Handling the media needn’t be intimidating or confrontational. Help is available for learning how to deal effectively with journalists. Ruth Nicholas offers some advice

Handling the media needn’t be intimidating or confrontational. Help is

available for learning how to deal effectively with journalists. Ruth

Nicholas offers some advice

Everyone who deals with the press - and anyone who might - should be

given media training. Journalists would much rather talk to someone who

knows what they want and how to give it to them than a media virgin who

is too terrified to say anything at all.

‘No one in marketing can hope to do their job properly without an

appreciation of the potential impact of media coverage on their

marketing programmes,’ states Nick Fitzherbert, managing director of the

Fitzherbert Partnership. Indeed, skilful manipulation of the press can

generate acres of free advertising, as Wonderbra so amply demonstrated.

Training gives people the confidence to get their side of the story

across which, believe it or not, is what journalists want. Contrary to

popular belief, they are not out to string you up by your verbal short

and curlies. They have stories to get not axes to grind.

‘One of the first things we have to do is convince clients not to take

questions personally,’ says Lexis Public Relations joint managing

director Bill Jones, a former journalist. ‘Another is to show them that

if you don’t give a journalist any facts you can’t be surprised when

they write speculative stories.’

Media training can also help you discover what your story really is.

‘When companies try to analyse their strengths they often come up with

things like ‘We’re friendly’, ‘We offer a world-class service’ and other

bullshit,’ Jones explains.

‘Coming face to face with a journalist who really knows his or her stuff

and who asks hard objective questions confronts them with the inadequacy

of those statements. We spend a lot of time retraining people to speak

in plain English not marketing jargon, to be down to earth and to

communicate in a warm, human way.’

Buying in a journalist for a day of simulated interviews is one of the

most popular forms of media training. Exposing clients to ‘real’

reporters, albeit in mock situations, gives them a better understanding

of how and why hacks operate and shows them there’s no need to be

frightened, he adds.

But shelling out pounds 4000 to be savaged by a celebrity hack is rarely

the answer, according to Countrywide Communications deputy managing

director Chris Wood, and could be more hindrance than help. ‘Often, they

merely succeed in demonstrating their journalistic prowess while

demoralising their victims,’ she says.

Fitzherbert is not so harsh: ‘You have to question whether you’ll be

able to use what you learn from such people - they may be too far

removed from the real world pressures and constraints in which you

operate.’ He and his peers try to match clients with ‘appropriate’

journalists, which usually means specialists.

‘We want people who can ask well-informed questions,’ says Jones who

always takes the precaution of giving trainees a thorough press

interview briefing regardless of their assumed expertise. Prices start

at about pounds 400 for a day.

Fitzherbert cautions against putting too much emphasis on training

people to appear on radio and TV. ‘Their chance of using such training

may be very remote, while dealing with journalists on the phone may be a

daily occurrence,’ he comments.

However, being in front of a camera can be an enlightening experience.

‘Some people are naturals, natural smilers, and they come over as

relaxed and confident,’ says Jones. ‘Others look, well, shifty and

untrustworthy. One of our clients looks like a criminal on the telly.

Thankfully, he spotted that for himself.’

Wood believes the simulated press conference, ‘as the finale to a series

of tailored courses’, reveals, exposes and teaches most.

‘The client is forcefully presented with the scale and ferocity of what

can go wrong if they’re ill-prepared or not in full control of their

material,’ she says.

Taking and retaining that control is a tricky business especially

against people adept at slipping in real left field questions when

you’re least expecting it. Jones likens dealing with a journalist to

‘parrying a fencing match’. But he stresses that avoiding questions is

not the answer. ‘We don’t want to teach our clients to answer questions

like politicians who are incapable of saying yes or no. There are times

when you can’t shilly shally around and you have to say ‘No, I am not

prepared to tell you’.’

And, believe me, even that is better than saying ‘no comment’.


