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media interview traps

Media interview traps – how to avoid two of them

Media interview traps are relatively easy for journalists to set and for interviewees to fall headlong in to. At The Media Coach, we try to keep you safe by identifying the most common ones and giving you tips and techniques to avoid them. So it’s useful to look at two examples of interview traps which happened in recent days: being indiscreet near a microphone – even when you think you are not being recorded – and the journalist trying to get you to go ‘off message’ to create juicy headlines. The first trap resulted in days of embarrassing, negative publicity while the second was neatly avoided.

media interview traps

There are some well known media traps but people, even professionals, regularly get caught by them.

Media interview trap 1: Cameras are always on and microphones are always ‘hot’

During every media training session we drill into people the need to be very careful around microphones and cameras before and after an interview; in fact, whenever you are in a TV or radio studio. But familiarity can breed contempt and this week we saw even one of the UK’s most experienced journalists, BBC presenter John Humphrys, get caught out when he made controversial comments in a studio without realising he was being recorded.

He wasn’t on air at the time and was just chatting with a colleague before recording an interview when he made what he has since insisted were “jokey” comments about one of the biggest media stories in the previous week; Carrie Gracie’s resignation from the post of the BBC’s China editor because men in other editor posts were paid considerably more than she was.

The story about the lack of equal pay at the BBC had been running for several days and probably would have been winding down, but with the leaking of the recording, it is now right back up the news agenda.

One of John Humphry’s BBC colleagues, Jane Garvey, summed up the incident nicely when she tweeted:

media interview traps

Media interview trap 2: going off message/just reacting to the journalist’s questions

Also in recent days, experienced media performer, Stanley Johnson, (father of Foreign Secretary, Boris) deftly demonstrated how to avoid another common media interview trap, which I call the “while I’ve got you here, can I just ask you about…” question.

Mr Johnson was appearing on a phone in on Radio 5live’s Emma Barnett show after the UK Government announced proposals to curb plastic waste in the environment. After giving his view on the proposals, and mentioning Boris, Emma Barnett, seized the opportunity to go slightly off-topic with Stanley Johnson in search of a potentially juicy headline by revisiting the very public falling out between his son and the now Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, during the last Conservative leadership contest. ( You can click here for the full interview which starts at 1 hour 24 minutes and 55 seconds and will be available for the next three weeks.)

media interview traps

Stanley Johnson refused to be drawn when asked about the relationship between Michael Gove and his son Boris Johnson.

When asked to respond to the comments from his daughter Rachel that Mr Gove had stabbed her brother Boris “in the front and the back”, Stanley Johnson neatly spotted the potential for negative headlines which could overshadow his environmental agenda. He simply took the sting out of the topic by refusing to get drawn in and saying “I don’t think it’s a good idea to distract from talking about the environment” before going back to his key messages on his intended topic.

This is an effective example of the bridging technique which we teach during Media Coach training sessions to ensure interviewees can avoid being drawn off-topic and ending up with headlines they never intended.

Finally, to avoid both traps, the two cases illustrate the need to take media encounters seriously, focus and remain disciplined at all times.

Photo 1: Pixabay
Photo 2: Creative Commons

 

 

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.

Language:

  • 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

PR and the role of the enemy

Theresa May stood up at the Lord Mayor’s banquet at London’s Guildhall on Monday evening and accused Russia of seeking to weaponise information: using fake stories and photo-shopped images to sow discord in the west. She added meddling in elections and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defence, the Bundestag and others to the list of inappropriate international activities. The full speech is here.

PR and the role of the enemy: case study

 

PR and the role of the enemy

Theresa May pictured with Vladimir Putin in 2016. Now she accuses him of trying to destabilise western democracies.

Now, I have been going on, in private, about Russia’s likely meddling in both the Brexit referendum and the last UK general election for a considerable period of time. I am not close to power so I have no proof but there is enough evidence out there to make me deeply suspicious. But no one was talking about it: until now.

I was extremely thrilled last week when I saw the cover of that excellent round up of the week’s news The Week.

PR and the role of the enemy

And I am pleased that the Prime Minister of the day is now raising the alarm about the likely, sinister action of Russia; using social media (and particularly social media bots), fake news and other tactics to destabilise western democracies.

