Media training

Media drawbacks – when not to engage

Something we focus on during our workshops is media drawbacks. Of course, we are pro media and in an earlier blog entry we outlined why talking to the media can be a really good idea.

It’s just that it won’t serve you well if you grab every opportunity that crops up. It might be that having multiple opportunities sounds like a pipe dream for the moment but if you start to gain a bit of profile they can arrive quite quickly.

Here are some reasons not to engage that you might want to consider.

  • The opportunity isn’t right or you can’t stand the publication that’s approached you. It happens. It’s 1985, you’re a female entrepreneur whose business is doing really well and the Sun wants to run a profile on you but you’re aware that this paper sells itself on the strength of topless women on page 3. You’d rather not take part.
  • It’s 1997. Your business has grown and is doing well. The Guardian wants to speak to you but it’s so rabidly left wing and really doesn’t match your values.

In both of these cases the benefits are likely to outweigh media drawbacks. The first is no longer an issue as that particular feature is in the dustbin of publishing history but people still have issues with the Sun and other papers like it. Be careful. If you’re promoting your business your choice of outlet should ideally be about the readership rather than your own preferences. Likewise the second. If the right people are reading the Guardian it matters less what you think and more what you can get out of it. There are other things that can go wrong, however.

Media drawbacks and your time

The first is undoubtedly the problem of managing your time. When lead trainer Guy worked on IT trade publication MicroScope in the late eighties and early nineties there were a few marketing executives he knew he could go to for a comment on just about everything. They’d always take the call and always come up with something insightful.

He once met one of the readers who actually bought their supplies from one of his regular commentators. He said, “Oh yes, I know XX, he’s always great to talk to” – and XX’s customer came back with “I know, that’ll be why he’s never got enough time to return his bloody customers’ calls.”

There could be all sorts of reasons for not returning a difficult customer’s call. We sympathise. However, one possible reason is that XX had unintentionally focused too much of his time on working for the press rather than doing his actual job. If you don’t think you will have enough time to do your press engagements justice then you’re likely to do them badly or to start eating into time that should be spent otherwise. If it’s affordable this can be a sign that you need to expand your team. It can be quite a step, if you’re in the “growth” stage, to start taking people on whose value doesn’t feed directly into the bottom line.

Misquotes, misattributions, rephrases

MicrophoneEqually serious is when someone gets a quote wrong or attributes it to the wrong person. Sometimes companies like people to do that. When Guy (him again) was working on MicroScope all those years ago someone sent a press release with a contact person for followup questions. He called, took some notes and wrote the story. Before it reached publication the phone went again: it was the interviewee’s boss. The boss wanted the quotes attributed to him rather than the person to whom Guy had spoken.

There was no question of changing the content and they were puzzled when the editorial team wouldn’t co-operate. The thing was, Guy hadn’t spoken to the director in question and it was not the editorial team’s role to pretend he had. Some 30 years later he still wonders whether they appreciated the point.

Other times something is wrongly attributed or plain wrong.

Out of context

You’ll have seen many people saying they were quoted out of context. This can mean different things to different people but the best definition we’ve found is here, meaning someone has quoted only part of a sentence or at least not filled in the context to make it worthwhile. For example our main camera operator Paul might say “I could direct the next James Bond film if I had more experience of fiction and a Hollywood profile” (he’d still be pushing it but we’ll let that pass). If someone just quoted him saying “I could direct the next James Bond film” you can see how the meaning changes completely.

You have the right to complain if a journalist does this to you. What’s more difficult is when people say they were quoted out of context and they actually mean “I wish I hadn’t said that”. Try not to be that person! It can be worth having someone in the interview or on the call with you as a sanity checker. Never mind that the journalist resists – you don’t work for the journalist.


People whispering

Sometimes a journalist will rewrite something into their own vernacular. This can be particularly useful when you’re speaking to a journalist from a different culture. When Guy launched his first social media book in 2009 (don’t even Google, it’s a decade and a half out of date) he received an invitation to go to Malaysia and speak at a conference. He did so and as part of the publicity a newspaper came and interviewed him. His quotes, when they came out, didn’t capture his voice at all. They were full of “wow” and “oh boy” – he was sounding a lot more like a Malaysian man than a Brit with jet lag.

However, it’s not worth getting hung up on those details. The substance was right. They even got his favourite gig right: they wanted some local colour so asked him which concert he’d enjoyed most. He said Paul McCartney and the reporter said “Wow”, no, really she did, “In the sixties with the Beatles?” Guy was a year old when they played their last gig but we’ll let that pass. The point is that these little rephrase didn’t damage the sense.

The danger is that if you’re incoherent, long and rambly or if you mumble, the journalist will have to compress what you said into a sentence. This is where you risk your quote turning into what they think you meant rather than what you actually said. Be careful to think before you speak and ensure you stop firmly rather than tail off wherever possible.

Plain wrong

The other risk is that a journalist will misunderstand and put something in that’s a load of old nonsense. Most often this will be based on a genuine misunderstanding. In her very earliest days as a journalist one of our colleagues asked a company for their turnover. They said £40,000 (that’s “sales” to international readers and for context this was 1989) so she reported it – but found they were unsurprisingly unimpressed when she didn’t make it clear that this was the monthly rather than annual figure.

Mishearings and misunderstandings are entirely possible. If possible, when you feel you’ve been misquoted or there is a misrepresentation due to a factual error, it’s worth getting someone else to put the call in or send the email. You might be feeling vulnerable or that your job is at risk. This could mean you are concerned your family home is in danger.

This in turn means you’re possibly the worst person to get involved. You’re angry and anxious. The vast majority of the time, the journalist or editor will want to remove any inaccuracies as quickly as possible, It can be much easier if someone else puts the request in.

It’s still worth it

These media drawbacks shouldn’t put you off but you need to be aware of them. There is a huge competitive edge to be gained from mindshare and branding when you talk to the media; customers thinking they want service or item A and your name popping into their head immediately will help you grow the business enormously. Just understand that things can go wrong. You can end up as a full-time media spokesperson when you have a company to run or you can use an external PR company (or both as you grow) – it’s always worth having some sort of expertise backing you up.

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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