Media interviews: you’re allowed to say stuff

I media trained someone last week whose default position in interviews was to give as little away as possible. She was worried the journalist or blogger would get something she didn’t want them to have. Her initial objective was to say not very much and shut up.

Fine, but what does that view do for your business? I’ve seen the cautious approach in interviews go spectacularly wrong a few times, and I’ve seen the other extreme too.

Interviews in which you don’t say a thing

In my last staff job I once interviewed a guy who’d sold his company. I asked how many of the staff were keeping their jobs. He was very stilted in his answer, which was along the lines of: “There will be a number of changes as a result of the new ownership of the business.”

OK. I asked whether he would be staying on and got exactly the same response. There will be a number of changes as a result of the new ownership of the business.”

Apparently once I’d left the PR people gave him quite a rocket. They suggested, quite rightly, that he’d sounded as though he had something to hide. Since he didn’t, this was quite galling for them. The truth was that he’d spent a decade building a business, created a load of jobs, most of which were continuing, and it was time for him to have a break and enjoy the rewards. Instead, I ended up with a picture of a rather shifty individual who gave the impression he thought he was up to no good.

All because he’d decided not to answer a straightforward question, for no good reason.

Interviews in which you say too much

The close cousin of shutting up too early is of course blabbing about everything. I interviewed a company – at their invitation – that did invoice factoring. This works to ease cash flow; you issue an invoice, send it to them instead of your client, they pay you and invoice the client. If the client pays late they do the chasing.

I gave them my business card, which said “reporter”. I asked who they worked with and they named several blue chip companies.

They were then horrified when I mentioned that I intended to name the companies in print. “But that’s confidential, you can’t!”, they said. I didn’t, but I had every right to. They had expected – hopelessly naively – that I would travel all the way to their office and write what they instructed from their brochure (note: this is not what journalists do, it’s what happens when you pay a copywriter).

On another occasion I was interviewing a guy about an early attempt at an Internet device, this one aimed at elderly people. This was September; he told me the version in February would be better because it didn’t have sharp edges and the Internet connection would be free. I wrote this and then had a complaint that I’d as good as told people not to buy the existing version.

Neither of the two interviewees had any sensible reason to tell me those things. On the other hand, the first interviewee gave me the impression something was up.

It’s therefore worth making a couple of lists before every media engagement. First the “they’re bound to ask” list, effectively an FAQ. That should be easy to ascertain, probably with the help of a PR person or company. Second the “I hope they don’t ask” questions and what you’re going to do with them.

Third, the neutral stuff – just find out what you’re allowed to speak about and what you’re not. People sometimes get tied up about whether they can name any clients, even when their employer names them on its website so the information is already public.

Get a briefing. Find out what you can and can’t say and have a strategy to avoid the questions you can’t answer, and remember “I’m afraid that’s company confidential, can I help you with something else?” is a perfectly reasonable answer even if the journalist or blogger doesn’t find it personally helpful.

But please, don’t assume that dodging even the simplest of questions is clever. If you really don’t want to talk to journalists, don’t do it – agreeing to talk and then clamming up is just going to look odd.

Need help with your media engagement? Fill the form below or call me on 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Media training: does the journalist have an angle?

Can you trust a journalist or blogger to tell your story or will they just stick with whatever angle they or their outlet has picked? Last week an argument flared up in an online group for journalists of which I’m a member. A public relations person had called one of us and asked what his angle was for a piece. The writer was pretty angry. There was no angle, he said. He was doing proper, straightforward reporting.


There is always an angle. It is impossible to write an article without an angle. No, literally impossible.

Writing for an audience

Take this very blog. My angle is to get to an explanation of how the press works so that people reach an understanding and perform better in interviews and other press engagements. I’m aiming squarely at people who need to do so and the PR community. Nobody else has any reason to find it at all relevant. That’s a pretty tight angle.