But I am deeply suspicious about the timing of Mrs. May’s sudden apparent interest in this.

PM criticises Russia, but why now?

The information about suspected Russian meddling has been around for months if not more. It is true the press were writing more about it this month but there was no major new information. It seems Edward Lucas of the Times brought it into the mainstream (sadly this article is behind The Times paywall). I wonder if it just popped into his head or whether someone in Whitehall sowed the seed.

The question is, why is Mrs May speaking about this now?

Well as a cynic, I would answer that it is because the government needs an enemy to unite us. One that is not anything to do with our negotiating partners in the Brexit talks. And here we have it: President Putin and the threat to the international order. As a political or PR tactic it is as old as the hills. Here is an article in Psychology Today that explores this very issue.

Headlines about Russia’s meddling are ‘manna from heaven’ for an embattled Prime Minister who has on her hands rumbling sex scandals, the Paradise Papers, stalled Brexit talks and forced cabinet reshuffles due to amateur empire building by the former Minister for the Department of International Development. And that is before we get to the Boris and Gove double act. My guess is that the Russia section of the speech was suggested or developed by Robbie Gibb ( who I blogged about back in July) to give Mrs. May a few benign headlines. And it certainly worked.

 

 

 

 

 

LinkedIn

5 reasons why LinkedIn is a ‘must’ for PR people

We at The Media Coach love LinkedIn. As a social media specialist, I keep across all the main channels and firmly believe that today – for the PR world – LinkedIn has huge potential but is often underused. It is widely known as a place to put your CV, or as the Facebook of the business world, but it’s so much more than that. As a PR professional if you are not really using this valuable social networking platform you are missing a trick.

Here’s why.

LinkedIn

5 reasons PR professionals should use LinkedIn

  1. You can find crucial contacts and have an ‘in’, a reason to introduce yourself via your existing network of contacts who validate your experience.

One of the hardest things about the PR world is being able to find the right contacts. Top of the list for this is of course journalists. You can’t hope to have strong relationships with every journalist, especially when you start working with a new client or in a new sector. LinkedIn gives you the potential to ‘know someone that can’, to get introductions. It can also put you in front of potential clients and help you find the next job. It’s the best networking you can do from the comfort of your own chair.

  1. This is the best place to build credibility and make it visible. Shout about your news or share articles and people who don’t know you very well, feel that they do.

We always need to let people know about our successes. By posting yours or your clients’ stories on LinkedIn they can be shared with a lot of people. If you join targeted groups you can share to an even bigger number; without relying on the mainstream media it can reach thousands of professionals. This also gives you an opportunity, as an individual, to position yourself as an expert in your field of PR and an expert in the industry that your client is in. But remember to apply judgment; you don’t want to give away too much to the competition.

  1. You can write as much as you like about yourself and in doing so make yourself a searchable commodity. This is way beyond posting a CV.

Unlike many other portals, LinkedIn gives you the opportunity to really elaborate on who you are and what you do. Most of the boxes on your profile give all the space you want. You can explain in detail what your expertise is and you can explain what type of clients you would like to work for. All of this detail is searchable, so LinkedIn helps to make you a saleable commodity that can be found by the search engines. Recommendations are visible and easy to find for anyone who wants to know more about you.

  1. Keep up to date and learn new things.

We all suffer from information overload but this is a great source for learning more from experts and influencers in your field or that of your clients. Influencers are clearly signposted with the LinkedIn influencer badge and you can get noticed by joining in their conversations by adding and responding to comments on their articles. The LinkedIn news flow encourages short, sharp and succinct content that is easily digestible, so if you follow the right people and join the right groups you can stay up to date with the latest news and trends in your field.

  1. Helps you find the next job, as long as your profile is up to date!

PRs work in a very transient industry. At some point you will be ready to move on. LinkedIn is one of the best ways to get that new post and develop your career path. We know that the best jobs often come via recommendation but LinkedIn’s searchable system helps you to effectively recommend yourself. If your profile ticks their boxes, people and companies will come to you. Some of my best and most lucrative jobs have come from LinkedIn. With the right references and the right connections companies and those desirable positions can easily start finding you.

There are more reasons why this is the best professional networking system for PR professionals but if these five reasons don’t get you started on your LinkedIn journey, nothing will.

