Posts

Piers Morgan

Piers Morgan should know better: walking off set is never good

Piers Morgan is irascible, dogmatic and for me highly entertaining. He of all people knows that media interviews are a sometimes uncomfortable blend of entertainment and information, often generating more heat than light.  And for a hapless interviewee, the pressure occasionally gets too much. But tempting though it might be, storming out of a TV or radio studio in the middle of a discussion is never the best course of action. Piers should know that, too.

Whilst leaving gets you out of your immediate predicament, what you were trying to say will be forgotten, whilst the memory of your disappearance will last for years – and, as in the case of Piers, will have its own consequences.

“O.K. I’m done with this. Sorry, no, sorry. You can trash me, mate, but not on my own show. See you later. Sorry – I can’t do this.”

With these words to fellow presenter Alex Beresford, Piers walked off the set of Good Morning Britain: he clearly didn’t like being criticised for his provocative comments about Meghan Markle, live on air.

The footage – which has now gone viral on the internet – may only have happened this week, but it followed in the footsteps of a long line of TV appearances interrupted by an unexpected departure.

One of the most famous, of course, was then Defence Secretary John Nott being quizzed by veteran interviewer Sir Robin Day on the BBC’s Newsnight in 1982:

RD: “But why should the public, on this issue, as regards the future of the Royal Navy, believe you – a transient, here today, and if I may say so gone tomorrow politician – rather than a senior officer of many years…”

JN (getting up, removing microphone): “I’m sorry, I’m fed up with this interview. Ridiculous…”

Nott’s autobiography, published twenty years later (after he became Sir John Nott), ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’ (2002) was named after the incident.

But it’s not just in the world of politics that a sudden flounce off set brings things to an early conclusion. Take singing trio The Bees Gees on the chat show Clive Anderson All Talk in 1997, when the host adopted his trademark cynical questioning of his guests. First, it was Barry (“In fact, I might just leave”), then Robin, and then Maurice (“Oh well, I guess I better join them”), who became the last of the Gibb brothers to disappear backstage.

TV commentators can also fall foul of the temptation to remove their lapel microphone and vanish from the screen. After the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016, it happened to Guardian columnist Owen Jones, who objected to the stance of Sky News on Sunday presenter Mark Longhurst and fellow guest Julia Hartley-Brewer during the newspaper review (“I’ve had enough of this… I’m very upset… sorry”).

The common theme amongst all these interactions is that any of the main points being made (we call them ‘key messages’) are lost amongst the drama of the departure. In Owen Jones’ case, he wanted the shooting to be “called-out for what it is – an intentional attack on LGBT people”. But for the viewing audience around the water cooler in the office the next day, the gossip was likely to be about his leaving the set, not the message he was trying to convey.

No one remembers what the Bee Gees were saying, nor John Nott’s point on Newsnight. Similarly, Piers Morgan’s lengthy critique of Meghan Markle has now been overshadowed by the impression of a petulant host unwilling to take what he so regularly gives out.

So, whether you’re a TV presenter, commentator, or interviewee; whether you’re from the world of politics, entertainment or sport; however much heat is being generated by the discussion, it’s always best to stay in the proverbial kitchen.

The two faces of negotiation

The Two Faces of a Negotiation

Brexit talks remind us that there are always two faces to negotiation. What you say in public and what you say in private.

In western democracies, there is an assumed right to know what is going on in negotiations involving governments, unless there are very good reasons why not. Journalists shout questions, ask repeatedly and people scream on Twitter about conspiracies and hidden agendas.

The two faces of negotiation

You Cannot Negotiate in Public

Any intelligent person knows that you cannot negotiate in public. Negotiation requires compromise and today’s expected outcome will be tomorrow’s cat litter. Commercial organisations almost always reserve the right not to discuss deals until they are signed. Stock market rules support them: if a deal will affect the share price it is essential that all investors and possible investors know at the same time, to prevent unfair or insider trading.

But politicians have an impossible situation to manage. They must negotiate in private but update, at every stage, in public. Very few negotiations have had as much public scrutiny as the Brexit deal.

There is an added wrinkle to this negotiation in particular – public opinion almost certainly influences the negotiation. That means it is in the interests of both sides to influence public opinion: and opinion is, of course, being deliberately influenced by the, now daily, updates on the negotiations.

