FOCUS: MEDIA TRAINING - Learning to shine in the limelight/With the onset of digital TV, media training companies are becoming more influential as PR agencies fight to recover their territory. Wendy Smith reports

It’s out there just waiting to happen, or so we are led to believe.

It’s out there just waiting to happen, or so we are led to


Come next summer, say the pundits, and the media explosion will be all

around us. We’ll be spoilt for viewing choice. The airwaves will be full

of new channels to zap. Now that digital terrestial television is being

unleashed, we will have more than 20 new channels along with our

existing five terrestial channels, while the cable channels on offer

could go from the present 50 or 60 to as many as 200.

It sounds like the PR person’s dream. More outlets than ever before to

project your client’s message over the airwaves. But Steve Powers, chief

press officer of the Cable Communications Association, tempers any

over-enthusiasm with a word of warning: ’There’s an enormous amount of

potential but we have to remember that all that goes on the airwaves

will not necessarily be new, and many channels could be used for

applications such as video on demand.’

There is no lack of enthusiasm from the media training industry, which

by all accounts is burgeoning at about the same rate as the new


The prospect of every new channel appears to create fresh training

opportunities to enable clients to become more media-friendly.

Sarah Dickinson, managing director of media training company Electric

Airwaves, says that media trainers are busier than ever. Dickinson

believes that the media training industry has matured considerably - and

now needs and deserves its own trade association. The changing media

climate has forced trainers to sharpen up their act, says Dickinson.

’People used to put the training of media skills into separate boxes -

the interview, the make-up or the art of sitting. As a cosmetic

introduction, that is fine.’

But she maintains that the recent media explosion has demanded a broader

approach, involving message control rather than mere soundbite


’If the client hasn’t taken the trouble to work out what the message is

going to be, then they certainly won’t get much benefit from their


Dickinson argues that media trainers should be involved with the PR

practitioner and the client right at the beginning of the relationship

to hammer out the overall message.

’When media training was in its infancy, it would have been audacious

for a media trainer to contribute to what the PR policies of a company

should be,’ says Dickinson. ’However I am finding more and more that the

brighter PR people are pulling us in to work alongside clients to come

up with corporate messages and answers.’

Chris Loosemore, director of Ariel Communications, agrees that strategy

is more important than performance: ’There is no point being a fantastic

actor if you haven’t got a decent play,’ he says. But he adds a note of

caution about taking a broader approach to media training: ’Generally

people are doing a good job but there are a lot of cowboys out there.

Clients and PR people need to be wary about who they take on board. You

should check that your trainers have invested in training skills

themselves, understand the psychology of training and how to assess

their efforts.’

Communication consultant Michael Bland also has strong opinions about

the calibre of trainer on the market. His advice is to ignore the famous

name and settle instead for personal recommendation. ’When choosing from

a shortlist, make sure you ask for satisfied clients with whom you can

discuss the style and effectiveness of the training.’

It’s worth making the effort, says Bland, because media training really

matters. ’It doesn’t matter how sharp you are. If you don’t know the

techniques, you can be destroyed in an interview situation with a single


The Weber Group’s senior vice-president Doreen Thompson has worked as a

media trainer both in the UK and in the US, where multi-channel TV has

long been a way of life. She offers this advice: ’The British will have

to get used to the extra broadcast offerings and clients will need to

think differently. It’s very different from print as you have to explain

complex subjects in 30 seconds.’

Specialist media trainers aren’t the only ones participating in a media

training boom. Training is also impacting on the PR industry in a big

way. Burson-Marsteller’s three full-time trainers are all booked up

until the end of the year. Not only has B-M detected an increase in

demand but head of training Steve Ellis claims there has also been a

shift in emphasis towards cross-cultural training as clients for whom

English is their second language demand training in English.

Countrywide Porter Novelli has embraced the idea of training to the

point of introducing what it claims to be the first ever branded

training package - Newsreal. Client services director Chris Woodcock

says that as the media becomes more complex and new niche markets

emerge, so media training must also adapt to develop a better

understanding of both the politics and the structure of the media.

Woodcock claims that clients who buy into Newsreal benefit from the

one-stop-shop benefits. She explains: ’Training is integrated into the

client programme, so clients are working with people who know their

business idiosyncracies and pressures.’

