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Communicating risk

Communicating Risk in the Media

Communicating risk via the media is really hard. A good case study for this came this weekend when The Sunday Times splashed with a leaked report from the National Police Co-ordination Centre about planning for a No-Deal Brexit.  

Risk of UK Crimewave

Under the headline ‘Police Plan for Riots and Crimewave if there is a No-Deal Brexit’ the paper runs through some alarming details of what might happen. This includes a rise in crime as Britain suffers food and drug shortages, an expectation that people will become sicker (presumably because prescription drug supplies are affected) and concern about food and goods shortages leading to widespread unrest. It also predicts widespread disruption to the national road network.

The list comes from a confidential discussion paper which is yet to be presented by the National Police Co-ordination Centre. It was not a definitive version of anything – and of course it was written by someone told to ‘imagine the worst’ so the police could plan for it.

Clearly, the report is highly newsworthy but what is not stressed in the coverage is that this was part of a process of preparing for possible events, rather than predicting the events themselves.

Risk Story Killed

It was alarming stuff and widely reported on the day, but the story has died quickly – and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that the Home Secretary Sajid Javid did a great job of killing the story when asked about the report on The Marr Show on Sunday. The link is below and the relevant comments run 9:45 -11:45.

The Home Secretary’s (clearly prepared) line was ‘I am not going to comment on these things in detail but is a good thing that the police, like everyone else, is preparing’. As you can hear he repeats a version of this several times despite Andrew Marr doing his best to get something more. Had Sajid Javid said something different, such as ‘it is possible there will be food and drug shortages’ the story would have had a lot more coverage.

That probably reads as a very slight difference in the form of words but in terms of the way a journalist can report the next chapter, it makes all the difference in the world. One kills the story and the other gives it a second wind.

Editors Maybe on a Short Leash

There are probably other reasons that the story did not get out of hand.  I suspect the BBC and perhaps some others are being very careful about reporting No-Deal Brexit risk. I have no inside knowledge but, having worked in the Corporation, I suspect there have been some very serious high-level discussions – in the last few months – about responsible reporting of Brexit ‘risk’.  As I said the political sensitivities are huge and the dangers of panic, fear etc. are so obvious. Editors and senior correspondents are almost certainly on a short leash.

However, this is just the start and there are a lot more stories about ‘No-Deal Brexit risk’ to come.

The wider point is that being open and honest about ‘risk’ is hard for a number of key reasons.

Four Reasons Why Communicating Risk is Hard

Firstly, there is a general consensus that normal people do not understand the concept of risk. Personally, I am sceptical about this but it is a widely held view. It goes like this: if you say there is a small risk of a terror attack in London this weekend, what people will hear is there is a possible or even likely terror attack in London this weekend.

The assumption then is that ‘normal people’ or a high proportion of ‘normal people’ will overreact.

Secondly, any journalist reporting that comment will report ‘risk of terror attack in London’, absolutely hardening up the story.

This is exactly what happened in The Sunday Times and in The Express who both hardened up the National Police Co-ordination Centre story to get the headline.  Here is The Sunday Times link and here is The Express.

Anyone glancing across the headlines without taking time to understand the story will be misled about the probability related to the risk.

Thirdly, there is another problem of communicating risk openly and that is that people get tired of being scared and under-react. Many risks do not actually happen. And that encourages people to think they will never happen. Public organisations are understandably careful about ‘crying wolf’. Too many earthquake warnings and people do not move when they are told they really need to.

And fourthly, being open about risk can be taken as a political act. And that is a real problem. Anyone will think twice about going public about a particular perceived risk if they think senior politicians will publicly attack them.

As a spin doctor and media trainer, I would like to be able to say there is a simple formula that answers this problem of communicating risk, but there really isn’t. It is complicated, it requires very careful planning and very disciplined communicators. And it is still difficult.

 

elevator pitch

Why we all need an elevator pitch

I have come to the conclusion that each of us who represent our business to the outside world, however that is defined, needs to have a honed and perfected elevator pitch.

elevator pitch

Can you describe your company in the time it takes to move between floors in an elevator?

What is an elevator pitch?

It is a succinct, thought-through and rehearsed explanation of what the business does.

Why do we need one?

Because the world is complicated and we all assume too often that others completely understand where we are coming from and what we do. Most people interviewed at the start of media training make assumptions about the knowledge of the trainer-journalist. Once this is pointed out, it is obvious.  But it is not just relevant for journalists.   I am always using my elevator pitch when introduced to new people. I lengthen or shorten it depending on the circumstances.

