Journalists are not clients or customers

Journalists are not clients or customers – handle with care   

Journalists are not clients or customers and this seems to confuse those planning to speak with them for the first time.

One of the great advantages of being a consultant of any sort but a media trainer, in particular, is you get a huge variety of experience. We get to see and experience the cultures that have grown up inside the dozens if not hundreds of businesses and organisations we work with.

And from this privileged position I can see, with great clarity, how different people have very different programmes – let’s call it emotional programmes – running when they’re faced with a journalist (or trainer) for the first time.

Journalists are not clients or customers

People vary enormously in how they approach a media interview before they have been trained.

Journalists – how should you treat them?

These range from being much too risk-averse, convinced every and any syllable might be twisted and used against the interviewee or the company – all the way across the spectrum to people who are simply too keen to please. Where a person is on this spectrum seems to bear little relation to how senior they are, or indeed how real the media risks are.

Anyone trained by The Media Coach team will know we think you should approach journalists in a disciplined way, it is never just a chat.

Defensive interviews serve no one

However, those too aware of the risks, and without the information on how to handle the risks, will give a very defensive interview: short answers, usually unhelpful and very determined to be dull at all costs. There are lots of problems with this approach.

  • Short answers mean you give up control of the interview every 10-15 seconds and wait for another question.
  • The journalist is bound to get frustrated and feel they have wasted their precious time. They will have a problem because the interview will be difficult to write up and they may have to do more work elsewhere.
  • The journalist will find it difficult to quote the interviewee and therefore be much more determined to try and put words into his or her mouth.
  • At the very least, they will probably not want to talk to the person again.
  • But it could be worse; the journalist may conclude the interviewee is hiding something and start digging around either in the interview or separately, to try and find the dirt.

There is nothing wrong with being professionally friendly, in fact, we would advocate this as the right approach.

Journalists are not clients or customers

Waiting for a trap to spring is no way to manage an interview.

People-pleasers are more likely to say something stupid

At the other end of the spectrum, the people-pleasers run the risk of being exploited by journalists.

These people, in an interview, will focus only on answering questions in an expansive and helpful way. The problem with this is that journalists rarely know the right questions to ask – to some extent all interviews are a fishing expedition. In a worse case scenario, our helpful interviewee can be bounced around, asked and answering all sorts of questions on subjects that are not core to the organisations interests.

Journalists are not clients or customers

If an interviewee is too anxious to please, they run the risk of being exploited.

  • Helpful people asked a question that they don’t know the answer to,  may end up waffling around trying to be vaguely positive but also stay out of trouble. The longer they are talking the more likely they are to say something ill-advised. So for example, if asked about some controversial aspect of the work of a regulator for your industry, we would probably advise that you close down this line of questioning very quickly.  Say something like ‘this is not my area of expertise’ or ‘that is a question for them’ or ‘we work closely with the regulator but I am not going to comment in detail’. However, if you waffle around trying to be positive you are likely to end up saying something like ‘it’s a very difficult area’,  ‘I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes’,  ‘I know our xyz department really struggles with this’ or even ‘they’ve clearly got this one wrong’. All of these phrases can be used to build a story that suggests your business has chosen to publicly criticise the regulator.
  • Even if you don’t say anything inappropriate you will still have spent a lot of the interview talking about something you would rather not see in print.
  • Helpful people are also easy to manipulate into giving quotes they wouldn’t have chosen to give. They are more likely to pick up language from the question e.g. a journalist might say ‘I understand this is a nightmare for you’ and the people-pleasing interviewee might respond ’well it is a bit of a nightmare yes’ – enough to give a screaming headline.
  • Being overly obsequious may lose you credibility with your tough, streetwise journalist.

So we suggest you are professionally friendly, expansive (up to a point) and use prepared messages whilst closing down or moving away from questions that are not in your interest to answer. Easy really.

Media Interviews? We can help

If you would like help or training in how to handle a media interview positively and safely, we would be delighted to work with you.


Crisis management: that’s the way to do it!

In my last blog for The Media Coach, I wrote about the importance of facing the media during times of crisis.
In that article, I credited former UKIP leader Henry Bolton for agreeing to take part in interviews with journalists after the revelation of racist texts made by his new girlfriend but criticised his lack of messaging skills.