There is a procession of headline-grabbing quotable phrases from both sides. This clip includes several carefully crafted phrases from Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

 


To pull out just one: ‘After 45 years of membership (the EU) are not willing…to offer this country the same terms as Canada.’

Some more of the phrases used by the UK government spokespeople in the last few days include:

‘Time is running out’. Boris Johnson specifically to business leaders urging them to prepare for Brexit.

The EU has not shown ‘the respect and flexibility’ expected in international negotiations. Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick.

‘Door is still ajar’. Michael Gove and Robert Jenrick.

From the EU:

The British ‘are much more depending on us than we are on them’. President Emmanuel Macron.

‘We want a deal, but not at any price.’ ‘It must be fair’. This was said by a number of European leaders after talks last week. The BBC did a brilliant edit to illustrate consistent messaging from the EU side. Sorry, we can’t insert it but it was posted at 20:47 pm 15th Oct (click the link and scroll down until you find the video entitled A few words on Brexit). It is worth a watch.

And we also have off-the-record briefings. Also designed to influence public and political opinions. Unofficial comments that I have seen include:

  • The FT quoting a senior UK official with knowledge of the talks saying the mood on the British side was ‘very gloomy’.
  • The Express claimed that chief negotiator Michel Barnier and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were ‘fed-up’ with France’s Emmanual Macron for digging his heels in on fishing rights.
  • And Politico reported a senior German official who knows Merkel well, summed up thinking on Brexit as ‘Better if in, but if not then close’.

Is it All for Show?

I am sure there are plenty more on and off the record quotes. All part of the theatre of international trade negotiation.

But here are some quotes about the negotiation process that I personally give weight to.

“There is now too little separating the two sides for either to afford a no-deal outcome. Of course, Downing Street will inflate their language to put pressure on the EU. But my judgment is that Johnson is too weak politically to have the commotion of no-deal coming on top of the Covid mayhem.” Peter Mandelson, former EU Trade Commissioner. Quoted in the FT behind a paywall.

And here is a snippet from Politico’s Sunday Crunch:

Perhaps worth remembering … former Brexit Secretary David Davis’ words at the end of 2018, when we were nearing the deadline for a draft Brexit divorce deal: “We’re going to have a very scary few months — from now until about November it’s going to be really scary,” he said. “Everybody’s going to be calling each other’s bluff, there’s all sorts of brinkmanship going to go on — that’s normal, that’s the European Union’s daily bread and that’s what we’ve got to be ready for.”

If you or your team would like help with media training please do give us a call on: +44 (0)20 7099 2212

Images: YouTube

 

David Lammy

David Lammy MP – One to Watch

David Lammy MP is a new name on my list of good media operators. He seems to strike the right balance of being no-nonsense, plain-speaking and colloquial without losing party discipline. He is also very gutsy about not answering the questions he doesn’t want to answer.

David Lammy appeared on the Andrew Marr Show (again)

Here he is on this weekend’s Andrew Marr Show, where he is something of a regular.

Why Lammy comes across well

Here is why I think Lammy is a good media performer.

  • He is a high energy communicator. We look for warmth, authority and animation and he has all these qualities.
  • He always addresses the question – not the same as always answering it, but he doesn’t do what so many do, which is just make statements. He says something to the question.
  • He looks to me as if his answers are prepared. Responses are always high value and appear thought-through with the evidence to hand. Of course, he is a trained barrister, so perhaps what you would expect but it is noticeable.
  • He has the numbers at his fingertips. Again, like any good barrister, he lines up the evidence.
  • He uses personal anecdotes. He talks about his university, often mentions football and always, always mentions his constituency.
  • He manages to push back against aggressive or repeat questioning, without getting too aggressive himself.

Lammy spends a lot of time in broadcast studios

Another thing that is clear to me is that Lammy makes himself available to the media – a lot. He even has his own show on LBC. That means he is very familiar with the interview process, studios, etc.

David Lammy

Here is a link to that call.

My advice for Lammy

Just to be clear, Lammy hasn’t asked for my advice and probably doesn’t need it but …David Lammy

  • I do worry that he defaults to always having a strong point of view and often sounding irritated. As if the answer to every problem was blindingly obvious, rather than complicated and nuanced. This may undermine his authority somewhat, especially over the long-run. It’s difficult to trust people who are always upset about something. It’s difficult to have respect for those who oversimplify or are too obviously tribal.
  • There is such a thing as too much media exposure. You can become seen as a ‘rent a quote’ by both journalists and audiences. Having established himself so well, and built so much experience in studios, maybe it’s time to target more thoughtful programmes and media interactions.