What are the elements?

I think the elements are first an overview or helicopter view. ‘We sell software that helps people cut their use of paper and save money’ or ‘we provide a wide range of personal and business insurance for the UK market’ etc. Second a bit of detail e.g. size of the business, number of employees, range of contracts, key clients etc. and finally an example of a good piece of work you have done.

Do I need to include the history of the business?

I believe the history of the organisation is only relevant if it is memorable and interesting. If it was started in a cow shed in 1901 or was the brainchild of an astronaut, use it, otherwise, don’t bother.

Why is the overview so important?

Because detail makes no sense to people if you don’t provide a frame for it. Once you have the frame you can hang different things on it, but you need the frame.

Why so much emphasis on numbers?

Numbers allow people to understand scale, whether that’s scale of an operation, scale of the growth, scale of the potential market. Without scale, people are left wondering or guessing.

Do you really need examples?

Never miss the examples, they are always the things people will remember after they forget the overview and the numbers.

Warning! Do not try to be all things to all people!

Sounds daft but this is such a common mistake. A story I often tell from the early 2000’s when I was media training a start-up in the dot-com boom.

Me: ‘What is your website for?’
CEO: (aged 22): ‘It’s for all sorts of things, all sorts.’
Me: ‘Okay, what sort of people do you envisage visiting your website?’
CEO: ‘All sorts of people’
Me: ‘So, what might prompt them to visit the site?’
CEO: ‘Oh, all sorts of things!’

I left after three hours none the wiser what this company planned to do (of course, it is possible they didn’t know either which is a different problem.) Much better to give an idea and then layer in further information later if you get the chance.

Warning! Avoid positive bland!

This is another major problem. People think it is impressive to say ‘we provide a great service for our customers’, ‘we help clients become more efficient’, ‘we help make staff more productive’. No detail and only positives mean it is unconvincing propaganda. You might as well not bother.

Warning! Do not use the org chart

People are tempted to explain how many division and subdivisions there are in the company. This really will bore the pants off anybody. (For CNBC’s advice on putting together an elevator pitch click here).

We ran a competition at a conference (ECS 2015) asking people to do their elevator pitch to camera. We called it Message in a Minute challenge. Even PR professionals found it remarkably difficult to do it well.

Do you need an elevator and a message house?

In my view, typically an elevator pitch stands outside a set of messages or a message house that has been prepared for a product launch, a particular issue or set of results. Sometimes organisations ask us to help with an ‘organisational’ message house. This is most likely to be a new company or a hitherto unknown company reaching into a new market. In this case, the elevator is a shortened version of the longer and more detailed organisational messages or ‘house’. In the end, it doesn’t matter what form you use to communicate your message. What does matter is that the message is thought through, crystal clear and rehearsed.

A version of this blog first ran in March 2016

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

rail passenger communication

Rail passenger communication in the dark ages

Rail passenger communication needs to be dragged into the 21st Century.

Stuck on a train, in the snow, trying to get to a training session on time or catch a flight must be among the most frustrating, the most stressful and the most unpleasant experiences of my life.  And I had a number of those experiences last week.

rail passenger communication

Snow led to widespread chaos on the trains but the communications with staff and passengers was also chaotic and unreliable.

Rail passenger communication was sparse and mostly wrong

What made them a whole lot worse was the complete lack of reliable information from the train companies. It was absolutely clear that the station staff and the conductors and drivers on the trains were also simply not being told what was going on. Information that did come through was late, out of date or just wrong.

It is astonishing that a few inches of snow and temperatures just a few degrees below the norm can cause such total widespread chaos.

In this super-connected world people expect to be told what is happening

But even more astonishing that with all the technology we have today to stay connected, the train companies, in particular, are so bad at keeping front line staff and passengers up to date.

On several occasions, I heard station staff in high vis jackets standing on freezing platforms telling passengers “We’ve got no idea mate!” Before the widespread adoption of the telephone this would be understandable but in the super-connected 21st century it is not.

It wasn’t just the station staff in the dark and out in the cold. Drivers and conductors did not fare any better. Nicky Marcelin-Horne was a passenger stuck overnight after getting on the 17:35 from Waterloo to Poole. It came to a halt somewhere in the New Forest and most of the passengers did not get off until morning. Speaking to the Evening Standard she said:

“The guys on the train were trying to help and keep us informed but they didn’t really know what was happening.”

