Media training: Getting your message across

Media training company Electric Airwaves hosted PRWeek's second Friday Drop Live event, giving a workshop in advanced media handling to a group of in-house communicators.

Scott Chisholm, media trainer, Electric Airways
Scott Chisholm, media trainer, Electric Airways

With his war stories of interviewing figures such as Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi, the late Palestinian Liberation Organisation president Yasser Arafat, and Virgin founder Richard Branson, strident ex-Sky News journalist and Electric Airwaves media trainer Scott Chisholm makes for a compelling presenter.

At a recent PRWeek seminar, Chisholm reminded his audience of in-house comms people of the importance of a few fundamental rules when trying to sell in stories and get key messages within these actually published or broadcast.

He had one overarching key message of his own - stick to simple language in order to get your messages through: 'Even the FT uses language that could be understood by a literate 12-year-old, and the tabloids aim for a reading age of about eight or nine. Think about that when you are talking to a print journalist.'

In TV terms this is just as important, he added: 'Pitch it at a ten-year-old. If you use words that viewers have to process in order to understand, then they will miss the next three to six words you say.'

On radio, he said: "'Imagine' is the most powerful word you can use in an interview. If you just inform people, they will forget the message. Bear in mind the other two Reithian principles - educate and entertain - and they are far more like to recall it.' He advised aiming for the 'car park test' with radio interviews - an interview that causes listeners to wait in their car until it is over before they get out.

Cut the jargon

In a similar vein, he reminded the assembled PROs to encourage their spokespeople to avoid all uses of jargon. In a broadcast interview, this serves only to alienate viewers; if talking to a print journalist you then run the risk that the journalist will be forced to 'translate' that jargon and potentially not in a way the PR professional would choose.

But before you even reach the interview stage, how to get the journalist's attention in the first place? The main thing to remember is that, thanks to dwindling revenues at media companies and consequent cutbacks, all journalists are now far more stretched than a couple of years ago.

This means that if you can hand the journalist a newsworthy story that already has much of the background research and quotes included in it, you stand a much greater chance of it being used. In Chisholms's words - 'give us something we don't have to spend too much time working on and we'll bite your hand off'.

Tell the 'truth'

So how do you get that hand bitten off? Chisholm has a handy acronym for remembering the five elements of a story that need to all be in place to spark an editor's interest - Truth - spelling out the first letter of each of the five elements:

Topical PR people often like to stretch this definition, but it really only applies to something that has just happened or is about to happen. Equally, it could be a seasonal story.

Relevant Think about how your story is relevant to the paper/channel/website's readers or viewers.

Unusual National newspaper and broadcast journalists receive hundreds of press releases a day, so how will yours stand out? Chisholm cautions against over-selling the 'uniqueness' of your story. He believes there have only ever been five stories that qualify as unique - the first man on the moon, the first test tube baby, the first heart transplant, September 11th and the Asian tsunami. But unusual, he says, is more achievable: 'Why did Jedward receive so much coverage? They're unusual people.'

Trouble It might not be at the top of a PRO's checklist, but a story that stirs up some trouble is attractive to an editor.

Human Even business stories have a human angle and it is this that provides the interest, says Chisholm. Look for stories that will appeal to viewers and readers on an emotional level.

The Friday Drop email bulletin highlights the best and worst media performance of the week in a short, blog-like commentary. To come along to our next Friday Drop Live event on social media (28 April), email


Electric Airwaves MD Andrew Caesar-Gordon dissects a key media performance of Toyota's MD Miguel Fonseca

On 5 February, Toyota GB's managing director, Miguel Fonseca, went on the Today programme to discuss the company's recall of 200,000 cars in the UK and the possibility of a braking problem in its flagship vehicle, the Prius.

It is a great example of how not to conduct a crisis interview. He appears not to have thought about the audience, prepared messages that will have resonance with it or anticipated the negative questions. And if you don't answer the question, the journalist will interrupt. The interviewer, Justin Webb, interrupts Fonseca seven times.

Webb's opening question, 'What's going on with the Prius?', is an open question that allows you to go in fast with your key messages. Fonseca doesn't.

Instead of apologising, outlining the solution, and reinforcing brand messages, his 40-second answer outlines the problem, and throughout the interview he uses jargon (e.g. 'A software re-programming can be done to change the mapping of the ABS').

When asked: 'Can you be sure the Prius is 100 per cent roadworthy?' he replies that he drives one and has 'no issues with it'. Which leads to the inevitable question: 'So are you advising owners of Prius to carry on driving?' Cue a random long-winded answer ending with: 'It doesn't mean we don't recognise that customers would like a less interferenced ABS system.'

A better answer would have been: 'I drive a Prius and anticipate no problems with it, but if any Prius driver has a concern, go to a Toyota garage from 10 February, and we can make a small software change for free. This will remove any possibility of a very rare problem that has affected no-one in the UK to our knowledge, and will thus reassure Prius drivers about the fundamental reliability of Toyota.'

Because he failed to exert control right at the start of the interview and has been led by the journalist's agenda, Fonseca gets into trouble.

Fonseca finally offers an apology of sorts (for the concern created), four minutes into the interview. Way too late. Apologising by saying 'if what we've done has caused concern ...' does not suggest you're sorry at all. It sounds more like: 'If you're so stupid as to be concerned, we're sorry for your stupidity.'

The media will dredge up anything you have said in the past that supports the story. In this instance, Webb says: 'Your president said Toyota was too big and distant from customers. This proves it doesn't it?'

Don't try to spin your way out of something like this as Fonseca does by saying: 'What he meant was that our culture is of taking care of customers.' Webb immediately interrupts, saying: 'No, he said you were distanced from your customers, that's different.'

When being interviewed during a crisis, follow the three Cs: express concern; commit to action; and control the interview.

Think how your words will sound to the audience. Anticipate the negative questions. And reinforce your brand narrative throughout.

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