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...

Don’t know? Then say so!

According to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme presenter Nick Robinson, politicians should be brave enough to say ‘I don’t know’ if they’re asked a question to which they don’t have an answer― rather than try to cover up any lack of knowledge with some meaningless sound bite. He’s right of course. Better to admit from the start that you don’t have an answer, than to try to waffle your way through as the chances are you’ll only end-up digging yourself into an even-deeper hole. It’s strange that whenever someone asks us a question, we almost feel obliged to answer it immediately, even if we haven’t a clue what to say. Not to answer seems almost like bad manners, or worse still a sign of evasion. And besides, who wants to admit their ignorance? Better to appear as if you know the answer, even if you don’t.

However, I’ve always thought it was a good idea to heed the words of the famous fleet street editor who cautioned: ‘Some people try to be wise before the event. I prefer to be wise after it.’ Not a bad piece of advice at that. Unfortunately, it’s not always obvious at the beginning of an event what are the real facts behind it. New information has a way of regularly popping-up along the way which then changes the whole complexion of things. If (as the cliché goes) it’s not over till it’s over, it’s probably better to wait till it really is over before you say anything.

Of course, that doesn’t stop journalists asking you questions while things are still unfolding. The classic being: ‘What does this all mean?’ But if you don’t know what it all means, you should say so and why. It’s perfectly legitimate to wait until things become clearer and everything is in the open, rather than speculate while the balls are still in play. Unless you have a particularly good idea of how things will pan out, perhaps based on previous experience or reliable inside knowledge, I’d be wary of guessing―as you could end up guessing wrong.

The trouble with journalists is that they’re only too keen to remind you if you’ve got a prediction wrong, even if they conveniently forget their own mistakes! So, if you are asked a question that you can’t answer, or to comment upon something that’s still unraveling, save yourself a lot of bother and subsequent backtracking and simply admit you don’t know. It’s not a crime. Besides, if you can be truly wise after an event, the media is just as likely to come back to you, especially if you’ve got something cogent to say. Just remember that the first thought that pops into your head isn’t necessarily the best. If you’re not sure of the answer, hit pause and find out what’s really happening. For as Bill Gates famously said: ‘I don’t know has become I don’t know yet.’

The value of face-to-face

When all the restrictions on social mixing are finally lifted, and not just the Government ones but those imposed by companies in-order to protect their staff, how will you handle relations with the media going forward? Given how, thanks to COVID, so many conversations with the press have moved on-line it’s probably inevitable that post-pandemic those holders of the corporate purse strings will be asking their counterparts in various PR departments: “Do we really need to go back to the previous level of spending on ‘real’ press events? You seem to have managed OK without them.” It should make for an interesting discussion. Either way, regardless of whether you’re a provider or a creator of news, there’s no denying the savings in time and money delivered by virtual conversations with journalists.

Having recently witnessed various on-line product launches at first-hand, I’ve no doubt the phenomena of dealing with the media ‘virtually’ will continue to grow. What better way for a time-starved journalist to recoup much-needed minutes than by watching a press event from the comfort of their own desk? And why travel many miles just to interview someone when you can do it all remotely?

While the benefits of Skype, Teams and Zoom are there for all to see (literally) it’s harder to put a value on meeting someone ‘in person’. After months of digital separation, don’t underestimate the importance of once again talking to the press ‘in person’ rather than simply via the internet. Face-to-face conversations are the bedrock upon which strong relationships and mutual trust are built. And not just for journalists, but for everyone. I was reminded of this fact recently after hearing comments from a psychologist on a fascinating TED Radio Hour talk on BBC Sounds

As a business journalist I always felt interviewing someone face-to-face delivered much more than a telephone call. Physically seeing them in their own environment provided a lot more context to what they were saying. Body language, facial expression, personal background (some call it ‘Hinterland’), all are nuances that aren’t particularly easy to spot on a computer screen. Whereas witnessing them in real life can help ensure the right message is received by the person asking the questions.

Ironically, some of the most important and illuminating conversations I had as a business journalist came from casually bumping into various corporate movers and shakers, usually at an industry event. The kind of ad hoc, spur of the moment, non-time managed chats that not only helped me understand what was happening in their world, but also in the world around us. A face-to-face encounter with a journalist can create a positive relationship that has the potential to exist long after the initial story has been written.

When we can all finally mix freely again (and hopefully it won’t be too long now), if you’ve got something to tell a journalist and you were planning to do it via an on-line conversation, just pause a moment to consider what you might gain from doing it face-to-face.

Bad there any other way to tell it?

