A lot has been written about the power of the press, but little is said about how companies can use the media to their advantage.
Television, radio and the press reach millions of people each day, and a few good interviews can often be more effective for a company than millions of pounds spent on advertising.
To ensure a company has a good media profile, it is essential to have well-informed key representatives who are on good terms with journalists and perform well in front of the cameras. Good media relations can lead to a high profile for the company as Michael Blunt, head of media relations at British Airways, points out: “Interviews are free, you don’t have to pay for them. They are an opportunity for you to hammer home some key messages to an important audience.”
But before any company lets its employees appear in the press or on radio or television, the company needs to ensure they have had proper media training. Just as a good interview can do wonders for a company’s image, getting it wrong can be disastrous.
Good media training can sway the public over to your side and enables a company to show the human side behind its corporate logo, says Maria Darby, a director at leading financial public relations consultants, Lansons Communications.
“Media training is very important, because at the end of the day, the company’s public profile is at stake. You only have to look at Gerald Ratner to see what can happen if you go into the public field unprepared.
It’s in cases like this that you see the power of the media,” says Darby.
The key to a good interview is preparation, anticipating possible areas of discussion and being able to deal with the unexpected. Media training helps FDs do this and teaches techniques to help them get out of any potentially embarrassing situations.
The number of representatives a company has will depend on its size and the nature of its business. Companies in a high profile industry which are often the focus of media attention on a whole range of issues will need to be able to field a range of experts. While a smaller company may use its chairperson, chief executive, financial director and marketing manager as representatives.
Media training aims to helps companies make the most of the media. Training is centred around replicating real life situations and seeing how best to handle them, and how individuals could do better.
FDs typically act as representatives for their company when interim and annual figures are announced, and when their company is looking to float on the stockmarket. As well as having to talk to analysts, institutional investors and shareholders, the FD has to be ready to talk to the media.
Anna Cook, who 17 years ago started up London-based media and presentations training company, Ward Cook Associates, says FDS can find talking to the media a problem.
“Many FDs are not natural communicators so they try to hide behind the jargon they probably used when they were auditors. They also tend to talk about results in the passive tense which can be dull and makes them sound as if they are not actively involved in the company. This can seem odd and may even make what they say sound suspicious,” warns Cook.
Using the active tense can make results seem more interesting and up-to-date; so instead of saying “these profits have been achieved by a combination of …”, they should say “we have achieved these profits by …”
A little bit of training and a few techniques can pay real dividends when it comes to performance, says Cook.
“FDs are starting from a low base with many of them lacking confidence in this area. Nobody is expecting them to be very exciting. So an FD only has to be a little bit more human and interesting and they will stand out well in a crowd,” she says.
Some companies provide all their media training in-house. British Telecom has its own in-house studios and employs ex-BBC journalists to carry out broadcast training.
Many companies get their PR consultants to arrange training for them.
The PR agency might provide training on how to deal with the press themselves, and then use an outside trainer to provide broadcast training in a properly equipped studio.
Training can be on a one-to-one basis or in groups. If a new FD joins the company he or she may receive individual training for one or two mornings and then join the rest of the company’s representatives for group training.
With so many audiences to talk to, Cook recommends the first half-day session be spent looking at how the financial director communicates. This could involve video taping the FD presenting the company’s half-year results to shareholders, analysts or at a press conference. The video would then be played back and they would look at what went well and what did not work.
Typical mistakes include overly long explanations and not explaining figures properly until the end of a presentation.
The second session would involve working on particular problems the FD might have, such as a stutter or becoming tongue-tied when under pressure.
He or she would then be ready to join the rest of the team for group training.
Working as a group means each member of the team gets used to having an audience and they can learn from other people’s mistakes. It also enables the company to pinpoint which member of the team will be the best representatives in a particular situation.
As well as general media training, refresher courses may be run or training given for a particular event. For example, when Pepsi launched the Pepsi Challenge in the 80s, the company’s PR consultants ran a series of media training courses for its regional managers ahead of the press conferences across Europe. One of the key points it made, was that no Pepsi manager was to agree to take the Pepsi Challenge in case they got it wrong and made a laughing stock of the company.
PR consultants may also hold a media training session ahead of a particular announcement, such as redundancies, so as all the company’s representatives are briefed on the details and clear on the company’s line. Delegates may be given specific areas to speak on and all enquiries on that particular aspect will be channelled through to them.
As the number of television stations and business programmes increases, so the number of broadcasting opportunities for companies increases. The demands of radio and television are different to those of the press, and so special training is needed.
Often interviews are live, so the PR consultant or press officer is unable to interrupt an interview if things are going badly or points need clarifying.
Interviewees also have to work in a studio which, if they are not familiar with the surroundings, can be unnerving.