LinkedIn downsides that you should be aware of

Just in case you think this is an advert for LinkedIn, there are some downsides.

First and foremost you have to understand the importance of searchable terms, this is the common sense bit of search engine optimization. Your profile needs to include phrases that potential employers or lucrative contacts are actually likely to search for. We are all having to learn to write this way and SEO applies to LinkedIn just as much as a blog.

Secondly, LinkedIn often changes its formatting. A constant complaint is that buttons move and functions have been hidden in a new place.

Thirdly, it has become a victim of its own success as a lot of the quality and informative posts are now being lost in the noise of low-value content. Just like Facebook’s ‘noise’ if you have a lot of connections you will have to wade through a lot of uninteresting posts before you get to the useful nuggets of information.

Finally, it can be a challenge to reach that one person you really want to reach without paying. You may be able to see them but not be able to message them. There are ways around it, the six degrees of separation principle of LinkedIn can work, as you may have a connection who can introduce you but otherwise you may have to pay to use InMail. This can be frustrating.

LinkedIn

We provide bespoke social media training courses.

Overall, the free version of LinkedIn is a great tool. If you want to know more about how to use LinkedIn for your organisation we can build a training course around your particular needs. We provide very bespoke social media training around all aspects including Twitter and LinkedIn. Just book in a call with us.

Photo one supplied by Pixabay
Photo two supplied by Flickr

 

Misrepresented in the media? Why it may not be the journalist’s fault

Being misrepresented in the media is very frustrating. During media training sessions, we often hear that people are reluctant to speak to the media because they have previously had “a bad experience”. “I was misquoted” or “the headline completely misrepresented the story” are two of the most common complaints.

And while the first reaction might be to blame the journalist, two recent controversies reveal that they aren’t always happy with the final version either – and sometimes it’s due to circumstances beyond their control.

 

Misrepresented in the media

Reporter’s fury over ‘distorted’ story

In the last week, The Evening Standard had to apologise to Solange Knowles for airbrushing a photo of her on the cover of its magazine. At the same time the journalist who had written the accompanying story angrily disowned the printed version in a series of tweets.  Angelica Bastien revealed that she had asked for her name to be removed from the byline because she felt her work had been “distorted”.

Copy approval is controversial

And earlier this month, interviewer Ginny Dougray became involved in a row with Saga Magazine and Clare Balding over changes made to an article she had submitted.  Ms Dougray was furious that the magazine seemed to have offered Clare Balding ‘copy approval’ and demanded that her name be removed from the article.  Saga Magazine later clarified that its editorial team had made the changes themselves.

Misrepresented in the media

Saga clarified that its editorial team made changes to the article and stated that it did not give interviewees ‘copy approval’.

 

What these examples illustrate is that after the journalist finishes an interview, there is a more complicated process getting a report published or broadcast than many interviewees realise.

In most large news organisations, the journalist’s work is reviewed by a sub-editor, to check for typos and grammatical mistakes.  They also make sure it is as short or long as needed (leading to another common complaint from interviewees; that they gave the journalist lots of information but very little of it appeared in the final version.) If an article is longer than needed, the sub-editor tends to just cut information from the end, without referring back to the original writer. However, they can if they choose completely rewrite it.

The article then goes to a headline writer.  Their job is to come up with something which will grab a reader’s attention and interest them enough to read the rest of the story.  It is designed to be eye-catching and, in one short sentence, cannot be a balanced representation of the whole story.

So if an article (and your contribution to it) doesn’t end up as you had hoped, it may not always be the journalist’s fault.

 

Avoid misrepresentation in the media, take control

From the interviewee’s point of view, there are some simple steps you can take to give yourself the best chance of your story being covered as you would hope.

  1. Be realistic: accept that being interviewed is taking part in an editorial process, it is NOT advertising.  Mainstream news organisations rarely offer copy approval – even to the most famous.  Asking for it just creates ill-feeling.
  2. Take control of your own contribution. Do your homework, and prepare content, messages and proof points which meet your objective while also meeting the needs of the journalist.  You must be interesting and quotable.
  3. During the interview, use control techniques such as ‘bridging’ (and if you don’t know what that is, you should attend a Media Coach training course) to steer the conversation round to your agenda.