The Bigger Picture

Public perceptions of Lammy will not just be shaped by mainstream media. He is very active on Twitter, which means it is easy to know what he thinks about almost everything. On Twitter, he mixes national politics with the personal, in a way that gives colour and shows humanity but avoids being too tediously prosaic. He has also written a book, Tribes: How our Need to Belong Can Make or Break Society, published in March 2020. In this, he explains his complicated heritage and stellar career path as well as providing a thought-provoking contribution to two of the great problems of the age: loneliness and extremism, and how these are tied together by social media.

In fact, I can’t help wondering if Lammy’s book wasn’t inspired by Obama’s Dreams of my Father as it mixes the personal and the big picture in a similar way. Perhaps suggesting that Lammy has eyes on the top job eventually!

 

 

dominic cummings' lockdown

Dominic Cummings’ Lockdown Drive : Falling Foul of Fairness

Dominic Cummings’ lockdown drive may turn out to be a career-defining episode for the aggressive, plain-speaking and, until now, hugely influential political advisor.

Dominic Cummings Becomes the Story

Political advisors are supposed to know what works with the public: what has cut through, what the public will get behind and in the end how they will vote. It is this nose for the herd mentality and how it will play out amongst the various institutions and players with power – that ‘political advisers’ are paid for. Dominic Cummings appears to have either misjudged this one – or realised he was gambling with his career and drove north to Durham anyway.

Watching his performance in the garden at Number 10, many people, especially many parents of young children, will understand the dilemma and his actions. Most will see it as in a different league to the Scottish Medical Officer, Catherine Calderwood, who twice broke lockdown to visit her second home. In his statement, Cummings provided evidence that what he did was not illegal. Lockdown rules allowed that – especially for those with young children – it may not always be possible for everyone to comply with the strict ‘stay at home’ message.

 

Cummings Falls Foul of the Fairness Principle

The problem is that Cummings’ actions fall foul of the fairness principle. Others did stay at home in difficult circumstances: did not visit their children in hospital, did not see their father before he died and so on. And the fact that Cummings went home to Durham when things got tough, is seen as simply not fair.

A sense of fairness, or fair play, is a very powerful driver of human action. I must admit I hadn’t fully understood this until the last few weeks. But an innate, ingrained and universal sense of fairness has been a theme in two of my lockdown reads. Both stress all human beings are born with this sense of fairness and both stress that you ignore it at your peril.

In the Chris Voss book on negotiation, ‘Never Split the Difference’, the author points out that even in highly unlikely situations – like negotiation with kidnappers (he was an International FBI Negotiator) –  ‘a sense of fairness’ is something that can be used by either side. One of Voss’ ‘tricks’ was apparently to tell the baddies that he wanted to be ‘fair’ with them. He also built a reputation or brand for being a ‘fair’ negotiator, sticking to his word, etc. But the crucial phrase here is on page 122.

dominic cummings' lockdown

Lockdown reading. Both books point out that fairness is an innate and powerful human emotion

‘The most powerful word in negotiation is ‘fair’. As human beings, we’re mightily swayed by how much we feel we have been respected. People comply with agreements if they feel they’ve been treated fairly and lash out if they don’t.’

He later mentions research that even monkeys will throw a tantrum if they don’t feel they are treated fairly. The sense of fairness is in our genes.

A Sense of Fairness is in our Genes

The fairness point also makes a significant appearance in another book ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The authors similarly point out that our sense of fairness is innate and almost certainly evolved as a way to live in harmony with each other and manage conflict. But the crucial point for this argument is that in times of war, governments take action to make society seem fairer. As Wilkinson and Pickett write:

Britain became substantially more equal during both the First and Second World Wars as part of an effort to gain support for the war effort’.

To state the obvious, if the cooperation of the majority of people is thought to be essential there is a need to convince them that the burden and sacrifice are being equally shared. And that is where Cumming’s has tripped up.

And it seems to be this fairness point that really hit a nerve with Church of England bishops. They took to Twitter to lambast the Prime Minister for supporting Cummings’ decision to drive to his parents’ farm during the lockdown. Here is what they had to say. Who even knew there were so many bishops on Twitter … but the fact they were all prompted to get tough by this is story, is pretty telling.

