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.

Oxfam Crisis Goldring

Oxfam Crisis notes

Oxfam is in crisis. There must be a whole book of ‘lessons’ from the implosion of this once great British organisation. An implosion caused by a seven-year-old scandal exposed by The Times newspaper last Friday. It is ghastly to watch and a text book example of a ‘crisis’ where new damaging elements of the negative story continue to emerge every day.

Oxfam will be lucky to survive

I feel compelled to declare my personal opinion about this Oxfam crisis. As many know I have worked a lot with charities and agencies in the developing world. I am a huge fan of ‘development work’ in all its guises. If more people knew the great work that is done, the more they would support it.

But it seems all too common for individual incidents of bad behaviour or bad management to be blown out of all proportion in order to discredit all or any development work. There are swathes of society who, with little knowledge of the reality on the ground in developing countries, believe money should not be ‘wasted’ helping people ‘over there’. They are quick to take any example of mismanagement or misappropriation of funds to prove their preconception. The Daily Mail in particular plays to this agenda in ways that many find hugely distasteful. My sympathy is all with Oxfam although of course not with those accused of wrong doing.

Oxfam crisis analysis

That said let’s look at the lessons of this Oxfam crisis.

Public outrage gets ahead of the law. The press likes to bay for blood as soon as any act that would offend a Victorian prude, comes to light. (Always remember this is fake outrage. Few journalists are paragons of virtue in their private lives). The Oxfam country director in Haiti, 7 years ago, admitted to paying for sex. Just to help the headline writers, the party where this happened has been dubbed a ‘Caligula like orgy’ – by ‘sources’ that spoke to The Times. He agreed to step down but his employer, Oxfam, chose not to sack him and not to prevent him working in his profession in the future.

Bad media crises have a habit of having many chapters. If the thing journalists have got their teeth into initially in a crisis is not actually illegal they will often switch the focus to ‘transparency’. Transparency is really difficult when dealing with personnel, commercial and many other issues.

The take-way is that as soon as a crisis starts, someone in the affected organisation needs to be reminding decision-makers that at any moment the whole focus could switch to ‘transparency’. Organisations need to be prepared to be totally transparent or find rock-solid reasons why they cannot be. Transparency can be brutal. Here is an article in CEO Magazine about transparency in a crisis.

Oxfam crisis: what could be done

Anyway, the only way to stop a crisis like this once it gets going is:

  • Sack a whole load of people or have them resign. Be careful if you sack, they may sue as Sharon Shoesmith, the social worker in the Baby P case did. And she won. Story here. 
  • Make an abject public apology. Here is Oxfam’s from CEO Mark Goldring. 
  • Make vast amounts of detail available to journalists who will quickly get bored.
  • Have spokespeople trained and ready to handle the sort of aggressive questioning that we have seen on every serious news programme.
  • Hire someone like Alistair Campbell or a specialist crisis firm (or us) to do your messaging and reactive lines. These need to be much more than wishy-washy statements of good intent. You will need substance and a forensic like approach to possible questions.
Oxfam Crisis Mark Goldring

Mark Goldring CBE, Oxfam’s CEO, made a clear and complete apology.

If you are an organisation full of decent honest people who expect the rest of the world to be measured, decent and honest you have a huge handicap. You will not realise the potential for the crisis to get out of hand and you will not expect the media to go for the jugular. One problem is that sometimes the media does and sometimes it doesn’t. Any doomsayer might be wrong and might damage his or her career by saying ‘this could go ballistic’ when it then doesn’t.

For students of media training lets look at two of the many interviews on this subject.

In this Newsnight interview with Dame Barbara Stocking, the CEO of Oxfam at the time of the Haiti operation, the scandalous bits are all the ‘outraged’ questions from Emily Maitlis. The measured responses from Dame Barbara are barely newsworthy. It was a difficult interview but overall she did well. Personally, I would have liked her to offer a solid apology and be a bit more robust in defense of the decisions Oxfam took. But she was credible and had solid answers. Note this interview was a pre-record. Not a good idea. Dame Barbara should have done it live.

