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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.

Beast from the East

Beast from the East – Wrestling with the Comms

The Beast from the East gave Britain a whole host of challenges and while armies of people were dealing with the practical problems others were wrestling with the communications challenge. The train companies spokespeople didn’t quite reach the nadir of the ‘wrong type of snow’ excuses we saw a few years ago. However, many travellers across the UK have expressed frustration with the lack of information and credible explanations on why things have ground to a halt so dramatically.

Beast from the East

The Beast from the East made driving trains difficult and sometimes impossible. It also posed communication challenges.

I preface everything below with the acknowledgement that hindsight is a wonderful thing and gives you 20/20 vision. Nor am I making light of weather which has resulted in several fatalities:

But here are a few observations:

Beast from the East reporting initially guilty of hyperbole

A key part of crisis preparation follows the maxim that ‘forewarned is forearmed’ and so it was reasonable for the media to start warning people that severe weather was on the way several days before it hit. However, another key part of crisis preparation is getting the tone right. So, I began to get slightly irritated at the very start of the week when I heard weather presenters and reporters talking in terms of Armageddon, with temperatures as “shockingly cold as -5C” and “snowfall likely to reach as much as 5 – 10cms”. This is what us northerners call ‘winter’. Neither rare or shocking.

Predicting the weather and its timing is not an exact science. But with the reporting reaching fever pitch right from the start, and the weather initially only hitting the south-east hard, I noticed in Cumbria considerable ‘weather warning fatigue’. That was just before the worst was about to come and all the red weather warnings were being issued for other parts of the country. The hyperbole early in the week might explain why later people took the decision to travel, despite being told not to. Sometimes with very serious results. A reminder that timing and perspective are vital for effective communication in a crisis.

Beast from the East

Train operators: no credible key messages

During severe weather in 1991, a hapless British Rail spokesman infamously tried to explain in an interview that mass train cancellations were caused by the type of snow. The media instantly pounced on his comments and he was held up to ridicule.  ‘The wrong type of snow’ even has its own Wikipedia page, helpfully explaining that “in the United Kingdom, the phrase became a byword for euphemistic and pointless excuses”.

So, I can understand why those caught up in a crisis are often reluctant to stick their head above the parapet and face the media. But, on the other hand, most types of crises can be foreseen, even if the exact timing of them cannot. So, while we don’t get bad winters as often as we used to, they are still fairly regular events, and I have found it surprising that, in the coverage I have heard this week, train operators in particular didn’t have more credible and understandable messages prepared to explain the delays and cancellations travellers were facing.

You can tell from the tone of this interview with Adam Fairclough of TransPennine Express on Radio 5Live’s Wake Up to Money on Friday 2nd March – that the BBC journalist is also sceptical of the messages. The interview starts at 37 minutes 35 seconds and is only available for another 24 days.

Clear messages are only part of what is needed to face journalists in a crisis. They will only be credible if you have sufficient examples to make them real and understandable. It’s always an indication that your messages are not fully developed if a journalist starts asking for examples to explain what you mean, as happens towards the end of the interview. Another clue: the journalist starts arguing with the examples given, as happens here with the journalist saying “if traffic lights continue to work on roads why can’t signals on railways?”

Social media: a picture is worth a thousand words

While word pictures are vital to back up your arguments, use of social media in a crisis can really help you get your point across. One good example is the pictures and video Direct Rail Services posted on their Twitter feed which show far more effectively than words ever could what they were having to deal with during “The Beast From the East”.

Beast from the East

 

Images from Twitter

 

 

 

 

 

 

crisis

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.

crisis

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.

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

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

 

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.

For tips on which tools/apps/software to use for technical writing, this is a comprehensive post from a company that specialises in technical communication.

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

Mugwumps steal news headlines

Mugwumps steal news headlines

Mugwumps stole a lot of headlines last week.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, wrote a piece for The Sun in which he suggested that people may think Jeremy Corbyn (leader of the opposition Labour Party) was a ‘mutton-headed old mugwump’ and feel sorry for him but in fact he poses an enormous threat to our country if he gets into Number 10 Downing Street.

Mugwumps steal news headlines

You may think this is just Boris being Boris, colourful language is what he does and not much else: more buffoonery than strategy.

Mugwumps dominated news agenda

Well, I beg to differ. Boris dominated the news agenda for a full day with the mugwump insult. It was a day in which he was on numerous media outlets – saying all sorts of things, some of them controversial, but no one was interested in anything but mugwumps. During that day we were all reminded perhaps a thousand times – at least if you are a news junky– that Corbyn could be characterised as a ‘mugwump’ and by implication a rather soft and muddled individual unfit to run the country. This is way more coverage and way more effective than Conservative leader and Prime Minister Theresa May’s more sensible mantra of ‘strong and stable leadership’.

Mugwumps steal news headlines

Corbyn’s response to Mugwump insult: ‘We are eight days into the election and Boris Johnson has run out of serious arguments ….I don’t do name calling’.