Chief Constable Jon Boutcher made the difficult decision to let the filming continue as one of his own team was arrested.

Crisis management: superb example

One month later – and I note in passing that Henry Bolton is no longer the leader of UKIP –  a superb example of how to engage with the media in a crisis has come to light.

It follows filming for 24 Hours in Police Custody – Channel 4’s fly-on-the-wall documentary series set inside Luton police station. During a recent blackmail investigation, it emerged that the blackmailer himself was not only one of the police officers working on the case, but part of the team monitoring a local lay-by where the £1,000 hush money demanded had been left for collection. Newspaper coverage of the case can be found here and the subsequent video of Detective Gareth Suffling’s arrest can be seen here.

Warts and all: how we deal with people

So why did the Chief Constable not pull the cameras and refuse to let the footage of the arrest be shown? In Jon Boutcher’s own words during a BBC TV interview the morning after the programme was transmitted: “What this programme shows, warts and all, is how we deal with people with care and respect – whether they are a member of our own or a member of the public, when they commit offences. And how can we get our public to trust us and to have confidence in us if they can’t see who we are as people? I think the programme demonstrated last night just how we deal with people who sadly on occasions let us down in the police service.

“This is a human tragedy in my view – the story of a young guy, a Detective Constable with an incredible future – who, for whatever reasons, and I don’t think we’ve ever really fully understood why he did what he did… And that concerns me. It concerns me with regard to how that could have occurred… If people are in trouble, if people are struggling in any way – whether it’s financial or otherwise – they should reach out for a helping hand.

Crisis management: transparency is key

“I accept that this programme and full editorial control sits with Garden Productions who make the programme – not with me. It would be against the values as to why we do this programme, if suddenly when we don’t like something, we shut it down… But what is more transparent, for our communities to see who we are? Normal people, from their communities, as public servants, policing those communities in the very best way we can.” His full reasoning can be found in this YouTube video.

It was a brave and controversial decision. Indeed, Jon Boutcher admits that he’s had criticism from colleagues, including other Chief Constables, with regards to the previous series. But in agreeing to show the footage, he demonstrates a level of police accountability, transparency and fairness which immediately goes some way to repair the damage caused by the initial arrest. And how much worse would it have been for Bedfordshire Police to have been seen to be trying to hide the film, once news of the arrest came out, if they had prevented it from being shown?

What’s more, Jon Boutcher talks about the case in conversational language (“warts and all”, “human tragedy”, “helping hand”), far removed from the ‘police-speak’ we are so often subjected to; a memorable message, said powerfully.

As an extra benefit, he adds: “the interest we’ve had from people now seeking to join the police service because of this programme, is really encouraging.”


Picture is a screen grab from YouTube.

Crisis media interview

Crisis Media Interviews: Face the music – but sing from the right song sheet

Crisis media interviews are understandably terrifying, and most people chose to avoid them and stick to that familiar phrase ‘no comment’. Here at The Media Coach, we spend a lot of time encouraging those who suddenly find themselves in a difficult situation with the media, to be bold and accept requests for interviews.

The PR best practice handbook, were it to exist, would explain that the ‘vacuum’ which would be caused by the absence of timely comments can quickly be filled by something even more damaging. If you don’t talk it is likely your enemies or detractors will.

However, it’s absolutely critical on such occasions the spokesperson has his or her messaging sorted with pin-sharp accuracy, as well as preparing and rehearsing answers to the tirade of negative enquiries.

Henry Bolton had clearly not been given such advice. The UKIP leader (at the time of writing, anyway) had left his wife and children for glamour model Jo Marney who subsequently was discovered to have sent racist texts, some of which were about the most recent addition to the royal family, Meghan Markle. Bolton appeared on national TV and radio the morning after he and his girlfriend had decided to part company.


Whilst credit goes to him for facing the media in a series of interviews (BBC 1 Breakfast, BBC Radio 4, ITV’s Good Morning Britain, LBC, Talk Radio and the rest), what emerged was a confused, chaotic, hesitant, and humiliating performance which was almost as destructive as deciding not to do the interviews in the first place.

