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Rough guide to dealing with the media

A few weeks ago I was asked for some advice on dealing with the media.

The request came from a vaping advocacy group and I was happy to help. Having made a few notes I thought I'd publish them here. They're not guidelines and they're not exhaustive but they may be of interest to some people.

The 24/7 rule
In general Forest never turns down an interview or an opportunity to comment if we can possibly help it. Spokesmen are available at all times of the day or night. Sometimes on a very busy day there may be too many TV or radio interviews to handle. When that happens we refer broadcasters to people with similar views to our own. In media terms, never create a vacuum because you never know who might fill it!

Journalists and broadcasters need to know they can get hold of you at short notice or you'll reply quickly to messages or requests left on voicemail. If they think you're going to be unreliable or too difficult to get hold of they will soon stop calling.

Producers will sometimes make a preliminary call to see what you have to say on a specific issue. They will also seek out other options so if you're monosyllabic, morose or just plain grumpy, don't expect them to call back unless they're truly desperate.

As well as the UK media we also do our best to accommodate overseas media, hence you'll occasionally find me in my pyjamas in the middle of the night waiting to do an interview with a radio station in Hong Kong or wherever.

A former director of the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association told me he once did an interview whilst sitting entirely naked on the balcony of his holiday home in Spain. Too much information!

Local radio
It's easy to dismiss the value and importance of local radio. The first interview I ever did for Forest was with BBC Radio Leicester. I was booked 48 hours in advance and I remember being extremely nervous. It went OK but doing that and other local radio stations before I went on national radio a few weeks later was extremely useful.

Nevertheless I've come across a surprising number people who sneer at the prospect of doing local radio. Perhaps they think it's beneath them. If however you're starting a new campaign local radio is a great way to establish a profile. I imagine the BBC has a database of spokesmen or 'experts' on thousands of subjects so the trick is to get on that database as soon as possible. Local radio is a passport to national radio and even television and to ignore it is seriously short-sighted.

It's worth adding that local radio stations love to feature someone from their area. Likewise local newspapers. There are some stations that insist on having someone local so make the most of the regional media, wherever you are. They could be your biggest ally.

There is also a tendency among some lobby groups to decline or ignore requests for interviews with student broadcasters because they think it's a waste of time. It may not be a priority but if you're new to all this it's silly to reject the opportunity to gain relevant experience.

It rarely takes more than a few minutes so why not be helpful to an aspiring journalist or broadcaster? Very occasionally I've had a call a year or two later. "Hello, Simon, remember me? I'm now working for the BBC. Can we interview you ...?" It costs nothing to give a quote or a soundbite to anyone who asks. Why discriminate?

Press releases
If there's one skill that needs to be learned sooner rather than later it's the ability to write a half decent press release. Press releases come in many styles and it's not for me to say which is the best, but the style I was taught when I worked in public relations was to write it like a genuine news report with short, punchy quotes and a headline that says exactly what's in the tin.

There's a temptation to make press releases far too long by including too many long-winded comments. Less is more and direct quotes should be short and to the point because if you're responding to something it's rare you'll get more than three or four sentences, usually less.

There's another problem with verbose quotes. You have no control over the comment they'll use. You may find journalists will ignore the sentence or paragraph you really wanted them to use in favour of something that, out of context, makes you sound a bit mad.

Also, when you're giving a quote, even in writing, make it sound like spoken English. I've seen thousands of press releases where I've thought, "No-one speaks like that." If a journalist thinks the same there's less chance of your quote being used and if it is you'll just sound odd. Likewise you can always tell a press release that's been written or approved by lawyers – the quotes sound like something a robot would say.

Another tip. If you're responding to a study or campaign launch ask for a copy of the press release you're being asked to react to (if there is one). If you don't you could find your comments aren't relevant to the way it's being reported. Press releases are frequently spun to produce something that is far more newsworthy than what lies behind them so seeing the press release can make a huge difference to the way you respond. Get it wrong and your response will be deemed irrelevant to the story and won't be used.

Standard press releases aren't to every journalist's taste. Sometimes they want a quote that's unique to them. Also, if they're in a hurry and only want a sentence to complete their report ahead of a fast approaching deadline, they won't want to wait while you laboriously craft a press release for general consumption.

