The hugely talented Mr Weatherley

Brian's B2B blog...

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...

Good news or old news?

Visit the website of any major company (it might even be a competitor) and assuming there is one click-on the section marked ‘News.’ How current is the most recently posted story? A week old? A month old? I’ve frequently noticed so-called news stories on website that are over a year old. What impression do you think that gives a journalist searching for information? The impression it gives me is that there’s not much happening, and certainly nothing worth calling up about. But is that a true reflection of the situation? It could simply be that keeping the news section of the website current isn’t the top priority for the webmaster. Either way, it’s worth reflecting upon, and re-visiting your own website.

In my regular trawl around corporate websites it’s also noticeable how webmasters confuse features for news. Or to put it another way you’ve got to look hard to find any ‘news’ in the story, which all-too often tends to be another of the ‘Customer buys one of our existing products…and generally seems quite happy with it’ genre. Hardly what I’d call news as a former journalist. If they were unhappy with it…now that WOULD be news!

However, a strong and current news section shouldn’t be the only reason why a journalist should visit your website. The best sites go a lot further, providing excellent ‘Thought Leadership’ content that examines the broader aspects of the specific marketplace a particular company is competing in, like generic industry data, latest market stats, research material, insightful commentary of new legislation or regulations, all of which provide that all important thing for a journalist―context. Those same sites also tend to feature regularly updated blogs, downloadable podcasts, tweets and YouTube videos. Anything to capture, and keep, the media’s attention. But whatever you do provide on your website what you see first should always be current.

Do you use your website as a platform for that kind of useful media content? Or is it just a shop window for your products and services? There’s nothing wrong with the latter, especially if a journalist is only after some basic facts-and-figures. But It’s surely a missed opportunity to stop there. Within any organization there are usually some highly-knowledgeable individuals who can provide the kind of market knowledge, context, and wisdom that journalists are desperate to get hold of, and leverage in their stories. The obvious analogy is with those financial analysts who produce regular market updates and research studies that are snapped-up by the media. And guess who gets a name check along the way? Actually, you don’t need to guess as it’s pretty obvious!

If you do want your website to be a gateway to the media and starting point for conversations with journalists (and as PR resources are stretched ever thinner websites are a cost-effective way of getting strong messages over to the press) then whether it’s the latest news, insight, or unique market research, make sure you give them something to think about…and use. And the more you provide, the more likely they are to keep coming back to you.

Something worth waiting for

I’m frequently reminded by advertisements for faster broadband of the importance of speed. Without digressing too much, is it really so important to be able to download a document or jpeg in 15, rather than 45-seconds? Frankly I doubt it. Unfortunately, most journalists are in a tearing hurry. That’s perfectly understandable given the amount of material the average reporter has to generate in their working day, be it for a hard copy publication, social media, podcast, webcast, or video. With all that stuff to deliver it’s no wonder they have a need for speed.

As I have said many times before, when it comes to a media encounter, it’s vital to know how long you’ve got to get your message or argument over. So, long before a journalist opens his or her notebook, or turns on their recorder, you should be asking: ‘How much time have we got?’ From their answer you’ll know whether you’re able to develop a comprehensive explanatory narrative, or simply deliver the bottom-line news.

If something is worth saying it’s probably worth saying it in full, so the journalist gets the complete picture. That means having the confidence (and nerve) to say: ‘You’re not going to fully understand what this is all about in such a short period of time.’ They may well baulk at this suggestion, but if you’re an acknowledged expert in a particular subject or happen to have some specific knowledge they need, you’ll be in a strong position to negotiate for more time. Either way, be prepared to plant the seed of doubt in their mind that their timescale is too short and that they risk missing something that’s important to their story. If you don’t ask for more time, it’s unlikely you’ll get it.

Of course, if they do grant you an extension don’t waste it. It’s a good idea, especially for those chance media encounters to always have two stories to tell. First, the classic short version which cuts straight to the chase for the journalist who really hasn’t got time to spare. And the second, where your bottom-line news is backed-up by a detailed narrative that fully confirms your case.

But what if you can’t persuade the reporter to stick around for the second version? If you know you’re going to meet with a journalist but only have limited time you should put together the key elements of your extended story – e.g. the timeline, supporting facts, external reference information, research material and so on―into a separate briefing document, either in hard copy or on a memory stick that the journalist can read and absorb when they’ve got the time. As a former journalist I’d say hard copy is best as it’s instantly accessible; you don’t need a screen to read it.

With all media encounters, whether it’s the planned formal interview, or the accidental ‘Glad I’ve bumped into you because I just want to ask…’ it’s important to make the journalist understand that the best messages and stories are worth making the time to hear. Are yours?

Are you listening carefully?