Our second example is a BBC Radio 4 Today programme interview on 12th February – one hour ten minutes in, that is 7.10am. (Remember this disappears after one month.) In this unimpresive interview with Michelle Russell, Head of Investigations at the Charity Commission, it is clear that she had only one simple message and not enough detail to sustain the interview. She appears to be taken aback that Matthew Price, the interviewer, is questioning the competence of the Charity Commissioners themselves. She struggles to cope with what for her was apparently unexpected aggression.

It is the season of sex scandals

It is the season of sex scandals. Post Harvey Weinstein, many things that might in the past have not seemed to be a scandal – potentially are now. I doubt any organisation has no skeletons in the cupboard and I expect most have no idea how they would cope if the spotlight turned on them.

The Orville imagines the rule of law administered by twitter

I cannot finish without recommending a recent episode of The Orville – a brilliant skit on Star Trek running on Fox. In Season 1 Episode 7 Majority Rule, the team visit a parallel planet to Earth, Sargus 4, where the law is administered by popular vote on a planet-wide twitter-like feed. Whilst it is hilarious it is also a bit too close to Earth 2018 for comfort. This is not unrelated to the Oxfam scandal.


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. 

media interview traps

Media interview traps – how to avoid two of them

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

media interview traps

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

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

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

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

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

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

media interview traps

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

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

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

media interview traps

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

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

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

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

Photo 1: Pixabay
Photo 2: Creative Commons



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.

media interviews

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

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

media interviews

Media Interviews: Journalists need interesting speakers

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

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

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

Media interviews: Preparation is the key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media interviews

Avoid being defensive or bland

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

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


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

Top tip for ‘pundits’

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

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

media interviews

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

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

Picture credits: Image 2 Steve Debenport

crisis management

Crisis Management Uber style: keep quiet and cover it up

Crisis management best practice dictates that, if the worst happens, a company should, firstly, be open and honest with its customers, staff and other important parties, such as regulators. Secondly, it must also try to fix the problem as soon as possible. If it doesn’t follow this practice, crisis management case studies generally suggest its reputation could be fatally damaged and its bottom line affected.

crisis management

So it will be interesting to see if the news that Uber has only just fessed up to – that it suffered a data breach over a year ago, affecting around 57-million customers and drivers – is finally a crisis too far for the controversial company.

So far it has survived numerous crises including a sexual harassment scandal, highly public fights with regulators, its own drivers and Apple and, perhaps most shockingly, acquiring the medical records of a rape victim without seemingly affecting the bottom line.

As Alex Hern, noted in The Guardian in June: How low does Uber have to go before we stop using it?

“Uber has entered that rarefied portion of the market, alongside companies like Ryanair and Sports Direct, where unpleasantness is now an assumed part of the brand. Sure, some people like the company. But many don’t, but also know it’s cheaper than the competition.”

As I wrote in a recent blog post on Ryanair’s fumbled handling of its mass plane cancellations a few weeks ago, preparation combined with being open and honest when the crisis hits can go a long way to helping salvage reputation in a bad situation.

The regulators, lawyers and investors in Uber may be the ones who will pass the final judgements but customers in the US affected by the data breach are apparently already lining up class action cases.

But for those companies that do still care about the affect a crisis could have on their reputation, remember the best practice golden rules of:

• Tell it all
• Tell it fast
• Tell it truthfully

Being as transparent as possible won’t make the crisis go away but at least your voice will be heard, you will be able to have some control over the timing and the messages and, therefore, the perception of your company.

Photo credit Pixabay

misspeak Michael Gove

So easy to misspeak: case study from Michael Gove

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

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

misspeak Michael Gove

Michael Gove MP has apologised for his gaffe


Wrong time to trivialise allegations against Weinstein

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

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

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

Off-the-cuff remarks can be bad news

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo used under Wikimedia Commons licence

Developing messages: Are you guilty of navel-gazing?

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

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

developing messages

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

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

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

Developing messages: Ask is the story timely?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Developing messages: Have you joined the dots?

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

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

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

You can’t argue with that!

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

Photo credit: Big Ben used under Creative Comms licence.

3 subjects to avoid

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

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

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

1.    Any sexist views

3 subjects to avoid

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

3 subjects to avoid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.    Any racist views

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 subjects to avoid

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

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

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

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

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