“It’s a private matter.” From the second Downing Street uttered those words, they almost immediately lost control of the situation with David Cameron’s tax affairs. It took four days and four separate statements before the truth came out.
Because Downing Street failed to take hold of the situation early on, Cameron’s crusade against tax avoidance was put to question, his reputation was forever tarnished and there were even calls for his resignation. And all because of a poorly thought out media response.
But for media spokespeople, it’s not just about what you don’t say, it’s about what you do say as well.
Powa has been in the news this month for all the wrong reasons. Just before Christmas 2015, Powa briefed the media on an amazing deal that would see its PowaTag gain access to the lucrative Chinese payments market. Dan Wagner, the CEO, was understandably triumphant and when speaking to the BBC said, “Why did China UnionPay decide to partner with a little British technology company? We've trumped Apple Pay and the rest of the world here."
The rest as they say, is ancient history. An article by Rory Cellan-Jones on the BBC claimed that the team which negotiated the deal were shocked, having told Mr Wagner not to make a big deal out of it. As a result China Union Pay sent a “cease and desist” letter to Powa. The next day, Apple Pay announced it was entering the Chinese payments market. Powa Technologies has since entered administration.
Top tips for media spokespeople
For a company spokesperson the consequences are very high, and when responding to the media you need to get your story and message straight the first time around. You need to strike that balance between human, normal and interesting commentary, without being either a robot parroting the company line, or a loose cannon liability.
I’ve run media training for hundreds of spokespeople, helping them to ensure they get it right first time when responding to the media, as well as help clients to identify the best spokespeople to represent their brand. I’ve pulled together my top five tips for spokespeople on how to become a great voice in the media.
- Know what you want
Before you do anything, think about what you want to achieve from your response or input. What do you want the headlines and story layers to look like, and what messages do you want to put across? Any messages must be believable, simple, direct, jargon free and must relate back to what the media wants, with proof points.
A key part of preparation is knowing what to talk about in case things start to get difficult. These are topics you can easily speak about without having to even think about it. It gives you something to say in case you get stuck and also buys you a bit of time to think about a proper response.
Preparation should always cover facts and figures you can reference to back up anything you say. Always try to test these on someone to make sure they make sense and are clearly related to what you are saying.
- Who, what, where
Consider who you are talking to and what the content is for. Different journalists are looking for different things, in the same way different types of media are looking for varying degrees of information. For example, a trade media magazine is looking for in-depth knowledge of its sector and wants a spokesperson to take a deep dive into industry issues. However, with a national newspaper, they’re looking for someone who can talk broadly about the industry issues, without the need to give a detailed description. News writers will also be looking for something different to a feature writer and be under different time pressures. In the new media environment, you also have to take into account the kind of content bloggers and YouTubers are looking for as well.
- Be a good spokesperson
To be a great spokesperson you must be three things; knowledgeable, accessible and quotable. Journalists love speaking to people who are enthusiastic about what they do and can provide notes, quotes and anecdotes. The best spokespeople come armed with facts and figures and approved points of reference, such as a customer story. If you get all of this right the media will love you.
It’s also really important to listen and respond accordingly. Bad spokespeople tend to avoid doing this and talk in jargon, use superlatives and make unsubstantiated claims. They also use complex language, talk down to journalists and tend to waffle. Good preparation can avoid this.
- Get your PR team to support you
The PR team needs to ensure that you know enough background information about each publication, including readership and audience, as well as supporting you by attending the interview. They will also give you background on the journalist you are speaking with, giving information on recent articles they’ve written, insight from social media feeds and any other tips based on previous interviews. Your PR team is there to ensure you get all the information you need to deliver a great media response or interview.
Get it right the first time
It’s important for any spokesperson to make sure they get it right first time because what goes online, will stay online. But by making sure you take time to consider the above points and think about what you want the headlines to say, you’ll always have some control over how that affects your reputation in the media and your market.
I run regular media training courses where spokespeople are put through their paces with a real journalist. Our media training partners are the real deal, with the small exception that they are ex-journalists and won’t publish what you say. It’s all about giving you a real experience and teaching that it’s definitely better to say something, than saying no comment, or as recently demonstrated..., “it’s a private matter.”