While the journalist may not have complete control of the whole process, the preparation will give the interviewee the best possible chance of winning interesting, accurate and favourable coverage: a win-win situation for all.

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.

 

 

Developing messages: Are you guilty of navel-gazing?

Journalists often accuse the PR world of ‘navel-gazing’ when developing messages and trying to sell-in stories. While working in various BBC newsrooms I often took calls from people trying to sell me a story by saying “This is really interesting…” Unfortunately, most of the time it was interesting to them but of little relevance to a wider audience.

Well, this week the boot has been on the other foot. Journalists have found the silencing of  Big Ben interesting but the rest of the country less so. The Big Ben story went on and on for nearly a week. But apart from those inside the Westminster bubble, does anyone really care?

developing messages

Big Ben will remain silent for the next four years – a story that had extensive coverage for more than a week. But who really cares?

Perhaps one reason it got so much coverage is because it’s the so-called ‘silly season’ when journalists sometimes struggle to fill newspapers and bulletins.

Here are some questions to ask when developing angles and messages to sell into journalists.

Developing messages: Ask is the story timely?

In other words is it about an issue of the moment, next week’s news rather than last week’s. Clearly, Big Ben passed this test. Most of the coverage happened before it fell silent not afterwards.

Developing messages: Is your story relevant to people’s lives?

Do your messages pass the ‘So What’ test? In the case of Big Ben, most people have heard of it, so the news it will be silent for most of the next four years might be of some interest. But many people I’ve spoken to outside London remarked that they didn’t really care and found a week of coverage over the top, because it was irrelevant to their daily lives.

When developing key messages and selling-in stories, look for ways to make the story relevant to multiple audiences.

One good example of how to take engineering out of the laboratory and make it relevant was the recent story about replacing concrete blocks in washing machines with water.

Roger Harrabin is a BBC environment analyst (we used to call them reporters).  The first line of his washing machine story is a perfect illustration of the second element you need when selling-in a story to journalists: can you sum up why it matters in one sentence? He wrote:

“A simple device to cut the weight of washing machines could save fuel, cut carbon emissions and reduce back injuries, according to researchers”. Now that clearly passes the ‘So What’ test? Journalists will respond better if you think the way they do and ‘cut to the chase’.

Developing messages: Have you joined the dots?

We understand, this approach is often at odds with the way many people think. An engineer once said in a media training session “You have to understand that, as engineers, we are trained that the facts should speak for themselves”. This, unfortunately, demonstrates exactly why selling-in stories, developing key messages or answering questions in a media interview can go so badly wrong. When speaking to busy journalists don’t fall into the ‘too obvious to mention’ trap: you have to connect the dots and (concisely) spell out the point you want to make and why it matters.

Of course, once you have the journalist’s attention it then really helps if you can back it up with a story, metaphor, anecdotes or proof points to bring your point to life.

A final example of effective communication – making it real – comes from Lord Browne, formerly of BP, who said in a recent talk that “engineering is about creating solutions to humanities most pressing challenges – whether it’s building a bridge, finding new treatments for cancer or tackling climate change”.

You can’t argue with that!

If you want more on this subject Robert Matthews blogged last year about a scientific study that was adapted to fit the Ted Talk formula. The talk was called ‘Can you really tell if a kid is lying’. The blog is here and the Ted Talk is here. 

Photo credit: Big Ben used under Creative Comms licence.

3 subjects to avoid

3 subjects to avoid if you want to stay out of the headlines

3 subjects to avoid: sexist comments, racist comments and any allusion to the Nazis. This is assuming you do not want to attract lurid media headlines and critical coverage.

If you do stray into this territory you must be aware of the potential for newspapers and journalists to go to town with their ‘outrage’. This is despite the fact that many newsrooms are very sexist places to work and journalists make jokes themselves about all sorts of inappropriate things. Newsrooms are certainly not bastions of political correctness.

1.    Any sexist views

3 subjects to avoid

In the news this month has been the fallout from the Google memo, which suggested women were less suited to jobs in tech than men. The author criticised the companies diversity and inclusion initiatives and sought to explain why women may be underrepresented in the Google hierarchy; he claimed it was likely to be due to inherent biological differences between the two sexes. The full memo is here. It’s a bit turgid and certainly not in the category of a casual sexist remark. The coverage has gone on for at least two weeks and the author, who we now know is James Damore, has been fired.