Beware however the snatched phone call in which you gabble a hasty response to a variety of quick-fire questions. The more you talk the more chance there is of saying something indiscreet or off message. The comment journalists or broadcasters use may not be the soundbite you intended them to use. If you want greater control over what is published or broadcast it's best to email a short quote.

Tone is quite subjective but I don't think Forest would have survived as long as we have if our spokesmen had been overly aggressive or confrontational. Some people think we're too soft but I disagree. We're usually combative and passionate but we try not to come across as one-eyed or humourless. We work hard to avoid language and demeanour that makes us look and sound like cranks, loonies or worse. The aim is to sound sane, sensible and completely normal.

On the radio a few years ago I heard a 'pro-smoking' (sic) caller almost come to blows with a leading tobacco control campaigner. At one point it sounded like the former was threatening to fight the latter. As Ukip can confirm, such 'scuffles' are immensely entertaining to the wider public but they do nothing to enhance your credibility.

Media contacts
There's no point sending press releases to all and sundry. They should be targeted so you need to build a contact list. There are companies that have relevant databases that are updated regularly but they can cost several thousand pounds to subscribe to each year.

The cheapest option is to develop your own database and it's not rocket science. Monitor the media, note all the relevant editors and correspondents and get their contact details. Create a spreadsheet and you have the beginnings of a media contacts list.

Television and radio can be a bit more time consuming. Basically you have to make a list of the relevant news or magazine programmes and find out the names of editors and producers and their email addresses. Producers (especially the junior ones) change or rotate quite a lot (ditto researchers) so you have to keep on top of the list to make sure your information is up-to-date.

Newspaper columnists should be targeted too. Likewise journalists and bloggers who write about your issue online. Anyone, in fact, who writes about smoking or vaping, positively or negatively. Add them to your contacts list.

Persistence and communication
It's easy to lose motivation if you think you're being ignored. Don't lose heart. They may not be aware you even exist. Press releases from unknown email addresses can be swallowed up by spam filters and firewalls.

Persist. Call one or two journalists on your contacts list and ask them why they're not reporting your comments. Put them on the spot, politely of course. You're not at war with them. Treat them as a potential friend not your enemy (see below).

After you've spoken to them follow up with an email or letter explaining who you are and what you do. Thereafter, in addition to press releases, send them an occasional newsletter. And make it easy for them to contact you. The key thing is communication.

That said, don't rely on one individual acting on your press release, even if you've developed a good relationship. He or she may be on holiday, out of the office or working on another story. Always send press releases to the news desk and at least one other named journalist on the same publication.

Rapid response
It's rare to be given much time to respond to a news story. Journalists will want either an immediate response (because they're working on their report that very minute) or they'll want it within the hour, and sooner rather than later.

I know of one organisation that set up a 'rapid response unit' to react to relevant stories. Unfortunately their definition of 'rapid' was 48 hours which was an improvement on previous practice but if you delay even a few hours the horse has usually bolted.

In my experience embargoes don't make much difference because journalists rarely give you the benefit of that extra time, especially if they have what they think is an exclusive. They may be worried you'll break the embargo or you'll leak it to another journalist. The result is much the same as a breaking news story. You'll be contacted at the last possible moment and you'll be expected to give a response as soon as possible, usually within the hour.

Sometimes it's necessary to buy a little time to consider your response. If you're not immediately sure what you want to say tell them you'll call them back in five, ten or 15 minutes. You can then give a more considered response. Don't allow yourself to be rushed into saying something off the top of your head. Sometimes it's best to email your quote. Then it's in black and white exactly as you want it, although they may edit it if it's too long so keep it short.

I don't wish to blacken the name of any journalist but be careful, especially if you're dealing with a student or a young trainee working on a local newspaper. Often their shorthand is not, how shall I put it, up to scratch (if they have that skill at all) and you can be misquoted, sometimes quite badly. That can happen with more experienced journalists too so, when in doubt, send a written quote. Or ask them to read out the quote they have just scribbled down. Don't complain after your mangled response has appeared in print because by then it will be too late.

Preparing for an interview
This may sound obvious but some people don't prepare properly for interviews. Despite years of experience I'm not immune to this either. For example, there have been occasions when I've blithely agreed to do an interview without asking what they want me to talk about. Live on air I've then been asked questions I wasn't prepared for. I've muddled my way through but it's not been a comfortable experience.

