FOCUS: MEDIA TRAINING - Coming up with camera ready PR/Media training is rapidly becoming an essential skill for media savvy. PR professionals, but who is the best person to do the training? Sue Beenstock investigates

You’ve seen them on Panorama, eyes flicking away from the camera, make-up melting, and the studio lights casting weird Psycho-style shadows over their cheeks as they squeak through a defensive and uninformative statement. The unprepared, media-terrified pundit is not a pretty sight.

You’ve seen them on Panorama, eyes flicking away from the camera,

make-up melting, and the studio lights casting weird Psycho-style

shadows over their cheeks as they squeak through a defensive and

uninformative statement. The unprepared, media-terrified pundit is not a

pretty sight.

However, this ugly spectacle can be easily avoided with some expert

tuition - and one glance over the back pages of PR Week shows there are

plenty of media training specialists who’d be happy to show you and your

clients the ropes.

However, who the best person is to deliver that training is a

contentious issue.

A couple of years ago, a handful of top BBC journalists were ’exposed’ -

their crime? - dabbling in extra-curricular tutoring of company

executives and PR staff.

Following public debate, the corporation ruled that its journalists

should not teach the tricks of the trade to execs wanting to woo licence


However, many journalists flout the rules or believe they don’t apply to

them, particularly freelancers working across broadcasting and print,

for whom tutoring is lucrative employment.

The problem is that their loyalty is to their editors, says Television

and Radio Techniques managing director Jonathan Boddy, not to the

interviewee and their agenda. That’s why TRT uses former journalists.

’They’re professional trainers rather than professional journalists,

because you need someone who knows how to teach and can tell the

interviewee their rights.’

That means spelling out how to set the agenda, stick to the line and get

across the main points, something that journalists, he says, are not

familiar with.

Hugo Brooke, who runs Media Interviews, agrees and goes one step

further, claiming that the best teachers are those who have studied the

interview situation and that ’excludes the vast majority of practising


Instead, during his training sessions, Brooke uses journalists to do

what they are good at, asking questions and putting the story


The serious business of learning how to be a good interviewee is taught

by professional trainers who, like him, have a background in media.

Khalid Aziz, himself a former BBC journalist who set up his own media

training organisation 15 years ago, agrees that the business of choosing

trainers is a dodgy area. But it’s not a question of ’teaching the

tricks of the trade’, he claims. ’The journalist isn’t trying to trip up

the interviewee, that’s a misconception, they’re trying to get

information out of someone. As a media trainer, our job is not to teach

people how to avoid answering the question, but to teach them to

communicate in a friendly and effective way that respects the needs of

the broadcast organisation.’

’Who better than real journalists to demonstrate their craft?’ asks

InterMedia Training managing director, Cathie Fraser. ’After all, if you

are going to ride in the Grand National, don’t train on a donkey on

Blackpool Beach.’

Martin Young is a consultant at Chevron Presentations, with a

journalistic CV that includes Rough Justice, Panorama and Newsnight. He

is unapologetic about his tutoring. ’Sure, I’m poacher turned

gamekeeper, I’m also still a poacher. But don’t assume I’m teaching

people how to avoid answering the question, I’m teaching them to answer

in a more convincing manner,’ he says. After all, the reporter knows

exactly what he’s doing, so why should the interviewee approach the

event with a similar professional training?

But according to Chris Woodcock, client services director at Countrywide

Porter Novelli’s media training arm Newsreal, whether to use a

journalist or not depends entirely on the client’s media training needs.

Often, she claims, there are good reasons for not using journalists,

particularly the better-known ones.

’They are not natural trainers, so you can get more expression of their

ego than teaching and encouraging the client,’ she says.

’They are relatively expensive and they might not be representative of

the type of regional or freelance reporter with whom your client is

likely to deal in their media relations programme.’ Instead, says

Woodcock, she encourages clients to ditch the big names and stick to one

of her six senior consultants, all former journalists with teaching


It seems that most trainers using practising journalists expect them to

fit automatically in the tutoring role. ’I’m doing the job I’ve done for

25 years, why do I need training?’ says Chevron’s Martin Young for

example. ’I should be able to do it by now.’

But at the Aziz Corporation every tutor completes a five-day study

programme and a written exam. ’Just because you’re a decent journalist

doesn’t mean you can teach an interviewee how to behave,’ says Khalid

Aziz. ’I only want journalists who are good practitioners, good tutors,

who understand the issues, have a business background (that filters out

a lot) and who can leave their egos at the door.’

