Media training: In the spotlight

Putting your message across can be daunting. Nick Cater explains how to take the terror out of handling the media.

Facing a big interview, charity people might feel trapped in a painkiller advert - "tense, nervous headache?" - with the added extras of "dry mouth, racing heart, sweaty palms, fear of mistakes?"

With John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman out there, it is hardly surprising that media training is so popular among charities, from the chief executive, senior managers and trustees to vulnerable service users telling their often intensely personal stories.

Commercial firms charge thousands for this sort of work, but cost-conscious voluntary groups can turn to sector specialists such as MediaWise or the Media Trust - charities whose training is tailored to the third sector's challenges.

For instance, this week (13-17 November) the public votes on ITV's The People's Millions, the programme that asks community groups to pitch for £4.2m in Big Lottery Fund cash. With opportunities like this around, the need to be media-savvy has never been greater. Lydia Frempong, training manager at the Media Trust, has drafted in extra interview experts, such as TV veterans Richard Lutz and John Morrell, to meet the demand.

Lutz, a news editor with ITN as well as a media trainer for health and academic groups, urges caution, saying: "People often blunder into TV interviews." To make the most of this golden moment to tell your charity's story, it is vital to gain control of the interview by knowing the questions in advance.

"Most journalists are honest and will tell you," he says. "If you know the questions, you can work out how to get your message across." Lutz denies it's about spin, but suggests advising the journalist "if you ask me about this point, you'll get a better interview" or thinking of a verbal 'bridge' from an unhelpful question to the point you want to make.

He adds that if a charity staffer is worried about where an interview might go, it is always possible to negotiate, because the programme wants the story and has paid to set up studios and crew. "If you cannot get the information you need, make it clear you are unhappy," declares Lutz.

"If that doesn't sort things out, say no to the interview."

Morrell's advice is: "Start and finish with your headline." His long BBC track record included Panorama before he turned to training. "Every charity has a bloody good story to tell," he says. Training in how to tackle interviews and practice in dealing with verbal grillings will help charity staff break the fear barrier so they can concentrate on telling their stories.

To prepare for a sound-bite world in which interviews might be no more than a couple of minutes, Morrell advises charities to buy or borrow a camcorder to practise answering questions. "Bottle your memorable phrases and hope they come out on the day," he says.

He believes honesty and "real personality" work best on TV, adding: "If you think you have to be dishonest, don't go on the media." And look for stars beyond the top brass. "The most unlikely people are terrific communicators; the best have passion and speak from the heart," he says.

One charity that has recently seen the benefit of media training is Soho Green, which fights to protect verdant spaces in urban jungles. Trustee board chair Katherine William-Powlett says: "We've had lots of experience with the press, but media training has been a great help when campaigning or fundraising.

I wasn't so much scared of being on TV as worried about having too much to say and waffling. A lot of the training is about condensing the message into a single sentence and finding many ways to get that across."

'Better prepared'

Training can also help in other contexts. "I'm so much better prepared now about how to present our case in situations beyond the media," she says. "It's useful when thinking how to get the message across in ways that are punchy and direct."

Henry Palmer, director of communications agency Society Media, sounds a note of caution, urging charities to think hard before they leap into media training and start seeking TV coverage.

"Go back to the beginning," he says. "Ask what you want to say and to whom. That will influence what kind of communication to choose and how to use it. The media offers just one route among many.

"It is important for a charity to have direct lines of communication to its stakeholders so as not to be dependent on TV and other media, or at risk from how they present your story."

Jill Rawlins, interim director of communications at Addaction, has long experience of media managing and training. She says dealing with TV can be an obstacle course and needs to be backed up by thorough preparation and regular training.

An interview veteran, from Newsround to Newsnight's Paxman, she says: "You need to keep your wits about you. TV really puts you in the spotlight, from how you look to what you do with your hands, but training can help you identify the pitfalls.

"For example, I had to remind one boss who favoured short-sleeved checked tops to keep a jacket, white shirt and plain tie in the office, because you can rarely be overdressed on television.

"The shot they use can make all the difference. In one interview, a colleague was in tight close-up and his perspiration made him look shifty. With fewer make-up departments and more down-the-line interviews and outside broadcasts, it's a good idea to keep some powder handy for shiny noses and bald heads."

Journalists persist in asking the same question in search of the answer they want, according to Rawlins. She advises: "Just keep putting across your key messages - keep it to a maximum of three in any interview, whatever the length - and don't be distracted."

She adds: "A big problem is getting professional media trainers to give tough interviews - they're often too soft and respectful with whoever is paying their fees. But being on the receiving end of a bit of welly in training is essential if you want to be able to cope with the real thing."


Make the most of interviews

The Media Trust, which offers training and advice, gives this checklist:

- Ask why the reporter wants to interview you, establish how much he or she knows about the subject, try to identify who else might be interviewed and find out all you can about the programme.

- Journalists generally work at great speed and under intense pressure. They have to find a colourful angle that will attract their audience. If you can help them do that and remain true to your own organisation, you've got a much better chance of being asked back.

- Don't go into an interview before you've prepared some notes on the subject you will be talking about. Your audience will remember two or three points at the most. The less you say, the more they'll remember.

- Remember the 3Cs: confidence, clarity, control. Have confidence in your own knowledge. Use a clear, conversational style. Illustrate your points with anecdotal examples for colour and credibility. Avoid jargon. Take charge of the interview.

- Use the ABCD technique: Acknowledge and address the question (one second) by saying, for example, "yes", "no", "I don't know" or "I'm not able to answer that"; Bridge (three seconds) by saying "however, what I can tell you is" or "let's be clear about this"; Control and clarity (30 seconds) should see you put over the key messages from your interview brief; Dangle by saying "what's really interesting is ...".


How should a charity protect its clients when facing the media, especially those who are vulnerable?

It is the kind of question MediaWise director Mike Jempson tackles every day when offering advice, training and support to fellow charities and individuals dealing with the good, the bad and the ugly of media attention.

An experienced journalist himself, Jempson says he understands the pressures that charities come under when they want publicity for a cause and the media are looking for authentic individual stories.

"The first thing to remember is that just because the media want a story, it does not mean you have to give it to them. Judgement is needed about whether your charity or the individual needs the exposure, and what the risks are.

"Those who are enthusiastic about going on the media, perhaps because they are angry about how an issue has been covered in the past, may well be the wrong people to put forward. To deal with the media, you need a cool head and to know what you are doing."

Charities have a responsibility to protect their staff, volunteers and the people they help. This means exploring the risks, knowing the rules and the regulators, and having a media strategy and policy. Then, says Jempson, why and how an interview takes place is clear to everyone involved.

He suggests a number of ways to help protect the vulnerable in interviews, from preserving anonymity by filming in shadow or disguising a voice to taping interviews to ensure no one is misquoted or pressured.

MediaWise has long worked to help individuals or groups win redress for unfair coverage, from a simple correction to a Press Complaints Commission ruling. It also has a track record of working with charities and journalists to develop clear and effective media codes of conduct, offering guidance for improved reporting of sensitive issues.

Its advice and courses for vulnerable groups on handling the media include notes for young people on being prepared, talking about sensitive issues and going on television. It also offers a cautionary checklist for people selling their stories to the tabloids.

If there are significant errors in reporting or a pattern of misrepresentation, Jempson urges action. He says that the Press Complaints Commission has "a good record of issuing guidance to editors about coverage of groups and issues, from children, refugees and transgendered people to mental health and suicide".

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