My personal theory is that Boris used to say stupid things by accident but in doing so learnt the power of a colourful phrase. Now he ‘weaponises language’ with deadly effect. The Telegraph helpfully collected some of the great Boris quotes many of which I suspect were less crafted and planned than the mugwump insult.

Mugwumps: an example of weaponising langauge

The ‘mugwump’ insult was a focus for a set piece 8:10 interview on BBC Radio 4 Today programme where it was helpfully repeated for those chattering classes that do not stoop to read The Sun newspaper. The story then led the BBC’s political coverage for most of the day.

Mugwumps: a raft of ‘explainers’

The press for two days was then full of ‘mugwump explainers’. Here are a few.

The Metro headline was: “Mugwump is actually a word and this is what it means”

The Guardian headline was:  What is a mugwump? An insult that only Boris Johnson would use. This also includes a snappy little video with the history of the word.

The Times – behind a paywall – sorry – but headline: “This mugwump is a dandiprat”

Birmingham Mail headline: what is a mugwump? This university professor has the answer

And there are many more.

Boris used ‘mugwump’ to create acres of coverage for what the Conservatives believe is their most important differentiator in the election; comparing the leadership style of Jeremy Corbyn to the strong, sensible, mainstream style of Theresa May.

Mugwumps and Media Trainers

All of our trainers work to help clients with their messages. We try to help them with carefully crafted quotable phrases that will sum up an argument in a way that gets headlines (even if only in the trade press). Serious people constantly and consistently shy away from saying anything ‘too racy’ or anything that makes them appear ‘unprofessional’ or ‘not serious enough’. We understand. But we do not believe those people always understand the ‘opportunity-cost’. 

Just in case you haven’t caught on, we at The Media Coach call prepared quotable language ‘sizzle’ and we blog and tweet about this regularly – you can follow the twitter handle @mediasizzle if you want to see the world the way we see it. If you want us to help you build quotable messages then give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Jeremy Corbyn image used under Flickr creative comms

 

 

jeroen dijsselbloem

The Art of the Quote: Sizzle with Care

The art of the quote and the power of a good one is something we at the Media Coach think about every day. But last week in Europe we had another example of someone being a bit more quotable than perhaps the man himself had predicted. Many people outside Brussels or Holland haven’t heard of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch Finance Minister who is currently President of the Eurogroup of Eurozone countries. But he got himself into hot water this week after comments he made in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper offended politicians from Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece.

The Art of the Quote: Dutch Finance Minister in hot water 

The Art of the Quote

Dutch Finance Minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, was perhaps a bit more quotable than he had realised.

The offending quotes relate to this particular passage of the interview:

In an attempt to emphasise that being in a currency union carries responsibilities, Mr Dijsselbloem said that northern Europe had shown “solidarity” with the south during the crisis, but that solidarity comes with “duties”. “I cannot spend all my money on liqueur and women and beg for help afterwards.”

He then qualified his remarks by adding that this applies equally at a personal, national and European level.

Despite this, the response from politicians from southern European countries was swift and predictable with accusations of stereotyping, calls for Dijsselbloem’s resignation as head of the Eurogroup and the Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa going so far as to call the remarks ‘racist, xenophobic and sexist’.

The Art of the Quote: Best to avoid cultural stereotypes

If we’re dealing in cultural stereotypes then Dijsselbloem’s quote is an absolute belter, folding characteristic Dutch bluntness into a purse-lipped, highly quotable metaphor loaded with puritanical disapproval of feckless behaviour.

But it was actually out of character.  Mr Dijsselbloem has built a reputation as a calm and authoritative euro-dealmaker, who has been instrumental in the Greek debt talks and is seen as a reassuring media spokesperson who doesn’t resort to flashy imagery.  He’s due to lose his position as Dutch Finance Minister anyway (his Socialist Party recently got thumped into fifth place in the Dutch elections) but, it would be a shame to see his term as Eurogroup President (which is due to end in 2018) prematurely cut short because of one misguided quote. 

The Art of the Quote: qualifying your words after the event rarely helps

If there are any media training lessons to be drawn from this it’s that spokespeople not only need to plan and test their sizzle (deliberate quotes) in advance but also be judicious in their choice of words. Qualifying provocative comments afterwards won’t help either. It doesn’t matter that Mr Dijsselbloem’s defence was that his remarks were equally directed at himself, the point still stands that sensitive people will always react badly to comments that they perceive as primarily directed at them and this will be more likely to happen if the words play to cultural stereotypes. 

Of course we would also say that being dull and overly cautious also has its drawbacks. Namely, nobody notices what you are saying. So sizzle but sizzle with care, forethought and judgement. If you or your organisation need help crafting quotes as part of prepared messages, we at the Media Coach would be delighted to help. 

 

Photograph of Jeroen Dijsselbloem used under Creative Comms licence. 

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.

Photo used under Creative Commons Licence