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Very often when we start one of our media training courses the PR professionals and Comms people that we work with mention that as well as handling difficult issues, on the proactive side, they’ve been struggling to create positive coverage.  This might include their efforts to “piggyback” off a running media story.   When a report comes out or a major company releases financial results that are higher or lower than expected or that are considered to be a bell weather for a particular sector the media will be often looking for comment beyond their own journalists.  Experts who can put the issue into context, give some background and, quite frankly, tell us why we should care, will be in great demand.

Getting air time for your spokespeople

Getting air time and column inches for their spokespeople in these situations is proving to be hard work, our clients sometimes tell us during these media coaching sessions.  What should they do to create more coverage?  Well, here are a few reasons for their failure plus some suggestions for what to do about it.

One major problem might be that you’re simply not saying anything interesting.  It’s worth remembering that journalists and editors get more statements and comment from experts than ever before and so a bland statement of the obvious isn’t going to appeal to them at all.  Neither, on the other hand, is a strongly worded paragraph or two that merely says what everyone is else is saying.  If callers into a show are attacking the actions of a person or an organisation, then simply piling on the bandwagon of condemnation yourself won’t help you to stand out and get that media coverage.

We look at what makes a media story and what journalists are looking for during our media training sessions. It’s a great way of building the confidence of interviewees as it removes the fear of the unknown and it helps with preparation.  Essentially, it must have a new angle.  If everyone is saying one thing about a current issue then having your spokesperson say something different or unusual will help.  Backing their assertions with some good arguments, examples and figures is even better.  You don’t have to be deliberately perverse and controversial (in the media we’re suspicious of shameless polemicists) but you just have to say something that other people aren’t.

What are journalists looking for in a spokesperson

Similarly, you might agree with the general consensus but have an additional reason for saying it. If a company has made a mistake on social media, for instance, rather than just following the general flow of debate you might want to point out an additional risk, provide a surprising insight or introduce a little known fact about social media.  Journalists are always looking for a new “angle” on a story and you can help them here.

Another reason why your spokespeople aren’t getting airtime or your comments are being covered is that you’re releasing the information too late.  This problem relates to the first reason.  Very often by the time everyone within the organisation has had their say and approved the comment the news agenda has moved on.  Traditionally, sending a press release out or releasing a statement in the early afternoon would be perfectly timed for the following days’ newspapers or that evening’s TV and radio news programmes. These days with 24-hour news and constantly updated website deadlines are, in fact, a thing of the past. The news agenda moves faster than ever and so statements and comments have to be released more quickly to hit the news cycle.

Very often organisations spend so much time crafting the words and then having them approved by so many different departments and individuals, all of whom feel the need to add something that by the time the statement is finally approved events have moved on and this has become old news.

Advice for Communications and PR teams

Our advice to Communications and PR teams is to be brave here.  Yes, we know that we’re not the ones who need to justify these actions to the CEO or explain them to the board but actually having us as independent, third party experts to back up this request can help and argue for it alongside them can help.  Comms people have to make it clear to the organisation that only a limited number of people can have approval and they must be ready to act quickly.

It’s also essential for those who do approve a comment to resist the need to add superfluous words and while toning down content. Basically, keep it short and punchy. We worked with one organisation that challenged those who had to approve a comment to actually take words out and refine it rather than adding bits. As we like to say – good writing is when you’ve taken away everything you can and not added everything you want.  Here’s another reason why your comments are not getting coverage – the language is dull, corporate and unmemorable.  Very often the language used by businesses is at odds with what the media wants.  Corporate language is often focussed on compromise, on qualifying statements and on taking a range of views into account so as not to exclude anyone or to cause offence to internal or external audiences.  Added to this, documents produced by companies frequently take their time to come to their key messages.  Whereas with the media the opposite is the case. Here it’s about making a clear, strong statement that will have some members of the audience cheering and disagreeing with varying degrees of force. 

The kind of language that journalists like


Generally, the language that you use in your statement or comment should have all the hallmarks of good writing. This includes simple language and short sentences. There is nothing wrong with jargon and technical terms but only if they are appropriate to the audience. Meaningless corporate buzzwords are hated by journalists and will massively reduce the chances of your comments being used by them.  Talking about “ecosystems” or “synergies” will simply have the media rolling their eyes and hitting the delete button before they read any further.  On the other hand, if you can find a striking phrase, an interesting simile or even a clever little pun, then journalists will be more likely to use your comment.  In our media training sessions, we explore with clients how to create these phrases and how to use them in media interviews.  The fact is that plain, simple language doesn’t have to be boring.

