents, he’s positively libelled them. I would never have advised someone to call Hillary Clinton “crooked Hillary” or threaten to lock her up, getting crowds to chant along with the suggestion.

That’s what he did, though. And he insulted Mexicans, suggesting they should pay to construct a wall to constrict their own movements, and also he had a go at Muslims, including the family of a fallen soldier.

And he won. I’ve suggested before that what he was doing was offering a story; the comments on that page will tell you all you need to know about whether everyone agreed with me. I stand by my assertion, we’ll come back to it in a second.

Communications and fake news

One of the things that affected the Trump result was the impact of fake news. This is deliberately faked news, like reports that Clinton was in charge of a paedophile ring or something, rather than honest mistakes.

It all added up to an echo chamber in which a change was needed and the agent of change literally couldn’t be the wife of another president.

Fake news and facts also played a part in another major event last year.

Brexit: where’s our £350m a week?

On 23 June last year, Britain voted to leave the European Union. One of the factors in the decision was the deliberate falsehood, that we would save £350m a week and could put it into the National Health Service.

That’s been debunked so often – by the Brexit campaign informally immediately they won and officially in September – that it’s not worth repeating, except to note the sneaky lie the Remainers have brought in on the back of it. See my sub-headline above? “Where’s our £350m a week”, I ask, and many people have said the same thing.

OK, here’s the news: Britain has not yet activated Article 50. It has therefore not started the formal process of leaving the EU. Before the Brexiters had abandoned their pledge, it was dishonest to start calling them out on its non-appearance; even the handful who still believe in it can’t be expected to produce money saved by leaving something before we’ve actually departed.

Both sides of the debate appeared to leave the truth pretty much at the door. Instead, they resorted to “mood music”, as I think of it. There’s a book called “Inbound Marketing” and a great deal of work on the subject besides. The idea is that you create a lot of content so that your client, or voter in the case of the politicians, feels comfortable in your environment. The fact that the rants of Trump and the claims and counterclaims in the Brexit debate don’t adhere to any reality matters less than the tone being right for the supporters.

It’s this sort of tone-setting that I’d identify as the new storytelling. Trump may be an incoherent story teller (I say “may be”…) as people pointed out when I highlighted this as one of his selling points. But he had a compelling tone. This is something businesspeople can learn from.

Which is where I bring in the third piece of evidence to suggest that communications is changing, but maybe not as comprehensively as the previous examples might have indicated.

Communications and Jeremy Corbyn

The leader of the opposition in the UK should never have won the leadership election, never mind winning it twice, according to the old rules. He’s polite but he’ll also snub the press when he’s in that sort of mood – there are many clips like this one, and of course Have I Got News For You has made great fun of his knack of hiding from the cameras, sometimes behind a glass door.

Only…he did win, twice. You can’t get away from it. He is criticised – his supporters say vilified – by the mainstream media (they call it the MSM) – but he’s a serial winner of elections to become party leader. Remember the prime minister hasn’t even faced one such election. Again, his mood music has been about the ordinary person being left behind by large concerns, including the government and including his own party. And if this involves pretending to be on a crowded train when there were plenty of seats, so be it. The message worked and continued the mood for his chosen constituency. On the face of his leadership elections results he’s a resounding success.

So have things changed?

I’m currently working out how to accommodate these factors into my media training offering for 2017. There’s no doubt things have changed and the old rules need refreshing if not complete scrapping.

However, I don’t think all of the changes are permanent. To demonstrate this I point to a couple of incidents over the last couple of days.

Today the Fabian Society said Labour would not be able to win a general election in its own right in 2020. They’re a founding body of the party so they have no reason to be particularly anti. This may be a sign that the mood music isn’t quite enough to change everything in the way that some people believe.

You can argue that they’re known “moderates” or “Blairites” depending on your point of view. OK, but Len McLuskey, seeking re-election as head of the Unite union, has said Corbyn may have to step down if the party still looks unelectable at the beginning of 2019. That’s an uncontentious statement of the obvious at first glance but you have to consider who’s saying it; McLuskey has been a major Corbyn supporter so far. Obviously he’s going to try reaching out to non-supporters during his own re-election campaign but for such a major backer to express doubts (and McLuskey is a seasoned media player) is potentially serious.

