Tag Archives: preparation

Journalists: the non-specialists need to be informed

Journalists don’t know as much as you think. At least not every time. People assume we’re experts and that we know loads of stuff. We may have fewer resources than you imagine.

A friend of mine is a composer. He was on Facebook a while ago complaining that a noted contemporary composer had his name pronounced incorrectly on a small radio programme on the BBC. I pointed out that the announcer may have been stuck making his best guess, and my friend said “I imagine there’s a team of researchers for them to consult”.

Laugh, I nearly…

Journalists do their own research

Here’s the big secret: Google has pretty much killed any advantage journalists had in terms of research about an interview into which they’re going “cold”. You can see the effect in a few stories that came up recently in the news.

You’ll recall, perhaps dimly, that before the current news storm about the budget, it was all about Jeremy Corbyn’s tax return and whether he’d declared all of his income. He had not declared a full year as leader of the opposition.

Now, I’m also someone who submits a tax return, as a company director. So I’m well aware of the tax year running April to April and personal returns being due on 31 January, at least until the latest reforms kick in next year. People employed by other people don’t have to concern themselves as much about those deadlines.

So it was perhaps no surprise that the many staff reporters writing up the stories didn’t stop to think that if Corbyn submitted a tax return on 31 January it had to cover the year ended 6 April 2016. And since he wasn’t leader of the opposition for the full 12 months before that, it would actually be factually wrong for him to declare a full year’s income on leader’s pay.

So many of the press didn’t spot this. Likewise, they’re not all specialists in how legislation works. Today’s headlines (like the one in the Daily Mail: “Tory tax retreat after just 24 hours: Theresa May steps in to pause the £2billion Budget blow to the self-employed after a rebellion by furious Tory MPs”) refer to a climbdown by the prime minister. But is it?

The original plan was to increase taxes on the self-employed from April 2018. Instead of debating it now while everyone is furious the PM is now going to have the debate in October, which will allow plenty of time for new rules to be enacted before April, indeed there will be another budget at around the same time.

Remind me: what’s actually changed, other than the presentation?

You can make this an advantage

So, why am I telling you this? The answer, quite straightforwardly, is that you can use it. Journalists may have limited resources. They may not all be specialists in the area in which you work (some will be, never be afraid to get a PR company to find out). We need to sound authoritative when we write, and that’s where you can help.

Yes, you’ll want to push your company’s agenda. Yes, you’ll want to use an interview to publicise your business. You can also use it to brief the journalist on stuff he or she needs to know.

When I started as a tech journalist I wrote a lot about printers (livin’ the dream…). One contact was very helpful: not only did he tell me about his company’s products, he took the trouble to explain exactly how the printer worked and how the contents of the toner drum ended up looking like words and pictures on paper.

Obviously, every time I needed extra comment on the printer market I’d go straight to him. He picked up a lot of extra coverage for his business.

There may be ways you can do the same. Is there something in your announcement that may not be obvious to a non-specialist? Is the publishing professional in front of you really a specialist in your field?

If he or she isn’t, you could be in a position to pick up a hell of a lot of brownie points without even trying.

Do you need help speaking to the media? I can help – fill in the form below and we’ll see what I can do.

Media mistakes 3: It’s a good idea to answer at length

One of the frustrations I often face as a journalist is that people answer my questions as thoroughly as they can. I’ve just got off the phone with a guy I’m covering for the New Statesman; he was genuinely interesting and had a lot to say and I’m going to share as much as possible with the readers.

Note, “as much as possible”. In other words I’m going to have to be selective, cut a bit, eliminate repetitions and turn it into journalese.

In this case that won’t be a problem because the guy was himself a journalist. He was, consciously or otherwise, aware of my need to make an article out of his comments. Not everybody is as informed.

Read the papers, look at the quotes

When I first started writing, I naively thought the seasoned commentators would speak in pure quotes. They don’t, of course. I was quite shocked when I asked a guy why he’d chosen to sell a particular gadget and he came out with about 200 words.

I did my best to select what the readers would need to know and probably got it about right at the time. That was, however, a risk on his part.

It’s worth looking at the newspapers, magazines and online sources, whether multimedia or otherwise, that you’re targeting. How long are the quotes that they use? There are unlikely to be any strict rules but you’re bound to notice there isn’t much waffle. More than 15 words in print is going to start looking like a soliloquy.