For the benefit of others who might find themselves facing a series of crisis media interviews, here are three main reasons why every single interview went so badly:

1) Misplaced concern

Unbelievably, during all of his media interviews, Bolton seemed more interested in talking about how “absolutely distraught” his former girlfriend was with the fallout from her racist messages than the offensive nature of the texts themselves. He also suggested that he wanted to “help her re-build her life” and “support her family” (these are the relatives of someone he had been dating for just four days), rather than talking about the support he might provide for his wife of seven years and their two young children back at home.

2) Arguing over minor details

If Bolton had prepared his key messages, he would have been able to focus on getting them across. Without them, he wasted time and effort trying to contradict the interviewers on minor, irrelevant points. So he tried to claim that Jo Marney’s messages had “been taken out of context” – although failed to reveal what sort of context would make such messages acceptable. He also talked about the fact that the original messages were meant to be private (as if that suddenly made them OK). Similarly, when it was put it to him that the content of the messages were “still her views”, he tried to argue “Well, no they’re not, actually” – but failed to explain why anyone would expound views which they didn’t believe.

3) Ambiguity about the future

When events in the recent past have been as chaotic as those experienced by Henry Bolton, the future should have presented a chance to make statements which are simple, clear and unambiguous. But that opportunity was missed, with the curious suggestion that “the romantic side of our relationship is over”, whilst adding that they were “not breaking contact”, then arguing that he hadn’t “dumped” her and that he would be “standing by her”. Both journalist and audience could be forgiven for being left uncertain about what the nature of their future relationship might be.

So whilst it’s almost always better for interviewees to face the media, they should do so only when they’ve got their messaging and reactive lines sorted out. To his cost, Henry Bolton is an example of a man who had neither.

If you would like further reading on this, my colleague Catherine Cross wrote a blog some weeks ago with her top tips for handling a crisis including crisis media interviews. 

senior leaders

Senior leaders – get media trained before you need it

Senior leaders are often booked into media training by PR professionals who are tearing their hair out. So often, successful, super-professional ‘talent’ has somehow missed out on a few of the basics of good external communication and are suddenly required to front a product launch or a PR campaign.

Senior leaders need communications skills

It is so common, so stressful for all concerned and so preventable, I think it is worth a blog post.

Senior leaders

Take the case of Theresa May – for many years an ambitious career politician now struggling with a hugely difficult job. Most of us in the PR business believe a few basic lessons in presentation, delivery and handling media interviews might have totally changed her fortunes. The problem, as I see it, is that she didn’t get the training on the way up and now, with the top job and a different crisis every day, there is no time to do it.

And we see exactly this in the corporate world. Senior leaders are incredibly busy. Diary management is a headache and a full-time job – outsourced to PAs, and EAs  for many of those we train. Trying to persuade these hard-pressed staff that a media trainer needs four hours in someone’s diary is likely to get the response – ‘sorry but can you do it in 45 minutes and by the way, he (or she) will probably be running late.’

A few hours is a good investment

But actually, four or even eight hours training over the career of a senior leader is a very small commitment. It is difficult to predict how many media interviews someone is likely to do in the future but we know for sure they will be doing countless presentations. And while some presentation training is provided, a lot of people slip through the net and still do it very badly.

My belief is that communications training – covering external versus internal comms, understanding the media, social media, messaging and interview control should be core subjects in management training programmes. And these should also include some coaching on delivery style. Being able to ‘perform’ whether in front of an audience or a journalist is also an essential skill. (I have written previously about how poor presentations are endemic in business.)

Incredibly useful professionally

I have lost count of the number of times people finish a media training session saying ‘even if I never speak to the media this is has been incredibly useful professionally’.

senior leaders

The ideal is to do it early, do it well and then top up the training as and when it is needed for specific events. That will avoid the sort of query I receive at least once a week: “can you cover press, radio and TV and give us some help with the messaging for three people in three hours?” It can be done but just not as well as I would like to do it.

So, if you are a learning development officer or an HR professional and some of this rings true – I would suggest asking your PR team about the problems they run into when looking for capable spokespeople. Then if you find I am right, start planning media and presentation training for your emerging leaders. If you think you are yourself an ‘emerging leader’ take my advice and wangle your way onto a media training course before you find you need it. You won’t regret it.

Royal interview

Royal Interview – nicely done

The royal interview was, for us spin doctors and media trainers, a highlight last week.  Prince Harry and fiancée Meghan Markle faced respectful but very personal questioning from the BBC’s Mishal Husain; and they handled it with aplomb.

