Avoid eye contact, use soundbites, admit nothing

Executives train to deal with the media

Originally published in The Financial Times Magazine

When training executives to get the better of journalists, Tim Arnold employs an affable, witty manner that blunts the sharpness of his cynical teachings.

“Dealing with the press is a Faustian pact,” he says to today’s anxious trainees, as he stands before a flip chart. “The reporter wants a story, and you want to get your point across.

“When you meet a journalist, you’ve got to be steely about your objectives. It’s about winning. Your mindset – but only your mindset – should be: ‘Oy, Thickie, come here and listen.’ But there’s a social veneer on top of that. Before you start, you tell the reporter that you loved their story about… plastic hip joints.”

When Arnold says this, five accountants burst into relieved laughter.

They’re representatives of Howard Schultz & Associates, a Bedfordshire-based firm which carries out audits for clients that include major retailers; and media virgins, hoping to build up their public profile by appearing as retail experts on TV and radio.

“The Wickes scandal would have been a good opportunity for us be interviewed,” says Stephen Cheliotis, Howard Schultz’s external PR consultant. “At the moment, they [the news channels] always call some guy from Verdict to talk about retail. We want to get in there.”

Exposure on TV and radio, says Cheliotis, is much more credible than in newspapers. “For instance, I was trying to see a particular client for several months, and the day after I was interviewed on CNN that particular client came up to me at a party.”

Howard Schultz’s managing director, John Holdstock, believes broadcast media possess another attraction: “Our fear is that you have to watch [print] journalists. They don’t report what you tell them. But TV doesn’t lie. TV reporting has to be accurate.”

Avoiding the traps

“As business news gets more and more airtime,” argues the website of Media Master, the training company which has brought Arnold and Howard Schultz together, “you need to make sure you’re getting the right corporate message across. The only way to do this is to make sure your staff know how avoid the usual journalistic traps. We can help [your staff] to stay calm in the face of hostile questioning and a barrage of microphones.”

Today, for a fee of £950 per person (plus VAT), the executives will acquire experience of radio and TV interviews – with a real anchorman, from a leading news broadcaster, asking the questions (not Arnold but another man).

Before the radio interviews begin, some general advice from Arnold. “In your jobs,” he says, “you are used to answering questions from clients. But journalists are not clients. They don’t pay your wages. So you’re in charge. Find out beforehand: will you be alone, or confronted [by somebody putting the opposite view]? And ask yourself, What’s in it for me?”

[Hey – thanks for reading so far. To be completely transparent, this story is from my archive. It’s from the olden days, before companies had their own video channels on YouTube etc. Just wanted to be clear about that…]