This needn’t be a problem to the journalist, we’re used to cutting and getting to the nub of the story. It’s what we’re paid for. But…do you want our choice of your words speaking for you, or would you rather have yours? The only way to ensure I use your choice of quote, that will serve your company well, is to make your point briefly and then, politely, stop speaking. And the only way to make sure those words work for you is to prepare carefully.

If I have a choice of 200 words, I’m going to choose those that fit my story the best. I won’t sabotage your quotes but my idea of “best” may not be yours. If I have only 30, I’m pretty much forced to use your choice.

So, how thoroughly do you generally answer questions?

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Press interviews: think before you speak

When I’m media training, one of the things people try to eliminate during their interview practice is hesitation. They don’t like it, they’re terrified of silence.

I’m not certain it’s so damaging. I remember from a quarter of a century ago in my first journalism job, the then managing director of a networking company called 3Com would always start an answer to a question with a long silence. Once when I was on the phone to him I thought we’d lost the connection. I said: “Are you still there?” He said, “Yes, that’s the noise I make when I’m thinking.”

Don’t say any old thing

The opposite reaction is to blurt out any old thing. I’ve suffered from this.

Years ago I attended the launch of one of the first phones to sync with Microsoft Outlook. This was, I promise, a big wow at the time. At that point, I’d just started using Apple products and Microsoft Office for the Mac didn’t have Outlook, it had something called Entourage instead.

So I asked the CEO of this phone company, “When will the phone support Microsoft Entourage on the Mac?” He answered immediately: “I believe that’s coming in February.” This was about three months away.

This was a CEO of a phone company. I assumed he knew what he was talking about. So I was surprised when, the following day, I had a sheepish call from the PR people involved. They had no idea why he’d given that answer, they said; since Outlook had 95% of the company’s target market and the coding for the Mac was completely different they had no intention at all of connecting to Entourage. It didn’t make commercial sense.

Luckily this was pre-widespread-Internet, so I hadn’t written a story, Tweeted, Facebooked or anything else you might be able to do by now. The error was caught, the nonsensical story contained.

So why did he answer with – frankly – this complete rubbish? I can think of two reasons. First, he had an adrenaline hit and went into “just say something” mode, he had to fill the silence. The 3Com boss I mentioned wasn’t afraid to give himself time to consider.

Second, he wasn’t confident enough to say he didn’t know, or to refer me back to his tech department or his PR people.

It could have been pretty damaging. So, do you or your clients ever feel pressured to say something to the press – and offer an answer that may be ill-thought-out or plain wrong?

Do you need help preparing for media interviews? I can help – click here to email me or fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

Keep your message to the media consistent

Last week I attended a press launch with loads of journalists. At one of the stands I asked about a particular piece of technology, sold only off the company’s website, and whether it would go through a mainstream sales channel eventually. No, said the guy in charge of marketing; we want to focus on explaining the story to the customer so we’ll be keeping this to direct sales only.

Fair enough. Except, chatting on the same stand to someone also involved in marketing, I checked “and this will be going direct-only” – and he said no, they’d be looking to sell through the established channels as soon as possible, they’d be crazy not to.

Ahem. My headline could so easily have been “New manufacturer in disarray over sales policy”, “Row breaks out over sales channel at manufacturer X” – and although I could have substantiated it from my notes, I doubt very much that an argument had actually broken out. Thing is, they needed to have a conversation before going out in public.

Things you need to ask yourself

I’ve seen this more than once. I once attended the launch of a watch, and the manufacturer had just gone over to having everything manufactured in Switzerland. I asked the sales director why and he said Swiss watches were precision-made, they were beautiful, they were exciting. I asked the managing director why. He said the market research said people would pay more for a Swiss-made watch but frankly if it had his name on it a Chinese-made watch would be as good. In fact every product from his business would be excellent but if the customer wanted to spend more money that was fine… Who would you believe?

I have no doubt both men perceived their answer as honest and correct, and to be fair the one doesn’t directly contradict the other in that instance (although the sales director’s response was distinctly salesy). But since they were moving their manufacturing, had they only had the conversation that said “What if a journalist asks why we’ve done this?” and stuck to a single reason, they’d have had a better story to tell the papers.

It can be a very good idea to ensure that you have a consistent message before making it public. These companies clearly hadn’t. I generally advise media training delegates to prepare three documents; a FAQ based on client feedback. a list of questions a journalist is likely to ask on behalf of the reader and a third list of questions they’re hoping the journalist won’t ask. Then establish the company line on all of them and stick to it.

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