FOCUS: MEDIA TRAINING - Doorstep challenge. PR experts emphasise that when beseiged by the media during a 'crisis situation', it is of the utmost importance to remain calm and avoid losing control of the agenda, reports Mary Cowlett

What do Tony Blair, Madonna and Jeffrey Archer have in common? Well, apart from being household names, they all know how it feels to face a pack of cameras, microphones and swinging booms, parked outside the front door.

What do Tony Blair, Madonna and Jeffrey Archer have in common? Well, apart from being household names, they all know how it feels to face a pack of cameras, microphones and swinging booms, parked outside the front door.

Politicians, celebrities, and high-profile litigants are all vulnerable to the media practice of doorstepping, but they're not the only ones.

Public and private sector bosses and spokespeople can also fall prey to this particular manifestation of media enthusiasm for a story.

In a new media guide for judges (see panel below) the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, describes doorstepping as 'the situation where reporters call out questions to you as you enter or leave a building or car'. For an unfortunate few, doorstepping can also mean a media posse parked outside their home, workplace or their children's school.

According to the Max Clifford school of media relations, the best way to handle such attention is to open the front door, ask for identification and simply say 'No comment, call Max Clifford'.

Clifford points out that he is no stranger to the Press Complaints Commission and that potentially he has the power to punish journalists and editors by taking his business to their competitors. 'You've got to work from a position of strength,' he says. 'So if they're aware that I'm involved and one minor victory will mean lots of major losses, then they know that it's not worth it.'

But not everyone can have Max on their side when the press strikes. For senior company executives who suddenly find that they are flavour of the month with reporters, handling an unexpected media invasion is a fine art with long-term implications. Never more so than when public interest combines with human safety, as Railtrack discovered in the wake of the Paddington rail disaster.

Usually however, door-stepping is an indication that somewhere along the line, the corporate communications machine has broken down. 'Doorstepping means that you've already lost part of the battle, and have a further distance to come back,' says Oliver Wheeler, Freud Communications director.

He says doorstepping of company executives is an indication of media frustration and adds that he views it as a personal failure, if and when it happens to his clients. 'It shows that you're already on the run and the media feels that it's only going to get you by aggressively asking you questions,' he says.

Obviously, there are a few exceptions to this rule. For example, situations can blow up when people are travelling or out of immediate contact. It may be uncommon, but is not unheard of for senior company executives to step off a plane to a welcoming committee of journalists in the airport.

In addition, a romantic liaison with a celebrity makes drawing back the curtains to a barrage of camera lenses a dead cert.

Wheeler likens doorstepping to being woken up in the middle of the night and asked a 'yes' or 'no' question. And, considering the ill-advised comments that occasionally pop out of people's mouths when they are under pressure, it is as well to be prepared.

This begs the question of just how easy it is to arm people to deal with the unexpected. 'It's the same as any other situation,' says Jonathan Hemus, director of Countrywide Porter Novelli's media training unit Newsreal.

'You have to be prepared because if you fail to plan, you plan to fail'.

His unit helps senior directors handle a media ambush by simulating the real thing.

In the course of a training day, individuals are lured into a sense of false security, then pounced on by well-briefed journalists and a bunch of photographers.

And this is not the end of the matter. Newsreal checks that its trainees have been doing their homework. At some point in the ensuing month, the CPN team organises a further mock attack on senior managers at their place of work.

It all sounds quite sadistic, but role-playing and organising practice runs is the favoured training method for most. 'Doorstepping is everyone's worst nightmare,' says Medialink International broadcast consultant Elly Button. 'In training sessions, we ensure that we are that worst nightmare.'

Before meeting trainees, her organisation runs a full background on the individuals and their company and air-checks previous interviews. Then, when delegates are feeling relaxed - usually after a break or lunch - it springs an impromptu grilling. 'Afterwards, we play it back to them and talk through their demeanour, how they felt, and whether some issues should be addressed differently,' she says.

But the reality of most doorstepping incidents is that they can be foreseen. 'If a company is being investigated or you know there is a big issue or court case pending, then the boss should get wind of it,' says Media First media consultant Mark Gonnella.

Indeed the basic principles of handling the media remain the same whatever the situation. The only difference with doorstepping interviews, is that the element of seizing control rockets up the agenda.

'The doorstep interview is designed to get a reaction,' says Gonnella.

'The gut reaction is to get cross or even violent, which from the media's point of view looks and sounds good. But you've got to be reasonable, calm and put journalists in a situation where you are comfortable.'

