organisation has just made huge job cuts and the media wants to talk to HR. But
are you ready to face the press? Heather Beresford provides some top tips
When a national newspaper journalist rings your direct line and asks you to
justify the latest job losses; or a TV crew fills the reception, asking what
you have to say to angry staff whose call centre is closing; will you know how
to handle interviews to help minimise negative publicity?
The questions are terrifying if you haven’t got an answer. But when crisis
strikes, the worst thing you can say to a hungry news journalist is ‘no
comment’ – it just makes your organisation look guilty. On the other hand,
fluffing a media interview by saying too much or contradicting the company line
can be just as damaging.
Handling skilful journalists is a concern for anyone in a media-facing role,
but HR people in particular are being forced to learn fast. Journalists are
keen to sidestep polished comments from a press office to interview the HR
person directly, who can provide knowledge, detail and emotion. But the media
is also interested in controversial and emotive HR stories, such as job losses
or employment tribunals.
In response to the growing concern among HR people, the Chartered Institute
of Personnel and Development has included, for the first time, a session on
‘Managing the Media’ in its conference programme this year, with Richard
Donkin, editor of Jobs and Education at the Financial Times as the keynote
Similarly, ‘Breaking News – Mastering the Art of the Media Interview’ was
one of the most popular seminars at the HR Forum in May. Most sessions onboard
the Aurora were full and the company running the sessions, Optimum Coaching,
was inundated with delegates asking for one-to-one sessions and group training
for colleagues back in the office.
"At some time, most of us will be expected to represent our company in
the media. And yet we are given very little training about how to do this
effectively," says Blaire Palmer, managing director of Optimum Coaching.
"Journalists’ reputation for catching people out is well known,"
says Palmer. "If experienced politicians can say the wrong thing and find
themselves justifying their comments on the front page, why not HR people?
"Delegates experience gruelling press interviews on our courses, which
can be nerve-wracking, but it means they make mistakes in a safe environment
and are well prepared for skilled, tough questioning when it happens for
She adds: "Preparing for contact with the media and handling an
interview skilfully minimises negative publicity by putting stories in context
and promoting an organisation in a positive light."
Richard Plenty, a specialist in people and organisation consulting, has just
set up his own business, Plenty Partnership, and booked a one-to-one session
with Optimum Coaching to help him deal with press interviews and live debates.
"I wasn’t sure where journalists would be coming from and wasn’t
confident about doing live interviews," he says. "I didn’t want to
make a fool of myself or forget my point under interrogation – there’s nothing
worse than a rambling, boring answer. So the coaching focused on putting
important points across concisely and authoritatively.
"I feel well prepared now and accepted an invitation to take part in a
debate hosted by the Association of Business Psychologists – something I might
have turned down before I did the training."
Optimum Coaching helps delegates achieve positive coverage by doing four
things: preparing key messages, looking for a hidden twist, understanding the
characteristics of different outlets, (such as print, radio, TV and websites)
and keeping calm throughout an interview.
Prepare key messages
Before an interview, prepare the crucial information you want to work into
your answers. These might include positive reasons for closing a business site
or details of the extensive support you are providing to help staff find new
"Most organisations have press officers who will brief you on the
company line and help you research the subject in full," says Palmer.
"With their help, you can prepare up to three key points or soundbites and
anticipate the worst possible questions."
Look for a hidden twist
It’s easy to get caught out by seemingly harmless stories if you don’t find
out what sort of publication or show you are being approached by, and what
point the piece is trying to make.
"Research is paramount," says Palmer. "You might be asked to
appear on a radio chat show for a friendly discussion about counselling
services. But do you know if the programme is fundamentally in favour of such
services, or is the producer trying to prove they are a waste of time and that
companies like yours are wasting stakeholders’ money? Imagine everything you
say used out of context and edit your comments accordingly."
You may be expected to do interviews with many different media outlets (such
as print, radio, TV and websites), so it is helpful to understand the interview
styles of different outlets and learn the terminology. What is a ‘donut’? When
is an interview ‘as live’? When is a story hard news and when is it a feature?
You can come across as calm and authoritative by breathing deeply, relaxing
your shoulders and speaking clearly and slowly, in short sentences. Concise,
knowledgeable comments are more likely to be included in a report than
rambling, inconclusive answers, so say your key messages and stop talking. Keep
your answers simple; journalists are looking for black and white. They might
try to wind you up with silly questions, but don’t rise to the bait.
All this advice can sound daunting to the novice, but handling the media
isn’t always about out-thinking hungry news journalists who are determined to
make your company look heartless. Journalists write positive copy too.
"It’s not all about minimising negative coverage," says Palmer.
"If you choose interviews carefully and make knowledgeable, concise and
interesting points, you can capitalise on a situation, maximising positive
coverage for you, your organisation and your industry."
Media interviews: Know your jargon
Clip for news: A short spoken quote that will be used in the
news. No longer than 20-30 seconds
Disco: A slang name for discussion. Often used at Radio 4
Donut: A live radio interview where the reporter interviews you
face-to-face, usually from a relevant location, before handing back to the
Down the line: Sometimes means down the telephone line, but
more commonly means from a ‘remote’ studio with you in one town and the
interviewer in another. To the listener, it sounds as though you are in the
Feature: A longer piece for radio, TV or print. The style is
usually chattier and more circumspect so you can be more conversational, but
soundbites are still crucial
Hard news: Such as job losses or deaths
Hook/peg: Most stories have a topical link
Agencies: Independent Radio News (IRN) is one of the many news
agencies providing interviews and copy for radio, so your interview could
appear on a range of different radio stations. Reuters and PA do the same thing
for the press
Off-the-record: Most journalists will respect this request, but
don’t risk it unless you know them well and have built up a relationship of
Radio and television
‘As live’: The interview will be recorded, but played into the
programme as if it were live. You will be encouraged to banter with the
presenter, just like a discussion
Soundbite: A short, concise statement
Placing quotes: Beware of this technique. A journalist might
say: "So would you say that men don’t need counselling?" If you say
yes, they are entitled to write ‘Mr X said "Men don’t need