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...

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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…

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.

Unravelling the media...and the old 'normals'

With COVID-19 changing the face of society, industry and the economy, the media won’t be left untouched. In a post-pandemic world, some things are unlikely to get back to the old ‘normals’. But which ones?

1/. ‘Big Ticket’ events. Whether it’s launching a new product or making a major announcement, COVID has forced organizations to do more things on-line. So post pandemic why go back to spending vast amounts on high-end venues and lavish-entertainment when a press event can all be done virtually, via a web-based ‘experience’, for a fraction of the cost? Getting journalists to register on-line in advance also helps gauge the numbers likely to attend. And while they may miss the social interaction few of them will resent the time they've saved by attending a web event.

2/. Free news. On the basis that ‘Good journalism costs money’, with the notable exception of the BBC the traditional mainstream news publishers increasingly want readers to pay for on-line content. So, expect to see more paywalls and hoops to jump through if you want in-depth coverage beyond the headlines. But regardless of whether-or-not they charge you for their content, most providers will probably want you to register and set-up an account―allowing them to gather data on who’s reading their content. Those data demographics are highly attractive to potential advertisers.

3/. Large editorial teams. Unquestionably, COVID-19 has accelerated the previous on-going process of the slimming-down editorial teams, particularly amongst specialist and trade titles and regional and local newspapers. The pandemic has also opened the door wider to home-working and the shrinking size of editorial offices. Meanwhile, ‘Citizen Journalism’ is creating vast amounts of content (especially images) that the news organizations now tap into. Why send a journalist and photographer to cover a fire when you can acquire content from bystanders with a smartphone?

4/. Trust in the media. Investigations into press behavior have severely undermined whatever belief the public had in the media’s credibility. Consequently, for far too many people the default position now is one of skepticism, cynicism or plain outright denial if a story doesn’t fit their worldview. Simply crying ‘Fake News!’ has also become a great way of dismissing a story without having to prove it actually IS fake. And when social media users believe everything they read it’s only going to get harder for the mainstream media to convince people to view it as the one trustworthy source for news and information.

5/. Hard copy will always be around… perhaps. After a slow and sometimes confusing start, having created on-line versions of their traditional hard-copy publications media companies are now adding unique ‘added-value’ content to their digital offerings. But only to their digital offerings. And it’s not just breaking news either, but commentary, insight and features―the stuff that was previously kept for the hard-copy product. Yet ‘When does everything go on-line?’ is almost the wrong question. What matters for consumers of editorial content is being able to access it in the format of their choice. So whether hard copy lives or dies will ultimately be decided by how much longer the content providers think it’s worth continuing to spend their money on a non-digital format for a dwindling generation that still likes the feel of newsprint…

The direct approach

How ‘direct’ should you be when talking to the media? Some interviewees clearly think a combative approach is the best way to engage with the Fourth Estate. I don’t advise it. It seldom does anyone any good and merely encourages a journalist to come back at you. In my experience, ‘Bare-knuckle’ interviews, especially on radio, tend to generate more heat than light, leaving the audience frustrated and, more importantly, none-the-wiser.

Still, there are times when you need to tell your inquisitor “You’re wrong”. But how to do it without things kicking-off? If you disagree with a journalist say calmly-but-firmly: “I disagree” or “No, that’s not right” (it doesn’t hurt to smile when you say it!) before supporting your challenge with solid facts that prove your version of events is correct. That’s why preparing well in advance for difficult or awkward questions is vital if you hope to have an acceptable outcome to any media encounter.

Journalists often have ‘Bees in their Bonnets’ (I’ve known some to have the occasional hive) and all that buzzing can become very noisy. Therefore, it’s important to question their agenda if you don’t think it’s the right one. Remember, at times they can be ‘hidden’, so you need to flush them out into the open in-order to address or dispute them. Just remember, ‘firm’ is OK ‘blunt’ isn’t, and yes there is a difference, especially in the delivery.

I once witnessed a senior manager at a press event who, when asked a question involving a possible change of direction for his company, politely asked the journalist: “Why would I do that?” It was an interesting move. No journalist likes to think they may have asked a daft question in front of their peers. Keen to avoid that impression the reporter in question promptly explained, and in some detail too, what they were getting at. In doing so, they all-but provided the answer to their own question―which left the aforementioned-manager with the choice of either agreeing or disagreeing with their proposition. As it happened, he didn’t agree with it, and promptly went on to explain why, based on a clearer understanding of the original question. The tactic also bought him some valuable thinking time in-order to properly formulate his reply…

Not long afterwards I experienced a similar occurrence at a conference in the US. Only this time the executive in question adopted a more forthright approach to a particular question. Looking the journalist square in the eye he demanded: “What are you shooting at!” The tone may have been different, possibly even adversarial, but the motive was the same―to find out exactly what was behind their question. It worked too.