It was the same when I was working in the trade press a quarter of a century ago. The paper was called “MicroScope” and we served the computer dealer community. So our angle was always “This new system is available, what’s in it for the dealer?” We’d be thinking trade discounts, joint promotion budget and soforth. There was nothing sinister in this. Our readership didn’t care how shiny the new PC might be, they wanted to know how it would help them earn a living.

The guy in the online argument said he didn’t have an angle, he was writing something straightforward and factual. Except “straightforward and factual” is in and of itself an angle and it will have a target audience. If I’m writing about a new phone and just write about its features (battery life, camera etc.) then presumably I’m aiming that piece at the consumer rather than the trade and putting forward a factual summary with no opinion in it. “Consumer piece, opinion-free” is an angle in its own right.

Watch your wording?

Nonetheless, this guy reacted badly when asked about the “angle” because he perceived it as an allegation of bias. When you’re talking to a journalist or blogger, either for prepping your client or for doing an interview yourself, you might therefore want to ask about the “focus” rather than the angle. Also ask about the readership. Then you’ll get to the angle, whatever the writer calls it, and you’ll be able to formulate your messages and comments to address that angle and serve you best.

Do you or your clients need help with practice interviews and media training or coaching? I can help. Email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Media training: yes of course I know the answer to the question, but…

I’m interviewing you, I ask you a question. You think: surely he knows the answer to that? And yes I might. So why am I asking?

There are actually a number of reasons a journalist might ask you a question to which we already know the answer. Here are two scenarios.

First we go back a few years, but the principle is up to date. I was working at a trade newspaper for computer dealers, called MicroScope, in the early nineties. At that point personal computing was just kicking off; the Internet wasn’t widespread but it existed and there were very few retailers selling IT.

Oh, and everybody with a ‘build your own computer’ book was going to topple IBM as the market leader. It was no use arguing, they just were. So we’d get calls into the office, very frequently, from someone saying they were starting up a manufacturer and would be charging less, people were stupid for paying over the odds for a name.

We would start with the stupid questions. Were they going to use an operating system, we asked. Would they be including a motherboard (at the time this was the bit into which you inserted the processor, memory and all sorts of other bits).

If the caller sounded unsure, we knew we were talking to a time waster. (The caveat here is that even if they knew a bit more, they might still be a time waster but it was a useful enough initial screening).

A question for an established player

You can see that sanity checking is a reasonable use of the apparently stupid question. It works particularly well for the new company and to assess how realistic or knowledgeable they are even once they’ve mastered the basics of their product. I once media trained someone who believed their service could target “everybody”. But who are you aiming it at, I asked. “Everybody!” they replied, not suspecting that if a company the size of Tesco didn’t market to everybody, five of them were never going to do it.

Another use applies to the more established player. To use an example from the previous paragraph, I’d never seriously expect a director at Tesco not to understand the retail market. I might, though, ask her whether the company proposes to continue operating from retail premises rather than going online. I know perfectly well it’s not going to shut all its stores overnight, so why am I asking the question?

The answer is in the implied rules of journalism. Yes, I know the answer, but I need it in your words. The rules – of news reporting and feature writing at least, opinion columns are another thing – state that my interviewee’s words are worth a lot more than mine. The reader, listener or viewer wants me to explain or summarise but I am not the story. The interviewee is the expert and I am not. So yes, I will ask you a question to which I know the answer. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid, and the occasional incredulous response “Surely you know that?” tells me more about your briefing or your understanding of the interview process than anything else.

Do you need help understanding how journalists work? I can help – call me on 07973 278780.

Should you give journalists a gift?

I come to your press launch and get the story with a load of other journalists. You give us an Echo Dot, Echo Spot, a television, a rucksack, whatever. Should we be influenced by that when writing the story?

