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...

Posts from the year 2021...

Lights, camera, traction...

If a picture is worth a 1,000-words, what about a 45-second YouTube video? More and more companies are nowadays placing short videos on the aforementioned-ubiquitous platform to deliver a message to the media, often in-place of traditional press releases. It’s not hard to see why. Video has much to recommend it. Within three minutes or less, it can be a highly effective way to get a message, or messages, over to a journalist in a hurry. And what journalist isn’t in a hurry given that nowadays they’re not only expected to provide content for hard copy and digital magazines but also websites and social media too.

As an occasional video presenter, I’ve always enjoyed working with the format. It’s a task-and-finish job where 99% of the work is in the preparation, just like any encounter with the media. The analogy is obvious―just as you have-to learn a script for a video, you need to learn your lines for a press interview. And as with a short video, in a press interview you need to be able to get your messages over quickly and succinctly. Of course, the real expertise comes in the post-production phase where the video editors sprinkle their pixie dust over it prior to uploading it. That to me is where the true magic of video is to be found.

Yet despite its obvious attractions, video tends to be a ‘one-way’ process. Once you’ve clicked on the link to watch one that’s it. You either accept the messages in them; and want to find out more. Or you find something better to do. There’s none of the interaction of, say, a traditional press event where a journalist can ask a question―and hopefully get an answer. It’s hard for journalists to follow-up on a video unless you embed suitable contact information within it for them, or if they already happen to know who to call. So, a video without a follow-up mechanism runs the risk of being a dead-end, rather than a means to an end.

Leaving aside that obvious caveat, a short video can be a great tool for highlighting new products, services, or initiatives. And the more imaginative, quirky, or eye-catching, the better the chances of it being watched and remembered. Only before you start shooting, or even creating a script, you really should ask yourself “What are we doing it for?” Is it a heads-up or teaser to a forthcoming press conference that will encourage journalists to put the date in their diary? Or is it a bit of stand-alone entertainment which reinforces your brand and requires no further action from the media beyond them watching it?

There’s nothing wrong with using video as a different way to attract a journalist’s attention, especially if it’s engaging and amusing. But if you want to use video to really communicate with the media, along with all the novelty, entertainment, excitement, and ballyhoo you’d better be delivering some key stories too. If you’re going to use YouTube for business, then treat it in a business-like way. Or to put it another way, the ‘medium’ shouldn’t be more important than your ‘message’….

Please hold caller....

How easy is it for a journalist to talk to you or your company…especially if they’ve never spoken to you before? Who in your organization is the best person to kick-start a conversation with the media and how far do they go out of their way to be accessible? Any journalist looking to get a quick heads-up on your business will inevitably go to your website as it’s by far the most convenient starting point.

Assuming they like what they see and want to find out more they’ll doubtless hit the ‘contact us’ button on your home page. And then what do they find? A direct landline number for your switchboard? A dedicated number and the name of the person for ‘media-enquiries’? Or an anonymous e-mail set-up with a box for enquiries and a ‘I am not a robot’ prompt to tick? Not exactly ‘user-friendly’. How long will it then take before someone bothers to reply―assuming the journalist in question hasn’t already lost interest and moved on?

Your website is the World’s window to your business, so why pull the blinds down and make it hard for any member of the Fourth Estate to interact with you? Of course, you may not like the idea of journalists ringing you up out of the blue. You may prefer to only talk to the media when it suits you. At least that way there’s a chance you’ll be in control when it comes to releasing information. If that’s your attitude good luck. Only don’t be surprised if a rival starts getting all the attention simply because they made themselves more available when the press came calling.

If you’re under the impression that the only time a journalist wants to call you is to ask awkward questions, you’re rather missing the point of press relationships. They could just as easily be calling to find out about a successful business deal, a new contract or project, or a recent major product launch. In short, they could be looking for some good news that could be read, heard, or seen by potential customers or indeed anyone else. Then again, they might want some ‘Thought Leadership’ from you on what’s happening in your market, the trends in your business, or the effect of forthcoming legislation on your industry. Unfortunately, it’s hard to be a Thought Leader if you’re hard to reach.

A journalist working to a tight deadline won’t warm to an organization whose default position on press enquiries is an answerphone message that constantly states: ‘The person you’re calling isn’t available right now, please leave a message and we’ll deal with it on our return…’ And then you don’t. If you think a chatbot could handle your press enquiries better, try it. It might work. But then again it probably won’t. Meanwhile, an organization or business that goes out of its way to be easily accessible to the media via as many routes as possible and responds quickly to press enquiries will stand a better chance of getting coverage than one that prefers to erect barriers to good communication. Which one are you?