So the mood music effect may be slipping, it’s too early to tell. Things have changed, though; I’ll be advising clients this year to set the mood as well as to put set-piece sound bites together, and will continue to advise consistency of communications across all platforms, much as I always have. Meanwhile later this week I’ll consider the importance of the press itself – is it diminishing in the eyes of the readers and viewers?

Do you need help with your communications and interview techniques when faced with the press? I can help – drop me a note by clicking here or fill the form in below.

Five things good media training won’t do

Media training is something I enjoy doing. Helping people shape the message they want to get into the press, broadcast or online media and offering the tools to make this message heard is a great thing. Generally. Occasionally, though, I’m asked odd stuff.

Media training has its ethics

Sometimes the odd stuff I’m asked veers into the downright unethical or impossible. So here are five things a decent media trainer will never promise or offer:

  • We won’t, or shouldn’t, offer to write about you/your client immediately. I once had a solid-sounding lead for media training. The PR person involved said at the last minute that they would expect me to write about the client in the national press afterwards. Guys, if I’m coaching you and accepting a fee, I can’t pretend to the press that I’m an independent commentator. No ethical media trainer should write about you for several months after coaching you.
  • We won’t encourage you to lie. Want someone to come in and train you on withholding key information from stakeholders? You need to look elsewhere. A good media trainer will help offer techniques to get away from difficult conversations. He or she will give you the confidence to say when something is confidential and you can’t comment. In no way should they encourage you to lie to the press – you’re bound to be found out eventually.
  • We won’t claim there is a 100% foolproof way to get your message into the press. You present your case, you argue your point, we give you the tools and techniques to make the best of that. Unless you’re doing paid-for advertorial, however, no competent media trainer will offer any guarantees beyond that in the face of a free press. They can do what they want with the resulting interview. We will equip you with the best chance possible to put a positive case.
  • We won’t arrange interview opportunities for you. This is the job of your PR company. I’ve been in training sessions in which people have asked me to get them into, say, the Financial Times. It’s been a few years since I’ve written for that paper so even if I were inclined to step outside the role of “journalist/trainer”, I wouldn’t know where to pitch.
  • Related point: our contact book is our livelihood, not public property. One or two – a tiny amount – of clients seem to expect me to open up my contact book and hand over the names of all of the commissioning editors so that they can pitch to them. This is in most cases a step too far; if a trainer who is a current journalist had a reputation that suggested he or she would send loads of PR people pitching to an editor’s door after every training session, he or she wouldn’t be a journalist for long.

There’s a great deal to be gained from a media training session: confidence, an understanding of the media, the ability to meet us half-way, formulation of messages and preparation for an interview plus a lot of interview techniques – talk to me about them by emailing here. Understand that it’s a training/mentoring session and you should end up with a great session.

Donald Trump can tell a story – can you?

This is not a political blog so I am not going to comment on whether or not Donald Trump winning the US election was a good idea. His ability to tell a story, however, was instrumental in the victory and speakers and media interviewees can learn a great deal from it.

On the surface he broke many rules. He insulted former presidents and even members of the same party (specifically John McCain for being captured whilst in the army). He made derogatory comments about women and where to grab them…you don’t need me to tell you this stuff. So what went right?

Hillary could never win

First let’s get the hindsight out of the way. America was hungrier for change than many people realised, So the continuity candidate, who whatever her capabilities was actually married to the last-bar-the-current Democrat president, was always going to be working at a disadvantage. Writing off her rival’s followers as a “basket of deplorables” was never going to change that.

We’ll return to that in a second. However, first it’s worth looking at how Trump, and indeed the Brexiters before him, formulated their messages.

Tell me a story

Whenever I’m media training I remind people that it’s a journalist’s job to tell stories. It’s the same for a blogger. An analyst will want raw facts and logic, but the general reader who has no vested interest will probably not read their reports, even if they’re going to be more factual and less biased than the journalistic alternatives.