While Burson-Marsteller and Countrywide develop their training

activities, what about other PR consultancies? How do they feel about

the media trainers’ assault on the board room? Are they not fearful of

their own power base?

’Not so,’ declares Scope Ketchum’s deputy chief executive Richard


’We are certainly not living in fear of the media trainers. We currently

work with a number of them and we work as a team. This is the only way

to get the best out of everyone.’

As far as Aldwinckle is concerned, it is not the training techniques

that have changed but the recognition that training is needed in the

first place. ’The explosion in the number of media outlets is making an

impact on chairmen and chief executives. And the effect of the media

campaign during this year’s General Election has heightened the growing

consciousness of the media and its importance.’

Abacus PR meanwhile has opted for a two-pronged approach to media


The company offers its own print media training packages to its clients

and buys in broadcast training services from outside. Sally Costerton,

divisional director of Abacus, says: ’Media training is expensive and

most clients won’t put everybody through full broadcast media training

course. But at a more basic print media level, they will take our

in-house package which spreads out the training much further.’

But in the rush to do broadcast media training in order to maximise the

corporate message and perfect the soundbite, perhaps the new broadcast

media is not as potent as everyone thinks. Some players, such as B-M’s

Ellis, remain sceptical about the future outcome. ’Television just

doesn’t have the power and influence it once had,’ he claims. ’Today

there isn’t the reaction there used to be. The movers and shakers are

reading newspapers and listening to radio. Companies who think it’s all

about television are sadly misdirected.’

Keith Elliot of PMA Training picks up the same scent. ’The broadcast

element of our work is really not substantial - and we are not usually

swamped by requests to broaden it out either.’ His company is

concentrating its energies on the other explosion that has taken a grip

- the Internet.

’Training for the Net and the print side of our business has expanded

100 per cent,’ he says.

The moral of the media explosion story, then, is that in the new age of

multi-channel proliferation, clients and PR practitioners have got to

get their corporate message right, not just the soundbite, while keeping

a close eye on non-broadcast media. Not only is the Internet on its way

up. Shock, horror, people still like to read.


Creating a soundbite is like fishing, according to Hugo Brooke, founder

of media skills training company Media Interviews.

’If you are fishing you put the bait on the bottom, and the same applies

to the language you use in media interviews,’ says Brooke. ’You hook the

viewer by talking to them personally rather than to the interviewer. You

then play them in by painting a picture to illustrate the point, and

bring the story alive by appealing to any of the senses by description

and analogy.’ Drawing on the skills of a range of broadcast journalists

including Jilly Carter, Barrie Penrose, Tom Mangold and Nick Clarke,

Brooke provides broadbased media consultancy. Like many in the industry,

Brooke says he is increasingly called upon to help clients define their

bottom line statement as part of his service. And in addition to media

crisis sessions, he also now runs ’incident management courses’. In an

interesting twist, he even worked for TV-am advising Ulrika Jonsson,

Lorraine Kelly and Kathy Taylor on how to handle the attentions of the

tabloid press.

Essentially a mobile unit, Brooke sets up an impromptu studio in

clients’ board rooms complete with digital cameras, but also regularly

utilises the TV and radio studios at the Confederation of British

Industry for his courses.

It was at the CBI that I recently experienced a head-to-head with ex-BBC

Nine O’Clock News reporter Barrie Penrose on spin-doctoring, engineered

by Brooke.

The session began with an insight into the pressure that a broadcast

journalist is under to produce good footage to a deadline. This was

followed by what amounted to a broadcast assertiveness course, in which

I was encouraged to quiz producers and presenters about the type of

programme that I was being asked to appear on, the line and the format

of questioning.

’The interviewer has come with an angle and is only interested in a

segment of what you have to say. So you have to come to the interview

with your own agenda,’ says Brooke. ’You have rights, you are vital to

the programme makers, so don’t let them do things that are unhelpful to


At the same time, he advised against aping the party political line of

seemingly ignoring a question, emphasising that if a question is asked,

it must be addressed, but can be turned to one’s own advantage and used

as a springboard for your own message.