Don't get bogged down in the detail

As a former business journalist, whenever I attended the launch of a new product and wanted to understand exactly how it worked, if I had the time, I invariably made a beeline for the engineer responsible for developing it. From a journalist’s perspective engineers and product specialists are extremely useful people to get to know, not least as they tend to deal in absolutes. If you want to know all about the features of a new wotnot, then engineers and product specialists can invariably give you the perfect insight into whatever the special thingamajig does and how it does it. Besides, engineers love telling you all about their new baby as it’s a rare chance for them to shine in front of the press. Normally, they’ve got their collective heads down in the lab or back room.

The downside of tapping into all that undeniable knowledge is that engineers can sometimes get so wrapped-up in explaining every tiny feature of their latest gizmo that they lose sight of what it ultimately-means to the end-user. In short, what it will do for a customer’s bottom-line and balance sheet. I call it the ‘Engineer Syndrome’. That’s not a criticism, it’s just that it’s possible to get so bound-up in the specification of something that you can easily forget the ‘specifics’―i.e., what it’s actually going to deliver to the buyer.

No matter the story, whether it’s sporting, political, industrial, or financial, it’s useless without the proper context, interpretation, or explanation to it. That’s why, when it comes to launching a new product or service you need to cut to the chase and tell a journalist why it’s so important to their audience and why they should be in a hurry to share your news with them.

That means delivering the bottom-line benefits of your new doohickey upfront before you start to explain in detail how it actually-works. Today’s media landscape is built around short, sharp messages, especially those that appear on digital and social media where increasingly it’s all about one-sentence news flashes, 30-second soundbites, and three-minute YouTube videos. So, you’ve got to deliver the punchline fast and not getting bogged down in an extended dialogue, otherwise, you’ll risk losing your audience.

But where does that leave all that background explanation, all those wonderful features, all that in-depth detail? Certainly not wasted. However, it’s more likely to be found in specialist hard-copy publications prepared to devote sufficient space to all that detail, or in an explanatory PDF document sitting in a well-signposted area within a website for consumption by those who have the time and above-all-else the inclination to read it. Don’t assume everyone is a techie anorak dying to learn the secrets of your hoojamaflip and has the time to do so.

And take-away message of this blog is? Whenever you’re talking to the media remember their time is short. The number one thing is to get the benefits of your new widget over first and fast, before the features. And if a journalist wants to find out more, well the engineer can always tell them…

Don't get distracted!

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…

Getting to know you

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…

Can you really see further down the road?

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.

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.

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. But unless you have a particularly good idea of exactly what's happening I’d be extremely wary of trying to bluff your way through or worse guessing―as you could end up guessing wrong.

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, the media is just as likely to come back to you, especially if you’ve got something cogent to say when all the dust has settled. 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.

Celebrating where you've come from

Remember the old joke: ‘There’s no future in history’? When it comes to talking to the press, shouldn’t it be all about where you are now, and where you’re going, not where you’ve been? Up to a point. An organisation that fails to cherish its past risks losing a unique opportunity to engage with the media. Why? Because your heritage can confirm your journey to the present whilst offering a strong hint to your future direction too. After all, what better way to demonstrate your progress than by saying where you’ve come from? Try celebrating a major anniversary or landmark without offering the media a then-and-now story and see how much coverage it generates.

But who’s interested in your history? Answer: Those sections of the media, primarily in the business, trade and specialist press, who’ve been on the journey with you. The journalists who, over the years, have covered your ups and downs and (hopefully) triumphs. Never underestimate how your past can help explain to a journalist why you, rather than all those competitors who fell by the wayside, are still standing. It’s called context.

Don’t let anyone tell you either that journalists are immune to nostalgia…they aren’t. An anniversary story can be a powerful reminder of your staying power. As a former business journalist, I was invariably drawn to those organisations that had a heritage…and actively celebrated it. I wasn’t the only one. Heritage stories draw-in not only journalists but also their readers, especially those who have been in the business for a long time.

Of course, it’s pointless trying to leverage your history if you haven’t actually saved it. So it’s important to keep sufficient records of your past published activities, press releases, company announcements, and especially good high-resolution images, and make that material readily-accessible to the media. Is there a ‘History’ section on your website? If not, why not?

Just look at how many companies, and not just the large corporations, that have a distinct history section on their websites as well as the ubiquitous ‘About Us’. It’s an obvious resource for any journalist who’s researching your business to look at, especially those seeking background material for a story. First in the market with an innovative product or service? You should certainly be highlighting it within the ‘History’ section of your website. (See previous remarks on context.)

Over the years I’ve heard all the arguments against keeping business archives. “Who’s got the space to store old brochures, press releases and company pictures? And besides, who’s going to be the custodian of it all?” In the 21st Century, are you seriously suggesting you can’t store your history digitally? As for who should be preserving it for quick access by the media, I’d say your marketing and PR operation. After all, isn’t your longevity and history another message for them to get over to the media?

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.

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.

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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