There’s an adage amongst PR practitioners that when it comes to delivering bad news you should always ‘Tell the truth, tell it all and tell it quickly.’ I’m inclined to agree. It can be painful, even embarrassing, to admit an error or a calamity. But the more you try to deny or obfuscate, the more a journalist is likely to come back at you with some inconvenient truths. That doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person. They’re simply doing their job. And the longer you leave it the harder things may become.

Unfortunately, when it comes to forecasting activities in the corporate world, for example growth projections, increased production or improved revenues, there’s hardly an organization that isn’t hostage to what the late British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called ‘Events’. And as journalists tend to remember the promises you made, don’t be surprised if they regularly revisit them, if only to see if you’re keeping to them. (See previous remark about jobs).

Just as an annual company report can be an excellent tool to prove you delivered what you promised, it can also show if you missed your targets. Those are the breaks. Thus, when it comes to conveying disappointing news it’s not only important to tell it quickly, but to also follow it up by explaining what caused your grand plan to be blown off-course. If you can say what those ‘events’ were, you’ll stand a better chance of being on the receiving end of what I’d call neutral media coverage. Yes, the press will report your problems, but they’re far more likely to include any mitigating circumstances in their story if you go out of your way to add the all-important context.

Don’t wait for a journalist to ask an awkward question first. Early explanation is better than delayed reaction. As a business journalist I once attended a press event held by a large company which featured the first appearance of a new CEO. At the time, the business was an underperformer in the market with both its products and organization, and life being unfair the assembled hacks couldn’t wait to apprise the new incumbent of the true situation. Only they were beaten to it.

Instead of trying to gloss over its problems to a sceptical media audience–which was what we all expected and were looking forward to ‘debating’―the new appointee proceeded to list what was wrong with the business, before describing what steps were needed to put things right. Instead of trying to paint a rosy picture to a group of hardened industry observers who knew otherwise, he told the truth, told it all and quickly. And he immediately gained respect for it. Show me a journalist who doesn’t like a straight talker. Clearly, any turnaround wasn’t going to happen overnight, we all knew that. But there was an open acceptance as to how things really stood, which was what mattered. Being upfront and prompt with bad news can lead to a stronger relationship with your media. Of course, you can always try it the other way…

Hard copy still hard to ignore

In an ever-more connected world of digital media full of tweets, blogs, podcasts and on-line reportage it’s easy to dismiss hard-copy publications as yesterday’s news…literally. Yet despite the current electronic onslaught the printed word will be with us for many years to come. In fact, I’d wager that specialist, business and so-called ‘trade’ magazines will be amongst the very last to go totally digital.

While industry watchers point to the growing trend towards digital publications I can’t help wondering if they’re ‘watching’ the readers of consumer titles―rather than those of specialist, business and trade magazines, where you should want your company to appear in.

You don’t need to point out to me that the owners of hard-copy business titles have been quick to create parallel web-based versions often with unique digital-only content. Yet the hard-copy publications on which those digital versions are based remain. What’s more, they continue to defy the Jeremias who predicted that by now they’d have fallen by the digital wayside.

So why haven’t they? My view is that until someone comes up with a digital platform that’s as accessible and reader friendly as the printed word, one that doesn’t need to be plugged-in, switched-on, recharged and connected to the internet, then hard copy publications will be around for many more years. It’s why you can’t afford to leave hard copy out of any conversation you’re having as to which media is best for your business.

Amongst those journalists working on those hard-copy publications you’ll find a highly experienced cadre of expert observers and opinion formers who are keenly followed by business decision-makers who want to find out what they’ve got say. Or to put it another way, they’re the kind of journalists you should be thinking about engaging with. Specialist business magazines have a way of drawing-in readers that you won’t find with digital equivalents. That’s not to ignore or dismiss journalists working on digital titles. It’s simply to point out that there are plenty of good journalists other than e-journalists.

Of course, the printed word can’t match the instant deliverability of a digital publications particularly when it comes to news. It’s why weekly or monthly titles have increasingly pointed their editorial-mix towards more commentary and features. Less time-sensitive, more topical, with a focus on context and explanation. In short, the sort of writing you’re prepared to wait for, writing that leaves you wiser, more aware of the bigger picture. Conversely, digital works best when you’re in a hurry to get the top-line story without endless scrolling―because it’s faster with the facts. That’s why it should be part of your media shopping list, especially when you’ve got something to say in a hurry.

Meanwhile, the next time you scope your industry media (and you should be doing it regularly to detect any changes and trends) you might be surprised by how many hard-copy publications are still covering your industry. Titles with longstanding reputations for providing business insight and wisdom that’s highly valued by their readers. All-the-more reason then why you should want to be featured in them…wouldn’t you say?

Proactive or reactive? Which are you?

