MEDIA EXPERTISE: As media becomes part of everyday life spokespeople are
finding that ignorance is dangerous
CAMERA TIPS: The secret to television success is to remember that body
language speaks louder than words
INTERVIEWING TECHNIQUES: With a little preparation you can avoid the
‘speak now, repent at leisure’ scenario
With the number of news hungry channels growing the pressure is on to
train a broader spectrum of staff in news handling skills. Danny Rogers
‘I personally haven’t had a bath or a shower now for three months and no
one has noticed,’ said Trevor Newton, former chief executive of
Yorkshire Water last September, while there was talk of the company
leaking 103 million gallons a day from its pipes.
Was he media trained? Yorkshire Water press office won’t say. But with
Newton gone, and fresh senior executives in place, new head of corporate
affairs Margaret Stewart clearly values careful preparation of
‘Any spokesperson will be put through initial training to see how they
appear and how they perform.’ she says. ‘Prior to any radio or TV
interview, we will talk them through the issues as a matter of course.’
‘I can see an obvious link between those companies that have high level
of media training and those who have a good public profile,’ says Peter
Geraghty director of media training and communications company The
Geraghty is surprised by the number of glaring errors still made by
senior executives when talking to the media: ‘This is particularly true
among the public utilities and the financial sector, although on the
whole corporates are getting better,’ he says.
Indeed the perofmance of Newton last year now seems to be the exception,
rather than the rule.
‘It is probably true to say that the majority of industry heads and
senior company executives have now received some form of media
training,’ says Claire Williams, partner at training company Coulter
Ford Associates, ‘This does of course make the journalist’s job very
much easier as they will rarely find themselves having to make a silk
purse out of a pig’s ear.’
Dennis Sewell, presenter of Radio 5’s media programme Paper Talk,
agrees: ‘On the positive side, people talk properly and the broadcast is
more listenable. On the other hand one wonders whether the interview is
still a worthwhile form of investigative journalism, as spokespeople are
trained to a point where inconvenient facts simply do not emerge.’
According to Chris Loosemore, director of Ariel Communications, the
explosion in media training began around a decade ago, following Bernard
Ingham’s successful orchestration of the media for the Conservative
The process has also been driven by a dawning realisation by corporate
chiefs of just how badly things can go wrong.
Doug Goodman, former head of press and PR at Thomsons Holidays, moved
into media training eight years ago, specialising in the travel and
leisure sectors. He says that high profile catastrophes have shocked
chief executives into action.
‘The Zeebrugge disaster and the Cunard fiasco have changed companies’
perceptions. There is an acceptance that one has to be prepared.’
But Goodman also points out that news gathering around such events is
increasingly immediate and upfront.
Apart from the necessary speed of response - the company’s reaction in
the first five minutes can be crucial - pressure on corporations for
comment is compounded by a proliferation of media outlets.
A growth in regional radio stations, specialist narrowcast channels on
cable and satellite TV, not to mention the imminent explosion of
channels on the digital medium, all mean an ever more voracious appetite
This creates an important ‘democratising’ effect on media training as
middle management and regional executives are increasingly called up
either in a crisis, or simply to respond as an authority at any time.
Loosemore says: ‘Although most major companies are now proficient in
media training, this does not necessarily apply to smaller companies and
He gives the example of middle managers in hospital trusts, whom he
believes are especially prone to mistakes.
Peter Geraghty agrees: ‘Officials in local government and the civil
service are often being caught out. These people are usually specialists
and aren’t comfortable with the sound-bite approach of many media. They
can flounder or get stroppy.’
Geraghty says his clients are acknowledging the need to train a broader
spectrum of staff. Although he believes it is not always a good idea to
train senior and junior management at the same time, as it can challenge
senior executives’ authority.
‘Very few people actually fail the training and it is more a case of
providing experience so the interviewee is more relaxed. It is also
important to identify which characters perform best in each situation.
Some will be natural sound-bite experts, other will succeed in a more
formal, detailed interview,’ says Geraghty.
Perhaps as a result PR agencies are increasingly building a media
training element into their strategies for clients.
Chris Woodcock, deputy managing director at Countrywide says: ‘Media
training is an integral part of any communications discipline. Trained
spokespeople are able to communicate good news effectively and keep
their cool during a crisis. We train our clients to take control of an
Countrywide has developed a series of modular training courses - from
basic coaching through to regular telephone tests and press conference
‘These can range from one-off tailored programmes for the individual to
pan-European multi-lingual programmes for international businesses and
challenging crisis situations,’ says Woodcock.
