Media training

Managing expectations: can you really influence a journalist?

Managing expectations is a bad phrase. It is often perceived as meaning “this is going to be a bit rubbish” – go on, when someone says they want to manage expectations a bit, that’s what you think they’re going to say.

In PR and media terms managing expectations is important. So often we’ve had initial meetings with clients who believe that once their interview skills are up to scratch, sales will go through the roof. Look at Steve Jobs. He was an incredible presenter and speaker and when he spoke people bought his iPhones. Well, yes they did. He also had an absolute fortune of marketing spend behind him.

There are more serious objections to working with the media, though, and this article is about one of them.

Will the journalist will just do what they want?

Managing expectations - pic of a microphoneWhen we were preparing Clapperton Media for the redesign and rebrand (if you like the website then we got it right, if you don’t, not so much) we spoke to a few advisors. One of them asked us what our main mission in life was and we said – as it says on the homepage – that our clients were concerned that a journalist would take their points (or their clients’ points as many of our partners work in PR).

Our job, we said (and will continue to say), was to ensure our clients had the tools in place to manage an interview. The response was “I don’t accept the premise, I know journalists, they’ll just go away and write what they want”.

We didn’t end up working with him, as you can imagine. He had the same expectation as a lot of people, however; go into an interview with a journalist and they will take over and set the entire agenda themselves.

Some might, and it’s in avoiding those that the PR community can demonstrate a lot of value. The wiser ones, however, will allow you to set a lot of your own agenda. Here’s why.

Managing the journalist’s expectations

What so few people tell you is that journalists themselves have expectations for an interview. Here’s a blog entry from journalist website Muckrack that takes you through the sort of preparation they’ll do.

What they expect from you is very straightforward: expertise. If you’re dealing with a journalist and you want to publicise your business, they won’t want to act as your PR department but they’ll want to write about your area with some authority. And here’s where we get to the related point about journalists: they will have done the research and may even specialise in writing and commentating about your area, but they’re unlikely to have taken part. Your knowledge is going to be better than theirs.

This means that we need you to take over the agenda from time to time. Here’s a link to a YouTube video we use for media training sometimes:

It’s Dido Harding, then chief executive of TalkTalk, on a cyber-attack that happened eight years ago. The point we want to highlight is exactly three minutes in. Kirsty Wark is trying to interrupt but Harding persists in talking over her and introduces the notion that the company is offering its customers free credit monitoring so they can see whether they are at risk.

The interview improves

Wark may have been frustrated about this (we don’t know her, can’t ask) but Harding didn’t work for her, she worked for TalkTalk and wanted to be accountable to its customers. She is right to take control here. It’s also noticeable that she adds value. Wark couldn’t have known about the plan to help with credit monitoring, it is entirely up to Harding to introduce it at this stage.

She does so by taking control. She establishes her expertise. The viewer will trust her a great deal more than someone just answering yes and no and allowing the journalist to dictate the agenda completely.

So what should you expect?

The journalist expects you to share expertise and they won’t expect a sales pitch – if they get one it will stay in their notebook and not get shared or it will end up on the cutting room floor.

So if you can’t go in heavy with the sales pitch, what can you do and what should you expect to get out of it? Here are a few ideas.

Address some issues

You know your market better than the journalist. They might follow it carefully but their information is second hand. Pick some issues that are important to your business. The chances are very good that they will be important to others too, specifically the journalist’s readers. Qualify those issues by saying why they are important. Use phrases like “our customers are telling us” and “what the market is doing is…” and you will start to gain traction.

Limit what you address

One of the most frequent complaints we come across is clients thinking journalists are at fault because they fail to grasp the complexity of an organisation. They don’t get the nuances.

Let’s turn that around for a second. A journalist visits you or your organisation, or arranges a call. You spend, what, 45 minutes once the polite noises are out of the way? And you are expecting someone to master all of the nuances of a complex organisation in which you’ve been full time for several years within the space of that three quarters of an hour.

It’s not going to happen. The way to ensure you don’t get misquoted or misunderstood is to limit the topics you speak about. Expecting a journalist to grasp everything too quickly is a non-starter so the thing to do is to offer them a great deal less. Tailor what you say to that journalist’s audience.

Be careful with exclusives

One thing you’ll need to watch as interest in your business grows is the idea of an exclusive. Giving a journalist something no other outlet has is going to go down very well – with that publication. The tricky thing is navigating your way around other journalists when you’re perceived to have done someone a favour. For our money the easiest thing to do is to treat them all equally; by all means you’ll have some you’d rather deal with than others because you’re human but we’d recommend trying not to play one off against another. It rarely ends up serving any useful purpose (and if you’ve been giving exclusives to one particular trade journalist because they worked on your favourite publication, what do you do when they move job and work for the competition?)

Final expectations

You can and should expect to be treated fairly. Journalists will always get a balancing comment if someone is criticising you (if said journalist knows what they’re doing). You should expect accuracy – they might not highlight the bits of your messages you wanted them to, which is another good reason for limiting what you tell them, but they will correct it if they get something factually wrong.

As we’ve said before, in terms of what the reader or listener is going to do next, it can be a good idea to start at this point and work out your communications strategy from there by moving backwards. Getting back to the point with which we kicked off this entry, it would be very unusual, unless you have Apple’s marketing dollars, to get a load of sales out of a piece of press coverage. It tends to be a slower burn than that. But if you play the game, deliver relevance and engage with what’s important to the reader, it’s a slow burn you should be able to ignite.

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We work with you to instil a calm, cool confidence with the media. We want you to leave the room equipped with tools and techniques to ensure your points are understood by journalists and other media professionals and made in such a way that they'll report them accurately