Here’s another reason  – there are no stories or examples.  We’re always banging on about stories in our media coaching sessions but the fact is that they’re vitally important – but very often company spokespeople forget about them. Obviously, you wouldn’t mention a client during a statement without their permission but if they’ve done something that illustrates the point you’re making then work with them to include them in a positive, helpful way.  Similarly, talking about how brilliant you are will put a journalist off because it just looks like pointless boasting (or advertising, as we also call it).  However, use a bit of humility, explain the challenge that you faced and how you overcame it and what you’ve learned and this will be much more appealing. 

Media training for lawyers and law firms


We do a lot of media training for lawyers and other professional services firms and we know that although journalists are always looking for examples these firms have to respect client confidentiality.  Therefore, we suggest that they use one of three approaches.  First, they either use a client anonymously (changing the facts slightly will help to protect the client’s true identity).  Second, they create a hypothetical example – after all, “Just imagine…” or “For instance…” are phrases that we all use in everyday life because they work to communicate an idea, so why not use them in your business communications?  Third, you can also refer to other examples and case studies, already reported in the media, of companies that aren’t clients and have nothing to do with you. 

If you do put out a statement that is timely, newsworthy and punchy not only will you find that print journalists are copying and pasting it into their pieces but TV and radio producers will also be asking your spokespeople to appear on their programmes to expand on it.  During our media training courses, we’ll work with participants to develop their key messages and to understand how they can make them newsworthy. This goes for statements and comments to the media and the contributions of spokespeople.

Constructing a good statement takes a bit of effort and energy but it can pay dividends in terms of raising your profile, establishing your expertise and differentiating yourself from the competition – if you get it right.

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Media Training

We’re always asked at some point during our media training courses about what to wear when doing a TV interview.  How you look during television interviews or presentations – and in particular the colours that you wear – has a major impact on the impression that your audience takes away. You might be speaking eloquently in a persuasive and engaging way and making some very important points but if your clothing is distracting then you might as well be reading a train timetable.


We often quote the work of a Princeton psychologist called Alexander Todorov in our media coaching sessions.  Todorov wanted to know to what extent people judge someone’s competence to do their job based simply on their appearance rather than any other more substantial information.  So he conducted an experiment in which he showed thousands of people pairs of portraits and asked those people to rate the competence of the people in these pictures. What the test subjects didn’t know was that those pictured were candidates for the US Congress and Senate.

When Professor Todorov correlated the reaction of the test subjects who had seen pictures of the candidates for a second or less with the actual election results, he discovered that in between 66 per cent and 73 per cent of cases the judgement of test subjects correlated with the final election results.  So, you can go through the whole election process or you can show voters your picture for a second (or less in some cases) and nearly three quarters of the time the results are the same.

A major part of this visual impact relates to the colours that you wear on television or when you’re presenting to an audience. During our media training courses and afterwards, when we’re supporting clients who are appearing on TV or delivering their presentations, we help them to think about the colours that might be right for them.

What colours should you wear on television?

Let’s start with two colours that you really shouldn’t wear.  Black and white don’t work well on television.  A crisp white shirt might be good for a job interview and it’s OK for most presentations but on TV it glares and casts the rest of you in shadow so avoid white during a TV interview. Cream is a good substitute for white. 

Black might be elegant and flattering in normal life but on television it often drains the life out of you. It can often look gloomy and even sinister.  We had to advise a very accomplished spokeswoman not to wear a black suit and T-shirt when delivering a difficult message about two deaths that had taken place on her watch.  “Oh, my god,” she said after we showed her the footage during a practice session. “I look like an undertaker.”  She was right.  Grey or navy blue work better than black. 

Navy blue is actually a very good colour to wear on TV.  It’s seen as safe and understated.  It’s also regarded as the colour of trust – that’s why the police and airline cabin crew often wear it.  (Or does the causation work the other way?  Either way, navy blue is a safe bet).

What about wearing red during a TV interview?

Red has a particular significance for human beings.  Women who wear red often appear more attractive to men, according to research by the University of Rochester, NY

However, as the colour of blood, red stimulates distinct reactions in the brain. It also signifies emergencies, of course.  It’s no coincidence that the signal to stop in traffic lights is red.  If you’re slow on the uptake when green or amber is showing you might get someone beeping you from behind.  Do this with red and you could get killed.  However, red is also associated with anger and aggression. Some psychologists have even questioned whether London buses should be this colour.  It’s certainly a strong hue.