It’s been said before but it’s worth saying again, good communicators are invariably good listeners too. It certainly pays to be a good listener if you’re meeting with a journalist. It’s all-too easy to misunderstand a question if you’re not listening carefully. Misunderstand and you could end up answering a question that wasn’t asked. If you listen to the news often enough it won’t be long before you hear someone doing just that. However, it could be a deliberate tactic.

By that I mean the interviewee wants to make a specific point, or get over a particular message, but the interviewer hasn’t offered them an appropriate ‘cue’. That’s about managing the conversation, and in previous blogs I’ve talked about the ways you can direct your interlocutor towards the ground in which you want to plant your own flag. I’m sure you’ve heard them used before. For example, there’s the classic ‘I’m surprised you’ve not asked me about…’ or the other ‘The question you should be asking me is…’

They’re legitimate tools for an interviewee, particularly if the journalist has misunderstood or not fully grasped the issue being discussed. But it’s a tactic that should be used sparingly. Keep trying to direct a journalist away from their line of questioning and they’ll only persist in sticking to it. If you think a journalist is barking up the wrong tree, you’d better be able to prove it. Otherwise, you’ll simply reinforce their perception of where the story really sits.

But back to hearing. Listen carefully to what a journalist asks you and from their delivery, intonation, and emphasis, there’s a good chance you can detect what’s behind their question. You can also determine whether they’re sympathetic, neutral, or antagonistic to your answers, and whether they have a particular agenda beneath their interrogation.

Some journalists ask long convoluted questions that take significantly longer to deliver than the answer! Equally, it’s not unusual for them to bundle-up two or even three questions into one big one. If you’re not listening carefully you can end up missing the most important one. If the question is hard to understand, tell them ask journalist to either repeat it, or better still put it in simple terms. It’s vital you know exactly what’s being asked rather than take a wild stab at it and completely miss the point.

Listening carefully can also pay unexpected dividends. For example, in preparing for your interview a journalist may have picked up a significant piece of information that’s of interest or benefit to you, but which you’re unaware of…and it comes out in their questioning. You’d do well to reply along the lines of ‘I’ve not heard that before. Tell me more about it.’ Their reply could expand your own understanding of an issue and thus put you in a stronger position to respond. It’s far better to admit ‘That’s news to me’, than try to bluff your way through an answer, especially if you don’t know what the journalist knows. That’s never a good position to be in.

There's got to be a reason for it

I’ve been a bit lax lately when it’s come to blogging. But during the hiatus it’s given me a chance to consider the fundamental purpose behind media training. Whenever I’m approached by a prospective-client I’ve not dealt with before I usually ask them a few questions first, starting with the obvious: ‘Why do you want it?’ The answers can range from the somewhat vague, ‘Because we think we need it…’ to the more specific, ‘We’ve got a major event coming up where we’re going to be talking to the press and we want to prepare for it.’

Having a clear reason for dealing with the media certainly helps justify training, especially as it’s relevant to my next question: ‘What are you going to do with it once you’ve had it?’ There’s little point going to the time and expense (but especially the time) in getting trained to deal with the Fourth Estate, if you then don’t put the learning to good use, and as often as possible.

Before pressing the button it’s also worth considering who’ll be receiving the training. Have they prior experience of talking to the media? If so, are they looking for a ‘refresher’? Are they looking for help preparing for a single media encounter, or are they expected to be in regular contact with journalists, not in terms of just delivering important news stories but also providing insightful commentary and context for ‘big picture’ stories? Why go to the trouble of schooling someone in the importance of ‘Thought Leadership’ to the media if they’re never going to be asked for it…and haven’t got it either!

Likewise, few people ever appear on ‘Newsnight’, or end up facing a senior journalist from a national broadsheet or ‘red top’. So why train them for such an encounter if your target media is the trade and specialist press or local newspapers? Maybe you’re looking to increase your presence on digital and social media? The training ‘basics’ aren’t that much different, but the context and information needs most certainly are, as is the time available in which to deliver a message. Then again, your motive for training might be to learn how to avoid those nasty elephant traps the media sets. We all know that a single disastrous high-profile media encounter can destroy an organisation’s hard-won reputation in seconds. (See previous blog on preparation!)

Whatever your media training needs, my advice to would be trainees is to look to develop the skills you need to deal with the publications, websites, or broadcasters you’re MOST likely to encounter in your everyday job. Or to put it another way, make sure you match the right person with the right media outlet, and arm them with the right messages too. Moreover, there should be a reason WHY you should want to talk to the press. If you haven’t got something that a journalist wants to hear, then why waste their time and yours? Bottom-line: if you are considering media training it should be justified, targeted, and above-all-else put to good use afterwards…otherwise, why do it?

Mind the gap...

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.

That awkward question

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.