Ann Wright: How to get the best out of your 'victims'

Charities need to prepare service users properly before they speak to the media, says the media consultant

Ann Wright
Ann Wright

"Have you got a victim?" This is a phrase heard in newsrooms across the land daily. It is horrible, but it’s really just shorthand for: "Do you have a real person who can talk about a certain news story or phenomenon, because they have personal experience?"

Journalists would far rather talk to a real person, a member of the public, than a chief executive or director of fundraising because their testimony is far more powerful.

This is an extremely valuable opportunity for charities to get their messages across, to win over volunteers, fundraisers, stakeholders and thought-leaders. But it is a particularly difficult request for charities, which know that these people have had myriad different, often traumatic experiences. So they are vulnerable, might still be ill or traumatised and are often not media savvy.

To expect them to expose themselves to the world by talking to the media is a huge deal. People might agree to be interviewed through gratitude, campaigning zeal or a sense of responsibility, but it is a big risk and they might be doing so reluctantly.

Journalists want to know details and they ask intrusive questions, wanting to know above all how the experiences affected people and made them feel.

They are generally gentler talking to a "victim" than with someone speaking in an official capacity, but this can mean the interviewee relaxes, sharing more than they feel comfortable with, encouraging the journalist to probe more and ask even more searching questions.

Fielding such interviewees is an extremely effective way of delivering messages about awareness, lobbying and fundraising, so charities have a clear responsibility to make sure they know what to expect when they step up to the microphone, so the process is as painless and positive as possible.

Here are some ways to help people prepare for an interview:

  • Make sure they have heard the interviewer in action/read their articles and are comfortable being questioned by them.
  • Discuss in advance how much they are prepared to reveal.
  • Explain the process to them – and if you want them to deliver key messages, make sure they are happy with this.
  • Give them a list of potential questions, and help them consider how to answer them.
  • Rehearse their story with them, so it is clear and reasonably concise. This means they are less likely to be interrupted.
  • Get someone objective (at best, a journalist) to ask them some searching questions so they can practise answering them.
  • If there are things the person is not comfortable discussing, make that clear to the journalists before the interview starts.

It might well be worth investing in media training for a group of spokespeople, because way they will ensure they always have enough people ready and willing to tell their stories and help promote the cause. 

Ann Wright is director of the media consultancy Rough House Media

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