The couple appeared natural, shared bits of their story but never looked uncomfortable. I may be wrong but I am guessing a fair amount of work went into that, if not formally then informally.

As the Daily Telegraph noted:

‘A divorced, mixed race, Hollywood actress who attended a Roman Catholic school is to marry the son of the next King. Such a sentence simply could not have been written a generation ago.’

So many taboos and traditions have been swept away by this engagement that the handling of the interview is probably rather unimportant. But perhaps it did illustrate how this generation of royals are handling the media differently and with much more professionalism than in the past.

Royal interview – professional approach to the personal

This was an interview that perfectly illustrates a professional approach to the personal.

Any spin doctor advising on such an important and sensitive interview would say: give away enough to tell the narrative you want to tell, don’t lie but artfully steer away from anything you don’t want to share. Asked about some of the coverage of the relationship Markle said it was ‘disheartening’ and ‘discriminatory’. But she said this with disappointment rather than rancor. Call me cynical but I am pretty sure ‘disheartening’ and ‘discriminatory’ were prepared lines – and even the tone was carefully chosen. I could be wrong, she might just be a natural but neither are words that most people use every day. They are a good choice because they are suitably negative but not inflammatory. Just what was needed.

Royal interview gave clear sign posting

There was also the very clear signposting that the couple would not reveal the name of the mutual friend who set them up on the blind date: “We must respect her privacy” they both repeated. This is apparently now known but Meghan and Prince Harry were clear but not defensive about controlling the interview on this point. It’s always easier to tell a journalist you are not going to answer a question than to fudge it.

There were a couple of other nice touches that might or might not have been inserted by a spin doctor. Several uses of the word ‘cottage’ with all its small and frugal connotations (!), and the roast chicken dinner. As we often say to people, just insert a bit of colour! It’s not that I doubt the truth of the roast chicken, I just think most people wouldn’t have automatically mentioned it. But it played its role in adding a homely touch to the royal romance.

Royal interview

The roast chicken dinner was one of those irrelevant facts that nevertheless has a role in adding ‘colour’ to a story.

Anyway, all in all nicely done and given that managing the media is going to have to be such a big part of their lives it bodes well that together – and undoubtedly with the help of others – they delivered a charming, happy, uncontroversial interview.

media interviews

Media interviews: is fear of failure leading to missed opportunities?

Media interviews still evoke horror in many people because the stereotype persists that a journalist’s main aim in life is to humiliate hapless interviewees. And while I can’t guarantee that you won’t come across the occasional Jeremy Paxman-wannabee – the vast majority just want interesting guests who can fill a few minutes airtime or column inches with lively and informative conversation!

media interviews

Media Interviews: Journalists need interesting speakers

From big set-piece events like The Budget to follow-up stories on topics like Brexit or the future of Zimbabwe, the media is constantly crying out for good interviewees to add information and insight.  And with average daily audience figures for a programme like BBC Breakfast of 1.5-million, not to mention the tens of thousands of viewers or listeners to regional and local media, turning down interview requests represents a huge missed opportunity to raise your professional profile or that of your business.

Yet I’ve had several conversations recently when people said they’d turned down interview opportunities through fear: “What if I say “the wrong thing”?” “What if they trick me into revealing something I shouldn’t?” “What if they ask me something I don’t know? I don’t want to look stupid!”

So how can you combat that fear of the unknown and turn a media interview into something less like a visit to the dentist and more of a win-win situation for you and your business?

Media interviews: Preparation is the key

There are three quotes that tell you everything you need to know about handling media interviews:

“It takes me two weeks to prepare an off-the-cuff speech.” (Richard Nixon)

“Who has got the questions to my answers?” (Henry Kissinger)

“There’s no such thing as a wrong question, only a wrong answer.” (US Broadcaster Ed Murrow)

What these quotes illustrate is that there is no shortcut to preparation if you want to shine in the media spotlight. Just because you are an expert in your field, do not assume you can just ‘wing it’ in interviews.

You must be proactive and ask the journalist questions before agreeing to take part. This will ensure that when you come to do your preparation you are crystal clear in your head:

  • What’s led them to do the story – what do they want from you?
  • What do you want to talk about?