She has teamed up with consultant Michele Mervin to personally advise
clients and says a number of account handlers have been made proficient
in media training techniques.
Grayling’s managing director Nigel Kennedy says: ‘With a number of ex-
journalists on our staff we undertake some client media training in-
house. We have just carried out an intensive in-house session with a
major plc in the food service industry, putting its staff through their
paces in a number of problem and crisis scenarios. It is an essential
part of the communications infrastructure we are putting in place.’
Woodcock believes strongly that media training is all too often a
brought-in service rather than a true skill ‘owned’ by most
consultancies. In this sense it is isolated from clients’ communications
advisers. ‘It should be the fulcrum of any communications programme,
rather than a separate element,’ she says.
However it is only likely to be larger consultancies and organisations
that have the resources to consider in-house media training. Others will
be faced with the choice from a vast array of independent trainers and
the task of thoroughly briefing to achieve the necessary degree of
integration into the wider communications plan.
But how does one find the right trainer? Unfortunately there is not yet
any official trade association for guidance.
Geraghty says: ‘More people are coming into the business and the
question is: who can provide independent validation? There have been
informal talks among some of the better established media trainers, but
at the moment no progress is being made.’
Loosemore warns that clients should be careful when choosing a company.
‘There are many trainers out there with little experience of the print
and broadcast media yet they charge lots of money for so-called top
quality training,’ he says.
Until some industry standards are introduced, one should look for
companies that have a demonstrable and up-to-date knowledge of a broad
range of media. It should also not be forgotten that knowledge and
experience is not always enough. The trainers must also be good
Training exercises: Some of the experts on call
Airtime Communications 0115 9816994
Mobile outside broadcast unit for on-location training. Specialises in
public sector. pounds 1,650 for max six people
Ariel Communications 01734 543694
Media training specialists. Branches in London, Birmingham and
Manchester. Approx pounds 1,200 - pounds 4,600
Michael Bland 0171 821 6113
All aspects of media training, particularly crisis management. pounds
Bulletin International 0171 278 6070
Senior executive/ spokesman training for broadcast interviews. pounds
2,000 - pounds 4,500
Chevron 0171 831 1811
Media, presentation and crisis management training. Approx pounds 2,700
The Communicators 0117 929 9592
Media training in BBC studios and broadcast-related seminars. Approx
Corporate Vision 0171 734 2335
Media and presentation training with dedicated central London studio.
Approx pounds 2,500 - pounds 4,000
Coulter Ford Associates 01344 780240
Specialising in personal presentation skills and media techniques.
Approx pounds 1,650 - pounds 3,300
Doug Goodman Media Training 0181 977 1105
Media familiarisation and crisis management training. Approx pounds
HTV Media Training 01222 590590
TV broadcaster offering media training, crisis management and
communications skills. pounds 2,000 - pounds 2,500
InterMedia Training 0171 233 5033
Individually tailored media and presentation training courses. pounds
1,400 - pounds 2,950
John Stonborough 0171 631 3434
Independent support service for public relations professionals in
handling the hostile media. Approx pounds 1,500
Media Interviews 01249 655275
TV, radio and press interview courses. Approx pounds 2,250
TV and Radio Training Unit 01332 296684
Broadcast and print media training, crisis management, presentation
skills. pounds 2,000
TRT 0114 264 8900
Interviews training, personal presentation and crisis management. Price
TV News London 0171 222 0807
Broadcast specialists with access to working central London studios.
pounds 1,650 - pounds 3,200
Prices based on full day’s group training. Usually negotiable
Camera action: The making of a screen star
Set in the heart of Bushey, Hertfordshire, Hillside Studios has the air
of a country retreat - fitting for a facility once used to train vicars
to do the epilogue.
I’m here to be put through my paces by media training company Intermedia
Training. The setting may be rural but the production facilities are
professional and the studios are buzzing with a crew from a children’s
Course tutors Cathie Fraser and former BBC Europe correspondent Graham
Leech do a credible double act: she explains the theory, while he does
the practice, including some Paxmanesque probing during our three set-
Fraser insists on the importance of using professional studios - if you
are not used to them television studios can be very unnerving places.
The aim is to make you familiar with the environment now so you don’t
get distracted later.
A professional journalist is also a must - you have got to have someone
who knows how an issue would be handled in a real situation, says
My own rather abridged training session - a half day rather than the
normal full one - kicked off with a short briefing on the aims and
objectives of the course and the basics of how a news report is put
Fraser then elaborates on the three Ps - preparation, preparation and
preparation - and produces a long list of questions every interviewee
should ask before agreeing to take part. Sample questions include: What
is the programme about? Is it live or recorded? Who else is taking part?