3 subjects to avoid

James Damore lost his job at Google after writing an internal memo criticising the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Damore is the latest in a long line of people who have kicked up a media storm and then subsequently lost their jobs for saying (or in this case writing) something sexist.

In 2015 there was the 72 year old Tim Hunt, Nobel Prize winning biochemist and professor at University College London, who was giving a speech at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea when he said:

Let me tell you about my trouble with girls: three things happen when they are in the lab; you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them they cry”.

This was tweeted by a very irritated journalism student from City University in London and from there it went viral. Shortly after, Tim Hunt was let go from his job. Here is his story of the fall out from the comments which were apparently meant as a joke.

If you detect a note of sympathy from me you would be right. I hope I am not sexist but if someone makes a sexist remark, while it may be wrong, I am not sure they should lose their job. The man I probably have the most sympathy for recently in this area is Kevin Roberts. He was the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi and joined the board of parent company Publicis.  I know him slightly –  I did a documentary on his management style for Bloomberg television many years ago. I was sad to see him lose his job over some ill-considered sexist comments made in an interview with Business Insider.

Robert’s crime was to say that the debate about gender equality in advertising was “all over”. And when asked to explain the lack of senior women in the industry, he said they often turned down promotion because they wanted to continue doing the creative work and chose happiness over advancement. He suggested women were saying “we are not judging ourselves by those standards that you idiotic dinosaur-like men impose”.

You can read the full story here but it is behind the Financial Times paywall and I blogged about it last year.  However, the short version is that, after a few days of coverage and criticisim, Roberts felt it necessary to stand down from his job.

2.    Any racist views

Race is another highly sensitive area and given that blatant racism has been unacceptable for a long time it is somewhat baffling that people still say things in public without realising they are inappropriate.

Brian True-May, producer of the TV show Midsomer Murders, lost his job in 2011 for explaining why there were no non-white characters in the series: he said it was a ‘bastion of Englishness’.

This year Kelvin McKenzie lost his role as a columnist with The Sun – a paper he used to edit – for comparing footballer Ross Barkley to a gorilla. McKenzie said he was unaware that Barkley had a Nigerian grandfather.

3. Don’t mention Hitler, the Nazis or concentration camps

Another sure fire way to get the headline writers juices flowing is any mention of or allusion to Hitler, the Nazis, concentration camps or gas chambers.

This year a hairdressing salon in Australia – of all things – got into trouble for posting a photograph on Facebook of an elaborate hair style … clearly showing a tattoo on the neck of the model with the words ‘Mein Fuhrer’. The women in the shop say they had no idea what the tattoo meant or its connotations.

3 subjects to avoid

A hairdressers in Sydney, Australia,  posted this photo on Facebook without understanding the connotations of the ‘Mein Fuhrer’ tattoo.

Then there is the local councillor in Plymouth who – in a rage with his Tory and UKIP counterparts – gave a Nazi salute. He found himself making headlines in The Sun.

And then there is Donald Trump Junior who reached for a World War II analogy during the Presidential election – he said if the Republicans behaved as Hillary Clinton had ‘they (the media) would be warming up the gas chamber right now’. This caused a modicum of outrage although there was so much outrage going around at the time it got a bit lost.

Boris Johnson is a lot more careful than he used to be with his flowery metaphors but again in January this year he got critical headlines for saying  that the then French President, Francois Hollande, appeared to be contemplating ‘punishment beatings to anybody who wants to escape (the EU) in the manner of some World War II movie’.

So if you want to avoid critical headlines and job-threatening coverage avoid these three topics. Avoid them for serious comment, avoid them as metaphors or analogies and for goodness sake avoid joking about them in public.

 

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

The Media Coach is often asked if we run courses for business writing and the short answer is yes we do. [See more in the last paragraph]. The enquiry normally stems from deep frustration of someone senior who has just read a paper or report from someone more junior and thought ‘what did they teach them at school!’.

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

Senior staff are often moved to ask: ‘what did they teach you at school?’.

