Welcome to my B2BMediaTraining blog some small thoughts on life, the universe and dealing with the press from someone who crossed over from practitioner to teacher. The following selection of short articles provides an off-beat (and unashamedly tongue-in-cheek) insight into the many different aspects of the media, along with hints and tips for better communication and an understanding into what gets journalists reaching for their pens, tablets or smartphones to cover your story...
So, there you are, in a classic face-to-face media interview. The journalist asks you a question. You answer. They ask you another question. You answer again. Then…nothing. You look at them, they look at you. They make a small gesture as if to suggest ‘Is that it? Surely there’s more to come?’ Prompted thus, you start talking again. But have you really any more to say? Haven’t you already answered their question sufficiently? It’s one of the oldest journalistic gambits in the book―create an awkward silence and hope you’ll fill it.
Naturally, you want to give a journalist enough material to take away with them. Hopefully, that will include all those messages you wanted to get over. But filling in the gaps left by a journalist is a perfect elephant trap. Stick to what you want to say and stop. Let the journalist fill any vacuum with their next question, rather than continue talking simply because you were embarrassed by the silence.
Here’s another good tip. When you’re being interviewed face-to-face by a journalist watch what they’re doing while you’re talking. For example, if they ask you a question, do they then write down your answers in their notebook? They may not…for all sorts of reasons. It could be because they could have a fantastic memory and don’t need to write anything down. Possible, but unlikely.
They may be recording the interview and want to concentrate on what’s being said, rather than trying to make a note of everything that comes out of your mouth at the same time. Again, possible―but most journalists recording an interview usually write down the most salient points as you make them, then refer-back to them when replaying the tape. Maybe it’s because they already know what you were going to say (because you’ve said it many times before) and don’t need to record the answer. It can happen.
Now here’s a thing. Say you’ve been speaking for a while and the journalist has only been making occasional notes, then suddenly they start writing down everything you say―then you need to ask yourself: ‘What have I just said that’s so interesting?’ Was it one of the key messages you planned to deliver? If so great. Or was it an off-the-cuff remark you probably needn’t (or shouldn’t) have mentioned, but nevertheless did, simply because you kept on talking?
Just remember, if you’re planning to talk to the media the interview doesn’t end when the journalist puts away their notebook or turns off their recorder. Indeed, it’s all-too easy to think ‘That’s that done.’ It isn’t. A good journalist will still be listening to anything you might have to say informally afterwards, when the conversation can really get ‘interesting’. At that point it’s very easy to drop your guard and say something you’ll regret. Don’t. And later claiming ‘I didn’t think that wasn’t part of the interview’ won’t cut any ice with the journalist. Whether it’s face-to-face, over the phone, or via on a video link, the interview is only over when the journalist says goodbye. And means it.
Whenever I do media training, I can guarantee I’ll get this question: ‘After you’ve finished an interview is it OK to ask the journalist to see their copy before it’s published?’ My answer’s always the same, ‘You can ask, but don’t be surprised if they say no!’ Indeed, it reminds me of the humorous notice you occasionally see pinned behind the bar of a pub: ‘Please don’t ask for credit as refusal often offends.’
However, there’s clearly a serious side to the question and from my perspective as both a media trainer and former journalist my response is why would you want to see the copy in advance? Is it because you don’t trust the journalist to get the story right…or at least ‘right’ from your perspective? Did the interview involve lots of facts and figures they might get wrong? Worst of all, are you worried you might have said something off-guard that will appear in print or on-line, with unexpected consequences? And what if the journalist writes something you disagree with, or (horror of horrors) puts their own interpretation on what you’ve told them?
If you want to make sure a journalist gets things right, it’s your job to ensure your messages are clear, unequivocal, and easy to grasp. And if those messages involve lots of financial information, production figures, or market stats you should make it easy for the journalist by giving them a fact sheet or memory stick with the correct data on it that they can quickly reference without having to re-read their notes. Last, but not least, stick to the messages you want to deliver. Don’t speculate or guess, don’t get distracted by irrelevant questions no matter how ‘interesting’, and don’t try answering questions that are outside your own bailiwick or authority. In short, it’s all about preparation, preparation, and preparation.
It’s one thing asking a journalist to see their copy when an interview has finished. It’s another saying ‘Of course we want to see your copy before it’s published’ before they’ve even opened their mouth. That infers they’re incapable of doing a professional job and I guarantee it’s likely to put their back up. How would you like your competency questioned like that?
There’s another reason why journalists won’t want to show you copy in advance. It’s their story not yours. It’s their interpretation and contextualizing of your comments and information. It will also be written in the house-style of their publication, in their own way, for their audience. Outspoken journalists get read, viewed, or listened to precisely for that reason, not because they recycle your PR or marketing speak.
