John-Paul Flintoff

Avoid eye contact, use soundbites, admit nothing

Executives train to deal with the media

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.”

“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?”

For Howard Schultz, the purpose of any interview is to deliver a predetermined message to a target audience. “Your ‘core statement’ is what New Labour calls the message,” says Arnold. “If you wrap it up in a snappy phrase” – a soundbite – “it will be impossible for the journalist to leave it out… You can’t buy advertising on the BBC, but you can be interviewed there.”

Even though they’re targeting finance directors, the interviewees must always address themselves to an imaginary viewer, whom Arnold characterises thus: “Her name’s Doreen. She’s 55 years old, and she doesn’t work in the higher echelons of business.”

Now the men decide what core statement they wish to put across in their radio interviews. Nigel Dickinson, regional audit manager, wishes to talk about this year’s Ryder Cup, and more generally about the wonderful world of golf. Ian Mulgrew, business development director, will criticise banks for overcharging. Mike Jennings, head of property, wants to talk about companies outsourcing property departments. Arnold warns him: “Even with a subject like that, you have to put it across in a Doreen-friendly way, even if you’re talking on Bloomberg, because then it can be picked up and used by another channel.”

First into the radio studio is Dickinson, who faintly resembles Michael Portillo. He puts on his “cans” (headphones) and rests his hands on his lap, but you can tell he’s nervous because he rocks from side to side in his chair and jiggles his feet. Standing motionless beside him, I can hear only Dickinson’s side of the interview, which starts when a green light comes on. After saying good morning, Dickinson continues thus: “You will be aware that this summer sees the Ryder Cup… well, TV audiences will show that you are in a minority… degree of competition, camaraderie, good spirit… the game encompasses all walks of life… well, no, the issue is… making it a mass market game but maintaining the standards… that was a one off, a freak event… Thank you.”

Before the next man arrives, I quit the little studio and go looking for the interviewer who has made such short work of Dickinson. I find him in a larger room, shuffling papers. I can’t give you a detailed description, or tell you his name is because he insists on anonymity (of which more shortly).

Sitting beside him is Ralston Humble, a director of the training company, Media Master, who also owns and operates these studios and production facilities. Operating various switches, Humble speaks into a mic. “It’s going to go quiet in your cans. When you see the green light, you’re on air.” The interview begins with The Interviewer describing accountants as parasites. I can’t hear the answer, but whatever it is, it makes Humble snort with amusement. Then The Interviewer switches tack, to a bullying diatribe about supermarket profits. Again, I can’t hear the response, but I don’t imagine that the core statement is getting much of an airing.

Afterwards, I ask The Interviewer why he was so robust. “The subject [chosen by the executive] was utterly boring, so I had to search for something more interesting.” Is the interview a search for information, then, or entertainment? “It’s both a search for information and entertainment.”

The Interviewer, a senior figure UK newscasting, takes a substantial fee for his part in the Media Master course. It seems to me that there is a conflict of interest. And not only to me. Phil Harding, the controller of editorial policy at the BBC, says: “We think it’s an important part of the job of the media to put forward questions on behalf of our audience, and to call to account those in authority. We don’t think it’s our job – or that of our staff – to train people to avoid answering questions.”

But The Interviewer doesn’t work for the BBC, and says he sees no conflict (though his desire for anonymity, starkly contrasted with the Tim Arnold’s frank cynicism, belies this): “This [training] does make our jobs easier,” he says. “There is nothing worse than going out to do a live interview with someone, and [finding that] they’re shit [at performing]. News is such a mass-market, and these guys have to know how to use the media to their advantage. Politicians are trained – so why not company executives?”

So saying, he gets ready to destroy the next man from Howard Schultz. Afterwards, we regroup to hear the tapes and Arnold’s analysis. Not everybody has done badly. Mike Jennings manages to get in a core statement in 20 seconds – and later a couple more. Arnold, generous with praise, is impressed.

A mistake most men make is to repeat allegations posed by The Interviewer. “If you have been in sales, you’ll know that ‘referring back’ is a good idea” – that is, repeating the words used by your interlocutor. “In TV, the opposite applies.” When John Moulton of Alchemy was interviewed about the takeover of Rover, says Arnold, he answered a question with the words, “We are not asset strippers.” Lifted out of context, those words were broadcast at the top of the news bulletins, even before the opening credits. “I would rather you stutter than repeat an allegation,” says Arnold.

“And don’t use the presenter’s name, because this gets in the way of the soundbite, making it harder to use in other contexts, and on other programmes.”

Apropos of nothing, Arnold describes the pregnant pause and lowered voice as “very cheap tricks”. Having absorbed so much of Arnold’s cynicism, the executives seem unsure whether to take this disparaging comment at face value. For clarification, one asks: “But are they tricks that we should employ?”

Again and again, the interviews close with a curtly dismissive comment that allows no response – known in the trade as a deathblow. “The way to get round that,” says Arnold, “is to repeat the core statement. If the producers then lower the sound levels, that comes across very badly [for them] because they’re effectively cutting you off.”