Cummings’ own performance yesterday was not arrogant or belligerent. He did explain his thought processes, but he also refused to apologise. It is the nature of the beast. But so often half an apology is worse than no apology at all.

For anyone who wants to see how to handle aggressive questioning, the Cummings performance is pretty strong. [I feel the FT’s coverage is uncharacteristically misleading] He is calm and respectful although clearly rattled. He is also apparently employing the ‘till they drop’ press conference technique which aims to give journalists as much time and access as they like, in the hope of arriving at the point where all questions have been answered and no one cares anymore. There is a fictional version of this in a West Wing episode that is a great illustration of the principle. I am clearly not the only person who remembers this from more than a decade ago.

dominic cummings' til they drop

At the time of writing it is not clear whether Cummings has done enough to save his job. However, one thing is clear to me. He would have had a better chance if a) he had done the press conference a few days earlier and b) if he had apologised properly.

The Media Coach team prepares people for difficult media interviews, and helps companies with Crisis Communication Plans. If you think we can help you or your team please call me on 020 7099 2212.

Feature hostage to fortune

Hostage to fortune: 20 thousand deaths would be ‘a good outcome’

The phrase ‘hostage to fortune’ is an English idiom which we use a lot in media training. Experts of all sorts are prone – when asked their opinion – to give it, as best they can. It is utterly reasonable but in the public domain often ill-advised.

As most people will know the phrase ‘hostage to fortune’ means something that will cause difficulties in the future. This is a particular risk with journalists who are always looking for a story and in particular evidence of failure or disappointing outcomes. Being too precise in a prediction can play right into their hands. And of course, any big bold numbers will always be a potential headline.

hostage to fortune

The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, faced questions from the Health and Social Care Committee on Tuesday 17 March 2020

Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser, was asked on 17th March – by Jeremy Hunt MP – to outline how many deaths could be expected from coronavirus. He explained that 20,000 deaths would be ‘a good outcome’. (He was careful to say this was horrible and ‘an awful thing to have to predict’. He did not forget to show empathy.) This was a select committee rather than an interview, but I thought at the time that he might live to regret being quite so precise.

A few days ago the number of hospital deaths from coronavirus passed the 20,000 mark and, as all would expect, this was a focus of much of the questioning and the coverage. Does the fact that we passed 20,000 mean the strategy should have been different? etc.

Of course, those questions would have come and will come in the future anyway. But it is a good illustration of the principle: Give a prediction and then fail to meet it is a sure way to get a negative headline.

hostage to fortune

Health Secretary Matt Hancock

A similar but different example is Matt Hancock’s promise on the 2nd April to be able to provide 100,000 coronavirus tests a day, by the end of this week. However, while this may, in the end, prove an embarrassment or at least another ‘failure’ headline, this number was not given by accident. Hancock is a seasoned politician and he did not make this promise casually. Many at the time believed the promise was rash but he appears to have deliberately set what is called in the jargon a ‘stretch goal’. Clearly, he felt it would concentrate minds and demonstrate commitment. Some credit the target with reversing a sense of government ‘drift’.

There should be no absolute ban on spokespeople sharing targets, internal goals, or just a personal assessment. But those speaking in public need to understand that what might have been a ‘finger in the wind’ type guess by an expert – can seem so much more definite and considered when it turns up in a headline.

A new PR term: Astroturfing
I learnt a new word this week: astroturfing. In the US, there is a suspicion that protests against the coronavirus lockdown may not be spontaneous grassroots-led protests but have in some way been orchestrated by right-wing lobby groups. Apparently creating something that looks like a grassroots movement when it is not is called – astroturfing! Who knew?

 

Image of Sir Patrick Vallance – YouTube
Image of Matt Hancock – Wikimedia

tough media interviews

Tough Media Interviews – How To Prepare

Tough media interviews require proper preparation. There are so many car crash interviews that you wonder why anyone ever goes on TV.

From a media training point of view a different question springs to mind. Why do very intelligent successful people make the mistake of not doing their homework, and allow themselves to ‘lose it’ on air? At the end of this blog post, I share my tips for exactly how to do that homework.

Keep Emotions Under Control

But first, let’s look at how not to do it. In the US this week there was a classic overreaction from a soccer coach who was asked a pretty ordinary question that, I read, was predictable and had been asked before. It would have been better to give a prepared diplomatic answer rather than storming off.