I've also agreed to do interviews at short notice on subjects I knew relatively little about at the time and almost come a cropper. On one occasion, ironically, I was saved by Clive Bates, the former director of ASH (although he didn't know it). It was a few years ago and we were talking about e-cigarettes when the presenter suddenly asked me to explain exactly how they worked and how much they cost. There was a short silence while my brain stood still. Thankfully Clive stepped in with the answers. (Don't worry, I know now!)

That (and another interview on food) taught me never to give an interview without being reasonably well briefed on the subject in advance. It may sound obvious but over-confidence or failure to do homework trips everyone up eventually.

Media training
It's not essential but if you have no experience of being interviewed on TV or radio it's worth considering some professional media training. That includes everything from the way you respond to questions on specific issues to the way you look and the clothes you wear.

Personally I find media training quite stressful – more stressful, in fact, than genuine interviews – but I would recommend it because it does teach you some useful lessons including some pretty basic stuff that should be obvious but isn't.

For example, always check in advance the length of time you will be on air and whether it's live or recorded. If you're being recorded they may only want a 20 second soundbite to drop into a news bulletin. Alternatively it could be anything between two and eight minutes. The way you give a soundbite or a longer interview is completely different so check in advance.

Where possible, if it's a three-way discussion that includes the presenter and an opponent, try and get to the studio where the programme is being broadcast. It makes a big difference if you're in the same studio as the presenter because you have that all important eye contact and there's usually a bit more chemistry between you and the presenter (unless it's the Today programme!). That said, I quite like working from a 'remote' studio because you can have one or two notes in front of you which I find quite helpful. They offer a safety net if your mind momentarily goes blank.

Most important, have a clear idea what it is you want to say – two or three bullet points, no more. You don't want to sound like a robot and keep repeating yourself, nor should you ignore specific questions, but it's important not to babble or divert too far from your principal message. Go with the flow of the interview but by the end it should be clear what your basic message is so don't complicate things by going off on too many tangents - and don't be afraid to repeat yourself. It's an interview not a conversation.

On a more trivial note, one tip I was taught many years ago is to have one of those compact make up kits in your pocket when you go to a TV studio. If there's no make up person available you can then disguise that glistening forehead and any other imperfections! Needless to say I've rarely acted on this extremely useful advice because, being British, I'm far too embarrassed to go into a shop and buy make-up for myself.

Believe it or not I once spent 30 minutes in a branch of Boots close to Broadcasting House in London plucking up courage to approach the make-up counter. Nevertheless, speaking as a balding, middle-aged man, I can vouch for the fact that wearing make up gives you much more confidence in your appearance. If I could wear make-up every day outside a TV studio I would!

Make friends not enemies
I know what it is to metaphorically bang your head against a brick wall. It's incredibly frustrating when reports are published that appear one-sided, factually incorrect or both. I've experienced this for many, many years. No-one, I believe, has more experience of the futility of engaging with certain journalists who are deaf to the likes of you and me. Nevertheless it must be done and my advice is that abusing individual journalists, often directly, on social media is wholly counter-productive.

Yes, it will make them aware of the extent of your anger and frustration but you can do that privately. It makes little sense to set the dogs on them, which is effectively what you're doing by encouraging others to steam in with similar comments of their own. Human nature is such that if people feel they are being bullied by a mob they will react negatively. The idea that they will suddenly choose to see your point of view is naive.

Journalists have a job to do. According to the late great Ian Wooldridge, a famous sports writer with the Daily Mail, the advice he received as a young journalist faced with a blank sheet of paper was, "It doesn't matter what you write, just get it written." I suspect that today's journalists are under even more pressure than they were in Wooldridge's day, much of which was spent in the pub. To feed the ravenous online beast they may be expected to write several stories a day which is why press releases (notably those issued by public health) are often published almost verbatim with little or no alternative comment or analysis.

I'm not saying it's right that journalists don't check the facts or chase contrary viewpoints but it's no use taking it out on individual correspondents. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the report that offended the vaping community earlier this year, for example, some of the subsequent attacks on the Daily Telegraph's science editor Sarah Knapton were deplorable.

A couple of years ago I took issue with a health correspondent at the Press Association, which is hugely influential in determining media coverage in both the national and local media. If the PA quotes you there's a far greater chance your comments will appear in the print and broadcast media which rely on PA reports for many of their own stories.

