Tag Archives: media training

Broadcast interview: A word on dress code

A while ago I watched a public speaking competition. All of the contestants were excellent but one speaker stood out, not because she was better than the rest but because unfortunately she was wearing clanky jewellery with a lapel microphone (also known as a lavalier). You could hear her clearly enough but the clunk, clunk, clunk of the necklace was just as distinct.

This can also be a problem in a broadcast interview. The camera operator or sound person will almost certainly want you to wear a lavalier, and it will pick up any noise nearby. So when preparing for a broadcast interview the first thing to watch for is anything noisy on your person.

A broadcast interview and a crisp white shirt?

When I media train in person I have a choice of shirts in which I look reasonably OK. The first is the old fallback, the crisp white shirt. The second is a selection of finely striped shirts – I kid myself they hide the middle-aged spread (if they don’t, just don’t tell me). Experience has told me, however, that neither is particularly good on video.

The stripes, though fine in person, can end up looking a little grey on a screen. The sparkly, distinct detail on the shirt ends up looking indistinct even in high definition; if someone’s watching on their phone or other device it can actually look a bit grubby.

Brilliant white is better but not under studio lights. It can end up glaring at the camera, so the operator has to turn the lighting down or apply a filter – so I end up looking grey rather than the shirt! Off-white, pink, blue, are all good and will look fine in the studio.

Suit you, sir

The other thing to do is to wear something that fits and in which you’re comfortable. Buying something particularly swish and wearing it for the first time, which is more of a problem for the female population than the “a suit always works” male contingent, can make people feel self-conscious.

For men like me (think “over 50”) a decent suit is indispensable but be honest, does it really fit? It can be worth visiting a tailor. I have particularly square shoulders (tailors call this “squareback” which doesn’t make me feel great) so off-the-peg suits always ruck up at the back. I started with A Suit That Fits (please note that’s a sponsored link) and it’s not as expensive as you might think (more than Marks and Sparks but less than a designer suit); many local tailoring establishments will be just as efficient at making something that works on your shape.

Finally, the newsreader Sir Trevor Macdonald always said it’s a good idea to do your jacket up and sit on the tail, so it looks smooth. Bitter experience a little while ago says this works fine if you’re reasonably slim and svelte; any signs of a belly and you’ll look like a sack of potatoes. Without wishing to incriminate myself, I’ve been doing my interviews with the jacket undone lately!

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

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.

Don’t say this to journalists

Last week I looked at things not to say to editors. Suppose you’re an interviewee rather than a writer: what would be my top five things not to say?

In no particular order I’d recommend against the following;

  1. No comment. Even if you genuinely have nothing to say, this sounds evasive and as if you’re hiding something. I was once told “I don’t want to comment and I don’t want to read your paper saying I declined to comment.” The thing is, the guy had declined to comment and it was my job to tell the truth. There’s almost always something better to say; bridge into another subject if you possibly can. “My customers aren’t raising that point with me, what they really care about is…” will get you out of a lot of trouble. I’m unlikely to argue with your customers.
  2. I’m not talking about that today: Frustrating though it is, journalists aren’t there to jump to your tune. Of course you want to focus on your own agenda but you wouldn’t be this rude to a client – so try being a little smoother with someone who’s going to communicate with thousands of clients. Your announcement schedule has everything to do with your internal schedule and nothing to do with ours – try not to pass the problem on to us, we’re probably not going to like it.
  3. Can we go off the record? Loads of people use this one. If you absolutely must, go ahead, but be sure the journalist is trustworthy, organised enough to remember what was on the record and what wasn’t and that you’re both talking about the same thing. To me, “off the record” means unquotable; I’ve seen others who assume it means “print it but don’t attribute it to me”. If it could only have come from you, you could still end up in trouble.
  4. Your paper is rubbish. Seriously, I’ve had this. You’re entitled to your opinion and for all I know you have a point. But what useful objective is going to be served by annoying someone – not just journalists, in any context?
  5. I don’t read the press. You probably do a bit, since “online” counts, but that aside, this is a subset of “your paper is rubbish”. Starting off an interview by trying to belittle the other person speaks loudly about your own insecurities, and most journalists are experienced enough to understand that. Try not to tell us you’re terrified, we’ll only scent blood…

Do you need help engaging with journalists? Contact me using the form below or call 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Five things not to say to editors

What should you never say to an editor if he or she is commissioning you?

I’ve been involved in setting up a new website for the New Statesman this month, editing numerous supplements for them and also editing Professional Outsourcing Magazine for more than a couple of years. It strikes me that there are still some pretty fundamental mistakes being made by a minority in the PR and business world.

Let’s make this clear: this is about people pitching commercially-driven articles rather than independent journalists or members of the public being interviewed. Journalists will know how we work and members of the public shouldn’t have to.

