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Making sure what you say is what they hear

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As the work place starts to return to a new normal, new skills have to be learnt and old ones re-learnt for many of us.

We are finding that as clients return from lockdown communications and PR programs are being updated and our role is including more mentoring and acting as a sounding board.

Renewed face-to-face contact is also bringing challenges. Some executives have been promoted over the past 12 months, and now have a work role which brings with it a need to act as media spokesperson. A skill that now has to be learned.

Equally, after a year or more of not sitting down for one-on-one meetings or interviews with journalists, executives who always had such a role are in some cases no longer comfortable doing it.

Media training specific to their particular spokesperson role is always helpful. So too is having your media adviser at interviews, especially now.

We’ve written on this before, for example “Making sure what you say is what they hear“, but with much more face-to-face media contact now happening, it’s worth summarising.

During a typical working year, consultants attend many more media briefings than the vast majority of executives, so are much more experienced in sensing nuances and seeing when an interview may be going off track.

An interested bystander with industry knowledge sitting in can also help keep a conversation going, clarify potential misunderstandings before they become issues, and make sure what is being said is what is being heard.

It’s surprising how often executives misunderstand a question or the journalist mishears an answer. Both can lead to embarrassing quotes in an article.

It is also useful to have someone present who is on your side if you make, to you, an innocent comment that causes the journalist’s eyes to light up.

It’s not only some executives who do not like their advisers to be there of course, not all journalists are willing to have “handlers” at interviews. As an ex-journalist, I can fully understand this, but as with all elements of media relations, it’s a case of horses for courses.

Good advisors can be a help to journalists not only at an interview but in setting it up. Sometimes a journalist wants to interview an executive who feels too busy or apprehensive to take part. When appropriate, an adviser can persuade the executive of the merits of participating. This is an instance when the adviser really should attend the interview if at all possible.

A good public relations professional can turn an interview from a potential disaster to an unmitigated success for both sides, especially if issues sensitive to an organisation are going to be raised.

They can also help the journalist get more useable information when the interviewee doesn’t recognise what is interesting them. I’ve seen it many times where an executive bangs on about some boring company product, yet skips past a new approach that would interest the journalist.

I’ve also seen things go wrong even at the most benign of interviews, simply because the journalist seemed to be asking questions at one level with the spokesperson answering at another, creating confusion, not because of malicious intent, just because of a misunderstanding.

In such circumstances a good adviser can step in with a question that clarifies the point without being intrusive.

It does mean that the adviser needs knowledge, not only of the organisation’s activities, but the industry or profession. It also means they need a good relationship with the journalist who recognises they are more likely to be a help than a hinderance. But if a journalist simply doesn’t like third parties at interviews, that’s it.

I’ve also found that by being at media interviews I’ve learned much more about a client organisation and its culture than I have from meetings and briefings. I’ve also been able to help executives improve their techniques through post-interview debriefings.

Managed correctly, having an adviser attend a meeting between an executive and a journalist should be a benefit for everyone.

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