On Wednesday the BBC series Britain’s Fat Fight with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall included an interesting exchange between the food campaigner and the health secretary Jeremy Hunt. Interesting, anyway, if you want to know about how to handle the media. It’s certainly something that people mention in our media training courses.
This week’s episode showed Fearnley-Whittingstall at the Tory Party Conference which he was visiting “in the hopes of speaking to the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt”. The celebrity chef added: “I did catch up with him briefly, but he didn’t really want to talk.”
“His team led me to believe that he would come forward for an interview. Then that turned into a bit of a saga. There is a sort of interview but it is a little bit unconventional.”
In fact, the programme showed the kind of encounter that not only politicians but business leaders and key figures from all sorts of organisations might find themselves experiencing. Fearnley-Whittingstall is shown gently ambushing Hunt to talk about obesity as the health secretary politely but firmly declines and walks off.
People often ask when we do media skills training what they should do if they’re jumped on by a journalist. The worst case scenario might be a camera crew shining a light in your eyes and appearing on the doorstep of your home to ask you about a problem or even a crisis that you know nothing about.
You’re doorstepped by a journalists…
Less scary but more likely is the chance that a reporter bumps into you at a conference, as Fearnley-Whittingstall did to Jeremy Hunt, and asks for an interview or for your opinion on something. Whatever the context if a journalist jumps on you asking for an interview there are certain things to remember, as we explain to participants on our media training courses.
First and most importantly, people in our media training courses learn, you don’t have to do the interview or even answer the question immediately. The reporter might put you under pressure by talking about deadlines and an urgent need to know. Or they might take a very different approach and suggest in a friendly way that it’s just a straightforward query that shouldn’t take long to answer. Either way, play for time. You’re always happy to help, of course, but you just need to check with your Comms team or media relations department.
If you’re actually “doorstepped,” at your office or home you can always buy yourself a bit of time and then step inside and do some preparation. This might include speaking to your colleagues, checking on social and conventional media for the latest information and, most of all, deciding what, if anything, you’re going to say.
During our crisis media management training courses, we’ll quite often “doorstep” the participants at some point early on during the course. We’ll work with the PR or Comms team to develop a realistic scenario and then, equally authentically, we’ll ambush one or more of the participants to give them the experience.
“It scared the life out of me,” said one of our crisis management trainees the other day, “but at least I’ve experienced it now and should it ever happen to me in real life I know what to do – starting with not panicking.”
Handling a phone interview with a journalist
Similarly, if you’re just at a conference or in the queue at a coffee shop and a reporter asks for some questions you can always mention that you’d like to get better briefed on the subject. Otherwise, simply do what you’d do to anyone else that you don’t want to speak to – make an excuse. You’re on your way to a meeting or you’re just about to make a call. As long as you’re friendly and helpful while still being firm and sticking to your decision not to give an interview but making it clear that you will come back to them, the journalist won’t mind too much.
This approach works with phone interviews too. Should you take a call from a journalist you can appear friendly and helpful but refuse to do an interview straight away. “I rang someone recently to ask for a quote for a piece I was writing, and he said, ‘Happy to help but I must go to the loo first,’ and then he asked for my number and promised to call me back in five minutes,” says Simon Brooke, one of our media trainer/journalists. “I wasn’t going to argue with him.”
The chances are that most of the time a journalist will go through your organisation’s press office or the PR agency if they have one and so any approach will come through this third party.
What to think about before you do a media interview
The advantage here is that they can act as a buffer between you and the media and, as media professionals, they’ll know what to establish with the journalist beforehand (this could be the subject, the outlet, the angle that the journalist is taking, who else they’re speaking to and their deadline) and what that journalist will want to know. It’s also worth doing your own check list so that you’re aware of these elements before you do the interview.
In our media training courses, we usually recommend a practice run or rehearsal before you do the interview for real. After all, it’s one thing to see your key messages and other supporting points written down in front of you but it’s another to feel comfortable with actually saying them out loud.
Occasionally, though journalists will short circuit the Comms department and go through the switchboard and ask for you directly or they’ll ask to speak someone who handles the issue that they’re writing about. This might be because it’s a sensitive issue and they know that the press office would stall them or even refuse to comment. It might, in some cases, be because they haven’t heard back from the PR people and simply they’ve lost patience.
Doing media interviews by email
If the interaction has been over the phone and it’s for a print piece rather than for TV or radio people sometimes ask whether they can do a media interview by email. The answer is yes, usually. If the subject is very technical or legalistic or if the journalist is in another time zone then asking them to submit questions for reply by email is often quite welcome.
However, we make two points to make in our media training courses when talking about this. The first is that written language is different from the spoken variety. Quotes in even a technical article or something for specialist media work best when they’re punchy and conversational with natural language – so write your answers like that. The other thing to bear in mind is that, like any interview, your answers have to be sent quickly or at least within the deadline. Getting your contribution to an article to the journalist early increases the chances of you getting a bigger slice of the cake and of being able to influence the direction of the piece. Come back late and you’ll be tacked on the end where many people won’t read you and you might be deleted when the piece is cut to fit the page. They
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall certainly isn’t the most intimidating interviewee and, as a politician, Jeremy Hunt should be used to be collared and asked for comment. However, being jumped on by a reporter, especially if you’re not expecting it or you’re not experienced with the media can be a nerve wracking experience – especially bearing in mind that one wrong comment could cost you your job.
However, as we explain in our media training courses, you’ll be fine if you keep your cool, you’re polite but assertive and you don’t do the interview before you’re ready to.