In any encounter with the media don’t be afraid to challenge your interrogator if you think they’ve got things wrong. What’s more, it’s perfectly legitimate to respond to an enquiry which is anything but straightforward with: “I don’t understand your question” ―especially if you don’t! Either way, the sooner you know exactly what’s behind a question, the sooner you can hope to answer it, and well.

It’s hard enough to communicate effectively…without these

If you want to avoid falling flat-on-your-face in a media encounter my advice is avoid clichés…like the plague (see what I did there?) Here’s another tip. Have you noticed how many people insist on starting off an answer to a question with the word ‘So…’? E.g. Interviewer: “How many people will be effected by this?” Interviewee: “So…if you look at what happening in the industry it’s likely that…blah, blah, blah.”

Quite why people do it is beyond me. It adds nothing to your answer―neither emphasis nor explanation. It’s totally redundant. The problem is whenever I hear someone using it, I start listening for them to use it again. In one recent radio interrogation the interviewee must have started every answer they gave with “So…” In the end I was so busy listening out for it I quite forgot what they were saying.

“Look…” is another popular preface, especially with sportsmen and coaches (see also “Ah, look…”.) Then there’s “sort of”, “know what I mean?” and my own particular pet-hate “Like…”, as in “I was like, so angry…” Well, what would ‘like’ angry be like? Extremely tetchy? Very irritated? Much vexed? Unless you’re going to use like in its true meaning, i.e. similar or comparable to, forget it. Unfortunately, we all pepper our speech with so much meaningless verbiage it’s a wonder we say anything worth hearing at all.

How many times have you heard someone say or read during the course of an interview: “At the end of the day”? What’s wrong with ultimately or finally? Likewise, when I hear someone say “To be honest” or “I must confess” I feel like saying “It’s OK you’re not in court!” Who can also forget “a level playing field” (see also “game changer” and “game of two halves”) and my own particular favourite “It’s not rocket science.” Well of course it isn’t―the only thing that IS rocket science is well, rocket science. All you’re really telling me when you say it is that you’re not a rocket scientist. I probably knew that already. Why not say “it’s simple”?

As for words like “paradigm”, now here’s where it gets interesting. I’m sure there’s a proper place in an interview to use paradigm but it won’t be very often. I once heard someone use it five times during a short presentation. It’s just a fancy way of saying ‘model’, ‘pattern’, ‘standard’ or ‘concept’ (amongst other things). Listen hard and you can spot verbiage a mile off (cliché alert). Sadly all-too many people think it’s a good way of communicating―it isn’t. It’s just irritating, like answering every question with “Absolutely!” A simple “yes” works just as well. If you want to communicate effectively say something that’s worth hearing in the quickest and simplest way…everything else is just static.

Preferential treatment

Thanks to smart algorithms, news providers have never been in a better position to know what you’re interested in, and to make sure you get it, and fast. Of course, they sometimes get it wrong. Who hasn’t received an e-mail that leaves you wondering ‘Why on earth am I getting this?’ However, there’s no denying that our news ‘preferences’ have gained a whole new currency to the hidden collators of personal data.

We all like using news feeds. Who’s got the time to search for vital information? And thanks to our personal preferences, we can get all the news, offers and data we want, when we want it, straight to our PC, tablet or smartphone. In return, the people sending us that information can build up a universe of ‘people like us’. And the more they send of the stuff we like, the more likely we are to click on it. It’s why political parties are so keen on social media—depending on our likes, they can determine if we’re ‘one of them’. Ditto the retailers and their ‘People that bought that also bought this’ recommendations.

Why am I telling you this? Because by restricting the information we receive to only what you like, we risk missing something we didn’t know you needed. Or as Donald Rumsfeld once said “There are things we don’t know, we don’t know.” He was right. To a greater-or-lesser degree we’re all guilty of ‘confirmation bias’, the tendency to seek-out and favour information which confirms, or strengthens, our own personal viewpoint, interests or beliefs. You can sum it up with the classic: “I know what I like, and I like what I know. And that’s all I need to know” whether that’s a favourite newsfeed, website, blog-post or podcast.

Receiving news and information that’s relevant to your business in quick time clearly lets you stay ahead of the game. However, the more you let your preferences and likes dictate what information you get, the greater the risk of missing something of equal importance simply because you didn’t ask for it. That’s why in media training I encourage people to seek out information beyond their own ‘preference pool’. A trend in say, construction or civil engineering could have cross-over implications for an-altogether different industry sector, like agriculture, aviation or bio-medicine. Naturally, it means taking the time to decide what extra information might benefit you and your business. But if you’re not prepared to broaden your horizons and look for it, how on earth will you know its significance?