We recently worked with a young woman from a big financial services company who was launching a new product range.  We discussed her choice of a red jacket and shirt for her TV interviews. 

“Look,” she said. “The financial services industry is full of men in grey suits and I want to stand out from them.”  So she wore red – and she did indeed create a strong impression. 

The fact that we helped her to speak normal, human language rather than financial services jargon and to use stories and examples also helped to ensure that her TV interviews were powerful, memorable and well received – as they still are, years after we trained her.

Should I wear a grey suit on TV?

So what about grey? Actually, there’s nothing wrong with wearing grey during a TV interview and we often recommend it during our media training courses. Again, it’s the colour of trust and respectability.  However, we would suggest that both men and women add a warmer colour to balance the dullness.  Also be wary of the heavy chalk stripes or busy herringbone patterns that grey suits and jackets sometimes feature.

Pale blue is a lovely, engaging colour that works well on TV, especially if you want to soften your look. Green can do the same but it can sometimes have the unwelcome effect of making the wearer look pale and washed out.  Generally, pastel shades are good on TV because they’re flattering to most people’s skin and hair tones and they’re not over powering.

A pastel coloured shirt matched with a tie that has a strong block colour or a simple pattern (nothing busy and complex, please) is a good look for men.  It’s simple, confident and won’t distract viewers from their performance. 

Purple is an interesting colour.  On the one hand it’s regarded as luxurious and even slightly theatrical but according to research among audiences for particular brands it’s also associated with “authority, sophistication and power.” It was after all the colour used by Roman emperors and magistrates and Peter Mandelson shrewdly chose it an as an alternative to Labour’s traditional red when he was reinventing the party and creating New Labour.

With flying colours – what to wear on TV

A woman in a purple jacket or dress or a man wearing a purple tie can look elegant and adopt a high status persona.  In our media training courses we work with a lot of lawyers, accountants, retail consultants and other professionals whose firms have asked us to train them so that they can act as commentators on their sector.  Purple is a good colour for them.

The colour of the clothing that you were on television or during a presentation for that matter can have a profound effect on the impression that your audience takes away. Obviously, you’ll be focussing on your key messages during your preparation but, as we point out in our media training sessions, getting the colour of your clothing right is a small detail that can make a big difference.

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Media Training, Uncategorised
Most people are anxious about what they can and can’t say to a journalist during a media interview and that’s quite understandable. After all, once you’ve said it, it’s out there – read, listened to or watched by hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. In our media training courses people often express concern not about saying the wrong thing. But they’re also interested in what they can do in a positive way, what they can say to grab the interest of the journalist.


To help meet these concerns at the start of our media coaching sessions we’ll look at what makes a story and what motivates journalists. This means that, working with their PR teams, interviewees can ensure that they say the things that the journalist will be interested in thereby gaining more control of the interview and reducing the risk of said journalist pushing them into dangerous territory in the quest for a story. We help our participants to gain control of the interview.

Five good things to say to a journalist

So, here are five things you can say to a journalist to get their attention and increase the chance of your having more control of the interview and the final report.

“What really struck me about this is…”
It’s a good idea to flag up a key point to a journalist. It might be obvious to you that something is the most interesting or important aspect of what you’re talking about but don’t expect the journalist to know it too. This is especially true of general reporters or, as is often the case, an interviewer who has just been given the story to write with minimal research. (We’re not lazy, by the way, we’re just overworked as newsroom budgets have been slashed – just wanted to make that clear!)

“What people don’t always realise is that…”
Essentially the job of a journalist is to tell people things that they didn’t know that they might find interesting. So, if you can show that something is little known, that the audience might even be labouring under a misapprehension or that they’ll gain some competitive advantage by knowing this fact you’ll have the attention of the journalist that you’re speaking to. This also ticks that “unusual” box that the media loves so much.


“In my experience…”

One of the main reasons why we’re coming to talk to you is your experience. The more practical and recent it is the better for us, so emphasise this when you talk to journalists. We do a lot of media training for law firms, for instance, and so we always encourage them to pass on to journalists what they’re telling clients. Not only does this show that they’re working at the coalface of this business and that they’re very much aware of latest the developments and trends but it also provides tips and advice for our audience. Anything that ticks the “What’s In It For Me?” box is great for our audience is also great for us. As we say to the lawyers that we do media coaching for – you don’t have to give people full legal advice, just a few thoughts so that they’ll realise that you know what you’re talking about and pick up the phone to instruct you.