So, some pretty fundamental errors I’m still hearing:

  1. That’s the deadline? I’ll try. You’re trying to be helpful, I understand that. But if you’re going to struggle with a deadline, the longer I have to plan, the easier my job becomes. Editors get so close to the job (as do other professionals) that we assume you understand this – so when you say “I’ll try” we hear “I’ll definitely have the piece with you in plenty of time”.
  2. The deadline is difficult for us this month; can we go into next month’s issue? The chances are this is a “no” because I’ll already have the next slot filled. It gets worse. The person who asked me this recently was asking about a specific supplement for a specific magazine, so there would be no repeat of an appropriate slot in the immediate future; not only that but the magazine is weekly. The magazine I actually edit is quarterly. Anyone asking me about “next month’s issue” goes straight into my mental “not a clue” file. (I do stress I’m talking to people who are pitching to me for their own company or client’s gain – so I have the right to expect them to have done the basic research; readers and members of the public can make all the mistakes they want without prejudice).
  3. I’ve written over length, that’s OK, isn’t it? Yes it is as long as you don’t mind me making all the cuts I fancy. Editors, when they ask for 1000 words, mean precisely that. Technically you can indeed go over length on the Web, but if our house style is for shorter pieces we won’t accommodate longer pieces. And on the printed page we don’t have the flexibility. I’ve actually had people send 800 words for a 600 word slot and failing to understand that we can’t fit it in.
  4. I’ve got a colleague/associate to write this. This is probably fine as long as I know about it in advance. Next week there’s a supplement coming out from the New Statesman. I’ve edited it and there’s a piece from an academic; it was prompted by an interview with one of his colleagues, who I initially approached. It was clear very quickly that choice 1 wasn’t going to be able to fit it in, while choice 2 was probably a better expert anyway. They kept me fully abreast of this and re-confirmed when they’d made a firm decision; the resulting article is utterly superb. I’ve had other instances in which, at the last minute, having the layouts done including a headshot of the contributor, copy has come in by someone who’s been a complete stranger to me.
  5. I decided the subject wasn’t interesting enough so I’ve written about something else entirely. Genuinely, I had this only the other week. Now look, guys, I’m the editor – and if I’m expecting an article on a given subject I don’t want to be surprised at the last minute. Nor do I want to read an article that appears completely irrelevant after discussing it with you. If you find there isn’t enough substance in the original idea I’m fine with that – pick up the phone, talk to me, it proves you’re thinking about it and engaged! That’s a great thing. Never, though, decide you’re going to do something else and forget to tell me. For all you know I’ve commissioned someone else to write about something identical to, or too close to, your new idea, rendering it unusable.

The majority of people get it spectacularly right, most of the time. The guy in point 4 has written one of the best pieces I’ve ever commissioned, seriously. If you’re one of the small number who do otherwise, please take note!

Do you need help engaging with the press? Contact me via this form and we’ll talk.

Tip Sheet: Before the media interview

Let’s assume you’ve done the tricky part and attracted the attention of the media. Whether local or national, you now need to prepare for the interview. Don’t assume you’ll get to see all the questions in advance (depending on what you might say, we don’t actually know all of them yet). It’s a free country and we’re going to feel free to ask whatever occurs to us on behalf of the reader.

So here’s a quick checklist of things to have ready before your interview.

  • Three clear messages. Ideally these should be tied to your desired outcome. If you’re looking for customers, tailor the messages around why buying from you is a good idea (but don’t be too salesy). If you’re looking for investors, prepare messages about financial solidity, and soforth.
  • Prepare techniques for getting back to your messages every so often. Don’t ignore our questions, you’ll look untrustworthy – but come back to your points, as you would in any business discussion. I look at techniques for doing this in my media training sessions.
  • Interviewed by phone? Great – have a list of your company’s figures and facts, and everything you really ought to know by heart but you know you’re going to be nervous.
  • Even if you’re going to be in vision, prepare a list of likely questions and make sure you can answer them.
  • Then prepare a list of questions you hope they won’t ask and prepare answers to those, too. If the journalist doesn’t ask, fine. If they do, you’ll be glad you prepared.
  • If you’re going to be seen on screen, remember patterned shirts and jangly jewellery can be distracting – blocks of colour and simple apparel is best.
  • If you’re getting a new suit/dress/haircut for the event, get it a few days beforehand so you’re used to it. Feeling self-conscious is the death knell for so many interviews.
  • Try to video yourself answering questions and without being overly critical, watch out for repetitious phrases and physical habits people might find irritating.
  • Take all the advice you’ve ever had about how to sit up straight and keep your hands to your side in an interview, and bin it. As long as you’re not actually assaulting the journalist you’re better off being natural.
  • Ask the journalist what his or her first question is going to be. If you’re live on a streaming audio or video show there’s nothing worse than the first response being “Umm…..” – I’ve been there, done that, it doesn’t end well!

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.