The other day I was reading an article about a leading expert on ‘connectional intelligence’ who had some extremely helpful advice on how to communicate more effectively when using e-mails, texts, or on-line conversations. However, I was particularly struck by their remark: “A phone call is worth a thousand emails.” You bet. For all the positives of e-mail (and there are many) the messages contained within them can all-too-often be misunderstood, misinterpreted or simply ignored.

More worrying is how e-mail tends to engender ‘reactiveness’―the urge to immediately respond to every message that arrives in your in-box, temporarily abandoning whatever else you might be doing that’s far more important. But is being reactive a good way to build relationships with the media? For it to work it requires journalists to already know all about your business and what you’re currently up-to. Do they? Are they regularly contacting you with requests for more information or interviews? If not, it might be time to try a different tack.

But why should a proactive approach be any better? Because journalists today have very-little spare time on their hands. Consequently, they habitually revisit those readily accessible sources they can rely on to provide them with news, background information and context― in short decent copy. That doesn’t make them lazy. It’s simply a corollary of a wider job description that nowadays requires journalists to produce not only content for hard-copy publications, but also for websites, blogs, social media, podcasts, and YouTube. Faced with that challenge it’s hardly surprising they have so little time to find out what they don’t know they don’t know. Thus, an organisation that both pro-actively and regularly contacts the press will be in a better position to build a relationship than one that simply responds to a call, should it ever happen.

So, when was the last time you called (not e-mailed) a journalist to tell them about your new product or service, or offer them some exclusive industry research you’ve commissioned? How long since you invited them to talk to that person in your organisation who’s especially good at explaining trends and the ‘bigger picture’? (Assuming you’ve got one.) Start by asking your media: ‘What’s currently the hot topic for your readers/viewers/listeners? What information do they want that you struggle to deliver? Is it something we can provide?’ And take it from there. Choose your media outlets carefully, however. Target those journalists or editors for whom your business is relevant. Scatterguns seldom hit worthwhile targets.

A single phone call could provide an unexpected opportunity to embed messages about your business with a journalist whilst providing them with useful content for their audience. But without calling them first how will they know what you’ve got to offer? Only be prepared to be persistent. Busy people (and not just journalists) are likely to say: ‘Not now thanks…’ To which your answer should be: ‘So when would be a good time?’ And get it in the diary. What would you prefer? Proactively discovering what your media wants and helping deliver it…or waiting for that e-mail or text that may never come?

Are you in the picture?

At this point I need to declare an interest. I’m an ex-snapper. I trained as a photographer, did three years at Art School, Diploma in Professional Photography, started off in business life as one…yadda, yadda, yadda. Then I switched to journalism, which is another story altogether. However, that training in the visual arts stood me in good stead as an editor when it came to how I thought a magazine should look. Whether it’s a hard-copy publication or a company website, you’ll always attract more readers and followers if you’ve got stunning/arresting/thought-provoking/quirky photography.

‘A picture is worth a 1,000 words’ might be a cliché, but it’s also true. How else to explain the proliferation of images on social media? Though of course that may be because the words on social media leave much to be desired… Nevertheless! Even the most mundane of press pronouncements stand a better chance of being noticed if they’re accompanied by an attractive high-res image. OK, so the story might not get used but the picture eventually may. A good image has the potential to stick around for far longer than the words that went with it and be used again and again. We’re talking of course about ‘stock’ pictures.

The problem with photography today is that thanks to the ubiquitous smartphone everyone thinks they can take a good photograph. Consequently, far-too many people in the Corporate Comms business believe you don’t need photographers anymore. Why pay money for an expert with an ‘eye’ when you can just point and click and voila! You have an image. But is it one that will get you noticed, rather than simply being a visual record of something or other? Naturally, as an ex-photographer I would say that. But if two stories have the same editorial merit, the one with the better picture is more likely to be used.

Of course, the real skill is creating a stunning image out of the mundane, the everyday. That’s when having an ‘eye’ matters. It’s also why picture libraries with imaginative stock images are so useful for the media. But could your own company provide stock, or more accurately, ‘generic’ images that just happen to feature your product or services, albeit subtly? The next time you commission a photographer to take some specific shots for you, ask them if they can also get some decent generic pictures that might be used, say, with the announcement of company quarterly results, or your annual report.

And here’s another left-field suggestion. Why not talk to the art editors on those specialist and business magazines that cover your industry and ask them: ‘What sort of stories do you struggle to illustrate?’ Then see if you can come up with suitable images of your own to support them, naturally referencing your company or business activities somewhere in the background and supply them FoC. As publishing budgets get ever-tighter your generic shots could prove attractive to a cash-strapped editor. So, the next time they run a broad-brush story about the state of the industry who knows, your business could be in the picture…literally.