Our Media training Consultant Helen gives us her Media Survival Tips
Helen is a Senior Consultant with Aziz Corporate, specialising in Media Handling, crisis communication skills and planning, corporate videos and broadcast PR.
Helen started her career as a newspaper reporter before switching to TV where she spent 14 years producing and directing programmes such as “Watchdog” and “Panorama”.
“so is this the worst disaster you have ever faced?” I asked the Communications Director as the cameraman adjusted the microphone. “Oh no” she said in a conspirational whisper “Not at all, let me tell you….” The cameraman winked at me as the initerviewee embarked on a confession to her new best friend – me! Naturally her radio microphone picked up her story perfectly.
Happily for this interviewee this was just a media training session – she was about to learn three of the most important tips for media survival: Treat the camera as always live, never relax with journalists and don’t volunteer information unnecessarily.
If she’d felt bad about her mistake, she was in illustrious company. Prince Charles, Gordon Brown have suffered red faces after muttering disaparaging asides into their microphones. Their insults were broadcast around the world. President Reagan risked an international incident when, testing a microphone, joked that he had signed legislation “to outlaw Russia forever; we begin bombing in five minutes.”
While carelessness in front of the microphone may cost careers or worse, the most common mistakes are more prosaic: lack of understanding about journalists, failure to appreciate the nature of the programme/paper and a failure to prepare.
As a producer on BBC’s Watchdog and other investigative programmes I was often amazed by the lack of curiosity and insight shown by prospective interviewees. I remember an investigation into large inducements being paid to poor Northern girls to “donate” their eggs to wealthy clients of a UK fertility clinic. When we approached the clinic director requesting an on camera interview, he agreed immediately without asking a single pertinent question. He only found out the angle of our enquiry on camera. The perspiration dripped as the cameras rolled.
Being prepared for an interview
In retrospect there are many questions that the clinic director should have asked. Journalists will usually only be interested in something that is new, topical or timely in some way. If there seems no apparent reason for an approach, the first question must be “why now?”. The following questions should include “what is your angle”, “why our company”, “who else is being interviewed”, “what are the question areas” and “what is your deadline”. Such questions would not have prevented the story from going ahead but would have enabled the clinic director to have given a proper account of his actions.
The British media is usually regarded as the toughest in the world. The British journalists will often take a sceptical view of “success” stories and look critically at what lies beneath the press release. This can come as a shock to overseas interviewees.
The makers of Blackberry – Canada’s Research in Motion – have been stung twice in recent years bu failing to appreciate and prepare for the British Media. In 2011 RIM’s Co-CEO Mike Lazardis abruptly terminated an interview on air with a BBC journalist when asked about security issues in India and the Middle East. Two years later the company’s European Managing Director was asked on four occasions about launch delays and loss of market share but was noticeably unprepared to depart from his rehearsed PR script.
Quentin Tatantino was interviewed by Channel 4 news about his forthcoming film. He refused to respond to a predictable question line about the impact of screen violence “I’m here to sell my movie. This is a commercial for the movie – make no mistake about it”. As the interviewer persisted Tarantino lost his temper “I’m shutting your butt down”. Whereas Hollywood PR may masquerade as news overseas, British news journalists will look beyond the PR script and the interviewee must be prepared.
Preparing for an interview
The initial task in preparing for an interview is to understand the programme and the audience to ensure you can predict and prepare for the question areas.
For example a local drive time radio programme will be chatty, often friendly and focussed on the impact on the local community. An interview with the Today Programme or Newsnight may have a political angle and the interviews may be challenging and confrontational. Interviews for news programmes will be brief and will be focused on the latest developments.
There is, of course, no obligation on you to be interviewed by the media. Interview requests can be turned down and statements written in their place. The main reason to agree to an interview is that you or your company will derive a benefit. To achieve this benefit you must be entirely clear about the message or messages you wish to highlight and use examples to make these memorable. The examples may be stories about people you have helped or maybe metaphors to bring to life dull or complicated information e.g We don’t think twice about having a MOT every year on our cars so why don’t we have MOTs on our bodies. A check up with a private doctor once a year can prolong life by X years….
Most of radio and TV audience will struggle to understand large figures – it is always better to paint a picture of words. Instead of talking about 9 acres, say “an area the size of 6 football pitchs”.
Delivering your message
Given that interview times are short – usually 2-3 minutes long, it is important that you introduce your messages near the start of your interview. Unlike the man from RIM, you must at the very least acknowledge the question but once you have done so, move the interview on or bridge to your message.
As children we are taught a circular approach to answering questions with the introduction, argument and conclusion relating directly back to the question. In media interviews, you need a linear approach – address the question and move on to what you would like to say even if it is a substantial departure from the question itself.
With experience, media interviews can be enjoyable, engaging and ultimately lucrative. But like marriage, the media is not something to be entered into inadvisably or lightly. You need media skills and the willingness to prepare. The journalist, however, friendly must not be underestimated. While you are not supping with the devil, you are engaging with a force that can break or break you.