During lunch – consisting of sandwiches and soft drinks – Arnold introduces the question of body language, which did not matter in the radio interview but is vastly important on TV. Eyeballing Mulgrew fiercely, Arnold asks the group: “How can you look at someone – like this – without it starting to feel uncomfortable?” Nobody says anything, so Mulgrew, instinctively, supplies the answer by smiling. But that’s not always possible. “What if you are the chairman of Railtrack and there have been a lot of deaths? You can’t smile on TV. And you can’t look down, either, because that looks shifty.”

The solution is breathtaking: instead of allowing yourself to be intimidated by an interviewer’s blazing eyes, simply stare at the space just above his or her eyebrows. However intense the grimace, you will experience no discomfort at all.

Arnold also suggests a way to intimidate the journalist. “Take a tape recorder with you and put it down out of sight of the cameras. That’s like saying, ‘You mess with me, and I’ll take this to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.’”

In the TV studio, sitting alongside Jennings, The Interviewer says, “A few words for level please, Mike,” then while Jennings burbles flips open a folding mirror and briskly touches up his make up with a sponge. While doing this, he nods every so often, presumably in response to instructions coming through his earpiece. He stows his kit, and the music starts up. “Hello, and welcome back. We’re joined by Mike Jennings… “ Again, Jennings starts well with his core statement, but he sounds slightly robotic. The Interviewer, not a bit interested, changes the subject to snarl reproachfully about ongoing problems at Marks & Spencer. Jennings is thrown, but manages to plug Howard Schultz before the music cuts him off.

Back with the others, I watch Mulgrew on the monitors. Briefly, the sound fails. But Arnold says: “Look at this man – excellent posture! He’s a natural. Isn’t he the kind of chap you could take home to your mother? You believe him, even without hearing a word.”

Holdstock, by contrast, seems overly defensive. When The Interviewer mentions one of Robert Maxwell’s crimes, Holdstock says, “Maxwell has not been tried for this… “ to which The Interviewer replies, “So, you don’t think Maxwell was a crook?” From the gallery comes raucous laughter, and when Holdstock rejoins his colleagues Dickinson tells him Bennett has promoted Mulgrew to managing director in his absence.

The last exercise concerns crisis management – a much trickier discipline than appearing as a retail expert. Unless handled correctly, crisis management can make a bad situation worse. There are three rules. One, express concern. Two, promise action. Three, avoid any expression of liability. To show how this works, Arnold assumes the role of David Mellor, posing with his family after details of his adultery have appeared in the press. Then he pretends to be the head of Railtrack following the crash at Hatfield. Each time, he concedes nothing to our tough questioning. His evasions are deeply frustrating, but brilliantly executed.

Seemingly off the top of his head, Arnold invents a crisis for the accountants: “A director at your company, Alfred Smallbone, 55, has failed to turn up at work, and so has Tracy Goodlegs, a 17-year-old New Deal trainee. The full story has appeared in this morning’s Daily Mail. Tracy’s mother has called for them to return, and Alfred’s wife has said that he was under a lot of pressure at work. Money has gone missing, and the Fraud Squad has raided your office.”

The group divides into pairs, and steps outside to be “doorstepped”. First up are Holdstock and Bennett. In the drive from the car park to the road, Arnold accosts them with a camera crew (the anonymous Interviewer, by this time, has gone home in his silver sports car). Faced with this unpleasantness, the executives keep walking, with Holdstock seeming to hide behind Bennett. This doesn’t look good, so they do it again. This time they stop to talk, but they make a mess of their retreat.

In these circumstances, Arnold says, journalists will continue to ask difficult questions until you disappeared from view. The solution is to use the “broken record” technique: repeat the same comments again and again. Another strategy is to say, “I’ve helped you as much as I can”, or to use “insider” jargon – such as referring journalists to your press office – which will never be broadcast.

The third and final time, it goes much better. Bennett marches boldly towards the camera crew and says, “Gentlemen, good afternoon to you. And you are?” Having received a reply, he says: “This is our managing director, John Holdstock, J-O-H-N, H-O-L-D-S-T-O-C-K. And I am Peter Bennett, B-E-double-N-E-double-T, the chairman. Thank you for coming. We can give you a couple of minutes.” First, he expresses concern for Smallbone and Goodlegs, then he promises an enquiry into the missing funds. “Thank you, gentlemen,” he says finally. “We promised you two minutes… “ and the pair walk on. For a hefty fee, Bennett and Holdstock have been transformed in a few hours into precisely the type of slick interviewees least likely honestly to answer a journalist’s questions.



GET YOUR MESSAGE ACROSS

Whatever question The Interviewer asks, ignore it. Reply first with one of the blocking phrases below, followed by any link phrase, and finish by saying whatever it is you wanted to say in the first place.

Blocking phrases: No, not at all… I really can’t agree… Absolutely not… Nothing could be further from the truth… I don’t agree with the assumption that underlies your question…

Link phrases: Lets look at it from this point of view… My priority is… Let me stress… The important thing is that… My duty is…

Core statement: A soundbite consisting of roughly 30 words, which (at the average speed of three words a second) fills ten seconds of airtime. Can usually be expressed in a variety of ways, and delivered several times in the course of the interview.

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