Having enjoyed a fairly good relationship with the PA's previous health correspondent who frequently called Forest to ask for a comment on smoking-related issues, I heard nothing from her youthful successor. I eventually called her and my complaint seemed to surprise her. According to her the onus was on Forest to contact her with a comment, not the other way around.

It demonstrates just how far journalism has changed that journalists no longer consider it to be their job to actively contact third parties for comments and quotes. Of course we send the PA our press releases when we are alerted to a story or have one of our own. The problem is, Forest isn't on the tobacco control industry's mailing list so when ASH, Cancer Research, Public Health England or the Department of Health issue a press release we're often unaware of it until a journalist contacts us for a response.

If no-one alerts us in advance we can't respond until the story has appeared in print or online by which time it's usually too late to do anything about it, although I have been known to call the BBC News night editor to ask that they add a quote from Forest to a one-sided online report. More often than not he or she will do this with very good grace. Why the actual correspondent couldn't have done this in the first place I really don't know but the only way to overcome such bias is persistence and communication (see above). It is however an ongoing battle.

New story angles
The media gets bored with a story or issue and understandably so. Readers want something new so unless you come up with a new angle or new information journalists move on. This happened with the smoking ban and, more recently, plain packaging. For a year or two we engaged quite successfully with the media on standardised packs. By coming up with a series of arguments and initiatives we kept journalists and broadcasters interested. (The opposition was doing the same thing, of course.) By the time our campaign entered its third year journalists were saying, "We've heard all the arguments, for and against. Do you have anything new?"

We hit the same barrier a decade ago with the smoking ban and the 'debate' about passive smoking. After a while, with no new studies on the alleged effects of secondhand smoke, and the smoking ban a done deal, the media lost interest because, in the opinion of experienced news editors, there was nothing new to report.

Vaping advocates have a huge advantage in this respect because e-cigarettes are an evolving product and new studies and guidelines are coming out all the time so the media has a lot to work with. In a few years however it won't be enough to simply argue the pros and cons of vaping. The media will want a new angle to report so make the most of the current wave of interest.

Forward planning
Plan your media operation in advance. What are the forthcoming pegs you can hang a story on? This year, for example, marked the tenth anniversary of the smoking ban in Scotland. We planned ahead, commissioned an opinion poll on separate smoking rooms (a majority of people in Scotland would allow them), distributed the results to the Scottish media, and got widespread coverage.

As I explained in 'New story angles' (above) it wouldn't have been enough to simply argue against the smoking ban. That would have seen as repeating a debate held ten years previously. We had to come up with something new and topical. And we did, with some success.

Now we are planning for 2017. Next year England, Wales and Northern Ireland will 'celebrate' the tenth anniversary of the smoking ban in those countries. Another milestone is May 20 when all branded cigarette packs and tobacco pouches will finally disappear from the nation's shelves. After that it will be illegal to sell a branded pack or pouch.

On the same day, thanks to the EU's Tobacco Products Directive, all smaller packs and pouches will also disappear (if they haven't done so already). These and other milestones are highlighted in our calendar. So the message is, plan ahead.

It sounds obvious but don't be late for an interview! I always give myself plenty of time and you'll often find me sitting in a studio car park or nearby cafe at least 30 minutes ahead of schedule. This is because of one specific incident a long time ago when I was booked to appear on Newsnight Scotland which is broadcast from the BBC Scotland studios in Glasgow.

I'd already been in Glasgow that day but come the evening I was in Edinburgh where Forest was hosting a drinks reception at the Oxygen Bar (geddit?) near the Royal Mile. The party finished at 9.00 and I set off to drive to the BBC in Glasgow where I was due on set at 10.30. Unfortunately I got hopelessly lost and ended up driving through the Clyde tunnel. Not only was I on the wrong side of the river, I had no idea where I was or where I was going. In a bit of a panic I leapt out of the car, flagged down a passing taxi and pleaded with the driver to escort me to the BBC while I followed in my own car.

We got there with seconds to spare and moments later I was on live TV. I never want to go through that again! In an interesting quirk, however, I think it was one of my better television performances because I was so relieved to have got there and there wasn't time to sit around over-thinking what I wanted to say.

