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How To Woo The Media

How To Woo The Media

Journalists are a shrewd bunch and it’s best to be prepared, says Jonty Summers, general manager of Bladonmore Middle East.

All senior executives will have to face the media eventually. No matter how short the interview is, it can have a lingering impact both on your reputation and that of your organisation. Media interviews present an opportunity. Done well, they enable you to reach out to various stakeholders and hold confident conversations on the company’s strategy and key business developments. But they are not without risk. Here are some of the main pitfalls — and how to avoid them.

■ Being clear on their motives

“There ain’t any news in being good,” said the author Ernest Hemingway. Journalists are always after a story, and more often than not they’re after a specific storyline. What business reporters really want to write are stories about corporate crisis, restructurings, mergers, boardroom bust-ups or job losses. They’ll also construct stories about earnings, the state of the market, product launches, contract wins and, if interesting enough, personality profiles. But they aren’t quite so interesting. Journalists filter stories by topicality, relevance to their readership, how unusual the story is; whether there a whiff of trouble anywhere and the human angle of who is affected. TRUTH (topicality, relevance, unusual, trouble, human) is a useful acronym to help you remember.

■ Not being selective

As you have given up your valuable time, you need to have a very clear idea of what your goal is and the reasons behind your participation. Enter an interview unfocused on the desired outcome and you will likely get an undesired outcome. Many of the world’s leading companies are very selective about which media outlets they will grant interviews to. If you can control the message just a bit more, it helps. My advice for any leader interacting with journalists is to tread carefully and ask lots of questions. What’s the intended focus of the piece? Who else will be interviewed? Where will it run? Which types of stories is the reporter best known for? Don’t be afraid to turn down interviews.

■ Not preparing for the obvious

Preparation is the key to successful media interviews. One of the first steps is to create a “frequently asked questions” list (including all the difficult ones) and practice them until the answers are ingrained.

You should also be prepared for the types of questions that journalists always ask. These fall into three categories: questions you don’t know the answer to; questions that call for speculation and questions that ask for personal opinion.

When you don’t know the answer to a question it is perfectly acceptable to say that you don’t know the answer. Many executives don’t like to admit this. But the alternative is that you get the answer wrong, and risk looking foolish.

Questions inviting speculation are like a fishing hook with a tasty bait. The problem with speculating is that if you guess wrong, your quote could be used against you forever. Don’t take the bait. Stick to the facts.

When you are the spokesperson for a company there is no such thing as a personal opinion. You are identified as a spokesperson for that organisation. Full stop. Don’t offer a personal opinion.

One last, but important point. The first question any journalist asks will invariably be the same: can you tell me about your organisation? It’s amazing how many people fumble this one. It should be an open goal.

Knowing the difference between “answering” and “responding”

Reporters are trained to dig out details. It’s your job to choose how much to give them. If you can feed them your insights, stories and sound bites that enable them to write their story in the quickest time while serving your agenda your interactions will be a positive experience for everyone. Hiding behind a wall of ‘no comment’ will only antagonise the journalist.

A better strategy is to “respond” by acknowledging the question and then moving on to talk about your agenda. As Robert McNamara, former president of Ford Motor Company famously put it: “Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked.”

Research by Harvard University professors Todd Roberts and Michael Norton suggests that people who avoid questions artfully are liked and trusted more than people who respond to questions truthfully but with less polish. This is a skill that can be acquired and needs to be practiced.

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