Much of the fear of interviews can be avoided if you understand why they are interviewing you i.e. will you be a ‘player’ or a ‘pundit’? Are you there because you or your company/organisation are ‘the story’ (player) or are you there to comment on and add incite to a story or topic in the news (pundit)?

In many cases, people from professions such as lawyers, bankers, economists and the business world, will be interviewed in the latter role, which is the easier of the two because journalists are merely looking for you to have something interesting, informative and insightful to say about events, rather than putting the boot in!

Media interviews

Avoid being defensive or bland

Because so many interviewees are terrified of saying the ‘wrong thing’ they can become defensive and bland, and say nothing of interest at all – which is a cardinal sin if you are there as a pundit. (Here is a blog one of our team wrote a while ago about the problem of trade associations being just too bland.) To avoid this, once you clearly understand the circumstances of the interview, your preparation needs to cover two areas:

  • Set yourself an interview objective or headline: What one thing do you want the audience to take away from your interview?
  • Develop a MAXIMUM of 3 key messages/issues to back up your headline.


  • Remember you are not speaking to your colleagues, so avoid your industry’s jargon and speak in layman’s terms.
  • As a pundit, you are not there to plug your company. However, you should still think about relevant examples, anecdotes and proof points from your work that you can use to illustrate your points and make them more credible and robust (and show your/your company’s expertise).

Top tip for ‘pundits’

  • Remember the pub analogy: Imagine you are in a pub with a friend who knows nothing about your profession or business. Explain your answer to the journalist in the same way you would to your friend in a casual setting.

If you follow these tips, you could see yourself becoming a regular contributor which is priceless advertising without costing you a penny.

media interviews

If you want to learn more about how to take advantage of media opportunities The Media Coach can run bespoke training session for you or your team. As trainers, we’ve helped launch many media pundits and enjoy hearing our one-time trainees pop up time and time again.

For further reading, this is a good blog for scientists and pharmaceutical industry people on how to do a good interview.

Picture credits: Image 2 Steve Debenport

misspeak Michael Gove

So easy to misspeak: case study from Michael Gove

It is so easy to misspeak in public, especially if you are trying to be funny.

Last weekend, it was Michael Gove who caused widespread offence by joking about the allegations against Harvey Weinstein.

misspeak Michael Gove

Michael Gove MP has apologised for his gaffe


Wrong time to trivialise allegations against Weinstein

In a BBC Radio 4 Today programme interview, he likened being interviewed by John Humphrys as going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom – “you just hope you emerge with your dignity intact”.

First I have to say I am not offended by Michael Gove’s joke. It was meant as a joke and tells you nothing about his attitude to women. I could easily join the #MeToo campaign. Others’ experience of this may be in the film or music business, mine was in the grubby hotel kitchens in Great Yarmouth. My experience is that chefs are just as bad as movie moguls.

But while I am not offended, I do recognise it was a daft thing to say and absolutely bound to cause an uproar.

Off-the-cuff remarks can be bad news

When it comes to off-the-cuff remarks in public, it is very easy to get it wrong. Being a little bit risqué will often get a laugh but can also easily offend. And when others are trying to move the dial on what is acceptable behaviour they are going to be quick to condemn those who can be criticised for not getting with the programme.

Back in August, I wrote about three subjects to avoid if you want to stay out of the headlines and any overtly sexist views was one of them. Gove was using Weinstein as an analogy rather than in any way endorsing his right to any sort of behaviour and the line “leave with your dignity intact” is elegant and funny. The problem is that Gove appears to be trivializing what Weinstein and perhaps others have done. If he had thought about it, crafted it, rehearsed it he would definitely have dropped the line. But it was almost certainly an off-the-cuff comment.

In this case, Michael Gove will undoubtedly bounce back. He was quick to apologise and there is an element of fake outrage about this.

But it does beautifully illustrate why spokespeople need training and they also need to rehearse. My Mum has often been heard to say, “I don’t understand why these clever, important people need you to advise them what to say”. And the truth is my one of my key roles is to ensure that my clients ‘risk assess’ the thoughts, arguments and comments they are likely to deploy in the public arena – thereby avoiding embarrassment or damage to the share price.

So many clever people initially find it extraordinary that PR people want to know what they are going to say, how they are going to say it and want to check how the argument is going to land. The smarter ones realise very quickly that an hour or two of preparation, scrutiny and rehearsal can allow everyone to breathe more easily.

