MEDIA ANALYSIS: Survive Today, rejoice tomorrow

The Today programme is feared and respected in equal measure. Hannah Marriott looks at what PROs can do to ensure interviewees come out unscathed.

Carolyn Quinn: Presenter for the <em>Today</em> programme
Carolyn Quinn: Presenter for the Today programme

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, arg­uably the most sought-after and feared media slot in the UK, marks its 50th birthday on 28 October.

Over the years, Today has established itself as a highly respected source of agenda-setting journalism, and has often made headlines itself, particularly over the Hutton Inquiry. Its position will be celebrated later this month with a TV documentary on the show.

The less-than-dulcet tones of Humphreys et al reach almost 6.2m people a week, according to Radio Joint Aud­ience Research, and it is commonly known for being the programme to which opinion-formers listen as they eat their cornflakes.

Indeed, according to PRWeek’s Power Book (March 2007) more than a third of top PROs would choose Today as their ‘most essential viewing or listening’. This is not least because many of them will have featured on it.

‘The day after an interview on the Today programme, at least one of five people you talk to will comment on it – and you usually pick up two or three other interviews on the back of it,’ says the eponymous founder of Keith Betton Consulting, who has been on the programme many times – particularly during his 20 years heading corporate communications for ABTA.

Despite its aspirational role, many clients and PROs are wary about Today presenters’ famously tough int­erviewing techniques.

However, Colonel Mike Dewar, MD of PR agency One, who has been interviewed on Today more than 80 times, argues: ‘You shouldn’t need to be briefed on who is interviewing you or what
they will ask. If you plan everything it will only change at the last minute.’

Eddie Hammerman – head of consultancy at the TV and Radio Consultancy – agrees: ‘Don’t get hung up on their personalities. Never think that because John Humphrys is on holiday you’re going to get an easy ride. The way the questions are asked may be different, but the questions themselves will be just as tough.’

More importantly, PROs should focus on choosing the right spokesperson, briefing them well and preparing them for being dropped at the last minute, which Today regulars say happens more than half the time.

Rather than automatically providing the CEO, PROs should search the organisation for someone who is able to give a good performance and is fully informed, because ‘any gaps in their knowledge will be quickly uncovered and exploited’, says Hammerman. Bell Yard director Melanie Riley bel­ieves that voice considerations are also an important part of selecting the best interviewee: ‘Certain voices resonate far better than others over the airwaves. However well prepared and good an argument your CEO may have, if he has a voice like David Beckham or Wayne Rooney, or she has one like Patricia Hewitt, think again.’

Six Degrees PR consultant Toby Poston was until last year a BBC TV producer working in the same open-plan office as the Today team. He recommends that the person going on air should take a little time to talk to the producer about the issues, given that the presenters often arrive at 4am to be handed a full brief for each interview put together by the producers.

After that, it is the usual trick of trying to both answer the question and lead into your key messages.

Betton argues that this process is made smoother by ‘ensuring you are interesting, perhaps using humour where appropriate, or through being a bit controversial’.

In a crisis, Riley advises her clients never to ‘react to provocation, particularly when they’ve had a very early start, a BBC courtesy car that arrived late and appalling traffic around Wood Lane all conspiring against them, and the grilling from an occasionally truculent presenter has yet to begin’.

‘The Today presenters are usually very well informed. They can spot a disingenuous response when they hear one, and sometimes their interruptions are totally valid, particularly if you’re veering off at tangents or just being plain dull. Accept the interruptions and don’t get irritated or competitive is my mantra,’ she says.

Dewar has sometimes pursued a more confrontational line: ‘If you bel­ieve that the BBC has a metropolitan, “liberal”, politically correct, chattering class agenda then Today must be the guiltiest party of all. You’ve got to be quite robust and stand up to them. I have sometimes overreacted because I have been so exasperated by Humphrys and his gang. But I’m always asked back because it makes great radio.’

Whatever happens, Riley recommends having one ‘deflecting catch-all answer’ prepared, because ‘there will usually be the final flippant or cheeky question used as a sign-off, and you may find all other responses fail you’.

John Humphrys


Probably the most feared presenter, Humphrys has been with the programme since 1987.

Betton says: ‘He is known for having his moods – it depends on the day.’ ‘One tip for PROs is don’t try to sit in the recording booth part of the studio with your frightened interviewee as he will stop proceedings and throw you out,’ recalls battle-scarred Trimedia Harrison Cowley divisional director Justin McKeown.

James Naughtie


Naughtie is known for having a left-of-centre political outlook. He once mistakenly referred to the Labour Party as ‘we’ during an interview with Labour MP Ed Balls, asking ‘if we win the election, does Gordon Brown remain Chancellor?’ before correcting himself.

‘He is more subtle than Humphrys but often the lines he gets are just as good,’ warns Loop Communications co-founder Johnson.

Sarah Montague


As the programme’s main female presenter, Montague has had to deal with some flak, including accusations that she is too soft or out of her depth on Today. ‘She is actually very tough and very sharp,’ contends Betton.

 

 

Carolyn Quinn


One insider describes her as ‘a lovely woman who gets her stories from being nice. That might seem fluffy but even if that were true she will have the questions shouted into her ear by the editor so they will be as hard as anyone else’s.’

 

 

Getting through
Pitching ideas for the Today programme can be tricky as there is no single route for submissions.

One method is to send an email to the general BBC home news address (uknewsplan@bbc.co.uk), after which planners will decide whether to use an idea or a commentator ­ and if so on which programme to use them.

Another generic email address (today@bbc.co.uk) goes direct to the Today programme, and may be a better bet when offering something exclusive, ­ a very quirky angle on a news story or a fascinating arts-based story, for example.

Loop Communications co-founder Paul Johnson used to work for Radio Five Live, alongside Ceri Thomas, now the Today editor. He says the best way to get a story in is usually to whet the appetite of the relevant BBC correspondent on a certain topic ­ who will usually be working across many different BBC programmes - ­ meaning that they will pitch the idea to Today instead.

'They don't like ring-ins. It's almost as though the people who ring in are less likely to be used than those who don't because it's against the BBC's guidelines for others to try to set the agenda,' he points out.

That said, it can work. Financial Times' global comms director Emma Gilpin-Jacobs dealt with Today when the newspaper had a refresh in April.

'We got in touch to let them know what was happening, they called us back and interviewed the editor and a media commentator. They were very interested in the bigger picture and why we were doing it. They were easy to deal with, asked intelligent questions and it was relaxed,' she says.

However, she cautions that the direct approach should be used sparingly; 'We would never get in touch with Today unless we thought it was a really big story.'

To help with pitching, former BBC producer Toby Poston (now a consultant at agency Six Degrees) recommends inviting producers for lunch or coffee: ­ 'they are usually crazily busy during their shift but are often free for the rest of the day,' he points out.

He adds that Today is 'much more pro-business than many outlets - where Five Live can be more pro-consumer, Today's audience is steered towards high-flying city execs, politicians and opinion formers. A good rule of thumb when it comes to clients is: if you want to speak to your customers, speak to Five Live or Radio Two; ­ if you want to speak to your peers or politicians, ­ speak to Today.'

 


In this week's video podcast, Alison Stawarz, head of comms at John McAslan + Partners tells her story of surviving an interview on the Today programme. WATCH

 

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