There is little doubt that an inappropriate reaction to forceful journalists and photographers makes good copy and great pictures. The public loves stories of interviewees losing their cool with reporters or bopping photographers.

Just ask film director Guy Ritchie. In addition, the coming together of an enthusiastic TV crew and a reluctant or aggressive interviewee makes fantastic footage. It seems likely that arch-doorstepper Roger Cook might have made less of a name for himself if more of his victims had invited him in for a cup of tea and a friendly chat, instead of attacking cameramen or scarpering.

Silence can be golden, but there are some definite bad moves when it comes to doorstepping. An instinctive reaction is to either jump into the nearest moving vehicle, or retreat and call the security guards to bar the doors. But probably the most tempting option is to simply offer 'No comment', which most trainers agree equates to 'Guilty as charged'. Even pausing to draw breath can communicate the wrong messages.

The received wisdom for handling impromptu media situations is to be polite and if besieged at your place of work, invite the journalists in to buy time. 'There is no need to give an answer on the spot,' says Wheeler.

'But if you can, commit to giving an interview or information within a set period.'

And if the media pack are storming the building, he recommends: 'Give yourself a few minutes to prepare a considered response - even if that means saying 'Stay here, I'm making a phone call, I'll be back in five minutes,'.'

However, no matter how well people practice their tactics or hone those three key messages, doorstepping is a psychological battle. Winning the day is as much about attitude and performance as it is about stating the corporate line.

Richard Phillips, a former BBC journalist, mentors individuals through crisis situations and prepares celebrities and company directors to rise above potential media attacks. 'The most important thing is people's state of mind and that they have the right attitude,' he says. 'Otherwise journalists and the public won't like you.'

Two years ago, he helped a celebrity model, who having being wrongly accused of dating a famous rock star, found that she was getting very anxious with journalists and saying impetuous things to the media. 'Rather than start a slanging match with the tabloids and accuse them of lying, we helped her state the truth but also get on with the journalists, by offering them something else,' says Phillips.

Similarly last year, his company RPL helped steer the head of a UK food manufacturer through the media interest surrounding a court case brought by a customer, who had found a rather alarming foreign body in one of its prepacked meals. 'Outside the court he wanted to talk about issues to do with product heritage and share price,' says Phillips. 'We explained that the first thing he should do was express sympathy and concern to the person involved, and then reassure the public that it wouldn't happen again.'

Indeed, when it comes to predicting exactly where an aggressive or intrusive media may be met, one of the most likely places is outside a courthouse or tribunal. At the end of 1999, Shandwick International helped a London health authority taken to tribunal for alleged bad surgical procedures.

'We knew there was going to be media interest,' says Shandwick associate director Gavin Houlgate. 'So we held a session for a couple of the senior directors and discussed how they could put over their point of view successfully, without being bamboozled.'

The Litigation Support unit at Consolidated Communications tends to take its clients to specialist trainers. 'We get current TV personalities or aggressive journalists to put them through the hoops,' says unit head Jim Boyd.

But George Pitcher, former financial journalist and partner of Luther Pendragon, points out that if PR people get their act together, the media scrum outside the courthouse can be avoided altogether.

'The key is not so much to train people in what to say, but to ensure that you have statements, the substance and style of which are suited to the circumstances and the outcome,' he says.

Undoubtedly, there is an element of drama about the entire courtroom procedure. But the skill of handling media interest at the end of a high profile trial, is to take the heat away from the steps of the courthouse.

'If you handle the media bids clearly in an ordered and effective way, and the reporters know they will get access, then that just leaves it as a visual exercise,' says Pitcher.

'It's the photographers looking for eyes and teeth and an impression of the victor and the vanquished.'

Pitcher's organisation has supported many large corporations, through the English judicial system, including assisting McDonald's towards the end of the infamous McLibel case.

However, Pitcher is the first to admit that even with the best training and advice in the world, people do still greet the media in unpredictable fashion. In addition, he warns that it is remarkably easy to emerge from one legal action triumphant, only to unwittingly start another on the court-room steps.

'You have to be very careful when you are moving from an environment of legal privilege to a public forum where you can get skinned alive for libel,' he says.

Wherever it may occur, doorstepping is always a daunting experience, but with input from the professionals, most senior executives should be able to survive. A little forethought, and a few practice runs to get used to the microphones, cameras and questions crowding in from all sides, means almost anyone can handle the real thing.

The art is to take control and have something to say, but not necessarily feel pressured into giving answers on the spot.



