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How not to offend journalists, top tips from Broadgate Mainland’s Mark Knight

15th March 2013

Political TV dramas such as Borgen, The Thick of It and The West Wing are excellent promotion for the benefits of media training. The programmes highlighted many of the difficulties that can occur when handling meetings with journalists, the benefits of preparation and the effect of a disastrous interview on your career.

There is no doubt that some of the questions I get asked about media chicanery at my media training sessions have originated from scenarios taken from a TV production. It always adds some spice to the training, as long as we don’t lose contact with the more mundane realities.

Last week I was asked by a member of a group I was training to name some of the worst mistakes that people make in media interviews. We had already discussed the more positive ways of becoming a corporate media ambassador (Many Are Called But Few Are Chosen) so I was happy to indulge the audience with a brief trawl through a combination of horror stories and simple tips – so they don’t make the same errors.

Names are withheld to ensure that no one is mortally offended and obviously they have never attended one of my courses!

1. Some people are so proud of the bylined articles they have previously written that they bring them to the meeting to show them off to the journalist, even if they are from a rival publication. Rather than being impressed, the journalist soon realises the topic being discussed is not hot off the press.

2. PROs are good at preparing comprehensive background notes to brief their client or colleague on the journalist they are meeting. But placing the note on the table for the journalist to see is not the best idea, especially if it highlights a past disagreement or some recent negative coverage.

3. When asked by the journalist what publications you read, it’s best not to name their principal rival. A bit of homework before the meeting can reduce the chance of causing major offence.

4. Members of The Fourth Estate are generally a collegiate bunch and never take kindly to comments such as, “editorial coverage of the topic has been misinformed and generally poor.” Watch the hackles rise and former rivals standing shoulder to shoulder in defence of their profession.

5. For some unknown reason, even the most experienced media commentators sometimes produce a sales and marketing presentation to brief a journalist. Even worse, they take the journalist through it line by line, repeating numerous corporate mantras, “low-hanging fruit” and “blue-sky thinking”, and quoting specially invented sales acronyms. The journalist usually resorts to a BOHOF moment: back of hand on forehead.

6. Asking the journalist at the start of the meeting what they would like to talk about. The reality is that the journalist has been persuaded to meet you and if you read the briefing note it gives the topics you should cover. Stay in control and start the conversation.

7. The name of the game is that journalists may cancel meetings several times, but the client should try as hard as possible not to postpone more than once. It’s not in your best interest.

8. The meeting is never over until the journalist leaves the building. Don’t let your guard down when you leave the meeting room as the killer question can come when you are taking the lift down to reception. I remember at the end of one interview, when the journalist and interviewee were walking to the lift, the interviewee disclosed that he was glad the journalist hadn’t ask the question about ... Surprise, surprise, he then did and the whole story became focused around this point. 

The no-nonsense fictional press officers, Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It , Kaspar Juul from Borgen or The West Wing’s CJ Cregg would have come down like a ton of bricks on any government official who was guilty of making one of these errors. A picture that corporate spokespeople would do well to remember.

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