The answer is of course we shouldn’t, simple as that. And yet all of those items have been given to me or offered for attending an event. Someone on Facebook was asking what they should give journalists at a press conference and it’s set a lot of people thinking about ethics. So here’s my take:

  1. Think very carefully about whether you need to have a press conference at all. If it’s a good story rather than a put-up job, journalists and indeed bloggers should be inclined to write about it anyway. An email or phone briefing might get you the coverage you want.
  2. If you’re going to attract journalists to attend, it may seem reasonable to offer them something in return. I’ve attended launches of smartphones where you get to take the phone away with you. In order to write about it intelligently you need to use it for a while. So if it’s something strictly relevant, as in that case, I don’t see a problem.
  3. Likewise an event I intended to attend (but was prevented) last year on artificial intelligence, at which the giveaway was an Amazon Echo Dot. They’re not expensive and it was in the interests of the company involved to get journalists or bloggers using some sort of AI regularly.
  4. Sometimes it’s a matter of branding. I’ve had more laptop bags than I’d normally know what to do with and the family has been very pleased, but I get the need to have your brand out there. I have unused memory sticks coming out of my ears and that’s before you get started on the corporate branded biro.
  5. Moving into ‘more of a present than a help’ I’ve had two instances of small Android tablets with the press kit on them – which have of course ended up formatted and given to family members. In cases where everyone attending a conference is given the same thing and the journalists get the same package, fair play – it probably costs you more to put different packages together than to give everyone an identical bag.
  6. Pre financial crash, and particularly in the 1990s, journalists were offered all sorts of stuff. I attended one launch of a network router and was asked for my address so they could send a portable TV by way of thanks for attending. It didn’t make the router any more interesting. On the other hand, more recently, I was shown around a Portuguese site of a contact centre and given the corporate rucksack (of course), which contained a book on Portugal and some of those custard tarts they make over there. They weren’t strictly relevant but I could quite understand that as a foreign visitor they wanted me to have something local to their country, of which they were fiercely proud.

There are some hard and fast rules in the gifts-to-journalists business. First, if it feels as though you’re bribing us, that’s probably what’s happening. Relevant samples of your product are different (try publicising food and drink without allowing journalists and bloggers to find out what it tastes like and you won’t get very far). Second, there are publications that will decline gifts, limit themselves to gifts of a certain value and in some cases actively avoid events at which gifts are distributed. If you’re doing something international you should be even more careful; I did a panel in Turkey a few years ago and the Muslim journalists were actively offended by companies they perceived to be offering inducements to attend something.

The safest bet, to my mind, is to offer an excellent story we can’t get elsewhere. If it involves a product we need to try, fair enough; otherwise if you want to offer us some sort of memento, maybe don’t tell us in advance so it’s not an inducement to attend – and do what they do in the public sector, make it either very low value or perishable so we won’t just stick it into the office raffle.

That’s the theory, anyway. In the real world, competition for journalists’ and bloggers’ attention is fierce and the PR community will try a great deal to get us to turn up to things. Sometimes this involves gifts and inducements. We’re as human as anyone and if someone has thought to get us something nice, we’re likely to be pleased. Just don’t, whatever you do, think you’re buying positive coverage. An ethical journalist or blogger will be very careful not to be influenced by any sort of material blandishment; if you’re in PR and your client is talking about showering gifts on people offering coverage, make sure they’re aware that the best of us will remain independent!

Media training 101: expect the bleeding obvious

One of my least favourite things about some political interviews is that the interviewee fails in their basic duty: making their opinion clear. The example above, broadcast yesterday, is a classic example.

The question was presumably about Labour’s view of Brexit and interviewer Paul Brand has pretty clearly added that he doesn’t think it’s very clear. Immediately the interviewee, Jenny Chapman MP, opens her mouth it starts to go downhill. Let’s take a further look.

