Media targeting: read the paper

Getting into the media can do a lot for your business. One of the better ways can be to place an article. You write it, so although it will be adjusted for style (so that if they write % rather than per cent it will be consistent throughout the publication) you’re in control, nothing’s going to be taken out of context.

So why do so many people not bother doing the basic research?

Size matters

A couple of weeks ago I had a pitch from someone for a magazine I edit. It seemed a pretty good pitch and the subject was more or less in the area we write about. I had a quick call with the PR person who said she’d get some bullet points back to me so we could sharpen it up.

So far, 10/10 for process and approach.

An email then arrives.

Her client had gone ahead and written the article ahead of the briefing. BIG MISTAKE. Even if you’re going to write an article in advance, no editor is going to want to think your piece is that unfocused. We want to publish articles that target our readers exactly, so it’s in your advantage to give us the impression that you’ve taken our requirements into consideration.

I open the article. The word count tells me everything. It’s 650 words long.

The publication I edit works in 500-word blocks because a page takes roughly 500 words (it’s still on paper).  Yes, an editor can always cut, but we don’t publish single-page articles either.

I made the point by email to the PR executive. I haven’t heard back – given that the guy had written the article in advance she’s probably hawking it around elsewhere hoping someone will take it. She has little choice.

Time to push back

The difficulty really came up when the client decided to write something without taking the target into account. This is where the PR consultancy needs to take the word ‘consultancy’ seriously. The value you can offer is in pointing out that some things just won’t work, and writing a neutral article hoping to catch a niche readership is one of them.

Of course the client might then decide that risking a tailored article, useless to anyone other than the target title, with no guarantee of publication, is not a good use of their time. At least you have them thinking about what is good use of their time!

Do you need help with your media writing skills? I can help – check my course at the Henshall Centre or email me by clicking here.

Media training: bridge, but do it gently

In my media training sessions I often tell people they need to “bridge” – get from an uncomfortable topic to one with which they are more comfortable. I stand by this but would urge people to do it gently. Here’s an example of how not to do it – do click on the video, it’s awful:

The guy gets it wrong in so many ways. He’s known to be anti-equal marriage and they’ve just had a vote. OK, he takes a particular view and he doesn’t want them to focus on it.

His transition could have been reasonable. Something like “Of course things are likely to change but there are really pressing and life-threatening things happening out there”. Or “I appreciate there are strong views but we have to prioritise our energy and time. For example…”

Instead you get the screwed-up face and the complete personalisation of “But I ain’t going to spend any time on it…” and of course the sudden rather than smooth change of topic. This is an object lesson in how not to change the subject if you don’t want a TV studio full of people laughing at you. Bridge by all means, but do it carefully and tactfully.

Don’t assume rights you don’t have

A close cousin of the over-zealous bridge is the aggressive assumption of rights that don’t actually exist. My friend and colleague Kate Bevan was the first to highlight this painful piece to me this morning. Here a harmless interview is turned into a battleground after the event. A founder of a company assumes he has the right to veto an interview (which would have done his company nothing but good, from the look of it) and also to decide that something is off the record retrospectively.

The answer to all of which is no, no, no. The published piece will have been through the legal mill and passed as fit to put online – before you speak to a journalist or blogger, remember you’re likely to see your words coming back to you in print.

Do you need help talking to the media? I have been a journalist since 1989 and a media trainer since 2002. Email me by clicking here.

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.

How do you manage a crisis?

The incidents in Corfu currently hitting Thomas Cook so hard are beyond the remit of a media tips blog, they’re too serious. Irreparable damage has probably been done to the company’s reputation and it would be trite to try to address it with a glib blog on media tips.

However, it’s worth looking at what companies in general can do to manage a crisis when one arises. There’s actually quite a lot, and here are some ideas.

Crisis management

  • First, go into lockdown without appearing to do so. Only a handful of people in your business should be speaking to the press anyway; when there’s a crisis, make doubly sure all the staff are aware of this but have a statement on your website – have them refer journalists to this rather than offer them “no comment”, which never works.
  • Second, don’t dodge the issue. Your starting point is that something bad has happened and you’re determined to find what went wrong. If you can’t comment while your internal inquiry is going on, say so but stress that your thoughts are with whoever has had the rough end of the problem.
  • Third, and this is vital, empathise. The people listening to you will be very much in sympathy with anyone who’s been wronged. I heard of a case, years ago, that could be apocryphal but it makes the point. A 90-year-old woman had lung cancer and was suing a tobacco company. The lawyers at the tobacco company found she’d worked with asbestos in the 1950s and there was a perfectly reasonable case to suggest that in this instance tobacco wasn’t to blame. They suggested not only refusing her compensation but suing for defamation, and they’d have had a chance of winning. The PR department stepped in and pointed out that no matter who was factually right and wrong, the big tobacco company suing the little old lady was never going to play well, so they backed down immediately and paid compensation regardless.

I’m not saying the Thomas Cook incident is similar to that of the woman in the tobacco company case. Every case is different. However, its apparent view – that the family has been compensated adequately with a payout one tenth the size of that which the company itself received – is worthy of comparison because it’s a big company being perceived as pushing the little people around.

No matter whose fault something is, no matter how you might feel your company has been wronged, it’s worth taking a little time out to empathise with the other people. Communicate this at least, and you might get to limit some of the damage that might otherwise happen.

Do you need help with your company’s communications? Click here for information on my media training service.