‘Journalists create rows and ding-dongs when they are bored,' admits radio and TV presenter turned trainer Scott Chisholm.
‘If PROs understand what journalists are looking for, and how not to bore them, They are halfway to getting good coverage.'
New Zealander Chisholm - whose career highlights include launching and presenting Five's news bulletins - is on garrulous form. His audience from the Budget Insurance Group is transfixed by his every word. Much to the delight of Budget's head of group PR, Georgina Rushie who wants her team media-trained to take advantage any broadcast opportunity coming their way. Some of those will be planned. Others will come out of the blue.
‘We have many strands to our business,' says Rushie. ‘We have insurance products, mainly targeting bikers and van drivers, which give us plenty of scope in the insurance and consumer press. We also want to comment on other stories. For example, most of our employees are call-centre staff. This employment sector still has a massive image problem, but we feel we are bucking the trend in terms of what we offer and our retention rates. We'd love to be able to talk more about it, but we just haven't been given the tools to be able to do this with confidence.'
So Rushie, three of her team - one from each of its contact centre and insurance divisions - and myself, assembled at the headquarters of Electric Airwaves. We are here for one morning for the Introduction to Handling the Print and Broadcast Media course, which claims to reveal how journalists think. I am to be a fly on the wall at this normally secretive ‘them and us' session. Chisholm continues his well-practised patter as though I am not in the room. My role will be to observe the picture PRO trainers paint of journalists.
‘PROs like you just have to remember that the way you get treated is not the fault of the journalist' says Chisholm. It's just that they are the product of the system - it's called the newsroom.'
‘Understand this and you will know why they treat you as they do, and automatically put yourself in a good position when it comes to getting the message across.'
Chisholm explains the ideas scrum that is most newspapers' and magazines' news/features meetings, where too many journalists, fighting for the top slots fight to get their stories finalised and agreed.
‘The same applies in broadcast,' he adds. ‘Journalists have to give their editor "the top line" - the quick, 20-word "nuts and bolts" story. In the end, it's the only language journalists that come to respect because it is the quality of these synopses that will determine whether they get their report byline.
‘Tell a journalist what the top-line is,' Chisholm advises ‘While you may not influence what reporters themselves might say about you or your company, at least have given yourself an opportunity to say what you want to control.'
The right agenda
Chisholm is bang on the money, but what surprises me is how enlightening this appears to be for the assembled PROs. It is as though this information is new to them. Do other PROs fail to see how the news agenda is made and how the system works?
A fascinating few hours follows, as the students are advised to solve all their problems by LUA - liberal use of acronyms: ‘There are tricks to sell stories to journalists,' says Chisholm, ‘"TRUTH" - topicality, relevance, unusual, trouble (is there a chance that this will cause more conflict or talk?), and most importantly, the human angle.'
The audience laps it up. ‘Too many CEOs want you guys to do the whole WIIFM - "what's in it for me?" - thing,' Chisholm adds. ‘You've got to tell them this isn't the answer. You may get only a passing mention, but use that to push your messages before pushing your brand. You really need the AMEN rule: What is your Audience? Can you measure Messages? What Examples can you give for the piece? And what Negative questions should you expect to be asked?'
Talking techniques: PR trainees are encouraged to push the
While this is all very entertaining, as a journalist you start to see just how little an interviewee needs to do to get journalists on their side. I've been at the receiving end of many of these responses. Have they all been trained to say such things to me?
Thankfully Chisholm injects a reality check. ‘Don't get me wrong journalists are no pushover. ‘If you remember one thing from today, remember this: lose the slogans. Phrases like "fastest growing" and "leading" are meaningless. Journalists are fed up with this. They want solid facts - what's your position on a particular subject, what are you going to do about a particular incident, what will a story you are behind mean to listeners? It's inexcusable to go to a broadcast interview unprepared. They will make mincemeat out of you.'
‘Don't forget to ‘green-light' messages - the ones you really want to go out to a maximum of two or three.' After that consider what might be the ‘red-light' questions, the ones you should expect to trip you up. ‘These need clear, unambiguous answers, and require just as much attention as the green-light messages.' Chisholm warns.
This maverick broadcaster's final piece of advice is on ‘bridging' - the art of acknowledging a question but throwing it off course. ‘This is debateable in my opinion. Journalists hate this. They look for it, and it raises their hackles. But if there's no other way, at least this keeps the conversation going. When push comes to shove, dialogue is a PRO's best weapon particularly when facing an awkward and stressed out hack.
ABOUT THE TRAINER
Scott Chisholm started his career in 1970 on the New Zealand newspaper the Otago Daily Times. In 1980 he conducted a three month assignment in Tehran as a satellite co-ordinator for Visnews (now Reuters). He was arrested six times and accused of spying, but escaped prison and was smuggled out of the country.
He joined Sky News when it launched in 1989 and was abruptly fired four years later after a newsroom brawl with fellow presenter Chris Mann.
He co-hosted Granada Television's This Morning and began working for Talk Radio UK at its launch in 1995. He has subsequently presented Five's breakfast news and hosted the breakfast show on the ITV News Channel. He has been a trainer at Electric Airwaves for the past five years.
Karen Milson (l), communications manager for Bennetts Insurance, was among Budget's team of PROs attending the course.
As part of the PR team responsible for the ‘Bennetts Babes' - a group of glamour models who promote the bike insurance product - Milson was called on to answer the view that some members of the public might consider the babes offensive and/or sexist.
‘Chisholm was pretty unpredictable,' she says, ‘but he asked the sorts of probing questions that we could expect. I was totally thrown when he asked me whether or not we would offend gay bikers instead? I was completely unprepared for this. However, I managed to get my key messages out: that 20 per cent of our customers were women; and that the marketing team that had decided on the "babes" was comprised of women. ‘I also said that there was already a plan to phase this campaign out.'
‘In terms of understanding what a Budget spokesperson would go through, I found it invaluable. I definitely came away realising the importance of good planning. I also realised that the interviewee should not be so question-led, but that I should have been more proactive in promoting the line of answering I wanted.
The training in use
For Milson, the payback on her training was almost instant. Within ten days, Celebrity Big Brother's ‘racism' row hit the headlines, with Jade Goody and former Miss Great Britain, Danielle Lloyd, facing criticism for bullying Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty. 'Danielle was launched as one of the Bennetts Babes last December,' recalls Milson.
At the time, we did not know she was going on Big Brother, but when we did found out, we were pretty excited as we thought we would be able to get some extra PR value out of it. As I watched the ganging up unfold, we took to decision to drop Danielle as a Babe on the same day that Carphone Warehouse pulled its sponsorship.
Media calls immediately came in, from local radio particularly, and some TV. The training really helped me to to deal with a crisis, and we took all spots that we were offered.
1. If you are asked a question you know nothing about, do not feel as if you must answer it. Say that you don't know. If you're live, the journalist will want to move on quickly, so this could play to your advantage.
2. Journalists like opinion, try to show a personality and not rattle through your responses in a robotic manner
3. Repetition is important, it maintains a thread, and gives the impression that the reason you or ‘your client' is talking is all down to a single reason
4. People only normally remember 7 per cent of what someone says. This is not a dinner party, so be careful with what you say. Listeners should take away what you want them to
5. Talk with passion and enthusiasm. It is infectious, and leaves people positively predisposed to you even if you are talking about a difficult subject
6. Talk in pictures. Create scenarios that everyone can imagine. It makes the experience for the listener more vivid
7. Stay personal. If you are talking about customers, say ‘you'. Remember, you are talking to real people
Source: Electric Airwaves