This point has been missed repeatedly by politicians in recent generations. In the 1960s it was well understood by Harold Wilson, who spoke of the “white heat of technology” – dated though it seems in these ecologically sensitive times, it was a powerful image at the time and told the story of Britain at the forefront of the new revolution. Tony Blair is now far from in favour but in 1997 he appeared to be a beacon of hope, and his story of a resurgent Britain – a “cool Britannia” – resonated with the times. Across the Atlantic, five years previously, Bill Clinton had centred his first presidential campaign around the word “change”, which makes Hillary’s defeat all the more ironic.

For a while, though, moderate and left politicians used stories to make their points. They painted images and were memorable. Now fast forward to more recent times.

Consider the Scottish Independence referendum. OK, on that occasion the guys with the better stories lost and logic won the day, but my guess is that a number of people spotted the narrowness of the win. Threatening economic meltdown or ice cold facts was not as attractive to, say, the people of Glasgow as the story of how their country could be independent again.

Storytelling has a knack of winning the day at the moment.

Continental or full English Brexit

The UK has never been more divided than it is now, and a lot of that is down to the vote on Brexit. For my money, Nick Clegg nails the effect in his book, “Politics: Between The Extremes“. There’s a lot of self-justification in this and a load of political theory that demonstrates that liberal politics will be back, of which there is as yet scant evidence, but his comments on storytelling are key.

He points out that few if any people will have believed that an extra £350bn would be found for the National Health Service. They liked the story, though, because it chimed with the theme of “taking back control”. Objectors could point to the idea that there was no £350bn (even Nigel Farage was quick to backpedal on that one) or that the country passed its own laws and was therefore already in control; the appealing narrative said otherwise and although it was on a knife-edge, the appealing storytellers won. The opposition’s retorts with narrative-free rebuttals, whether you accept their premise or not, was never going to gain traction (particularly once the “project fear” narrative had been established – whatever your view on the issues, the ability to write off any stats your opponent throws at you with a single phrase was a masterstroke of communication).

Their current postscript is the story about how decisive the referendum was – they’re repeating it a lot and it’s gaining traction, when a 51.9% to 48.1% result is just about as close as it gets without being a draw.

Trump will have picked up on the effectiveness of this storytelling technique. In fact he’d been using it for some time already and the opposition was failing to respond.

Mexico, Muslims, rigged systems…

Among his earliest claims during the campaign were that he would get the Mexican government to pay to build a wall to keep their criminals in their own country. There would, he conceded, be a door.

A lot of people saw this as ludicrous at the time. Persuade a foreign power to pay for their own incarceration? Not a chance. That became the standard riposte, but Trump appeared to be gambling that his audience would respond well to the story. Whether or not there was a wall afterwards would be something to deal with, but as part of a narrative it was stronger than the logic. Crowds chanted along with it – “What are we going to build?” “A wall!” It sounds mad but as a piece of entertainment it was very much part of a storytelling strategy.

Likewise Trump’s claim that he would ban Muslims from the US. Quite how you’d know (clue: the extremists might claim to be from another faith all together, the law-abiding majority are the ones who’ll have no problem identifying themselves) or enforce the idea is almost irrelevant. The narrative, “you’re alarmed by extremists so here’s a story about what I’m going to do about it”, resonated with the people whose votes he needed.

Clinton’s response was to tell a story about a “basket of deplorables”. That might be right but it was never going to play well. Her only story said she detested a lot of her voters. Finally Trump came up with his own masterstroke: the claim that the election would be rigged. His victory suggests, as many people had said, that this was a complete fiction. Crucially, though, it chimed with the rest of his claims – and even more importantly it gave his supporters permission to vote for him rather than do something more conventional. It’s a rigged election anyway, you might as well…and they did.

What’s your narrative?

In business there are lessons to be learned from this. Some are in place already. Apple’s marketing is subtly (it used to be blatant) based on the idea that you’re a slightly better person if you use their products. It’s a story rather than an objective analysis of how, say, a phone actually works. In the late 1980s, Michael Dell launched his computers not on the back of their quality or efficiency but on the strength of how crazy people were to pay so much for big brands.