I am a stream-of-consciousness writer for whom grammar and spelling do not come easily. One of my colleagues at BBC Look East once said to me: ‘You are very unusual. Most people who can’t spell don’t care. You can’t spell but at least you care!’ I think this was a sort of weak compliment. Anyway, I have put a lot of work into it over the years but I am still deeply insecure about my spelling and grammar. Reuters, where I worked later in my career, had a very good ‘two sets of eyes’ rule and this is one I impose throughout the Media Coach, yet I know mistakes still get through.

I may be an inaccurate writer but I am not someone who struggles to put words on the page. I have always been able to write and write fast. But if you are not like that, what advice can we give? Well, here below, are the Media Coach tips for both sets of writing problems: how to get started and how to check and check again.

Have a plan

Sounds obvious but you cannot write a document – whether a press release or a white paper – without a clear understanding of the business purpose of the document. This involves identifying the audience and the objective.

Pay heed to the structure

Structures are not blindingly obvious, whatever anyone tells you. Most business documents have an established style. If you are being asked to write a type of document that is new to you, you need to find out what is expected. Find other examples and analyse the sections. Ask if there is a template. It is much easier to get started if you have clear chapter headings.

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

Start writing – even if you think it is rubbish

Everyone knows it is easier to correct, polish and hone once you have something to work with. Don’t expect to get it right first time but just get something down on screen. When the time is right for a natural break, walk away and come back to it with fresh eyes. Rewrite, tweak or reuse paragraphs of your original in a different order.

Read it for sense

Once you are nearly done on a short document or have a substantial amount written on your long document, read it through for sense. It is always most effective if you do this aloud. Ask yourself: will your audience be able to follow the thread of the argument? This is crucial. Put your most self-critical hat on and ask: is it clear? Can you use less jargon? Can you substitute less formal language? Perhaps fewer words or more words, shorter sentences, fewer sub-clauses, etc. The writing must flow logically from one paragraph to the next.

Read it to check grammar and spelling

Always best done after a break. Reading for sense and reading for grammar and spelling are to my mind two different things. This time you are looking for missed apostrophes (its instead of it’s), commonly mistaken words (there instead of their), missing commas, etc. Check the spelling of all names even if you think you know: is it Hilary Clinton or Hillary Clinton?

Ask someone else to read it

For me essential, but may not always be practical.

Sort out the layout

Not worth doing this earlier but at this stage you are checking the fonts are right, that the margins are the same and that the style is the same throughout. If you have made changes, you may have mucked up the layout or the sense. Check it again.

Once you have some words on the page, read once to ensure it makes sense and a second time to check the grammar and spelling. If you change one or the other you will need to check again.

I fear there will be people who have worked with me guffawing into their Chablis to see me write this. But I have sweated over how to write better most of my adult life, so I feel I am entitled now to give a few pointers from my experience.

You will be relieved to hear that I don’t run any of the Media Coach writing courses. We leave that to Oliver Wates, a former Reuters reporter, bureau chief and desk editor (the guy who corrected everyone else’s copy). He has been my most patient and tolerant advisor on these things for more than a decade and he can build a fun, interactive course that is designed precisely to meet the needs of your team if you need such a thing. Just drop me an email lindsay.williams@themediacoach.co.uk or give us a call if it’s something you would like to discuss.

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

It’s easier to start writing if you have a clear business objective and some chapter headings. (And coffee!)

Meanwhile, if you are struggling to self-educate on these things, here is our suggested reading list.

Economist Style Guide There are lots of style guides, the Times and the Guardian, for example, both do one. All are useful but we particularly like the Economist’s version.

Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss is a classic; it’s really a grammar primer but is readable and funny rather than a dry textbook.

The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto is maybe a bit old fashioned but I have had it recommended to me a number of times and so include it here. This is all about helping you bring clarity to your writing.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage I have never lived in a house that didn’t have Fowler’s on the bookshelf. Both my parents were journalists and before the internet this is where you checked easily confused words, etc. However, there is nothing in here that you can’t find more easily online in my view and I rarely look at it. But if you don’t know what you don’t know, it might be worth buying cheap and dipping into.

Photo notes: Feature photo from istock, used under creative comms licence. Other photos from pxhere.com