Tough Media Questions – Have a Prepared Answer

The Coach, Bob Bradley probably didn’t do himself much harm with his public display of petulance. But the former Persimmon CEO who was caught out in October last year, almost certainly lost his job, in part because of his refusal to answer a gently put question about his £75 m bonus. It was a subject that had been all over the media just a few months before and surely it would have been possible to have a neat answer such as ‘my salary is set by the remuneration committee, not by me’.

Tough Media Interviews – Do Your Homework

And here is a really old one that I had not seen until last week. It’s funny because this very senior chap thinks he can stop BBC Watchdog using the pre-recorded interview by waving his hands around. This may have been an issue of poor risk assessment. It was a pre-recorded interview and the Dental Association rarely attracts controversy. Plus the issue of mercury in fillings is an old chestnut. But this was Watchdog, a show whose reputation is all about tough interviews.

Refusing to answer a question, walking away, storming out, getting cross and ‘losing it’ once the camera is rolling is a seriously bad idea and is bound to make a bad interview more damaging than any uncomfortable struggling through.

The one everyone of a certain generation remembers is 1982 when then Defence Secretary John Nott stormed out of an interview. This is mentioned in a useful New Statesmen compilation of the worst political interviews ever.

It is much harder for politicians to anticipate all the tough questions and have all the numbers front of mind. I have quite a lot of sympathy for Dianne Abbot who spectacularly failed to do her sums when interviewed by Nick Ferrari on LBC two years ago. For business people, it tends to be a much more limited universe of possible nasties.

How to Prepare for Tough Questions – My Top Tips

  • With more than 2 people in the room brainstorm what the tough questions might be for any particular interview. It’s important to include generalists who have not been close to the issue.
  • Before the brainstorm, someone needs to look at the stuff the journalist has written about before. Check the cuttings.
  • Also, do not limit the discussion to directly relevant questions. What is ‘out there’ on the wider news agenda? Look at politics, regulators, scandals or trending stories such as the gender pay gap or mental health at work.
  • Once you have a list of tough or difficult questions, work out short but credible answers. These may be factual and dull or they may be ‘close down’ answers such as ‘that is simply not a question for me’. Either way, these lines can be prepared. These reactive lines need to be written down and stored somewhere secure. Do not take them into the interview with you unless they are locked in a briefcase or password protected.
  • Finally, rehearse the reactive lines aloud. Reading them in the taxi on the way to the studio is simply not real preparation.
  • Practise delivering the lines not just correctly but with the appropriate level of humility, warmth, authority, etc. Get the tone right. (I blogged about getting the tone right here.)

Of course, the sure-fire way to prepare for a tough interview is to hire Media Trainers with real front line journalism experience, who can, not just role-play the interviews with you (or your spokesperson), but help craft the lines and coach on getting the tone right. When you have been helping people get it right for more than a decade it becomes pretty obvious what works and what doesn’t.

interview soundbites

Interview soundbites: prepare in advance or journalists will feed you theirs!

Interview soundbites are essential to journalists. They need those quotes and will often turn them into headlines. And that is why, at The Media Coach, we always spend time during a media training session helping clients prepare their own interview soundbites. This ensures they get their points across succinctly and coherently, in a media-friendly way, that makes an interview a win-win situation for the interviewee and the journalist.

Unfortunately for journalists, if an interviewee doesn’t do this vital preparation it can mean the process is more like a trip to the dentist to have a tooth pulled. There is an out and out battle to try and extract a few quotable words. Faced with dull and unquotable answers, journalists are highly likely to resort to trying to put words in an interviewee’s mouth to get something useable. [And that is why we think media training is so important as I wrote in a previous blog linked here].

Don’t let journalists write their own interview soundbites

A humorous take on this journalistic trick was highlighted in a montage on the US current affairs programme Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Time and again you see presenters or anchors suggesting a quote and the interviewee repeating it.

 

So, as we see in the video, a journalist may try to get something quotable by asking a question phrased with emotive or subjective language. As a journalist myself, it was not an ‘interview trap’ I was specifically taught; rather I just learnt quickly that if I asked a bland question I tended to get a bland answer.

