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...
How many times have you ever heard someone being interviewed say: ‘That’s a really interesting question’? Unfortunately, ‘interesting’ questions can blow you seriously off-course in an interview. For example: You enter your media encounter with three clear messages you want to get over to the journalist. But before you can even get started, they ask you about something you find interesting. And because you do find it so interesting, you then proceed to witter on about it until before you know it your time’s up. After the reporter has gone away you suddenly remember those three key points you wanted to make. So, how many did you make? Three? Two? One? None?
It’s a difficult call, as an interesting question can be the perfect lead-in to a point you want to make and the perfect excuse for raising it. But it can also take you down a rabbit hole of your own making where you wind up saying far too much about something that’s peripheral to the conversation. The moral? Beware of being distracted!
But how DO you avoid being diverted by an interesting question that’s not relevant? You can start by telling the journalist: ‘If there’s time, I’ll come back to that―but right now I want to talk about something that’s more important to your readers/listeners/followers.’ Of course, you then need to convince them WHY what you want to say matters to their audience. Otherwise, why should they write, tweet, blog or broadcast about it? And if you haven’t got a good reason as to why it’s important don’t be surprised if they don’t cover it.
Naturally, journalists aren’t easily deflected. It’s their job to be persistent. And what you might think is peripheral to your conversation could be at the very heart of what they want to discuss and pursue. It’s not about dodging questions, though. It’s about who sets the agenda in a press encounter that’s liable to be time constrained. So, if you’ve not prepared sufficiently beforehand and haven’t got messages that matter to a journalist, don’t be surprised if they make all the running.
While we’re talking about distraction, before any media encounter for goodness-sake turn-off your phone! It’s not a good idea to keep telling a journalist: ‘Sorry, can I just answer/look at this?’ At best it wastes valuable time, time you could be using to get those important messages over. At worst it’s disrespectful. You might think you’re multi-tasking, but really, you’re just being side-tracked. If a journalist kept interrupting your flow by answering their phone, how would you feel about it? Not too happy I’d imagine. So why do it to them?
Bottom line, if you’re going to talk to a journalist, you’d better have some clear messages in your head and a strategy for getting them over fast. But above-all-else, no matter how ‘interesting’ a question might be, if it’s not relevant to the discussion park it. Then, only if there’s enough time, go back to it. Considering how little time you might have to get your messages over you can’t afford to be distracted…
Do you have a ‘hinterland’? I mean personally not geographically. It was once said of Baroness Thatcher: “She has no hinterland; in particular she has no sense of history.” Whether that was true or not I couldn’t say, but what I do know is that having an interesting pastime outside of your every day job can be useful thing if you’re talking to the media.
As a business journalist I often found myself seated next to the CEO, MD, or Chairman of a large company, usually at a dinner or lunch after the official press event was over. Rather than simply carry-on talking business, I often threw in the following opening gambit: “What do you do when you’re not running a multi-million pound/dollar/euro/yen company?” It wasn’t as if they were a exactly a complete stranger to me―I usually knew their corporate back story thanks to their company biography and various press cuttings. But what I didn’t always know about was their interest in life beyond the business and being seated beside them seemed the perfect time to find out.
By now you might well be thinking: ‘Why on earth did you waste time on idle chit-chat when you had the perfect chance to subject them to a one-to-one grilling on business strategy, company results, or recent disasters?’ It’s a fair question, and for the record I often did. Only those conversations tended to dry up pretty-quickly as having risen to such lofty heights within their organization they would have been advised by their Corporate Comms people well in advance as to what they should, and more importantly, shouldn’t say to a journalist…
But why ask specifically about their pastimes, hobbies, or passions? Because as a journalist it was a great opportunity to gain an additional insight into their persona beyond the boardroom and balance sheet. Admittedly, enquiring about their hinterland didn’t always yield anything startling. But on the odd occasion it proved very illuminating for me as a journalist as it provided me with an additional and unique glimpse into what made them ‘tick.’
Look at the editorial profile of a senior company executive, whether in magazine, newspaper or on a website and you’ll often find a passing reference to their personal background. If handled well, it can add an extra layer of context and human interest to the story. Naturally it’s also all grist to the mill for a journalist trying to paint a full picture of the person they’re profiling. You never know, the journalist may share the same passion, which could make for another helpful 'connection'.
So, if your Corporate Comms people tell you they’ve set up an interview with a journalist don’t be surprised if the reporter asks you to tell them a bit about yourself―once the usual business questions have run out. They’re not being nosey. It’s just their way of getting to know and understand you better. And an interesting hinterland can be a good way of adding an extra perspective to their story. So be prepared to polish yours up, you never know when you might be asked about it…
The future doesn’t always turn out like we expect it to. I saw a perfect example of that the other day whilst browsing through a book of US advertisements from the 1960s. One in-particular (from 1968) got me thinking. It featured a photograph of a device called the Picturephone―basically a landline telephone (remember those?) linked to a small TV monitor. According to the accompanying text: “Someday [it didn’t say when] it will let you see who you’re talking to and let them see you.” Amazing!
Fifty years on it turns out the idea of being able to communicate with someone over long-distances and see them at the same time was spot-on, indeed nowadays it’s commonplace, only not with a Picturephone. Instead, we do it with Skype, Teams and Zoom, using a PC, laptop, tablet, or smartphone, those last three devices being highly portable and certainly not reliant on a landline.
So far so blah, but why mention it now? If there’s one thing journalists love it’s predicting the future, even though their predictions usually come from someone else. Like a far-sighted business expert, an all-seeing industry guru or a recognized thought leader. And while a journalist may not of have come up with a particular prediction, inevitably it becomes associated with them―not least because their byline is usually attached to the story. As for their audience, well who doesn’t like a bit of future gazing?
Given all that, no senior executive attending a company event or industry gathering should be surprised if a journalist asks them: ‘What happens next?’ The ‘what’ in question could be anything from a forthcoming change in legislation to a new business trend, or the arrival of a disruptive new entrant in the marketplace.
Should you be asked to predict the future it’s tempting to immediately offer an opinion, not least to show a journalist that you’ve got a real handle on what lies further down the road. But have you? Will the future turn the way you think it will? Are you sure? Have you supporting data, facts and context to back-up your forecast? Is it something that’s happened before and which you have experience of? Or are you just relying on a ‘gut-feel’?
Many moons ago a famous newspaper editor was invited to appear on an all-night TV election special as a recognized political pundit. However, long before all the votes had been counted, he was asked who was going to win. “We all try to be wise before the event,” he said “But I find it much easier to be wise after the event…” Not a bad piece of advice. So, if you are asked to predict the future answer with care. Above-all-else, if it’s too early to say then say so, and say why. Otherwise, risk getting it wrong. Somewhat unfairly, journalists are fond of pointing out when a prediction doesn’t come true, whilst conveniently forgetting when theirs fall wide of the mark…but that’s the media for you.