MEDIA TRAINING: Communication skills - A reputation can be won and lost in a moment on TV or radio. Alastair Ray looks at how you need to tailor media skills to appear on a particular programme, be it Newsnight, Watchdog or This Morning

What is it about the bright lights of a TV studio that can affect

even the most self-confident executive? A couple of short, sharp

questions and suddenly the big cheese is hanging in the wind and the

company's reputation is starting to give off a bad smell.



In fact, some agency staffers say that fewer than half of the people

they see on TV or hear on radio do the job well. Burson-Marsteller

managing director Martin Langford says that around 30 per cent of

spokespeople who appear on TV and radio are competent. 'I've got tapes

of lots of horrible examples,' he says. 'People that look totally

inappropriate, chief executives that look shifty. Whatever you say, the

audience has already made up its mind.'



Given this assessment, is it any wonder that media training is

increasingly being seen as an essential part of any executive's career

plan?



'Reputation can be destroyed with a couple of careless words in a single

live interview. It really is important that you equip them with the

skills,' advises Andrew Ogden, Broadcast Media Services director.



Basic broadcast media training is as much about forewarning executives

about what to expect once they enter the TV or radio studio as it is

telling them how to communicate. For anyone used to an ordered, calm

office, the chaos of a TV studio can be extremely disconcerting.



Knowing what is likely to happen will also help the client retain an

element of control. 'A client is not used to doing this all day and

Jeremy Paxman is. The spokesman never feels they're in their own

environment,' adds Regester Larkin director Mike Regester.



But beyond informing executives about the nuts and bolts of how TV and

radio actually work, the bulk of such training usually focuses on

role-play sessions - either on an agreed appearance or preparations for

future presentations.



Such sessions also give the trainers a chance to see how people perform

in simulated conditions and assess how they might perform under

pressure.



They also give the interviewee a chance to practice using techniques

such as throwing questions back at the interviewer and turning the

appearance into a two-way conversation rather than a game of Q&A 'ping

pong'.



'A broadcast interview is very different to what most people are used

to,' says Khalid Aziz, The Aziz Corporation chairman. 'Broadcasting

demands an instant response.'



Role-play sessions will also help isolate the twitchers and direct them

towards radio. However articulate or competent their business skills, if

they can't create the right visual impression then they won't be as

effective at getting the message across.



'Seventy per cent is how you look, seven per cent is what you say and

the rest is non-verbal communication,' says Francis Thomas, Boots group

media relations manager.



And once someone has mastered the art of sitting still, there are other

things to remember. Edelman Public Relations director of financial media

Simon Scott recalls with horror the time when an interviewee reached

across and shook the interviewer's hand while the show was still on

air.



Scott also advises his trainees that a number of other issues are

important if they're to create the right impression, including not

wearing a patterned suit or tie, a white shirt, chewing gum or looking

directly at the camera.



The key difference between broadcast and print appearances is time.



Most TV and radio interviews will be of the short, sharp shock

variety.



'With broadcast you have a limited amount of time to get your message

across. The media training element is useful for honing down your

argument,' says Michael Haines, Unilever chief press officer.



It's a view that's echoed by Andrew Ogden, Broadcast Media Services

director.



'Radio and TV is not a place to win an argument. Radio and TV is a place

to state an opinion,' he says. 'An appearance in a recorded news

programme may only be 12 seconds. It's more for the big picture, the big

statement, the big idea.'



A key part of any training, regardless of which programme you're likely

to appear on, is to focus your message. 'The beauty of broadcast

journalism is that it compels the interviewee to focus on the three key

issues that best sum up the company's position and uses language that a

12-year-old can understand,' says AOL UK director of corporate

communications Matt Peacock.



However, while a live spot may be short, programmes such as Panorama may

tape longer interviews but only use part of the chat, calling for

different skills. Training for such interviews points out how essential

it is to keep repeating your key messages to ensure that the segment of

the interview used creates the right impression.



Another key difference from a print interview is how you handle the

journalist.



Broadcast is a much more personal environment and the viewer or listener

usually feels they have a relationship with the interviewer. That means

you cannot afford to come across as being arrogant or belittle the

journalist when that relationship may go back 20 years, warns

Thomas.



Regester advises that preparation should look at 'the rocks' and 'the

radar'. The rocks form the basis of your message and provide a 'place of

safety' in any interview. They are 'absolutely truthful, absolutely

relevant and absolutely irrefutable. They must be irrefutable from the

company's point of view and demonstrably so,' he says.



In addition, 'the radar' enables you to know what others are saying

about a particular issue and helps prepare for any likely questions.



Keeping the radar alert is also recommended by Scott, who points out

that if a business rival has recently made an announcement, this is also

likely to be on the interviewer's question sheet. 'You're not just doing

it in isolation, you're dealing in the news agenda,' he says.



So how do you decide who appears on which programmes? Peacock says it's

important to understand broadcasters' needs. 'The key thing they want is

someone who is informed and articulate,' he says. 'And, more to the

point, is available at short notice.'