“One thing to watch out for is…”

Again, this could be about tips and advice but really it ticks the “trouble” box that journalists love. Bad news, risks, dangers are threats are meat and drink to the media. Depressing? Annoying? Perhaps, but the fact is that they grab people’s attention. They fire up the amygdala, the flight-or-fight instinct that is located deep in our animal brains. The other reason why journalists like this kind of phrase and what follows it is that giving warnings and highlighting threats also usually involves offering advice and tips – something that, as we’ve said above, is always good for media interviews, and something that we stress in our media training courses.

“Let me give you an example…”
There’s nothing, well, almost nothing, anyway, that journalists love more than an example, a story, an anecdote or a case study. As soon as you’re giving an example or telling a story, provided that it’s relevant to the audience, the interviewer will shut up and listen – and not start to look for trouble. Giving examples and saying, “for instance,” is something that we do all the time in conversations with family, friends and colleagues. But, for some reason, people often forget to use these basic building blocks of communication or don’t feel justified in doing so during a media interview. Examples both illustrate and prove your point. In fact, at the risk of contradicting ourselves you don’t even have to set up an example, just dive straight in and tell your story.

OK, so those are some of the right things to say during media interviews, but what should you avoid?

Five things you should not say to a journalist


“I can’t comment on that.”

Of course, it’s very possible that a journalist will ask you something that is outside your purview or that could get you into trouble and you’re right not to get drawn into it. But try and find a more relaxed, conversational phrase. You might say: “That’s not really my area of expertise…” or “I’ll let X speak for themselves,” or even “You wouldn’t expect me to go into that, would you?” We explain in our media coaching sessions that whatever you say, the point is that you then move back on to your key message. Talking of which…

“My key message here is…”
Yes, it’s good to have a key message – and you’d be amazed how many people go into media interviews with no idea of what points they want to get across. But you don’t have to be so transparent and crude about it as to use this form of words. Focus on your key message and flag it up, perhaps using one of the phrases above. Then repeat it and use some examples and stories to back it up.


“Let me be clear…”

One of the most frequent comments we hear in our media training workshops is “I don’t want to sound like a politician.” Now, even though we do media training for politicians around the world, we can understand the sentiment. The problem with this phrase is that the way it’s been used by certain politicians and other spokespeople. For them, it usually means the opposite – let me ignore your question and give my vague, fudged answer instead. So, do certainly be clear, just avoid using this phrase.

“What I’d like to say to your viewers/listeners is…”
This is another phrase that is based on the right idea but just makes it too clunkily obvious. It’s good to talk directly to the audience of a radio or TV programme but just do it by sounding natural and conversational and thinking about what they’d like to know. Don’t tell them that you’re going to do it. This is where the first and second person works well – as you’re literally talking to your audience – and that’s essential in any good media interview.

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Media Training

It’s always a big issue in media coaching – do you have to answer a journalist’s question?  As part of our media coaching sessions we’ll usually do a role play press interview with the participants.  As we tell them, we’ll do it in exactly the same way as we do during our day job as journalists, although we won’t publish it course. Instead, we’ll give detailed feedback on the story that we would have written well as the messages that came across and how they appeared to us as experienced, working journalists.

 

Very often we’ll ask a difficult or left field question towards the end of the interview since this is what could easily happen in real life.  We work closely with Comms teams and PR companies and they’ll brief us on difficult issues.  The interviewee will usually feel obliged to answer our query – or at least to have a go at it.  This is almost always where they lose control of the interview and end up giving us a great story.  Unfortunately, it’s very often not one that will suit them. 

media coaching, answering a journalist's questions
We did a media skills course recently with a large financial institution.  Towards the end of the role play press interview our media trainer/ journalist asked one of the course participants, a board director, about their views on Brexit.  Very helpfully and interestingly they suggested that Britain’s departure from the EU wouldn’t actually be a problem for the firm as it benefits from growing markets in the Far East.   This was a great story that would have made headlines in the Financial Times and other publications.  However, it wasn’t so good for the firm – and certainly not for the poor interviewee.