By doing the training and demonstrating their commitment to training,

Aziz claims journalists deepen their understanding of what clients


’It’s not about giving someone an unfair advantage because they’ve been

trained to answer questions by a Today presenter,’ he says. ’It’s about

understanding what the journalist needs, and how to put that information

across in a confident way.’

Broadcasting is about emotion, he says, and many senior executives

believe in putting fact over emotion, not realising that on radio or TV,

this makes them appear detached and arrogant.

A day’s training with two or three delegates from one company can iron

out those mistakes, but at Two-Ten Communications, part of the Press

Association Group, trainers also ask clients to assess what they want

out of the day, why they need training, what media response they’re

after, and whether they’ve ever had a bad experience with the media.

It helps to tailor the day, says head of broadcast services, Alan Hardy,

whose clients include Microsoft and Sea Containers. You can’t turn every

boffin into the Dr Raj Persaud (the ubiquitous TV doctor) of their field

but if you spot someone who is more confident and has a neat turn of

phrase, it’s practising what they’re already good at that will win more

air time, he says.

’We won’t say, ’here’s your soundbite, now let’s practice it’. But

obviously, if you have got a short, sharp phrase and clarity of

expression, you’re much more likely to have that played on the headline

reports throughout the day, and if that’s what the client’s after, then

we’ll try and help them achieve it,’ Hardy says.

It’s also a chance for the journalist and trainer to demystify the

media, says InterMedia Training’s Fraser. Most clients, she says

frankly, will never be grilled by Jeremy Paxman and even if they are,

the technique is still the same. ’I help people understand that over 90

per cent of interviews are information-led,’ she says. ’There is no need

to be defensive, an interview should be a mission to explain, not a

mission to defend.’ According to Fraser, once you’ve taken the fear out

of the process, clients can see the tremendous opportunity the media



The most valuable training courses are usually those dealing with live

issues - a forthcoming floatation, perhaps, or publication of a report

revealing sensitive information. But if a freelance journalist is

handling the day’s training, aren’t they going to want to get their

hands on this juicy early news?

’Absolutely! That’s why we don’t use practising journalists,’ says

Jonathan Boddy, managing director of Television and Radio Techniques.

’Sure you want to hear about interview techniques from the horse’s

mouth, but there is a conflict of interest here. First he has his own

mouth to feed, and second he has loyalty to his own editor.’ Jean

Gurteen, training manager at Hillside Studios, is more pragmatic.

’Any freelance journalist worth their salt is always on the lookout for

a hot story,’ she says. ’But we’ve built up relationships of trust with

our tutor journalists. If something is in confidence, that’s the way it


There’s nothing to stop their tutors approaching delegates at the end of

a training day and suggesting how they might handle the story, she says,

but again, personal integrity would stop them using information if the

delegate objected.

Like many media training organisations, including John Stonborough’s Air

Supremacy and the Words Group, the Aziz Corporation goes one step

further and asks any staff involved in training, from the tutor to the

camera man, to sign a confidentiality agreement.

’All our tutors sign it,’ claims former journalist and founder Khalid

Aziz. ’It guarantees they won’t use knowledge gained during the day

except within the tutorial. It means we’ve been involved as insiders on

very sensitive issues like hostile bids, without clients ever being

anxious or overly cautious about what they say in the safety of the

training day.’ In 15 years, he claims no one has breached the


As Martin Young puts it, ’I’d only break my word once - and then I’d

never work again.’ Young is a consultant at Chevron Presentation, a

familiar voice to Radio 4’s The News Quiz fans, and a familiar face to

anyone who has watched Rough Justice, Panorama or Newsnight.

By refusing to train politicians, Young reckons he avoids putting

himself in a position where he may hear something confidential he’s

tempted to use. And in the 10 years he’s been teaching, that personal

code has worked, he says. As for signing a confidentiality agreement, he

says: ’I’ll do it if asked, but the piece of paper is no more binding

than my or anyone else’s word. You have to trust me on that!’