If you must ask to see advance copy then wait till the interview is over and say it’s ‘strictly for fact checking, and not to change style or substance.’ Only don’t be disappointed if the answer is an equally polite no. Above-all-else, if after the journalist leaves the room, you suddenly decide that you’ve changed your mind and want to answer a question differently, or retract something you’ve said, then it’s too late. You should have thought of what you wanted to say, before you started saying it.
The end of the year is always a good time to take stock of how much media coverage you’ve achieved over the past 12-months. But how do you measure success? By the number of column-inches you’ve accrued in hard-copy publications, by the number of hits on the media section of your website, by the number of ‘likes’ registered on your social media pages?
There are plenty of media monitoring services out there that can count-up all those things and show you exactly where you’ve got press exposure. But what about those instances where you might have got coverage…but didn’t? Let me explain. You’re not going to be sending out stories every day―after all, there’s only so much ‘news’ you can generate at any one time, and besides, the media isn’t going to cover everything you send out no matter how important you think it is.
Media savvy companies look beyond just churning out press releases. They provide insight and commentary in what’s become known as ‘Thought Leadership.’ They track and note the trends and changes in the industry sectors that they operate in and then, having created a strong narrative, they share their thoughts with journalists on what those trends and changes signify, and the impact they’re likely to have in the short, medium, and long-term.
Of course, to do that you need to pro-actively look for those trends and changes in-order to interpret them for the media and create a ‘bigger picture’ dialogue. And the end of the year is always an appropriate time to provide a round-up of them all as you’ve invariably got 12-months’ worth of information to reflect upon. The same data can also help when it comes to forecasting changes over the next 12-months. All of which is the perfect basis for staging a ‘State of the Nation’ press event.
Many years ago, I was present when a major manufacturer launched such an event at the start of the New Year―the primary reason being to remind journalists that it was the market leader, based on supporting industry stats which it duly presented! However, it also provided an excellent platform to deliver additional context and explanation on broader aspects of the industry, plus an insight into developing trends, and some useful crystal ball-gazing too. It immediately became a regular (and highly popular) occurrence, offering journalists a unique annual window into what was happening in the industry and beyond.
Even when the manufacturer in question was no longer market leader it continued to hold its State of the Nation event―and it continued to be well-attended by the media hungry for that bigger picture story. Moreover, the facts and figures it supplied had a habit of popping-up in various general features and articles written throughout the following year―and naturally, the manufacturer got a name check as the ‘source provider.’
So, can you do a State of the Nation? If you can, it could provide you with media coverage well beyond your everyday company activities. More importantly, as an acknowledged Thought Leader for your industry you’ll give journalists an excellent reason to keep coming back for more of your knowledge and wisdom…
When somebody promises to do something for you how do you feel? Gratified? Expectant? Glad you’re being taken seriously? But what if they let you down, what then? We’ve all experienced disappointment arising from an unfulfilled promise at some time in our lives, though that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. As it is in life, when it comes to dealing with the media, it doesn’t pay to let someone down.
Unfortunately, problems can arise when a journalist contacts you out of the blue wanting something in a tearing hurry―like information on a new business venture or activity, confirmation of a new contract, or maybe even news of the latest round of musical chairs in the boardroom. Whatever the reason, it’s clear they want an immediate response. But can you give one? Do you have all the relevant information at your disposal, or will it take you time to find it?
Journalists are no different to anyone else―we all want things yesterday―but is what they’re asking for reasonable in terms of their timeframe? Never be hustled into responding if you’re not ready. Better to say ‘Sorry, it’s going to take me some time to get back to you with an answer,’ than offer instant gratification with the wrong one. After all, you might not even be the right person to field their query. You might have to redirect it to a colleague with the right level of knowledge or information. Or it might be the kind of awkward question that requires some lengthy consideration before answering, especially you’re going to challenge or rebut it.
If you’re ever asked a question by a journalist that can’t be resolved straightaway, ask them ‘What’s your deadline?’ Remember, it’s at this point you exert tremendous control over what happens next. Yes, the journalist wants an answer, but you don’t have to give them anything if you’re not ready. It’s their deadline, not yours, and you’re under no obligation to meet to it. While it’s only natural you might want to help, beware of being pressurised into accepting an unfeasible deadline, as your failure to meet it will only cause further frustration to the journalist who’s been sitting around waiting to get on with their story.
However, if you can agree on a mutually convenient time for your response, make sure you keep to it. And if you subsequently can’t, don’t leave the journalist hanging on until the last minute before you break the bad news to them, or worse still don’t them call back at all, as it will only cause even more frustration. ‘We’re not able to comment at this moment’ is a perfectly legitimate response, especially if you explain to the journalist why you can’t provide an answer right now. And there could be plenty of good reasons why you can’t. But regardless of whether you’re responding to a highly detailed question, or the simplest request for an image, if you want to build a good relationship with the media deliver what you promise―or risk being ignored the next time around.
