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’.
TIPS OF THE TRADE
* Be concise whatever the media
* Be prepared to work out who you are and what you are before you begin
* 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
* 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
* 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
WHERE TO GO... WHAT TO LOOK FOR
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.