If you would like our help in preparing for some external communication – whether it is in the media or somewhere else, please do give us a call to discuss. Join the group of senior leaders who would never be without us.

Photo used under Wikimedia Commons licence

The hardest questions

Media Interviews: The Hardest Questions

The hardest questions from journalists are often the ones where you can’t tell the truth and you can’t lie.

If you are not used to corporate life you will be quick to judge this post as more evidence of spin doctors’ corrosive effect on society. But I have learnt that there are plenty of occasions – totally ethical circumstances – when it is not possible or sensible to tell the truth. And I for one am not sure UK Prime Minister Theresa May was telling the truth when she let it be known she plans to lead the Tories into the next election.

The hardest questions

But let’s start at the beginning. When working out prepared reactive lines to tough questions, those where you can’t tell the truth and you can’t lie are in a category all of their own.

There are some of the more straight forward ones. They were some of the hardest questions but over the years others have found the right phrase and now everyone uses it. In the trade we call all of these phrases a ‘close down’.

Sorry that is commercially confidential

Companies often have numbers that they do not want to release for perfectly valid commercial reasons. This might be as simple as ‘what is your margin on this?’ or ‘how many deals are in the pipeline?’ or more specifically ‘I heard your margins are being squeezed and are now down below 12%. Can you confirm that?” In these cases it is easiest to be straight with a journalist and say ‘sorry that is commercially confidential’.

We never comment on market rumours

If your listed company is in the process of doing due diligence ahead of a takeover bid you are legally obliged not to disclose this to one set of shareholders ahead of another. It has to be announced to the whole market at the same time. You have no choice but to keep it under wraps before the announcement. So if a journalist asks directly ‘are you about to buy xyz company? ’ you will have to fall back on the well understood stock answer ‘we never comment on market rumours’.

The market sets the share price

Similarly, a senior executive should not share an opinion on his own company share price. It would be ill advised to say ‘my shares are undervalued’ to one journalist because again if there is something to be shared on this you must tell all investors at the same time. The stock answer here is ‘we just run the business and let the market set the price’.

However, that still leaves plenty of common but trickier questions that need a bit more thought.

Difficult questions can, for example, arise if a member of staff has been ‘let go’ for some major issue; it may have been incompetence or something illegal that never went to court. You can’t say publicly what you believe to be true because you could be sued for slandering the individual. A standard answer would be ‘I am not going to comment on personnel issues’ although this is harder to sustain the more senior the person in the spotlight.

How long do you plan to be in the job? When will you retire? Or any version of this is another question a senior leader is ill advised to answer. It is well known that as soon as a decision to go is announced, power starts to drain away from that person and the troops line up behind one or other of the potential successors. In business life we normally advise a dismissive ‘when there is any announcement to be made on that I will let you know’. But the more senior you are, the more your shareholders and customers will demand to know.

Theresa May’s dilemma

This is exactly the dilemma Theresa May faced last week.

Having experienced life as a ‘lame duck leader’ after the general election, and having perhaps recovered somewhat from that, I am guessing she would be reluctant to do anything to undermine her own power again. But the problem she faced, from the moment the election result was confirmed, was people speculating on her future.

This was pushed to the top of the news agenda with a flurry of reports about her plans to leave the job. I think timing is also an issue here because she had a number of lobby correspondents on the plane with her to Japan. That sort of event always involves some cosy briefings between the PM and the press. The ‘will you stay?’ question was guaranteed to come up. It is one of the hardest questions any leader can face. Given the circumstances, she decided to quash the story and to go with a definite ‘I am staying’, ‘I am not quitter’ and ‘yes, I intend to fight the next election’.

Here is the Guardian’s report of her dilemma and here is Sky’s Jason Farrell on his shock at getting a straight answer from Theresa May when he asked if she was going to fight the next election.

[Personally, I am not convinced by the ‘I am here to stay’ statements. If I was in her shoes and – just imagine – I was keen to go after the Brexit negotiations, I certainly wouldn’t confirm this. And in her particular circumstances there is no dismissive phrase that would not have the same effect as saying ‘yes, I plan to go’. It seems to me she has to pretend to be staying. I am not saying she is definitely being misleading, just that she might be.