For this reason, Nicholas Coppack, a divisional director at London PR consultants, Declavey, says it is best for training to be as real as possible and to take place in the environment where the real event may occur. “Good media training will happen in the studio environment and will recreate the likely media scenarios you may have to face,” he says.
At the studio training session, various scenarios are played out and real journalists are often used to do the interviewing to make it as real as possible.
Typically, a company delegate will be interviewed on a run-of-the-mill story, then there may be a session dealing with a crisis. The interviews will the video taped and then run back to look at what went wrong, how things can be improved and how individual techniques can be improved.
Practising in a real studio, gets FDs used to the glare and heat given off by the television lights. Those not used to make-up may at first find it uncomfortable – if it is not worn the face appears shiny and gives the interviewee the appearance of sweating under pressure.
Training may also be given on how to deal with doorstepping – when a company executive is approached on their doorstep by journalists after a crisis. For an FD this could involve a posse of radio, television and press journalists rushing up to their doorstep as they are leaving for work in the morning, and demanding to know about irregularities discovered overnight at the company.
Personal appearance is important on television if FDs are to be taken seriously and are to get their message across. Do not wear anything which might distract the viewer from what is being discussed. Suits with big checks or close stripes are out, as are loud ties, badges and lapel pins, and dangly earrings.
Wearing red is not a good idea as the colour can strobe or bleed out of its boundaries – so avoid bright red lipstick.
Body language also is important.Talk to the interviewer or if there is no interviewer into the camera. Keep a steady gaze, shifting the eyes around may make the individual look like a dodgy character.
Try to control facial expressions. Don’t pull a face if the question is difficult and try to look intelligent and sympathetic. Remember, facial expressions can sway the nation as Princess Di demonstrated in her famous Panorama interview.
It is important to maintain good posture. Slumping in chairs does not give the impression of a young and thrusting executive who is on top of a situation. Fidgeting can detract from what is being said, it can also suggest nervousness. And avoid swivel chairs as rocking from side to side can make the audience feel sea sick.
Radio presents a different set of problems. Although it removes the need to worry about appearance, but what is said becomes even more important.
Audiences have short attention spans at the best of times, so what is said must sound clear, simple and interesting. FDs should not try to be over-ambitious in what they want to get across, advises Blunt.
“You can expect the audience to take on board three messages so you must decide beforehand what these will be. You then need three key phrases that trip off your tongue well,” he says.
Long sentences, said in a monotonous tone, are likely to fall on deaf ears. Notes can be taken into a radio interview but beware of rustling the paper as that will act as a distraction.
It is also worth remembering that the pitch of the voice is likely to rise if the interviewee become nervous, so it is advisable to pitch the voice quite low when starting sentences to avoid sounding squeaky.
Dealing with the press can often seem a simpler task than working with television or radio. But don’t fall into the trap of being complacent.
It may not be a live interview but there is still plenty of room for disasters and misunderstandings. Lansons Communications makes the following recommendations to its clients:
be confident – you are the expert;
get to know the journalist and his/her publication;
check the journalist’s deadline and return calls in plenty of time;
use real life examples;
use simple language – avoid jargon, acronyms and abbreviations;
don’t go off the record unless you are 100% sure of the relationship with the journalist – if you don’t want to appear in print, don’t say it;
don’t answer if you don’t know;
don’t make jokes – they can be misinterpreted;
don’t say “yes” to a journalists summations – summarise in your own words;
don’t answer hypothetical or personal questions; and
never agree to be interviewed or be drawn into an area of questioning if you don’t know the subject very well.
“Journalists want to interview you because you said you were the expert.
If you’re not they could destroy you,” warns Coppack.
To make the most of an interview, preparing well, but not so much that it looks unnatural, is the answer, adds Darby.
“Preparation is the key; you have got to get your message across. You need to decide what positive messages you want to get across and how you are going to do that,” she says.
The cost of media training varies. If a company bring in outside help and need to hire a studio it can expect to pay from #500 to #1,000 a day per person. The amount of training varies depending on how senior the representative is, but typically, two or three days is adequate and there may be the occasional refresher or special event training sessions required.
For this, the company will have a professional representative who it feels confident putting in front of the world’s media. Not only will this enable the company to take advantage of any interview opportunities, but will also enable it to get its message across clearly to the public, shareholders and experts alike.
Media training is not cheap but it is essential if a company is in the public eye. As Coppack points out: “Any opportunity to appear on broadcast media will be a PR coup. It is perhaps the biggest PR coup you can get as it will appeal to the biggest audience. Three minutes on television or national radio is an important PR event for your company – would you risk making a fool of yourself in front of this audience?”
Abigail Montrose is a freelance journalist.