There is nearly always a minute or two before the interview starts while
you are being miked up - don’t waste it. Check with the interviewer
that the information you have already been given, by a researcher or
producer, is correct and ask what the first question will be.
And do not be afraid to make demands. In my first studio interview I
encounter interviewee public enemy number one - the swivel chair.
Several minutes of violent swinging later I vow next time to take
Fraser’s advice and ask for a fixed replacement.
In television, appearance really is everything. According to Fraser,
statistics show that 55 per cent of the overall impression you create is
based on the way you look. Another 38 per cent is down to your delivery.
This leaves just seven per cent for what you actually say. No matter
what you say, if your eyes are all over the place, people are going to
remember you as a shifty looking character.
After a brief analysis of the studio interview, we move on to an outside
broadcast - in this case from the carpark. With little more than 20
seconds of the interview likely to make it to the screen, the key thing
here is to treat each question as if it is the only one. Do not say ‘as
I was saying’ - chances are the viewer won’t have seen your previous
answer. Use a bridging technique to answer the question and then move it
on to the three or four points you want to make.
A good tip is to have some well-rehearsed answers to standard hostile
questions - ‘lifebelts’ Fraser calls them - which you grab on to if
things start to run away from you.
Other tips: steer clear of jargon, illustrate what you are saying with
statistics, examples, or anecdotes and practise ways of ‘kicking into
touch’ hostile questions and turning them to your own advantage.
Oh, and watch those eyes.
Interviewing: Question time tactics
To find oneself facing a camera can be an unnerving experienced for the
most self-possessed and opinionated - even a journalist. In fact, it is
perhaps even more unnerving for someone who is experienced in the art of
interviewing to find the tables turned with themselves in the hot seat-
as I found out when independent trainer Michael Bland invited me to
experience at first hand his brand of media training.
Bland is one of an increasing number of independent trainers who, rather
than working out of a single studio, work around client needs in terms
of location. In this instance, the training session was held at the
studios of UCL, but in many cases Bland says he sets up studio scenarios
in company conference rooms and board rooms. ‘It is valuable to get the
feel of a studio but it is not the end of the world if they don’t. Most
interviews are picked up by electronic news gathering now anyway,’ he
While each course is tailored to meet individual client requirements, a
media course generally lasts for a full day, including practical
sessions with a seasoned journalist. Bland avoids any New Age-style
relaxation techniques, preferring to deal with nerves as and when they
arise. Instead he spends anything up to 90 minutes on a ‘psychotherapy
session’ talking through experiences with the media and trying to instil
a sympathetic understanding of the journalist’s position, later
encouraging participants to anticipate a journalist’s questions.
‘I talk them through the typical training of a journalist, the fact that
they are indoctrinated at an early age that the story is everything,
says Bland. ‘Senior executives never stop to think about what type of
person the journalist is, and I teach them to deal with the media the
way that they would deal with a customer, and to pre-package the
information for journalists,’ says Bland.
Only then does he put his subject through a practical interview exercise
on camera. Make no mistake, media training is exhausting. Even a minute
on camera, can leave most people feeling drained, but Bland puts his
subjects through the experience three or four times, finishing off with
a post- session analysis.
While paying lip service to the importance of appearance and eye
contact, Bland tends to concentrate on content. He places great emphasis
on the art of bridging, drawing the analogy of swimming in an ocean full
of sharks between islands of factual information - reassuringly I didn’t
spend too long in the water.
The first run through was, however, rather too abstract, and it was only
in the second interview, that I saw how, by using more specific examples
to make the interview more animated and the argument more colourful.
While most clients think of television as the most nerve-racking end of
the interview spectrum, Bland also covers down-the-line radio and print,
which, as he points out, can appear deceptively simple.
‘Whereas broadcast interviewers have to educate and interview at the
same time, the print journalist gets information and then has to go away
and make it entertaining. They can afford to be nice to you during the
interview, which is a subtle trap.’
As a crisis management specialist, Bland also specialises in spine-
chilling mock door-stepping scenarios, catching clients off-guard with
‘I usually get them singing like canaries the first time round,’ says
Bland, who advises clients to use delaying tactics. ‘To express the
willingness to talk, while buying the time required to prepare a
response, instead of responding to emotional taunts and putting
themselves at the mercy of a live interviewer is an invaluable skill,’