Many of AOL's public utterances, particularly on news programmes, are

made by the communications team. 'Our view is that the ideal is to have

a palette of people with different skills and that's very much what we

do here. However, given the enormous time pressures in a broadcast

newsroom the reality is these specialists in our company have other jobs

to do,' he says.



And then there's the issue of deciding which programmes to appear

on.



For a campaigning group such as Friends of the Earth, publicity is its

lifeblood.



'We will do as many as possible and as often as possible with some

exceptions but they are pretty rare,' says media co-ordinator Ian

Willmore, citing Talk Radio 'shoutfests' as programmes he is wary

of.



However, most people have to decide which programmes and outlets are

important. Boots, for example, recently did some research to find out

where its key financial audience got their news to help it prioritise

its media programme. The company also makes extensive use of local

outlets such as Trent FM and East Midlands Today to help it communicate

with staff, their families and former workers living near its Nottingham

base.



Media training can play a key role in this context too, by assessing the

type of programme you're likely to appear on and ensuring that you

practise for the correct environment. 'We will not give people extensive

grillings as if they are about to be kebabed by Jeremy Paxman if the

likelihood of that happening is zero,' says Kaizo principal consultant

Bill Boyle, who stresses that many interviews are not a 'gladiatorial

contest'.



'There's no point in anyone descending from on high without a pretty

good idea of what BBC local radio's like,' adds Ogden.



In a multimedia age, the range of options can only increase and some of

them will require different skills to the standard soundbite. In the IT

and business sectors, in particular there's a plethora of TV channels

being launched, with the capacity to run much longer interviews.



'As the media landscape expands, you've got to be able to be more

prepared to do sprints as well as marathons,' says Thomas.



NEWSNIGHT - Be prepared or pay the price



Newsnight is a place where reputations can be won and lost in the space

of a sneer. Its audience may not be as large as This Morning's but it is

highly influential.



'Newsnight can trample over your corns. It doesn't matter how much pain

they cause because they probably won't be back for four or five years,'

says Broadcast Media Services director Andrew Ogden.



Since BBC 1 moved its news to 10pm, Newsnight has also taken a more

leftfield view of the news agenda trying to look for fresh angles to

illuminate the issues. On a food safety issue, for example, it is likely

to want to examine the underlying causes of a scare as well as the

immediate impact it might have.



Despite its highbrow image, Boots group media manager Francis Thomas

says presentation is still an important factor when preparing someone

for a Newsnight interview. 'I still think you have got to concentrate on

this presentation issue, you've got to come across with authority,' he

says.



Camelot head of corporate communications Andrew Jones says preparation

has to go beyond the short, succinct messages and look at wider debating

skills.



'It isn't about soundbites as such, it's about the argument, the

debate,' he says. 'It's about conviction and having the facts at the

front of your head, on the tip of your tongue and being able to

articulate the argument. Preparation goes into both.'



For Media Interviews managing director Hugo Brooke the key to success in

this forum is to know exactly what the issue is that they want to

discuss: 'You want to be very careful that they understand the

situation.



That means you and your PR company really go into it with Newsnight

beforehand.'



At the end of this process you may decide not to participate after

all.



Newsnight is a programme to be treated with care, he warns. 'There are

angels and devils in that programme, if you're on the side of the angels

you're okay,' he says. 'Go well armed with your own very good

story.'



The key he adds is never to go on if you know there's an unanswerable

question. It's a mistake that former home secretary Michael Howard made

when he appeared and famously refused to answer one of Jeremy Paxman's

questions even when it was repeated 14 times.



'Michael Howard got himself backed into a corner where he was going to

have to give a yes or no answer and he couldn't,' he recalls.



MASTERCLASSES - In programme style



Media Training Masterclasses runs a wide variety of training courses,

including the Open Course, which has been running every ten weeks since

1996.



The course director is Warwick Partington, and the Open Course is

precisely that - open to anyone, so each course is a mixed bag of

individuals from different companies. Delegates can choose from a number

of modules on TV, radio, print journalism, and presentation

training.



Partington says delegates on his courses often want to be trained to

tackle a specific programme: 'We have trained many delegates who have

had specific issues and know they will be facing highly respected

interviewers on Newsnight, Watchdog and the Today programme.



'In these cases, whether the delegates have had previous media training

or not, or indeed if the deadline is just a matter of hours away, we

research the issues in the same way those programmes do, take the

delegates through the questions that may come up and practice the

messages they wish to get across, and provide individual feedback and

coaching to help them stay in control and deliver what they want to say

in a way that broadcasters can use,' he says.



Partington agrees that different programmes throw up different

challenges: 'Today is a news based programme where the challenge is

getting the message across in a short space of time while facing

potentially hostile interviewing technique. Newsnight has more time to

grill the interviewee and is a bigger challenge. The longer the

interview, the more difficult it is to stay 'on message'.'