* Be concise whatever the media

* Be prepared to work out who you are and what you are before you begin

an interview

* Don’t be afraid to ask questions - most journalists will give you a

brief outline of the areas they want to cover

* Ask for time to think - deadlines permitting, an answer in five

minutes is better than a ‘no comment’ now for everyone

* Don’t welsh on your deals - if you say you’ll call back in ten minutes

do it or suffer the consequences

* If you don’t know the answer to a question admit it

* If you have no intention of answering a question say so - don’t waste

time skirting the issue

* Don’t distinguish between live and recorded interviews - treat them

all as live

* Don’t get trapped into commenting on something you haven’t seen or

heard for yourself

* Don’t mention the alternative point of view - it may end up as a

stand-alone soundbite

* Don’t say ‘no comment’ unless you absolutely have to and if possible

explain why you can’t comment

* Always check both you and the journalist are working to the same

definition of ‘off the record’

* Always state something is ‘off the record’ before you say it not


* Always ask what the first question is going to be in broadcast

interviews - it will give you at least a few seconds to think about the


* Always keep a glass of water handy in TV interviews - a sip can buy

you valuable thinking time if you get into trouble (remember Harold

Wilson’s pipe)

* Don’t strike any pose a photographer asks of you - there’s a fine line

between fun and undignified and you may end up as the marketing

equivalent of the Liberal MP pictured sitting on the fence

* Never lie to or fall out with a journalist - ultimately you can’t win


Any PR agency worth its salt will be able to arrange media training.

There are dozens of small, specialist firms and freelance media trainers

most of whom are former hacks. And few (practising) journalists are

above prostituting their talents for a fee.

Check trade press for details but the best advice is to ask around and

approach people that have a good reputation or that you personally

respect and/or admire.

Don’t try and do it on the cheap - you really will get monkeys if you

pay peanuts - and don’t expect whomever you hire to be psychic. Work out

your objectives and precisely what you hope to gain from training.

If you hire a journalist for a day of mock interviewing, do not expect

him or her to do anything more than turn up and ask questions. It’s

imperative they’re well briefed.

Trainers, however, should automatically research delegates’ level of

experience, objectives, likely exposure to the press etc, before a

course and offer a range of support material.

Look for people with relevant experience who create training programmes

according to your particular needs rather than off-the-peg formats.

Remember, few of us will make it onto Newsnight but most of us have to

use the phone.


Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus
Brand Republic Jobs

subscribe now


John Lewis walks consumers through its history to celebrate 150 years of business
Waitrose boosts content strategy with 'Weekend Kitchen with Waitrose' C4 tie-up
Hottest virals: Cute puppies star in Pedigree ad, plus Idris Elba and Fruyo
Amnesty International burns candles to illuminate new hope
Toyota achieves the impossible by calming angry Roman drivers
Tom of Finland's 'homoerotic' drawings made into stamps
YouTube reveals user habits to appeal to 'older' marketers
Ex-M&S marketing chief Steven Sharp consulting at WPP
Wolff Olins reveals new CEO after Apple poaches Karl Heiselman
Glasgow offers £30,000 prize to best digital idea for 2014 Commonwealth Games
Google's revenues surge but shares drop as it grapples with transition to mobile
Facebook beats Twitter to most 'marketing friendly' social media site crown, says DMA
Fableists believe children like Finn should be outdoors enjoying life
Homebase, Baileys and Camelot join the line-up at Media360
MasterCard renews Rugby World Cup sponsorship to push cashless message
Lynx unleashes £9m 'Peace invasion' campaign
Social Brands 100 Youth: Pizza Hut most social youth brand in UK
Cheryl Cole is wild and arresting in new L'Oreal work
Morrisons told not to show alcohol ads during YouTube nursery rhymes
O2 head of brand Shadi Halliwell departs after 23 years at company in restructure
Tesco hit by further sales decline as it turns to digital Clubcard and social network
Branding guru Wally Olins dies aged 83
Duracell short film captures epic Transatlantic voyage
Ash runs Tinder experiment to show smokers are less desirable to opposite sex
British Airways teams up with Gerry Cottle Jnr for summer of rooftop film screenings
Arklu says 'girls can be superheroes too' with doll design competition
Coke enters squash market with Oasis Mighty Drops
Virgin Galactic signs up Land Rover as space flight sponsor
Motorola marketer Andrew Morley departs as Google gears up for sale to Lenovo
US Airways apologises after tweeting obscene image at a customer