Nervous interviewees in particular, or those doing an interview in a language which isn’t their mother tongue, often unwittingly repeat language from the question – helpfully fed to them by the journalist – to give themselves thinking time at the start of their answer. While it can be benign with merely an attempt to make an interviewee more succinct and ‘sexy’, it can also lead to unfortunate headlines and leave interviewees thinking they have been misquoted.

That’s why we strongly encourage people to develop their own quotes rather than relying on the journalist’s version of the soundbite. We also warn people to be careful about agreeing to or simply saying “Yes” in response to a journalist’s paraphrasing of an answer. It’s much safer to develop your own effective soundbites before the interview.

Beware the headline-grabbing last question

Another example of the soundbite-seeking technique is to round off an interview with a headline-grabbing closing question. This can be particularly dangerous if the interviewee is aware that the interview is coming to an end, so relaxes and drops their guard.

How to avoid falling into this trap was demonstrated by Andrea Leadsom during a recent interview with Robert Peston (view the full 12-minute interview below but the last minute is the relevant part).

 

Seeking Ms Leadsom’s views on John Bercow’s role as Speaker of the House, Robert Peston uses phrases such as “impugned his impartiality” in his questions. When her answers are fairly careful chosen (and unquotable), he also tries the paraphrase technique by asking her if what she is really saying is Mr Bercow should “wind his neck in”. Spotting the trap, she skilfully (and with some humour) sidesteps it by evoking the famous quote from the BBC’s original version of House of Cards saying “You might say that I couldn’t possibly comment”.

How to stay safe and in control of the interview soundbites

For the less experienced at handling media interviews, the solution is threefold:

  1. Prepare thoroughly.
  2. Ensure your messages and soundbites are carefully crafted into a format the journalist can use.
  3. Remain vigilant throughout the interview to avoid repeating any headline-grabbing phrase fed to you by the journalist.

Here are some of the other blog posts I have written on this subject:

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

Developing messages: Are you guilty of navel-gazing?

If that feels all rather difficult you may want to pick up the phone and talk to us about booking a short media training session. The Media Coach 020 7099 2212 or drop us a line at enquiries@themediacoach.co.uk.

trade press interviews

10 Top Tips for Trade Press Interviews

Trade press interviews are important for many businesses, they are a surefire way to reach a targeted market. While many publications have moved online, each has its own clearly defined audience and particular characteristics. Some of the journalists are seasoned experts in their sectors but many are less than a few months out of university with eyes on a more prestigious job. Either way, the pressure is on those journalists to capture and entertain their audience. They can be mischievous and gossipy just like colleagues in more mainstream jobs.

trade press interviews

My Top Tips for Trade Press Interviews

1. Before you start, be clear who you are talking to and who the audience is. Your trade press interview may be for a publication targeting your own industry or perhaps for your customers’ trade press. As a media trainer there is little benefit for me appearing in a media training magazine, were one to exist, but every benefit to appearing in a publication aimed, for example, at the pharmaceutical industry who are big spenders on media training. Either is fine but it is important to know before you start.

2. Be clear what the ‘peg’ for the interview is. It may be a press release or something that has happened in the industry, or perhaps a new product or a reaction to something someone else has said. Once you know who the end readers are and the starting point for the interview, you can plan what you want to say.

Trade Press Interviews: Don’t Speak in Jargon

3. Don’t speak in jargon. You may think your trade press journalists are experts but they are unlikely to be as expert as you and their readers may be even less so. Speak in layman’s language.

4. Be quotable. Plan a couple of metaphoric or graphic phrases that will give the journalist an easy quote. Quotes will often make the headline but even if they don’t if you are quotable in an interview you will get more than one name-check.

Trade Press Interviews: Plan Proof Points

5. Plan proof points. Good interviewees always have facts and numbers to provide evidence for any argument. They do not have to be confidential or propriety numbers – they can be numbers already in the public domain, for example, the sectors gender pay gap numbers or the latest Gartner research on technology trends. Of course, if you do have original research or client insight that you can use, you should make the most of it. Journalists will be particularly interested if the data has never been published elsewhere. It may be appropriate to provide a journalist with a fact sheet or list of key numbers. If you have a snazzy graphic so much the better.

6. Use examples and stories or anecdotes. I have written extensively about this before and will again, but good stories will not only win you coverage but be remembered by your audience. However, they need to be planned to ensure they are clear, not too long and don’t breach any confidentiality.

