Don’t quote me on that

With HR issues constantly hitting the headlines, the right image is vital. But the fear of journalists twisting words leaves many companies saying, ‘no comment’. Stephen Overell explores how to get the media on your side

At no time since the days of voluntary pay restraint in the 1970s has HR been more in the news. From relatively dry matters such as pay strategy, pensions, management development or turnover reduction to emotional areas like industrial relations, employment rights, equal opportunities and work-life balance, HR is headline-grabbing.

The opportunities afforded by the interest are great. Yet the pitfalls – alleged misrepresentation, journalists with an agenda, getting flustered into saying something rash – often prevent HR professionals taking advantage.

“The journalist’s job is to get you to go further than you want to,” says Mike Slater, partner in the Communications Partnership, a specialist with 30 years in regional newspapers and TV behind him.

“But it is an increasing feature of business culture that a proactive role in the media is important for a company’s overall brand. You must not appear defensive or prevaricating but rather as open and honest as possible.”

Slater says that, like everyone else, journalists are seldom out to stitch someone up. They simply want a good story – sensible interviewees who will make their colleagues compliment them on a tidy package back in the newsroom.

“TV journalists are not primarily interested in the interviewee or even the story, just in the item.” While the press often goes into matters in detail, TV is a simplistic medium, he says.

“There are no shades of grey. You want nice simple basics, no complexities – positive messages to hand that can be got across in just two answers.”

Slater argues that TV news operates to a formula. “News is amazingly formulaic. Voice over a picture. Then cut to antagonist one. Next there is a short clip. Then the respondent is introduced. They give their response for 15 seconds and then the reporter signs off. A lot of television news follows this pattern with the journalist under a lot of pressure to deliver it.”

Once you understand the formula, it is easy enough to work out a lot more, he says, such as who the baddie in the item is, who the audience is, who is going to be listening, and what the audience’s attitudes are likely to be.

From a company’s perspective, the basic art of handling the media sounds terribly simple: to answer a question – or appear to answer a question – while using each reply to make a prepared positive statement. Every time they are interviewed, they effectively showcase themselves, their brand and reputation. But often, as employers, they are responding to someone else’s agenda.

Is it always in a company’s interests to talk to reporters? Fay Sweet, a journalist and adviser for Editorial Training Consultants, says, “There is nothing to be gained from silence, whereas it is clearly in a company’s interest to be equipped to talk to the press and to cope with aggressive questioning.”

She says there may be times when not talking is the most proactive thing to do, but these will be rare. “I would not encourage people to avoid giving answers.”

Much the same goes for deliberately obfuscating a difficult issue. There may be occasions when what is euphemistically termed “redirection” may be justified but as a rule of thumb honesty is the best policy. “If you don’t tell the truth, the chances are you will be found out and it will be that much worse when you are.”

So is media training in the interests of society? The National Union of Journalists feels strongly that it is not. Spokesman Tim Gopsill likens journalists training executives in media skills to prostitution.

“It is a betrayal of professional integrity. Journalists exist to put information into the public domain. That becomes harder and harder if the people they talk to are just trained mouthpieces. They will say they are not teaching anyone to evade giving information,” he says.

“But in reality that is what they are doing. They are telling people how to get their message across and that is not in the interests of journalism or the public – that is what politicians do and it drives people crazy. I think a lot of the time companies go in for all this kind of thing because it suits their vanity.”

Alison Theaker, head of education and training for the Institute of Public Relations, says this attitude is unnecessarily adversarial. “The media needs spokespeople. There is a symbiotic relationship.

“Reporters want people who can get their message across and who are not browbeaten by the occasion. They need people who are not afraid to speak to them. The formats are dictated by the media and people are not to be blamed for being trained to cope with them. Ultimately it is about giving journalists the bones of their story.”

Media crisis scenario

The following is adapted from a real case. Here two media relations experts suggest responses. At the end is the real response

A trade union has passed documents on to the Health and Safety Executive regarding a manufacturer’s safety management regime. The union, which is not recognised by the employer, has compiled a dossier from complaints of employees at the plant who are in the union.

The documents allege that management routinely asks sick staff to take sick days as holiday, penalises staff financially for accidents which lead to the loss of production time and heavily pressurises them by visits to their home and phone calls to return to work after accidents.

If a worker is off sick – even if the cause is an accident at work – the rest of the team he works in forfeit their monthly bonus. A reporter has got hold of the documents the union has passed to the HSE. The union argues that the “overly austere” system for managing safety in effect financially penalises employees for having an accident. It has vowed to kick up a fuss about it both with health and safety authorities and in the media. How should the company respond?

Paul Needle, Needletime

• Needle suggests that this situation requires an overall plan, a strategy requiring a trained spokesman or team, rather than treating it as a one-off.

He says there are two broad strategic responses. One is to make some holding statement – saying that it is not the policy of the company to comment while a dispute is underway but promising full cooperation when it is over. Yet he agrees it is unlikely a journalist would agree that this situation falls under the definition of a dispute, in the technical understanding of the term.

The preferred option involves four separate strands. First, it is important to acknowledge the feelings of the employees, to empathise and to say the company was very sorry to discover the unhappiness of the staff.

Second, Needle says it is vital to tell the truth. “It is not good to say these are lies if they are true because you will eventually be found out and it will be far worse when you are. If you are wrong, you may as well admit it as early as possible and put it behind you.”

Third, it is always the fundamental lesson of media training to stress the positive sides of the story. For instance, the holiday entitlement may be far greater than other comparable companies.

Fourth, it is vital to stress the practical action that has been taken, such as the intention to hold a staff meeting to discuss the matter or, even better, something that has already been done. He says it is rarely worth attacking others – the union, for instance – as the public will not be taken in. “The public expects companies to behave like reasonable, good employers.”

Fay Sweet, adviser, Editorial Training Consultants

• Sweet says that in formulating a response, it is vital to try to get hold of the document in question. This would also be a means of creating time to think through a strategy. “It would be possible to say ‘We cannot answer the criticisms until we see what they are.’ That would be all you could do initially.”

Sweet says that from an outsider’s point of view, it does not appear that the situation as written is defensible. But if determined to defend it, Sweet says it might be advisable to try to meet the union halfway, for example by saying that the company would be willing to deal with complaints on an individual basis but was not aware until recently of any complaints or suspicions.

She says it is also important to emphasise that the company, having nothing to hide, would be happy to talk to the HSE. Would it be permissible to lie in a position like this? Sweet says it would not be advisable. “Honesty is always the best policy. As an adviser, I would always say it is best to be as honest as possible in the context.”

Sweet says some sort of measured partial points might help. There may have been a severe problem with absenteeism – which any impartial outsider would see as being unreasonable – which necessitated firm action. The union may also be exaggerating the claims for political reasons. She too says that it is not advisable to criticise the union, unless there is evidence of a vendetta. “Aggressiveness does not usually produce good results.”

So what really happened? The company had a very troubled history of industrial relations and was used to controversy. It defended the system, saying it fitted with its management strategy.

The personnel director emphasised the success of the company and the political motivations of the union. He said he could understand why people saw the regime as harsh, but “was not interested in outsiders’ moral judgements about it”. Further controversy ensued.

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