On my stuck train, the conductor was trawling websites from his personal phone to try and work out what was happening.

Again I am aghast. How can this be so? People on the stranded trains were tweeting and posting on Facebook. Mobile phones were working even if the comms technology on the train wasn’t.  Surely someone from a control room should be telling staff what is happening.

rail passenger communication

For me, all this is a really visceral reminder of how crucial up-to-date, accurate information is to help people cope with unexpected and changing conditions. I made the wrong decisions about which train to get on (repeatedly), and whether to cancel a journey. With better information I would have made better decisions.

Crisis communications need planning and investment

It’s not the same as crisis communications via the media but there are a lot of parallels. Crises or disruption are always going to happen although the exact nature and the timing can never be known in advance. But, as we always say, an awful lot of things can be planned ahead of time. The problem is, it takes investment of time and money and it is human nature to put such investment to the bottom of the to-do list.

But, in both cases, when things do go badly wrong there are expensive enquiries, angry customers, huge loss of brand value and lots internal people saying ‘but we told you this could happen’.

 

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.

Crisis media interview

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

1) Misplaced concern

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

2) Arguing over minor details

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

3) Ambiguity about the future

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

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

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

senior leaders

Senior leaders – get media trained before you need it

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

Senior leaders need communications skills

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

Senior leaders

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

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

A few hours is a good investment

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

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

Incredibly useful professionally

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

senior leaders

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

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

get the tone right

Media training: Getting the tone right

Getting the tone right can be far from easy in a media interview. You need to sound in control, but also demonstrate the right emotion for the occasion. I wrote last week about how Prince Harry and Meghan delivered a happy but not schmaltzy interview on their engagement whilst apparently effortlessly avoiding a lot of potential pitfalls.

Husband of Iran prisoner gets the tone right

Another man who gets it right in much less happy circumstances is Richard Ratcliffe. An accountant from Hampstead thrust into the media spotlight when his Iranian born wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, was imprisoned in Iran, and his young daughter who, despite her British passport, has not been returned to him but is instead with her grandparents in Iran.

Getting the tone right

Richard Ratcliffe makes himself available to be interviewed however distressing the news, and always gets the tone right.

Not much is written to my knowledge about Richard Ratcliffe but nothing that is written suggests he is someone with any understanding of the media (besides living in Hampstead which might mean there are some invisible guiding hands amongst his neighbours).

He is never angry, never over-claims but just calmly and sadly states and restates the facts and the argument.

The latest development as reported here in the Independent is that following Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s visit to Tehran, a court case expected to be held in Iran on Sunday and likely to extend Nazanin’s sentence, has been postponed. It’s a small bit of positive news in very sad story. And  Ratcliffe was interviewed on Sky news, from his sitting room to put the human face on the latest development.

In an interview from Channel 4 news a month ago that took place just after the Boris Johnson ‘gaffe’ when he mistakenly said that Nazanin had been training journalists – and his subsequent quasi-retraction. It was a mistake that undermined the whole family defence which was that Ratcliffe’s wife was simple on holiday when she was arrested. Many people would have been raging but Ratcliffe just looked and sounded sad but did his best to be positive.

Media Training tips for managing tone

Often the important point in managing the tone is to think first what the tone should be. A strategic approach to interviews will always give you a better outcome.

Media Training tips for managing high emotion

I have actually media trained several people who have become media spokespeople for all the wrong reasons. The father of a girl who died in controversial circumstances, a man with terminal cancer who was campaigning for change in some laws etc. The challenge in these cases is to manage the narrative to avoid the emotional bits that will trigger a breakdown. Bluntly, looking sad is one thing but sobbing on air is uncomfortable and distressing for everyone. The trick is to isolate the bits that people can’t talk about and have an alternative track that will distract from that bit of the story. Of course the journalists and probably the audience want to hear the personal story so it is a fine balancing act. At least broadcast journalists are not insensitive to the problem of too much emotion and in these circumstances, they are not looking to make life difficult for the interviewee. And thank goodness the BBC at least has banned the question ‘How do you feel…’.

Of course, those spokespeople, like Richard Ratcliffe, put themselves through the media ordeal because they think something important is at stake, and at the end of the day there is nothing like media exposure to get things done. Let’s hope in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe all the media attention will pay off.

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