Media Training: have you spotted the common theme?

Media training helps companies (and the staff who work for those companies) to understand and communicate with the media. It equips people with the skills to communicate clearly, effectively – and responsibly.

Tony Cartledge is senior producer at HT Media, who won an award for persuading a government minister to re-open Consett steelworks. With experience of working at TV and film production companies, he shares his thoughts on media training.

Do you ever watch Question Time. And if so, have you spotted the common theme?

I’m afraid there are few marks for spotting the outstanding feature of the weekly skirmish between Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. And that is that the question asked is seldom, if ever, actually answered.

Whatever her merits, Theresa May shows no signs of breaking with tradition. Jeremy Corbyn asks what’s to be done about the latest health service crisis, Mrs May responds with figures about record NHS investment. He asks if we should stay in the EU single market, she answers that she wants a great trade deal for the UK.

This is the sort of thing politicians do that drives the rest of us mad. But what if you’re suddenly faced with hostile questioning – could you get away with similar behaviour?

My advice would be simple: don’t even try.

Media training is now routine for anyone who might find themselves in an exposed situation – whether they’re prominent in business, or in the public sector. People are being prepared for the worst happening – and they have to justify their actions, or more commonly, their corporate actions, to hostile reporters. And of course, there’s a tendency to think they’re all disreputable hacks determined to put the worst gloss on events for the sake of a headline.

Speaking as one myself (a disreputable hack, that is) I can confirm that part of that is true – they ARE after a headline, or at least something interesting that will attract the attentions of their audience. Why not give it to them – tell them what actually happened?

So what should you do if you’re the one who draws the short straw and has to undergo a media grilling.

I’d recommend a few simple rules.

  1. Don’t try to be a politician – in other words, DO, when possible, answer the question.
  1. A novel suggestion: Why not tell the truth? It’s simpler in the long run. But DO make sure you actually know what happened before agreeing to be interviewed. And telling the truth doesn’t mean volunteering gory or unpleasant details about the event in question.
  1. When appropriate – apologise – and make sure it’s a human response and not a corporate one.
  1. Don’t know the answer? Why not say so – with the promise to find it out and get back to them.
  1. Never get into an argument, lose your temper, or try a ‘clever’ response. You’re there to account for what went wrong. Not be part of a debating society.
  1. And even in the worst situation, try and be positive. Stress your organisation is determined to find out what went wrong, and stop it happening again.
  1. Finally – avoid jargon. And never refer to anything by initials.

Your overall aim should be to come across as a human being, representing a caring organization. An honest, but fallible institution admittedly, but one anxious to be open and honest, and learn from its mistakes.

And if you’re wondering about the steel works, the minister was Ken Clarke who’d been to a dinner one night near Redcar steelworks. Still perhaps recovering from the night before, he appeared to be interviewed by me on Radio Newcastle’s breakfast programme the next day, unfortunately mixing the two places – particularly unfortunate, because closing down Consett had been one of his government’s most controversial decisions. By doing so, he kindly handed me a ‘Broadcaster of the Year’ award.

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