On the other hand, I have been more cautious than most about writing Mrs. May off as there have been many amazing political comebacks in my time. Plus, while May is at the moment rather poor on television and on the campaign trail, she may be a rather good Prime Minister in other ways. And as we see in training sessions time and again, people can learn if they put the effort in.]

Anyway, back to the hardest questions. I thought I would end with a warning: from my constant consumption of UK media I would say that Eddie Mair on the BBC Radio 4 PM programme is the best (or worst) journalist for asking impossible questions. This year he asked the BBC’s Director of Radio James Purnell ‘Why do on-air people get paid more if they have a penis?’. I still haven’t worked out what, given the circumstances of that interview, the answer should have been.



Don’t just answer the question

Media Training Basics: Don’t just answer the question

Imagine this ridiculous scene: You go to a doctor with some slightly worrying set of symptoms in the hope that he or she can reassure you or at least throw some light on what ails you. However, on this particular day your doctor refuses to do anything but answer questions. She (let’s say) has a huge wealth of medical knowledge that would be very useful to you but she refuses to share it unless you ask the right question. Ridiculous I hear you say. No one would behave like that!

Don’t just answer the question

But actually, this is exactly what most novice interviewees do in a media interview. They just answer the question.

Don’t just answer the question: know what you are there to say

In our book, media interviews should never be about just answering questions. You should arrive at the microphone or in front of the journalist knowing what you are there to say. This is absolutely not to say you should ignore the journalists’ questions. That is really annoying for both the journalist and any audience.

Of course, it is clear to all PR professionals that working out what the interviewee is there to say is not so straight forward.

Don’t just answer the question

Why knowing what to say is not so simple

Firstly, if the identified senior business executive spends most of his life talking to colleagues or fellow professionals, he will likely assume knowledge that a general audience doesn’t have and use jargon and technical language that is inappropriate.

Second, he will almost always forget to fill in the context. It is another version of assuming knowledge. One of my training colleagues likes to say ‘don’t forget to state the blooming obvious’.

Thirdly, in business, if you talk to a general audience about making money you are not going to get a good hearing. In the UK making money, whilst necessary, is thought to be a rather grubby activity.

And actually, it is probably not the important point. In fact, most business people spend most of their time worrying about doing a good job for their customers, they only think about costs and margins when talking to the boss. The problem is, if they treat the journalist as they would a grilling from the boss they will come across as hard-hearted and grasping rather than on the side of the angels. (There is an exception to this for financial and investment media who think making money is good. As we all know you have to tailor the message.)

Be credible

So, any spokesperson has to be helped to build a narrative that tells the story that needs to be told. That story needs to be rehearsed so they show up at an interview knowing what they are there to say. If they don’t they will just answer the questions.

And then they must be able to take the opportunity opened by a journalists question to land a message – but do this in a credible way. Credibility and likeability are the holy grail here.

Don’t just answer the question

Who does not have this ability?

• Theresa May. She ignores questions and lands her message without credibility.
• Donald Trump. He usually has no message and makes up a new one in response to the question. Alternatively, he trots out some tired platitude such as ‘Making America great again’ which works for him it seems but is not a strategy we endorse.
• Most Friday Boss participants on Radio 4’s Today programme. They rarely get beyond answering the question.

Who does have this ability?

• David Davis. Generally brilliant at answering the question but then moving to what he wants to say.
•  John McDonnell. Also brilliant these days in the toughest of interviews.
• Nigel Farage. You don’t have to agree with anything he says to know he is an excellent political communicator.
•  Nick Clegg. Continues to impress despite the tide of history turning against him.
• From the business community, Sir Martin Sorrell is always a prepared and credible interviewee.

We think most media trainers – our competitors – just prove how difficult media interviews can be. We constantly work with our clients to help them identify the messages and then codify them in a way that can be easily remembered in the interview.

If you watch or hear examples of bad (or brilliant) interviews do let us know. We are always looking for examples to use in our training.

PR Basics

PR Basics: Don’t overpromise  

PR basics include a rule that you don’t promise something you may not be able to deliver. If there was one outstanding headline from last week’s UK budget it was that the Tories had broken a promise not to raise National Insurance. Chancellor, Philip Hammond announced in the budget on Wednesday measures that included a tax rise for the self-employed despite the previous manifesto promise not to do so.