So, you’ve agreed to do a formal one-to-one interview with a journalist. It’s a great opportunity to get over positive messages about your company or organization. You know how long you’ve got to talk to them―because you’ve already asked them (or certainly should have done) ‘How much time have we got for the interview?’
Although the journalist in question hasn’t provided you with any questions in advance (it’s not mandatory so don’t expect it) thanks to your advance enquiry they’ve sent over a useful shortlist of topics that they want to cover during the interview. So, at least you’ve got some idea what you’re likely to be asked.
Meanwhile, your advance preparation is progressing well. You’ve already decided what key messages you want to deliver, and you’ve started to memorize them, as well as learning the supporting narratives to back them up. You’ve put together a useful information pack on your company and its activities (including your latest annual report) so you can cut to the chase in the interview and not waste any unnecessary time on ‘background’ details. You’ve also put together some good high-quality images to go with it. Now what else can you do?
How about doing a dummy run? Get together with your PR advisor or market comms people and ask them to role play the part of the journalist. Then try answering the questions that you think you’ll be asked in the interview. Make it as real-life as possible, including watching the clock so you stay within time. Above-all-else imagine the worst question―that’s the one you DON’T want to be asked! It could be about poor financial performance, a product that’s proving less than successful with customers, or how a rival has overtaken you in the marketplace. Now start planning your answer, because as sure as the sun rises if you know that there’s an issue with your business, the chances are so will a journalist…and they’ll ask you about it. It’s their job.
Above-all-else, make it as lifelike as possible. Don’t see the questions in advance. Play it for real. Then sit down and critique your performance. Could you have answered that one better? Was there a better explanation to offer? Did you communicate effectively and concisely…or simply waffle on and lose your thread? A good tip is to record the interview and play it back to hear yourself in action. You might be surprised by those verbal tics you’ve never noticed before. Then do it all again until you’re fully on top of your brief.
Practice, if done well, really can make perfect. And that’s exactly why taking the time to prepare properly for an interview in advance, including conducting a dummy version of the real thing, can pay real dividends. If you already know how you want to answer the awkward questions, those left field ‘I didn’t see that coming’ queries, then when the real thing comes along hopefully you won’t be lost for words…
If a picture is worth a 1,000-words, what about a 45-second YouTube video? More and more companies are nowadays placing short videos on the aforementioned-ubiquitous platform to deliver a message to the media, often in-place of traditional press releases. It’s not hard to see why. Video has much to recommend it. Within three minutes or less, it can be a highly effective way to get a message, or messages, over to a journalist in a hurry. And what journalist isn’t in a hurry given that nowadays they’re not only expected to provide content for hard copy and digital magazines but also websites and social media too.
As an occasional video presenter, I’ve always enjoyed working with the format. It’s a task-and-finish job where 99% of the work is in the preparation, just like any encounter with the media. The analogy is obvious―just as you have-to learn a script for a video, you need to learn your lines for a press interview. And as with a short video, in a press interview you need to be able to get your messages over quickly and succinctly. Of course, the real expertise comes in the post-production phase where the video editors sprinkle their pixie dust over it prior to uploading it. That to me is where the true magic of video is to be found.
Yet despite its obvious attractions, video tends to be a ‘one-way’ process. Once you’ve clicked on the link to watch one that’s it. You either accept the messages in them; and want to find out more. Or you find something better to do. There’s none of the interaction of, say, a traditional press event where a journalist can ask a question―and hopefully get an answer. It’s hard for journalists to follow-up on a video unless you embed suitable contact information within it for them, or if they already happen to know who to call. So, a video without a follow-up mechanism runs the risk of being a dead-end, rather than a means to an end.
Leaving aside that obvious caveat, a short video can be a great tool for highlighting new products, services, or initiatives. And the more imaginative, quirky, or eye-catching, the better the chances of it being watched and remembered. Only before you start shooting, or even creating a script, you really should ask yourself “What are we doing it for?” Is it a heads-up or teaser to a forthcoming press conference that will encourage journalists to put the date in their diary? Or is it a bit of stand-alone entertainment which reinforces your brand and requires no further action from the media beyond them watching it?
There’s nothing wrong with using video as a different way to attract a journalist’s attention, especially if it’s engaging and amusing. But if you want to use video to really communicate with the media, along with all the novelty, entertainment, excitement, and ballyhoo you’d better be delivering some key stories too. If you’re going to use YouTube for business, then treat it in a business-like way. Or to put it another way, the ‘medium’ shouldn’t be more important than your ‘message’….