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…