 

“But you asked me about Brexit,” they pointed out once we’d told them about the story that would have resulted from their interview.  “Yes,” said our media trainer/journalist, “but you didn’t have to answer it.” Lesson learnt.  



Media coaching tip – journalists don’t expect you to answer every question


The point is that we’d obviously expect the interviewee to answer a question about the agreed subject of the interview.  But there’s no obligation to comment on something that is outside this remit.  We often call this the “while I’ve got you here, minister” question.  This is because senior politicians appearing on Radio Four’s Today and other programmes will often be asked to talk about something that is current and – vaguely – relevant to them.   It might be an embarrassing comment made by a colleague, for instance, or something that the government is proposing.

 

Politicians are usually warned beforehand by their media teams about this risky, live issues and have lines to take ready.  With business people this is not always the case.  During an interview on Today to talk about new apprenticeships Sir James Dyson was asked about Brexit.  Instead of sticking to the topic the engineer and industrialist waxed lyrical on the subject. Within a matter of hours his comments were on The Times online.

 

But, of course, not answering a question goes against the grain for many of us.   We do a lot of media coach for lawyers, for instance.   They’re trained to answer a client’s questions accurately and comprehensively – and so they should.  We point out, though, that we’re not clients.  If anything, journalists don’t want a detailed answer to a question.  We just want the top line.

Similarly, we do media training for the luxury sector.  If you work for a luxury hotel saying “yes” to a guest and being helpful is in your blood so, of course, you’re going to try to answer a question as fully as possible. As we point out to the luxury hotel staff that we train, we’re not guests (and with journalists’ salaries as they are we probably never will be) so there’s no need to help us out by giving us an answer to what we’ve just asked them.


Doesn’t it sound shifty if I don’t answer the journalist’s question?

But doesn’t it sound shifty and evasive if I don’t answer a journalist’s question, people often ask during our media coaching courses.  The short answer is that it depends on the question and how you do it.

 

If you’re being asked a direct question about something that you’re responsible for and it’s part of the subject that we’ve agreed to speak about then yes, you must.  This example of Richard Madeley trying to get Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson to answer a simple, direct, yes-or-no question is quite toe curling. 

 

If a journalist asks a finance director, for instance, why profits are down by 20 per cent this year then that FD had better be ready with an answer.  How he or she then moves the conversation on to something more useful is up to them. On the other hand, if he or she was asked about Brexit or about a competitor then no, there’s no need to answer the question.


What if I don’t want to answer a journalist’s question?

What, we’re often asked in our media coaching sessions, should you do then, if a journalist asks you a question that you don’t want to answer?  Simple: you tell them in a friendly but assertive way that you’re not going to do so.  Then, very importantly, you tell them why.  This could be because it’s outside your remit.  Just exampling that it’s a matter, for example, for the regulator or the government.  It might simply be an issue that you don’t want to get drawn on such as Brexit or a competitor, as we’ve mentioned above.  Again, just be honest and say so. 

 

Most journalists will understand this.  Very often we’re not even expecting you to answer the question.  It’s just that our editor has told us to raise the issue or we assume that our audience will want us to mention it.  On the other hand, we’re also aware of the possibility of getting a new story – as happened with James Dyson.



Must I answer a journalist’s question during a crisis?

Surely, then, during a serious incident or a crisis, you’ll have to answer the journalist’s questions. Actually, not always.  As we explain in our media training courses, in a crisis you’ll be expected to provide factual information that you’re confident is correct.  But you’ll also be asked questions that neither you, nor probably anyone else knows the answer to.  In a crisis as the media scrambles to fill airtime and column inches speculation is often rife. 

 

Get drawn into surmising what could have caused the incident or what might come out of it and, as we explain in our crisis media coaching workshops, you’ll lose control of your communication and create unwelcome headlines.   As we wrote recently mishandling a crisis really can cost you dear

A good way to make a crisis worse is get drawn into responding to journalists’ questions when you should just stay mum.  So, here too, just be polite but firm and explain why you don’t want to answer certain questions.  

 

We’ve had a lot of interest in a blog we wrote about five requests that you can ask of a journalist that you might not be aware of.   As we advise during our media training courses.  Take control of the interview and don’t be afraid to lay down terms to the journalist. This includes stating clearly the questions that you are and aren’t happy to answer.  So when people ask us during our media coaching courses whether you always have to answer a journalist’s questions – we explain no, not if you know what you’re doing.

 

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