As for Watchdog: 'Anne Robinson may want to put all media trainers into

Room 101 - but I suspect that she would be the first to acknowledge that

a gibbering wreck of an interviewee doesn't make for good TV.'



PRWeek recently sat in on a broadcast media open course. There were

eight delegates ranged against trainers with pedigree backgrounds as

journalists with the BBC and commercial broadcasters.



The course mixes some classroom time with intensive studio training

sessions - it uses the BBC's training facilities with working radio and

TV studios.



The first day of the course included an outline of how the media work,

identifying the right message, using the voice as a communications tool,

and planning an interview, as well as studio-based voice coaching.



Mock radio news interviews with feedback in front of the group followed,

so everyone learned from each others' as well as their own mistakes.



The second day covered TV, starting with a brief classroom session

looking at different programme styles, as well as non-verbal

communication.



Then it was straight into an 'on location' news interview, and then

studio sessions with news and feature interviews. Again, there was

excruciating feedback in front of the group.



THIS MORNING - Never underestimate the audience



The sofas might be comfortable, and the questions may sometimes be sugar

coated but This Morning isn't necessarily a place to tread lightly.



As The Aziz Corporation chairman Khalid Aziz warns: 'Tough questions are

not necessarily the most difficult to answer. It's a question of people

being given enough rope to hang themselves.'



On a food safety issue, for example, he believes the show will reflect

the audience's natural concerns. The subject is likely to be addressed

in terms such as 'how can I tell if my baby's food is contaminated?'



Media Interviews managing director Hugo Brooke agrees that it's an

audience to be taken seriously. 'That viewership can ruin you if you

were a bit flippant and apparently uncaring,' he warns.



Burson-Marsteller managing director Martin Langford says that in a

crisis the spokesperson should be someone who the audiences of all

programmes can relate to.



'If you are talking about an issue or a crisis situation you have got to

look at people who are empathetic. The first lesson for your key

spokesman is to demonstrate concern,' he says 'Invariably I would not

use the chief executive unless it was a safety issue that was so huge

that lives were being lost.'



Aziz says the process of selecting someone should focus on qualities

such as lightness of touch. 'You're probably better fielding a female,

someone under 40,' he suggests.



A key factor in your preparation for dealing with this audience is to

ensure that you use language that's easily understood. 'The thing is not

to underestimate the intelligence of the audience but not to over

estimate their knowledge,' he adds.



Boots group media manager Francis Thomas warns that the personality

focus of a show such as This Morning is increasingly being mimicked by

more 'highbrow' broadcast and print outlets, a fact that senior

executives need to be aware of and trained to handle.



'If you are there as a senior executive of the company then it's less to

do with the company than how you're running the company,' he says.



'It's the individual who's as much the focus as the company.'



WATCHDOG - A force to be reckoned with



The call from Watchdog strikes fear into the most seasoned of

executives.



If the programme's agenda is commonly stereotyped as 'which nasty

company has screwed up this week', then it's pretty clear that it's not

a place where anyone will feel comfortable.



However, refusing to take part and leaving an empty chair in the studio

can be more damaging than entering the lion's den - if you do it

well.



'Sometimes with programmes like Panorama or Watchdog you do have to

engage,' concedes Regester Larkin director Mike Regester, adding that

you should run through any and every potential question, however

unlikely, before the interviewee arrives at the studio.



The Aziz Corporation chairman Khalid Aziz says when selecting a

spokesperson to appear on Watchdog you need someone who can be firm in

the face of an onslaught. 'Under the Anne Robinson regime you need

someone who is not going to get bullied and treads the fine line between

not being bullied but who is not going to hector.'



For Boots group media manager Francis Thomas a key part of the

preparation is to work with the programme so that whoever appears can be

accurately briefed as to the issues they're likely to raise.



'You do have to spend a lot of time with the researcher trying to find

what the brief is,' he says. 'As long as you can keep the channel open

you'll learn more about the programme.'



It's a view echoed by Camelot head of corporate communications Andrew

Jones: 'With Watchdog, a big part of the preparation is the management

of how the questions are presented, when they are presented, and whether

the person gets the final word.'



Other preparation focuses on the need to keep everything short and

simple.



'Watchdog operates very much in a soundbite way, a lot of the

preparation goes into the language you might use and the

phraseology.'



Regester highlights one incident where working with Watchdog helped to

defuse the threat to a client. A couple who had hired a villa in Florida

were unhappy and wrote to the programme. The holiday company's boss

agreed to appear on the show but the team also found another couple

who'd had a good break at the villa and got them to appear on the

programme. Watchdog still got its on-air battle but it was between the

two couples allowing the company to stay out of the spotlight.



Kaizo principal consultant Bill Boyle says that with the departure of

Robinson - reports indicate she may be replaced by Nicky Campbell - the

programme may require even more careful handling.



'I think with Anne Robinson gone they will find someone better. Watchdog

is about to get a lot more dangerous. If they get someone really skilful

then we will see a lot of chief executives squirming,' he says.



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.