Back in my dark days as a journalist, one of the things I did from time to time was “media training”.
Media training is basically coaching people in how to talk to journalists.
You see, talking to a journalist isn’t like talking to a regular person. Because everything you say to a journalist might be written down and printed in the paper that your Mum reads. Or your child’s teachers. Or your ex-boyfriend. And you don’t need to have said it to a journalist – we look at the conversations you’re having with friends on social media, the things you post on Facebook, the posts you publish on your blog. It’s all 100% available for us to use if we choose.
The one thing we tell clients over and over in media training is this: there’s no such thing as off the record. Honest. In the UK, “off the record” has precisely ZERO legal weight.
If you say it, we can print it (or broadcast it).
If you post it, we can screenshot it and quote it. Or film it, and broadcast it, even.
You might think it was an off-hand remark after the interview was done, or we were just having a chat over a cup of tea at a conference, or you were moaning to a friend after an upsetting day, but if I’m a journalist, I’m perfectly entitled to share what you said with anyone I choose. I don’t even have any obligation to use your comments in context. Most journalists will try to be fair, but a good story is a good story, and sometimes quoting someone in just the right (wrong) way serves our purpose.
In the business world, nobody would even consider putting someone in front of the press until they’d been media trained. The potential consequences of someone saying the wrong thing are just too hideous to risk it.
But who’s media training the parent bloggers?
Undoubtedly, the media can be hugely beneficial to bloggers, in terms of increasing your audience and helping you connect with new readers and advertisers. But there’s also a BIG potential downside (and the downside is bigger and steeper in some publications than others) to talking to the press. So we’ve put together some media training for bloggers.
Media training generally focuses on three areas: before the interview, during the interview and after the interview.
BEFORE THE INTERVIEW
Before the interview, you need to be clear on what you’re talking about, who you’re talking to, and what messages you want to get across.
Check out the journalist. How experienced are they? What have they written about before? What kind of tone do they typically take? If you have concerns, you’re free to decline the interview request. If you’re talking technical or jargon, be sure to ask the journalist if they understand something (tactfully), and explain things carefully – better to be patronising than to be misunderstood and potentially misrepresented.
Ask the journalist questions. Who else are they talking to? What do they want to ask? Is this for a news section or features? Is it a feature in a particular supplement or website section? This will give you a feel for the likely tone and scope of the article.
Prepare. Pull together any facts or figures you might need and have them to hand. Think of the key points you want to get across and WRITE THEM DOWN.
Agree parameters in writing. Discuss with the journalist whether they will read quotes back, or send you quotes before the article is published. Will they include a link to your blog? Will your children’s full names be used?
DURING THE INTERVIEW
Remember that piece of paper where you wrote down your key points? Have that to hand, while you’re on the phone. Make sure you use it. At the end of the call, if you forgot to mention something, say, “I did also just want to mention…”
Journalists are trained to interview people and will use a variety of techniques to get you to say something interesting. Being aware of these tricks means you’re less likely to say something you didn’t mean to say.
Long pauses – most people are conditioned to fill an awkward pause, so journalists will often let you answer a tricky question then leave a long pause, to see if you jump in with anything extra that they can use.
Quick questions – asking a series of questions very quickly encourages you to answer equally quickly, without thinking through what you’re saying. If this happens, force some pauses in to the conversation with phrases like, “Good question, let me think about that one…”
The poser – a classic journalist technique is to say something negative, or controversial and preface it with “Would you say that…”. Express any sort of agreement, and you’ll find that statement attributed to you in the paper. Closely related is the technique where a journalist says something negative and asks if you agree. The best response to these techniques is to decline to comment – “I’m not really the right person to comment…” or “What I would say is… [insert one of your key points here]…”
Mistakes happen – sometimes people do mis-speak or use the wrong words on the phone. It happens. If it happens to you, don’t panic. Immediately stop, and say something like, “That’s not quite what I meant. Let me be clear…”. Don’t just barrel on and hope the journalist didn’t notice.
Don’t bitch – Like any form of entertainment, journalism works best when there’s a conflict. Journalists love a good moral outrage, or a David/Goliath story, or a passionate disagreement. Don’t give it to them. Don’t slate other bloggers, or companies, or brands – as well as looking like an idiot in print, you might find yourself on the wrong side of a libel action if you’re not careful (see here for tips on libel for bloggers)
AFTER THE INTERVIEW
It can be useful to follow up with a journalist to provide links to posts or websites you might have discussed during the call, and provide your contact details in case the journalist needs any more information.
If you have privacy issues, such as ensuring full names aren’t used, we would also recommend following up with the paper’s picture desk to ensure they’re aware of the agreement you’ve made.
We hope you find the tips helpful – let’s be careful and have fun out there!