Using one of his beloved analogies, Brooke likens a broadcast to social

interaction at a dinner table rather than a question and answer session

in a police cell. ’You don’t have to answer a stupid question, you

simply move the interviewer off into a more interesting area. They will

appreciate it,’ he says. ’But if you allow an untruth to pass

unchallenged, it will be taken as fact by the viewer,’ Brooke advises,

never relax at the end of an interview. ’Will Carling is not the only

unwitting interviewee to be caught out when he thought that the cameras

were no longer running. And always ensure that you have the last word -

if only to say ’nonsense’.’

Kate Nicholas


’It is important to be message-driven and not question-led,’ insists

Chris Loosemore, director of Ariel Communications. This is what he

coaches in his practical media training workshops, to encourage a

proactive rather than a defensive reaction to hostile questioning from

the media.

An ex-radio producer and presenter himself - having worked for the BBC

for ten years before setting up his own independent media training

company two years ago - Loosemore knows his way round a broadcast studio

and the tricks that broadcast interviewers use to catch their victims

out. The first rule, he says, is never say anything off the record

whenever there is a microphone in the room. You never know when the tape

is running.

When handling questions, he encourages his trainees to prepare a message

with two points they want to get across, and to take control of the

interview by telling a story. ’Other wise interviewers will put you into

a trap,’ he warns. ’It is important to paint an image rather than give a

dry rendition of the facts. So much is grey and you need a splash of

colour to make an impact and let interviewers take away a strong image

and a quotable quote.’

Loosemore runs his sessions in fully-equipped, broadcast-standard

studios, such as BBC Broadcasting House in London, to give clients a

feel for what a real broadcast interview would be like. And he insists

on using tutors who are still active, working journalists. ’Our tutors

are up-to-date in their knowledge of media practice and the latest

broadcast technology,’ he says.

In contrast with other media trainers who are aiming to develop their

roles into areas of corporate policy, Loosemore warns that this could be

dangerous if they do not have the required PR skills.

’You can teach someone to play an instrument but not to choose their

repertoire. You can teach the fingering and breath control but you can’t

tell them what to play. Clients should first figure out what they have

to say and I’ll teach them how to say it effectively and how to present

it,’ he says.

’If trainers move onto corporate policy issues and advise clients on how

to manage themselves as a corporate entity as well as giving them media

training then they can’t do both effectively. Media training providers

will say yes to everything because they want the business.’


A complaining culture has developed in this country which cannot be

ignored, stresses Frank Wintle, who set up media training organisation

Pan Media four years ago after a career in newspapers, radio and TV.

’Some may call it democracy but whatever it is, those same aggrieved

people have access to an abundance of airwaves and forums,’ he says.

On the Internet, broadcast consumer programmes, or in newspapers,

businesses are more accountable than ever before. Wintle maintains that

the corporation which survives is the one which takes itself the most


When training companies to handle complaints and crises, the key word is

preparation. In a recent training session Wintle set me an uncomfortable

scenario. I am the press officer for a building company which has sold a

house to a young couple with small children. Months later they sit there

on the building site in splendid isolation. What’s more, recent storms

have turned the ground into a quagmire and their water supply is


The BBC’s Watchdog is on its way and Frank wants to know what I am going

to do.

In the face of questioning, I blether about the human interest dilemma

of the young couple and the school run and wet feet. Wrong. No time for

such sentiment. It’s time I spoke to the chief executive. Oh, and I’m to

drop the human sympathy bit and talk bottom line.

According to Wintle, good companies will have the communications person

on the board who will instantly be able to present to the board the

financial implications of the crisis. He insists that knowing what you

are going to do to avert the crisis and having your plan of action is

more important than what you go out and say.

In an ideal world, the media messenger should be senior enough to take

the flak, but not necessarily the chief executive if he or she isn’t

user friendly or doesn’t sound credible. ’You are to be wheeled out as

the villian. The person chosen has got to come over as the authoratitive

figure who can act,’ says Wintle.

Then there is the performance to the media. ’Stand up straight, say what

has happened, express regret and then say what you are going to do.’ He

turns to me and becomes a ruthless hack hellbent on getting an answer

about the couple and their children. ’How could you lie to these

people?’ he demands. ’How could you let this happen?’ Words fail me


Perhaps I will stick to the day job a little longer and leave crisis

management to the professionals.

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