Get an iPhone
A bane of modern life are all those radio interviews and phone-ins that rely on the use of mobile phones. The reception is often poor and you can barely hear what the person is saying. Now more and more radio stations are asking, "Do you have Facetime or Skype?" Alternatively, if they want to record an interview, they'll ask you to use the Voice Memos app on your iPhone and you can send them a digital file. The point is, Facetime, Skype and digital files provide far greater clarity so if you're planning to do any radio interviews my advice is ... get an iPhone!

And finally ...
Some people take to the media like ducks to water without training or anything else. Some are natural interviewees in a way that I'm not but ego and vanity sometimes come before a fall and I've seen and heard several people crash and burn, which is not a pretty sight. My own worst moments tend to happen when I'm over-confident or I've done a series of back-to-back interviews and think I've got the subject nailed. I haven't.

Some people's egos propel them towards national TV and radio like a moth to a flame but they're not prepared to do the hard graft – the more mundane work like writing and distributing press releases, appearing on local radio late at night or early in the morning, developing contacts with journalists and broadcasters, chasing night editors to find out why a quote or story hasn't appeared. Instead it's so much easier to tweet a vicious comment about a perceived enemy in the media and enjoy all the plaudits and acclaim from sycophantic fellow travellers.

Anyway, these are a few thoughts jotted down for a group of vapers who asked for some advice. There's a lot more that could be said in a more formal style so please don't consider this to be a definitive guide. It's far short of that.

Ultimately media relations isn't an exact science. Like most things it's a combination of hard work and persistence plus a touch of luck. There are skills involved – some of which come naturally, some of which can be learned – but the most important ingredient is common sense. Without that you're seriously compromised.

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Reader Comments (5)

Immensely useful Simon, thanks.

Sunday, October 9, 2016 at 10:26 | Unregistered CommenterLiam Bryan

I can only agree with what you have said. I tend to write down 6 or 7 bullet points on the ubiquitous back of a fag packet that I can talk around, and have instant answers ready.

Indeed local radio is the building blocks. I do about one interview a week and pleased to say that I have covered more than smoking. I am down as the unapologetic libertarian and have covered alcohol, sugar, electronic cigarettes, Page 3, prostitution, drugs, the Chinese dog eating festival (yes you read that right) and through my writing for Breitbart immigration and Muslim matters.

As they say, one minute you are the rooster and the next the feather duster. I am sure someone different will be flavour of the month and get the call in the future.

My two favourite interviews were ITV this morning with Lorraine Kelly, Aled Jones and Dr. Hilary Jones. The second was with Lord Darzi, on the BBC World Service. The producer said the audience then was 56 million.

Sunday, October 9, 2016 at 10:39 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Atherton

These days trainees are unlikely to get into the newsroom without 100 wpm shorthand. Hence I work extremely hard to bring them up to industry standard before they leave university in search of their first job.

The days when editors would take on sn enthusiastic trainee without shorthand have gone. Shorthand is now the skill that
decides from a list of candidates who will get the job

Sunday, October 9, 2016 at 13:38 | Unregistered Commenterpat nurse

Impressive Simon. As someone who's done a few interviews myself, I would add: remember that you are not honour-bound, legally-bound, or in any way bound, to give specific answers to every specific question; make sure you say what you want to say regardless of what they ask. Don't blatantly ignore the questions, but, there are many possible ways to answer along the lines of: "Yes (or no), BUT, the real issue is . . . "

Sunday, October 9, 2016 at 16:35 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Jackson

Congratulations, if I may say so: first class advice - and free; why do we do it? From local newspaper reporting to Fleet Street and Westminster sub-editing I spent my working life in journalism, much of it at the PA. After retirement with redundancy 20-odd years ago - there was a lot of that at the time - I freelanced for various organisations, all of them charities, writing press releases and trying to build up contacts with the media. I rarely made the nationals but got a great response from the local and regional press. My approach was essentially to present the story as real news - when and if it was - and eschew the PR flam which I had spent years filleting out of the releases I received in my former employment. But it's a cruel business. I learned that contacts, social and professional, are much more useful than the most expert writing and presentation. Re local papers I recall struggling hard to get an interview on a Welsh radio programme for one of the people I was working for; there was a Welsh angle at the time. I clinched it. Told him about it and he missed the interview. When I asked him about that he said: 'It would have been a very small dividend'. Grrr. Nice bloke though.

Sunday, October 9, 2016 at 17:15 | Unregistered CommenterNorman Brand

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