Media handling: Keeping it real

For three months, PRWeek and Waggener Edstrom dissected the media appearances of everyone from Peter Mandelson to Joanna Lumley in weekly Friday Drop email bulletins. The conclusion? Make it personal.

Communicator of the Year: Joanna Lumley
Communicator of the Year: Joanna Lumley

It might not be the kind of company she generally keeps, but Joanna Lumley, winner of PRWeek's Communicator of the Year Award, has a lot in common with Chinese government spokesman Lio Weimin, rapper Chris Brown and Peter Mandelson.

The four have displayed an innate grasp of the one element that, more than any other, appears to guarantee the success of a media appearance - the ability to sincerely empathise with the people or situation on which they are commenting.

So when Weimin referred to the fact that he was familiar with the Urumqi area of China (affected by ethnic violence) and said he was glad Western journalists were reporting there, he displayed a personal touch that marked him as unusual even among Western spokespeople, let alone those from his own country.

Lumley's many media appearances furthering the cause of the Gurkhas were doubtless enhanced by her ease in front of the camera. But beyond her natural poise, her passion for her subject and personal links (her father fought with the Gurkhas in World War Two) show that relating subjects back to your own experiences and background can be a powerful strategy.

Chris Brown's YouTube video could hardly have been anything but highly personal given the fact that he was accused of beating up his girlfriend. But he managed to strike the right tone of measured contrition that convinced his fans and the wider world that he was sincere in his apology.

Peter Mandelson polarised opinion at a recent PRWeek Friday Drop workshop. There are those who believe he is one of the greatest living communicators, and others who do not believe a single word he utters. But the fact remains that his performances in front of the broadcast media encapsulate a charm of style that underlines his confidence and ability to comfortably use references to himself.

Caroline Randle, head of corporate practice at Waggener Edstrom, says: 'People are regarded as sincere in interviews if they have a grasp of their subject, but also seem to have a genuine passion for it.'

Jessica Tomlin, now PR manager for architect firm Nightingale Associates, formerly handled PR for Dignity in Dying, the group campaigning for a change in the euthanasia laws. Her representatives had to come across as genuine, she recalls, 'otherwise it held huge risks for the campaign, as our opposition was very strong and the campaign was high profile on a national and international scale'.

She adds: 'Likeability was a trait on which our cause depended. Our opposition often appeared cagey and extremist, so by coming across as likeable, normal people, we were able to win support and make people listen to our views and opinions.'

Sandra Collins, head of media training at the COI, believes that, particularly for public sector communicators, being regarded as sincere is even more important than likeability. 'Viewers don't have to like you, but if they don't believe what you are saying, you have wasted your time,' she says.

Collins recommends that spokespeople adopt a less defensive attitude, use more straightforward language than they might with their colleagues, and consider using personal references - as Weimin managed to do. All these techniques reduce the perceived distance between speaker and audience. And personal references are hard for an interviewer to argue against.

But making personal references must be done with a light touch, she adds: 'Done well, it can build empathy, but layer it too thickly and viewers will see it as a cynical attempt to manipulate.'

She suggests that mentioning the experiences of other people can often be a safer way of achieving the same goal, citing the example of a woman who ran literacy programmes in prisons: 'It would have been easy but ineffective for her to just state her courses were a good use of public money. Instead, she told a story about a prisoner who had been unable to read or write. At the end of her course, he was able to write a birthday card to his eight-year-old daughter for the first time. That was a much more powerful and effective message.'

With so much more broadcast footage now in circulation, thanks to publications' online efforts, there are far more opportunities for spokespeople. But online interviews are highly scrutinised, making the stakes even higher. Randle thinks part of the answer lies in ensuring representatives understand the broader context of their messages: 'It's essential that spokespeople understand how the public sees a particular topic, in order to gauge the most appropriate tone to use.'

EXPRESS YOURSELF LUMLEY STYLE

"I have been set back because I did not think we would need to have a further campaign. I do not know what we have to do. I don't know where else to go. We have gone to the High Court, we have gone to the press, we have gone to the people and to Parliament. All those people have backed the Gurkhas. Who do we go to next? The Royal family are not allowed to get involved, although personally I have had a letter of support. I do not understand democracy, if this is what democracy is" - The Guardian, 6 May 2009

"Gordon Brown is a brave man who has made a brave decision on behalf of the bravest of the brave. A great injustice has been righted. The Gurkhas are coming home" - To reporters, outside the House of Commons, 21 May 2009

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