NEW MEDIA GUIDE INFORMS THE JUDICIARY ON HOW BEST TO DEAL WITH DOORSTEPPING

Try as they might to avoid it, members of the judiciary are some of the most likely to be doorstepped by journalists, photographers and TV crews looking for juicy soundbites and pictures. And past evidence suggests that not all judges are equally equipped to handle such situations.

In 1992, the former Mr Justice Harman - he of 'Who is Gazza?' fame - was viewed by a TV audience of millions kicking a taxi driver in a fracas involving journalists outside his house. Similarly, the now Sir Jeremiah Harman is once reputed to have responded to the impromptu enquiries of a BBC Panorama TV crew in Lincoln's Inn, by placing a handkerchief over his head.

No doubt mindful that such behaviour dents the public image of the judiciary system as a whole, this July the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, issued media relations advice to all 3,500 judges in England and Wales.

In a booklet entitled The Media: A Guide for Judges, Lord Irvine underlines that 'the media's right and duty is to be a spur to judicial impartiality and the highest standards: they criticise judges when they think it right - that is their job.' The Lord Chancellor's guide offers hints on handling interview situations, including the old adage of finding out exactly what an interview entails before committing. There are also some top tips on appearing in front of TV cameras such as: 'Avoid checks or anything red,' and 'If a make-up person offers to powder your face, accept.'

However, in light of the media's ever growing scrutiny of comments made in court, there is a whole chapter devoted to being doorstepped by a media scrum. Although this 'can be an unpleasant and unnerving experience,' the guide states that in reality, it is 'only a few reporters or photographers trying to do their job.'

To cope with such attention, judges are advised to prepare a few stock answers including: 'I'm sorry but I'm unable to discuss this matter outside the court'. The guide also lays open the option of keeping silent, but warns 'it may create an unnecessary impression of arrogance'.

On the other hand, it underlines that responding to all questions 'is fraught with dangers'.

It may disappoint those looking to boost their circulation figures or audience ratings, but it seems the days of judges making a run for their cars or hiding behind strategically placed handkerchiefs could be on the way out.



TOP TEN TIPS TO HANDLE DOORSTEPPING

Keep your cool and a civil tongue.

Whatever happens do not cry or start throwing punches.

If you are physically threatened, find a policeman or a security guard.

Do not make a run for it, retreat into a building or try and shield your face from the cameras with newspapers, briefcases or a bag over the head.

Unless represented by Max Clifford, avoid saying: 'No comment'. Have a statement prepared, even if it is a simple 'Hello'.

If you are unable to give reporters the information they require, outline a time-scale and location for when you will - and stick to it.

If you are ambushed outside your place of work, invite the journalists in.

If you get caught outside a tribunal or courthouse, look friendly and keep walking.

If you or your loved ones are besieged at home, lock up the family photo album and check out your legal rights. Negotiate - a short statement and brief photo call could be a small price to pay for a bit of peace and quiet.

If things get unbearable, remember the constraints on the media as laid out by the Press Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Commission.

It's all about control, so above all, never let on that you have been caught off your guard.



HOW FAT CAT FUEL BOSSES MANAGED TO MAKE A BAD SITUATION WORSE

The Government has taken plenty of criticism for its handling of last month's fuel shortage crisis. But how do the media training professionals reckon the oil chiefs shaped up to being thrust into the media spotlight?

The answer is that many were disappointed. 'Without exception, the executives that appeared on TV didn't do very well, they looked distinctly uncomfortable and shifty,' says Khalid Aziz, The Aziz Corporation chairman.

In addition, there were some notable gaffes. As the nation's petrol pumps ran dry, one senior oil company executive rolled up to a Downing Street meeting in his chauffeur-driven car, rather than take public transport.

Undoubtedly, the interviewees came under huge pressure, with claims from trade unions that oil company executives had received pay rises of up to 65 per cent in 1999.

But the biggest PR blunder was the announcement by Esso of petrol price hikes, when the fuel crisis was at its height. The mistake was soon corrected with a statement saying: 'We recognise that the timing is regrettable.'

What the media trainers were expecting was oil industry spokespeople who expressed understanding of consumers' concerns and put across their views clearly. 'They didn't look sympathetic or engaging,' says Aziz.

In addition, despite the likes of BP, Shell and Texaco claiming that their first legal obligation was to protect the health and safety of their staff, the oil chiefs had a hard time fighting off media allegations of collusion with protestors.

As Warwick Partington, director of Media Training Masterclasses, which uses the realistic facilities of the BBC's training site in Evesham, says: 'The key is realising what the audience wants from you and your organisation, then stepping outside the pigeonhole people expect, to deliver a human response which acknowledges concerns and show you are doing something about those concerns.'



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