7. Consider whether you have any high-resolution pictures or video to offer the journalist but be mindful of copyright issues.

8. Make it your intention to deliver value to the journalist. You are not there to say how brilliant everyone or everything is (that is advertising). But if you give journalists what they need they will come back another time, winning you more publicity.

trade press interviews

Trade Press Interviews: Stick to Your Brief

9. Don’t comment on things you are not an expert in – politely suggest that there are more qualified people to answer the question. And also don’t get persuaded into gossiping about budgets, personnel changes or lost contracts. It is safest to assume everything is on the record and can be used. It is easy to say ‘you wouldn’t expect me to comment on that’. Always beware the ‘while I have got you can I just ask …’ type question at the end of the interview.

10. Whilst in the mainstream media it is often inappropriate to ask to see the copy before it is published, in the trade press, this happens often. Each publication or website will have its own rules but there is no harm in offering to read copy to check the details are correct. Be clear that you won’t have full editorial control but in practice, you can often get anything seriously concerning at least modified if not dropped.

Many companies have a policy of media training anyone allowed to talk to the trade press. One four hour session is usually enough to innoculate against naivete or bravado causing embarrassing headlines.

Photos: used under Creative Commons licence. Journalist caricature from Pixaby.

Preparing for a media interview

Preparing for a Media Interview: 5 Key Steps

Preparing for a media interview is common sense but knowing exactly what and how to prepare is less clear to most people. Almost all of us are time poor; knowing exactly what to do in the one or two-hour window allocated for interview preparation is not so obvious.

Pre-flight Checklist

So here is our five-step pre-flight checklist. If you are lucky enough to have good comms professionals around you, this will be a joint venture – but it is not something that can be delegated.

Preparing for a media interview

Like a pilot preparing for take-off, an interviewee should run through some disciplined pre-flight checks.

Step 1: Your Objectives

The first step is to be clear about your own or the business objectives of any media engagement. Why are you doing interviews? It may be something as general as ‘profile raising’ or something much more specific such as driving sales of a new product or trying to get a change in some regulation. Whatever it is, you should know before you start.

Step 2:  Ask Who is the Journalist? What is the Story?

Next, you need to know who you will be talking to. Who is the journalist, who is their audience and therefore what story will they be interested in? The journalist is never there to do your advertising for you. They will have a different perspective on the subject and you as the interviewee need to know what that is.  If you are dealing with a number of different journalists, for example at a media event or for a big launch, you must be aware of the different agendas of the different journalists: the Pensions Weekly freelancer will likely have a different angle than The Guardian columnist.

Step 3: Prepare your Argument

Once you have completed step one and two you are in a position to pull together your messages. This is an essential step when preparing for a media interview. We write a lot about ‘messaging’ as we call it, so no need to go into it here. However, it helps to understand that you want a smorgasbord of an argument or a Chinese buffet. Each little bit of the argument is carefully prepared and ready for serving, but what exactly gets served in what order will depend on how the interview goes. Despite that, it is crucial that your prepared argument is crystal clear.

If you want to make any bold statements, look for ‘proof points’; include anecdotes and examples and above all keep the language simple. Remember, the journalists’ two favourite questions, often not articulated quite as bluntly but there none-the-less, are: ‘so what?’ and ‘can you prove it?’

Preparing for a media interview

Once you have done the preparation for an interview, you can be confident, in control and above all compelling.

Step 4: Plan for Tough Questions

Once you know what you want to say, you need to then think about the difficult questions and plan the responses. There may be challenging questions related to your messages but there may also be uncomfortable questions about wider issues – journalists can ask anything and are always looking for a headline or a good quote. Anticipating these is all part of preparing for a media interview. Generally, on these anticipated negative questions, you want to make a convincing but dull response in as short a time as possible.  Remember, you don’t want the journalist to focus on the negatives. Depending on the circumstances, another option may be to simply tell a journalist that it is not appropriate for you to answer such questions, perhaps the issue is confidential or simply outside the scope of your role. If so, say so.

Step 5: Rehearse

Finally, we think a few minutes rehearsing aloud is worth several hours talking about your interview with advisors. Role-play is uncomfortable but effective. Don’t be afraid to change your messages if they don’t work. Anyone can ask the questions, it is the act of getting your tongue around the messages and articulating the reactive lines that is valuable. So, give the list of tough questions to your teenage son, if you have one, and ask him to role-play being a journalist. I think of it as creating the neural pathways in advance so that you don’t have to do all that thinking in the interview.