PR Basics, Philip Hammond

UK Chancellor Philip Hammond is said to have broken a manifesto promise not to increase National Insurance

According to the Guardian newspaper: ‘The Conservative party’s 2015 manifesto was unequivocal, promising four times that a Tory government would not increase National Insurance. It did not mention the self-employed and offered future chancellors no wriggle room.’

PR Basics: Avoid public U-turns if possible

For us, the PR Rule broken here is don’t say something that you might later have to backtrack on.

If we want another hugely damaging example from politics we have only to remember the Liberal Democrats 2010 manifesto promise to scrap tuition fees. This was an election promise made before they found themselves in a coalition with a Tory party.  Personally, I feel that makes a material difference but the electorate is much less forgiving and the tuition fees broken promise seems to have ruined the career of Nick Clegg, one of the most able politicians of his generation. Not to mention wiping out the LibDem presence in the House of Commons. 

PR Basics

Even incorrect forecasting can be damaging. During the Brexit debate in the UK, those who argued the markets would ‘punish’ the UK if Vote Leave were to win, have since been publically lambasted because their predictions did not (fully) materialise. The public often does not make the distinction between a forecast – a best guess about the future – and a firm warning of what might happen. (My mother constantly rails against the weather forecast, which she says is ‘always wrong’. No amount of me pointing out it is a ‘forecast’ and not a promise makes any difference. These people are ‘misleading’ her.)

PR Basics: Avoid any ‘hostage to fortune’ 

Businesses too can fall foul of overpromising. Way back when, I clearly remember the, to me, avoidable pressure on the Chief Executive (later Chairman) of Rentokil who had overpromised. Sir Clive Thompson was always described as the ‘self-styled Mr. 20%’. I am not sure who used the phrase first but Sir Clive was certainly not unhappy with it. He delivered something like 20% growth in Rentokil profits every year for 13 years! But when in 1999 he moved to lower the target investors took their revenge. Even as a journalist I thought Sir Clive crazy to set this near impossible target for himself. He was ‘kicked upstairs’ to Chairman and finally ousted in 2004, apparently for ‘being too obsessed with meeting short-term targets’.  It seemed he could not detach himself from the Mr. 20% label.

It is something we come across often in training. Enthusiastic executives of course have a vision they are working toward. But while talking in broad brush strokes is fine, often it does not do to share the detail of that vision with journalists. The media just love to write that people or companies have ‘missed’ their target, done a U-turn or a flip-flop.

PR Basics

Executives are often tempted to overpromise in an interview

 PR Basics: Highfalutin promises can cause negative headlines 

Good PR people always caution against this. They know that being too clear about targets or making highfalutin promises can often cause negative headlines further down the line. Here is an incomplete list of mundane things we would advise against being too definite about.

  • There will be no further job losses. Who knows there might have to be?
  • We are expecting 20% growth in sales/profits etc. You might be confident but such a public prediction turns a 10% increase into a failure.
  • We want to be number one in the market within two years. Better to say one of the leading players in the market.
  • We expect to be profitable by Q4 2018. This is a difficult one because it is the sort of information you have to share with investors and therefore it may already be in the public domain. My advice would be not to lie if asked outright – stupid if it’s already published – but if possible not draw attention to it in media interviews, and if asked be cautious about it rather than bullish. If it is a major important element of a story that won’t help but hubris is easy to spot and may lead to mischief from the journalist. All in all, this would be more of a judgment call and our advice would depend on what else you have to say.
  • Margins are set to rise to 25%. Here again being vague is the standard. Unless they are published in your annual accounts you may be best to avoid talk of margins. Again you may have an internal forecast but is there really any benefit to being specific?

PR Basics: There are always exceptions

As with all rules, there are exceptions. I have taken part in discussions where CEO’s or other senior bods have weighed up the pros and cons of a ‘hostage to fortune’ pledge and decided to take the risk  – because the benefits outweighed the possible costs.  That is sensible and their prerogative.

Often our role is to bolster the PR advice and ensure ‘enthusiastic’ interviewees don’t make casual public promises or forecasts without understanding this basic rule of PR: avoid a hostage to fortune comment unless there is a very good reason not to.

Don’t forget, if we can help you prepare your spokespeople for a public announcement – results, product launch or a new direction – give us a call 020 7099 2212 to discuss the options.

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