So when you’re speaking, or when you’re being interviewed, try to have some narrative in mind for your brand. First, people respond to them, and second, it offers you a consistent set of values when you’re asked an unexpected question.

Changing the values

The interesting bit, at least in Trump’s case, is coming up right now. A lot of his narrative was about a return to old fashioned conservative values and there was some concern about equal marriage legislation being repealed. Over the weekend he rowed back on this, although retained his aversion to abortion in any circumstances. The immigrants he wants to deport are illegal ones and the famous wall has been scaled down to a fence in places and famously he may be modifying rather than scrapping Obamacare. Contrary to statements during the campaign he appears to be in no rush to imprison Hillary Clinton and has been positively respectful towards his soon-to-be-predecessor Barack Obama.

The questions facing him now will be first: what can he do to make at least some of his pledges a practical reality, and second: if the new, post-campaign, slightly softer Trump is the real one (and I honestly don’t claim to know), can his change in tone carry his supporters with him?

There’s a lesson here about making your own narrative sustainable. If you and your business have strong messages, you’d better be certain you want to stick with them for longer than it takes to achieve a single objective. Otherwise, once the objective has been met, you’ll find they’re still there – and if you didn’t really agree with them they could haunt you for a while.

Andrea Leadsom interview: watch what you say

An interview is a great thing for a business or politician as long as the basic rules are understood. My media training is designed to help people understand them and make the most of the opportunity.

I don’t train politicians. I assume they’ll know loads about the process. This is why the interview from Andrea Leadsom, Conservative Party leadership (and therefore prime ministerial) candidate over the weekend was such a shock.

Her perspective is quoted in the Daily Telegraph today – she claims the Times interview, in which she apparently said she would be a better prime minister than her rival Theresa May, because she is a mother (May had recently given an interview in which she confirmed that she and her husband had been unable to produce a child), contained the opposite of her views.

The BBC has her quote from today’s paper here. She says she was pressed for her views. I highlight the BBC’s account rather than that of the Telegraph itself because a) it doesn’t disappear behind a paywall after you’ve looked at a few stories, and b) it contains the audio of the original interview. I don’t think she’s being pressed at all.

You can’t control your quotes from an interview

The most telling point came on Saturday when the Times interview appeared in the paper. She Tweeted that it was “Truly appalling and the opposite of what I said”, which the audio clip demonstrates is measurably untrue. Her ideas on media, though, are curious to say the least.

Here’a a cutting from the Daily Mail. Some way down it, she makes the statement: “In front of The Times correspondent and photographer, I made clear repeatedly that nothing I said should be used in any way to suggest that Theresa May not having children had any bearing whatever on the leadership election.”

Let’s get this straight. She started by angrily denying what she’d said and demanding that the Times produce a transcript (her Tweets demanding this appear to have been deleted but the Mail piece quotes them and I can confirm I saw them on Saturday). The Times not only did so but produced audio. She then defends her position by stating that she had instructed the journalist on how to use her quotes.

This is staggering from someone who considers themselves experienced enough to become prime minister. Interviewees at all levels need to understand that the journalist will consider themselves responsible to the editor and above all to the readers; if someone says something that is informative about their character and judgment, it gets reported. There is no “don’t use this quote in that way” – you can’t un-say things. If you don’t want it reported, don’t say it.

Leadsom emerges damaged, by this and by today’s revelation that she apologised to May by text rather than in person or at least with a call. She says in a statement today that she has been naive and she is right. It’s also That innocence in a person who might have to represent the UK in its negotiations with the EU as to some sort of deal on trade and movement might be unhelpful; in an negotiation with, say, Vladimir Putin, it could be positively dangerous.

Very few of us want to be prime minister. The lesson, though, is worth noting for anyone who’s going to be interviewed. Once you’ve said something, it’s said. The journalist doesn’t work for you and as long as the quote is accurate and in context we can use it as our judgment suggests is best. If you don’t want to see it in print, don’t say it.

Do you need help with your interview technique and preparation? I can help – drop me an email for details by clicking here.

Photo: flickr: Policy Exchange