Media training basics: be polite

The first thing she does is to say she gets irritated. I’ll be frank. If you’re one of my media training clients, the advice will be never, ever to show that you’re irritated, no matter how you feel. The job of the interviewer is to anticipate the questions his or her viewers, readers or listeners might have. If you’re saying you’re irritated with us, unless we’re asking particularly obtuse questions, you’re telling the readers you’re irritated with them too.

Also, this is an opportunity. In this instance, the question was about what the policy was all about. Brand might as well have said “Here’s some free space to talk about your policy. Speak now.”

It can’t be a surprise that Europe is coming up in political interviews. And yet, when offered an open goal, Chapman fudges it. For such an obvious question she really needed a couple of sentences, condensed, to offer. Instead she is tied in knots.

Not everybody is a stellar performer, reasonably enough, but I’ve had this in interviews when I ask what a company actually does. “Oh, well, a number of different things…” the answer sometimes comes, followed by an interminable explanation that’s longer than the actual interview itself.

Do yourself a favour. Whether in politics or in business, anticipate the obvious questions and memorise a few quick answers. In the instance above in particular, there’s plenty to discuss and it will get quite complex of its own accord; never mind not knowing your basic policy from the start.

Do you need help with media interview practice and technique? I can help – click here to email me and we’ll talk.

Beware your media comment, it will haunt you

Today of all days, be thankful you’re not Toby Young. If you’re unaware of the guy, he;s just been appointed to the board of a higher education watchdog. As you can see from stories such as this, it’s not a universally popular move.

Part of this is due to his politics. He is a self-declared Conservative and the incumbent party of government always gets it in the neck. Also because he was allegedly viciously critical of state educated kids in this Spectator piece a few years back. He’s added a final paragraph at some point which kind of digs him in further; if you have to explain something wasn’t offensive, it probably was.

Essentially, you can’t disown something once you’ve said it. A provocative journalist like Young will understand this.

So what if you made an unhelpful media comment?

The problem is that some of us who’ve been around in the 1960s and previously might have said all sorts of things, whether in the form of a media comment or otherwise, over a lengthy-ish period of time. So, what do we do about them?

The first thing is to check them at the time. If someone has genuinely quoted you out of context, make the point, politely. However, make sure it really is out of context; wishing you hadn’t said something does not make it out of context at all.

For example, when the foreign secretary said his comments about whether a British aid worker was on holiday or training journalists were “taken out of context” when doing a bit of wriggling before Christmas, it was wrong – the whole interview is available and the context is clear. “Out of context” does happen but not that often. I’ve done it myself but only for humorous effect; many years ago Lord Alan Sugar had an issue in which people were complaining that his Amstrad computers were overheating. He denied this and came out with the quote: “We don’t need fans, it’s all rubbish, but if people want them, we’ll put them in.” Then he bought the football team Tottenham Hotspur, so the magazine on which I was working at the time resurrected the quote – deliberately and in a humorous section, so nobody thought he was actually talking about Spurs fans. It was out of context but on that occasion harmless fun.

So, is something out of context or not?

Second, allow yourself to change your mind. Just say so. Nobody should mind as long as you don’t do it all the time about things you said only last week.

Third, allow yourself a screw-up or two. Last year, Prue Leith accidentally gave away the winner of the Great British Bake-Off on Twitter (she was overseas, got her timings mixed up and thought the episode had been broadcast). Her response when questioned was “I f***ed up”. It was unfortunate but she didn’t wriggle, she faced it head on.

By now we’re all aware of how quotes can follow us around so my final thought is to suggest drafting something and then leaving it for a while. Does that thing really need to be said, even on Twitter? What’s your objective, and would it be better served by a polite rephrase?

That last point might have cost Donald Trump his presidency if he’d heeded it during his campaign, so let’s not pretend every rule applies everywhere. Mostly, though, it pays to be aware that everything you say in public may be repeated and scrutinised just when you don’t want it to be. Be prepared, have a response and remember, they were your words so you must have meant them at the time!

Do you need help formulating media messages? Contact me using the form below and we’ll talk.

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.