And Hugo Brooke, who runs Media Interviews, knows the value of just such

personal trust: he took two Sunday Times journalists to train top Hoover

executives three months before the free flights fiasco broke. They kept



Hiring a fully functioning TV studio can set you back anything from

pounds 500 to pounds 2,000 a day. So before you splurge, it’s worth

finding out if practising technique in front of fancy equipment is going

to make a difference.

Naturally, those media training outfits that have spent thousands

equipping sophisticated studios insist they do make a difference to the


’It’s the fear factor,’ says Adrienne Reynolds, managing director of

Chevron Presentation. ’You need to know you can be competent faced with

this fearsome looking equipment.’ Fearsome-looking is all it is, because

at Chevron, ’it’s not plumbed in’ Reynolds admits. Her colleague,

consultant Martin Young spends his working life in front of TV cameras

or radio mikes and is dismissive of the techno-based courses.

’All I need to put in front of you is a professional looking camera,

lights, and a microphone - that’s the TV experience basically, and

that’s the intimidating bit.’ The rest he says, is down to practise and


Hugo Brooke at Media Interviews agrees, saying the extra expense is hard

to justify and adds: ’Training is not about coming to terms with

technology, it’s about organising your mind to say something


However, for those who have never stepped into a TV studio before,

having a general idea about who does what will all help the novice give

a better performance. Unlike most media training units, Hillside Studios

is a fully functioning, commercial, TV studio, where the production

company responsible for Songs of Praise and Heart of the Matter is

based. Training manager Jean Gurteen says knowing how to cope in the TV

studio environment is a basic and important part of media


’A real studio is full of people, lights, more people behind glass

panels ... if you can cope in this atmosphere then you’ll be able to

give a considered performance anywhere, but it can panic even confident

interviewees,’ she says. Down-the-line TV interviews, where the

interviewee is faced with a camera and fed questions through an ear

piece, is, most trainers agree, the hardest format to master. For that

reason, almost all organisations offer training, because it’s also a

relatively cheap, and therefore increasingly common format used by TV


’The trouble is, they can see you, but you can’t see them,’ says


’You can’t judge reaction or even know if anyone’s listening, but when

your eyes wander from the camera it sends out all the wrong signals.’

But with practise, she says, you’ll look like a pro. As Cathie Fraser,

managing director of InterMedia Training puts it: ’Why should the

journalist have the upper hand just because he is on home



The current media trend to go for eloquent company pundits rather than

slick PR officers, means that clients need to train employees from a

range of departments in media skills. The result is that trainers are

offering increasingly tailored, sophisticated packages.

Basic courses, whether half or full day, tend to include similar fare,

and although they may focus on TV, radio or press, they’ll all include

an introduction to the media, gathering news stories, how they’re put

together and what journalists need, plus the basics of getting your

message across.

After that things get more precise, and this is when it’s helpful for

clients to know what they want to get out of the training, whether it’s

preparation for a forthcoming event, announcement or appearance.

’There’s not really much difference between basic and advanced,’ says

Hillside Studio’s Jean Gurteen. ’It’s more about the client and

tailoring the sort of news stories they’ll be invited to contribute to,

to the day’s training.’ For example, she says, the oil company executive

will probably need to cope with more aggressive questioning than someone

from the charity sector, though for both, using clear and graphic

language, as well as real stories to illustrate their points, will

provide the key to a strong performance.

Since September, Jonathan Boddy, managing director of Television and

Radio Techniques has offered clients, who included British Aerospace,

more complicated interview formats, such as the opposed interview, where

the British Aerospace representative faces, say a trade unionist,

competitor, or activist. The course is structured so that at least two

British Aerospace members of staff attend the course and can role play

for each other.

’Any well informed British Aerospace representative will know the

strongest arguments their opponents put up and is in a good position to

be a sparring partner in the studio,’ says Boddy. But good preparation

both by his tutors and the clients, is the key to an advanced course’s

success. ’Just as it would be in a real interview,’ he adds.

Many media trainers gear training days to a specific TV programme,

particularly consumer magazine shows like the Cook Report or Watchdog,

where the producers like to confront the offender.

If the client has been contacted by a particular programme, it helps the

trainer tailor the course, says Khalid Aziz of the Aziz Corporation

whose clients include Heinz, Debenhams and Natwest Insurance. ’Knowing

what you are going to say, and then actually saying it is the crucial

thing, so if you know the programme’s formula and the issue you’ll be

quizzed on, you can predict the questions and plan and practise your

response,’ he concludes.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in