As the leading specialist Media Training provider for law firms, we often discuss what lawyers should and should not do when talking to journalists in our Media Training courses. We keep our media coaching sessions positive and upbeat; however, as you know, it’s often easy to learn by exploring mistakes and then looking at how to avoid making them.
So here are five mistakes that lawyers often make when doing media interviews.
Assuming that the journalist knows as much as they do.
Many of the solicitors we provide Media Training for are pretty shocked by how little the journalist might know about an issue they’re writing about or producing a TV or radio report on. The fact is that these days with newsrooms cut back to the bone and reporters having to do more with less, the journalist that you speak to might be covering four or five stories a day and will therefore have had little time to engage in much in-depth research.
The risk here is that you, as the lawyer, fall victim to what we call the “Curse of Knowledge.” Initially demonstrated by Elizabeth Newton, a researcher at Stanford University, this cognitive bias means that we tend to assume that others will know what we know – and in the case of a partner in a law firm, that might be quite a lot.
However, ignorance on the part of the journalist can work to your advantage as a lawyer doing a media interview. We recommend that you start the discussion by casually asking the journalist how much research they’ve done or what stage they are at with the story. This quite often allows the journalist to be honest and say: “Actually, I’ve just started; if you could take me through it from square one, I’d be very grateful.”
Going into too much detail.
We know that lawyers are detail-oriented, and we’re usually very grateful for that. However, journalists usually only take the top line of any issue. It’s not our fault – it’s just that there’s a limited amount of time in the programme or space on the screen or the page, and these days we know our audiences are busier than ever. Therefore, we have to take the broad thrust or the upshot of any issue – looking at how in particular it affects our audience rather than taking a deep dive.
It’s essential, therefore, that when you talk to a journalist, you, as a lawyer, don’t go into the kind of detail that you would in your daily work. This will give you more control over the final article as it will avoid the need for the journalist to edit down and summarise your comments in a way that you might disapprove of.
Looking at an issue from the lawyer’s point of view.
Yes, of course, we’re talking to you as a lawyer because we want to understand the legal aspect. However, as we say in the point above, we’re not interested in the detail of the law. In reality, we want to know the overall effect on the reader, viewer or listener and hint at how they can mitigate any risks or exploit any opportunities.
You probably have the same experience when talking to your clients – they want to know that you know the law, but they don’t necessarily want to know it themselves. Whatever the journalist and whatever the subject, a key driver for the shape of the report is how it will affect the audience. For instance, you won’t find many journalists simply reporting that interest rates have gone up that day. Instead, they’ll talk about how savers have been dealt a lifeline or mortgage holders have suffered a blow as the Bank of England raises rates. (Just reverse it for any cut).
Not using stories or anecdotes.
Journalists, even those who cover business and high finance, live by stories. Whatever the subject we’re writing about, we use stories to illustrate our points and prove what we say. How can you talk about a trend in business, for instance, if you haven’t got examples to show what you mean in practice? Just look at any newspaper, radio or TV programme, and you’ll see that it’s full of stories about people as well as companies. After all, we refer to a report as “a story” in the media. The best storytellers are the people who get the best coverage in the media and to whom journalists will return time after time for comment.
We know that lawyers have to be extremely careful about client confidentiality. So, in our Media Training courses for lawyers, we look at how they can introduce case studies, examples and anecdotes without offending any clients by revealing confidences.
They use lawyerly language.
We know, of course, that lawyers must appear serious, dignified and learned – however they are in their personal lives. There’s certainly a place for this kind of formal language. But the media, even with serious, upmarket outlets, like punchy, everyday language. Just look at a story with quotations from lawyers or any other profession, and you’ll find that the ones getting the most prominence use natural language, short sentences and memorable metaphors.
A phrase such as: “It’s a bit like…”, which goes on to make a comparison or introduce an analogy, will work well for journalists. A comment that is direct and unequivocal is also appreciated. We know that the law is often not clear-cut, but good interviewees from a legal background can usually provide a simple, strong message. As above, it might be a warning or a bit of very general advice to our audience.
How could a Communicate Media training course benefit me?
One of the reasons we love working with law firms and specialise in Media Training for lawyers is that their world is so different to ours as journalists. But we enjoy the fact that they pick up quickly on the tips and techniques for doing media interviews that we provide, and they appreciate how using them can improve their chances of getting more and better media coverage.
All of our media training courses are bespoke to your needs ensuring you are never in a position of not knowing what to say.