After Thoughts

My last thoughts refer to after the interview rather than before. If you are senior in a big business many things in your world are tightly controlled and outcomes are predictable. If you tell someone to do something, they do it. Media engagement is not one of those things. The outcomes are not entirely predictable.

We often come across execs who have been upset or infuriated by journalists in the past. We also come across plenty who, while not being devastated were mildly annoyed or disappointed by some write up or broadcast. Preparation will limit the risks and potential for disappointment – but in the end, you are not buying advertising and you cannot tell the journalist what to write. If it goes wrong put it down to experience.

Above all do not blame the press officer! They have no more control than you do, but just like a professional investor, they do understand the risks and rewards better. They are advisors, not magicians and only a fool alienates their expert advisors.

Every day The Media Coach team help people preparing for a media interview. We also help organisations embed a media-aware culture, so media engagement becomes part of business as usual rather than something squeezed in after the day job. If you think we can help your organisation please give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Photos used under creative coms licence
Pre-flight Checklist  – Credit US Airforce
Thumbs up – Credit Centre for Aviation Photography

 

 

media training

Why critics of media training miss the point

Media training has long had its critics among journalists. As far back as 2001, Anne Robinson’s appearance on the TV show Room 101 became infamous for sparking hundreds of complaints when she nominated ‘the Welsh’ for fictional oblivion. What has largely been forgotten is that she also included media training on her list.

Media training often misunderstood

That acrimony has continued over the years with several of my former journalistic colleagues – on hearing I had ‘gone over to the dark side’ to become a media trainer – grumbling that ‘all it does is teach people how to avoid answering the questions’.

Alastair Stewart is just wrong

media training

Veteran newscaster Alastair Stewart says people should just answer questions. We disagree.

TV presenter Alastair Stewart illustrated this misconception again recently when offering advice on how to prepare, as a subject matter expert, for an interview. (The whole piece is at Jul28 on his Facebook page but as he is a prolific social media user it is hard to find! ) His top tip was “listen to the questions and answer them” rather than go in “with a predetermined set of must-make points”. And yet two of his other tips, “you know more than your audience” and “you won’t have long” run counter to his first point and highlight exactly why most people do need GOOD media training.

media training

Experts know too much

In nearly 30 years of journalism and media training I can’t remember coming across an interviewee who didn’t know their subject matter. In fact, the problem is usually quite the reverse; they know it so well that they can’t see the wood for the trees! During the initial interview in a media training session people often give rambling answers while they desperately try to make their point. Alternatively, some are virtually monosyllabic, assuming that lots of interesting information is ‘too obvious to mention’. Indeed many experts, particularly from the worlds of academia, science and technology, believe that ‘the facts speak for themselves’ and are surprised when, for most people, they actually don’t. Good media training is about helping people distil everything they know down into short, coherent points that they can deliver in a matter of seconds, in a way that a general audience can understand.

It’s also about sense-checking the way people talk and the language they use. I have lost count of the times when having asked what should be the simple question ‘What does your company do?’ I received an answer along the lines of:

‘We create compelling customer journeys by engaging with our clients and offering end-to-end solutions. We optimise operations and help our clients transform their value proposition.’

Virtually every sector and every business is full of jargon and acronyms that mean absolutely nothing to outsiders and what critics of media training fail to realise is that not everyone is a natural communicator who can switch easily from ‘the day job’ to being a media star.

Media interviews are often turned down

In fact, the world of the journalist is completely alien to most people and, as a result, many turn down an interview through fear. I often hear ‘What if I say the ‘wrong’ thing?’ and ‘What if they ask me something I don’t know? I don’t want to look stupid.’ Alastair Stewart’s view that interviewees should not have some predetermined talking points and, instead, simply answer the questions, ignores the reality of many expert’s experience – that their interviews were frustrating because they felt the journalist didn’t ask the right questions so the interview never really got going. Having some carefully thought out points that are well crafted, with proof points backed up by good examples, ensures an interview can be a win-win situation for both the journalist and the expert. For most interviewees this doesn’t happen magically on the spot, it is the product of good media training.

Here is a blog I wrote earlier on media on interview tips.

If you would like to book media training please call us on +44 (020) 7099 2012.

 

Alastair Stewart image from YouTube