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...

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.

Challengers, disrupters and contrarians

We’ve all come across them, the individuals or companies who don’t follow the herd, who aren’t thinking what you’re thinking, who are always heading in another direction. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether they have a serious point to make, and one that’s worth paying attention to, or are just doing it for effect.

Regardless of how you feel about them, there’s no denying they tend to think ‘differently’ from everyone else. And that can make them attractive to the media. Let’s face it, we all suffer from story fatigue and start to lose interest when everyone in the media runs the same story. It’s at that point editors usually ask: ‘Can’t we get a new angle on this?’

Enter the challengers, disrupters and contrarians. If you’re looking for someone to confront current thinking and rattle the status quo cage who better to talk to?

I’ve yet to meet a journalist who liked having their ‘knowledge’ questioned. Nor do they enjoy being told ‘You’ve missed the whole point of the story.’ It makes them wonder if they’ve overlooked another previously hidden narrative.

No journalist wants to admit they’ve been barking up the wrong tree. And by challenging a previously accepted storyline the challengers, disrupters and contrarians make the press think again.

Of course, if you are planning to rock the media’s boat you’d better have something solid to back-up your challenge—like an independent survey, research data, official stats, or customer experiences. In short, not ‘spin’.

Moreover, when it comes to engaging with the press the best disrupters, challengers and contrarians aren’t the ‘shouty’ ones—they’re the ones who make genuinely-interesting ‘left field’ points, calmly and with authority, and with a convincing and above-all-else believable narrative.

So can you make a journalist think twice? It’s not unusual for them to approach an interview with a preconceived idea of what the story is all about, and where it sits. They may even have the headline already written in their heads… But is that where the story really is from your perspective? Have they actually got it right? And can you show them where they’ve missed the point—and prove it? If so, you’re more likely to get them to reconsider their position and report yours.

Just remember in your desire to provide that alternative narrative it’s easy to forget the first rule of contrarianism. Namely, if you’re going to tell a journalist ‘That’s not the world as we see it’ you’d better convince them you not only know more than they do but have facts that prove it. If you can do that then you could generate fresh media coverage for yourself when everyone else thought the story was yesterday’s news…

The knowledge box – and why you should have one

In every one of my media training courses I ask trainees: “When you’re preparing for a press encounter, what’s the very-first go-to source of information you should be looking at to help you create your messages?” There’s often a marked silence, while they desperately think of an answer.

So what is this wonderful source of inspiration that senior managers should reach for ahead of any interview with a journalist? It’s a lot closer to hand than you might think.

Once a year, large corporations create an annual report, usually available as a PDF on the company website and as a glossy publication. Sadly, all-too-often it ends-up unread in a dark drawer…or the digital equivalent. Yet look inside any major company report and you’ll find it a fantastic repository of facts, figures and commentary that can help you deliver a strong narrative to the media. Need to prove you’ve increased production? Or boosted profitability? It’s all in there, and not just facts and figures.

Annual reports also often contain statements from a chairman or CEO confirming corporate strategies, onward business focus, core messages, market conditions and future commitments. They’re a veritable gold mine.

Moreover, the information within them will have been approved (or should have been!) by the corporate communications team, as well as the accountants and auditors. So it’s ‘safe’ to refer to.

But there’s an even more important reason why you should read it—because a journalist can too. It’s the quickest way to get valuable ‘background’ on a business ahead of an interview. That’s not all they’ll read either. Your quarterly results, investor statements, press releases, website, social media pages. In fact, anything you’ve recently put into the public domain they could ask you about. So you need to absorb it before they do. After all, you wouldn’t want them knowing more about your business than you do…would you?

But how can you make all that information work for you? The answer is to create a ‘Knowledge Box’, a handy place for all the recently published corporate material your business has put out which you can refer to and use whenever you need to create messages ahead of an encounter with the press. It can be in a folder within the company’s intranet, or even a simple box-file with hard-copy literature.

Only don’t keep it to yourself. Share the knowledge amongst your colleagues and they could well have useful business information you were unaware of that you can use the next time you talk to a journalist. And don’t just restrict it to corporate information. Put in business surveys, media articles, Government reports, anything that can help establish you amongst the press as a ‘thought leader’ in your market sector.

Better still task someone in your organisation to be the official keeper of that knowledge box—someone who’ll keep it regularly up-dated and encourage everyone to contribute to it too. But whatever you put in it, the very first thing should be the annual report. Just make sure you read it first…

Training 2.1 – reset to on-line?

If there’s one thing we’ve learned during this awful pandemic, it’s that we don’t have to be ‘face-to-face’ to communicate with one another. That certainly goes for training. Yes, online meet ups can be clunky, and who doesn’t miss the natural interaction of being with people in the same place at the same time?

Only just think if Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams weren’t available? How would we manage then? Imagine trying to conduct a training session over the phone, asking someone: “OK can you move on to the next Powerpoint slide please? What’s that? You didn’t get the presentation…? Hold on I’ll resend it. Aaargh! It says your inbox is full…can I WeTransfer it to you instead? Just give me 10 minutes.”

As a media trainer I’ve had to reimagine how to deliver my course during the various lockdowns, firebreaks and quarantines. I’ve had to consider what works best for clients and in particular rethink the time needed for effective delivery. Normally, I’d allow up-to five hours for a face-to-face group session.

That was never going to work online. It’s now a maximum of three hours, with four or five short screen breaks in-between to avoid ‘screen-itis’. Start promptly at 9:00 and by midday everything can be done and dusted allowing everyone to get on with the rest of their day, which is what they want to do. So far, client feedback has been very positive.

A shorter timeframe naturally meant deciding what course content to keep, and what I had to leave out. Simply talking faster was never an option! Rather than try and put up a whole load of stuff online and risk losing everyone’s attention, I’ve been sending out separate complimentary material which allows trainees to absorb it in their own time.

Like most other people working online I’ve had to understand how to get the most from Microsoft Teams and Zoom―including encouraging as much interactivity as possible, along with the best moment to ask people to ‘mute’ their mics! There’s nothing more off-putting than hearing your own voice echoing back to you as you’re speaking, or those unintended ‘noises off’.

As we all struggle to find some normality in our lives we’re having to do many things differently. Remote training is certainly different. But with some forethought, reflection and re-setting it can be the work-around that still works for you.