Having new or different insights on the world will not only benefit your business and personal outlook, but when a journalist calls, your broader insights could also become their broader insights too. Suddenly, you don’t just know a lot about your own back-yard, but the wider world too, and how they both come together and why. In short, it’s all about context and for the journalist desperately looking for a ‘bigger picture’ story it could mean all the difference between being reported…or ignored.

The future of today – where’s the media heading?

What will the media landscape be like in the future? If I had the definitive-answer I wouldn’t be sitting in front of this computer that’s for sure. I’ve been blindsided so many times when it comes to predicting the future that I’ve decided to follow the advice of the late great Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph who when asked to predict the outcome of a general election answered: “We all try to be wise before the event, but I find it much easier to be wise after the event.” Frankly, so do I. 

Many years ago, I set-up an industry blog. Not long after a colleague told me: “Within a year 90% of all your blog posts will be reader-generated.” “Yea, right…” I thought. I’d still be the one doing all the heavy lifting in 12 months’ time. Turned out he was right. Within a year my blog took off like a rocket thanks to an amazing community that sent in more stories, videos, images and anecdotes (it’s called ‘user content’) than I could ever imagine.

I also thought that social media would struggle to communicate serious business messages. I was a mile wide on that one too. I even ended up being hired by various companies as a video presenter for YouTube promo shorts that certainly had a serious message, albeit presented in an unusual way. Like the ‘Volvo 750-tonne pull’

Over the past decade it’s become increasingly obvious that we all like to get our news in as personal way as possible―like through self-selected news alerts. And why wouldn’t you want to be told about things that interest you? However, the route to reader (or viewer or listener) is also a generational thing; a phenomenon that traditional hard-copy publishers have had to grapple with. And don’t get me started on social media and the rise of ‘citizen journalists.’

Ironically, the very institutions, companies and organisations that 30-years ago relied heavily, if not totally, on the media to tell the world about their activities have, thanks to their own corporate websites, become some of the biggest competitors to the press. Nowadays it’s not unusual for the first word of a new product or service to appear on a manufacturer’s website, before the press gets to cover it. Suddenly the old symbiotic relationship has changed.

So where does that leave the press? If it can’t be first with the news then it has to be first with the context, the explanation, the broader landscape…the ‘what it all means to you’ stuff. So while companies will inevitably put a positive spin on their ‘news’, it will be up to the media to provide the independent analysis, clarification and enlightenment. In other words what it’s always done, only now is will have to do it faster, smarter and in ways that ensure we keep coming back for more.

The 12 Golden Rules for avoiding the media

Looking for ways to avoid all those journalists who have the nerve to want to know something about your business? Bothered by those pesky nosy parkers? With tongue firmly in-cheek I offer these useful suggestions:

  1. Don’t put anything on your website that might help them – like mini biographies of senior managers, their responsibilities, or show a photograph of them. Have no ‘About us’ page.
  2. If possible don’t provide a media contact phone number, otherwise certainly don’t give the name of the person to whom all press enquiries should be directed.
  3. Divert all calls from a ‘media contact’ phone number immediately to voicemail, then don’t answer them―especially if the caller leaves more than one message.
  4. Wait two weeks before calling a journalist back to say you aren’t the right person to talk to and provide an alternative name and number. Repeat step 3.

  1. Use a generic ‘press enquiries@’ e-mail contact with a ‘No more than 500 words max’ message box. Then set it permanently on ‘Out of Office’ auto reply.
  2. After a month reply to any e-mail enquiry apologizing for the delay. Then request a list of questions for forwarding to the appropriate person.
  3. Wait two weeks before replying: ‘Thank you for your enquiry but at this moment we are not able to help with your article’.
  4. Should you actually want to engage with a journalist (highly unlikely) provide answers to questions that weren’t asked or direct them on to irrelevant areas of your website.
  5. Demand to see all copy prior to publication (even before the journalist has uttered a single word or supplied any questions) quoting ‘It’s company policy.’
  6. In the unlikely event you arrange a phone interview with the relevant person, make sure they’re absent when the journalist calls at the agreed time.
  7. Should the worst happen and a journalist manages to avoid steps 1-10 and contact a manager or executive directly their response should be “I’m sorry you’ll have to go through our PR dept. before I can talk to you” before giving them your ‘media contact’ number. Repeat stage 3.
  8. Finally, try and plan all holidays and days off within the PR/marketing department so that they coincide and overlap, thereby ensuring minimal coverage in the office. Repeat step 3.

Applying the above rules should ensure it’s extremely unlikely any journalist will ever bother you again. Of course, it means your chances of generating good media coverage for your organization or business will also be lost, but who wants to talk to journalists anyway? Plus, it will leave you with more time to monitor how much media coverage your competitors are getting…

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