Home Archive December 2009 Glad tidings
Friday, 11 December 2009 16:40

Positive messages might seem like they’d sell themselves, but media trainers believe they can help companies emerging from the recession deliver good news with sensitivity and finesse: Neil Gibbons reports

It’s been boom time for media trainers. When corporations have to dispense bad tidings – and there’s been no shortage over the last 18 months – they turn to experts who can train them to package and deliver the news in a palatable way.

Last December, in the guts of the credit crunch, more than one media trainer confided to Communicate that they’ve never had it so good. The economic malaise with its management changes, mass redundancies, profits warnings and other depressing disclosures was funnelling business their way at pace.
But what about when the green shoots of recovery begin to appear? Can media training help companies to communicate positive messages? Or does good news sell itself without any gloss?

“It is all too easy to assume that communicating good news is a simple matter,” says Andrew Leach of media training firm HarveyLeach. “In fact, you will still be facing the same constraints and restrictions as someone relating bad news – very little time, and perhaps an interviewer determined to accentuate the negative.”

In his view, a positive message doesn’t obviate the need to prepare properly: communicators must have a clear idea of what they want to say before they begin the interview. “The good news, whatever it is, must be boiled down two or three key messages,” he says. “These messages must be backed up by proof points so that, even if there is still bad news around, you can convince the audience that you are the bearer of real, demonstrable glad tidings.

“Your instinct may be simply to smile and say things are better. But that is not enough to take advantage of this opportunity. You need practice to make sure that, under pressure from the clock and the interviewer, you are still getting your messages across.”

What’s tricky, according to Magnus Carter, MD of Mentor Communications Consultancy, is that there’s less of an appetite for good news stories. But training can help organisations to spice up their story.

“The benefit of media training lies in helping clients understand their own story better, as well as how to present it,” he says. “In general terms, the media are less interested in a positive story, and it takes more skill to put it across.”

For him, good media training is about helping to test the story, test the message, and test the executive messenger. “There’s no substitute for experiential learning – learning by doing – but in a safe environment, and at the hands of real journalists but under strict rules of confidentiality,” he says.

According to Roz Morris, managing director of training agency TV News London, even the most positive stories need to be finessed by media training.
“Merely surviving an interview and getting a few facts in is not good enough – no story tells itself without hard work,” she says. “Good news can sound like bad news or smug news if the spokesperson has not tested their recipe and adjusted the ingredients to achieve the best result. Coming across as positive, professional and normal in an interview is not as easy as it looks.

“Some people will work for days on a presentation to a conference with an audience of 500 people, but still believe that five minutes preparation is enough when talking to a radio, TV or web audience of a million – or even a hundred million.”

Without media training, she says, executives can be side-tracked into talking about issues which are not to their advantage and sounding less professional than they are.

And with competition for media coverage so fierce, that lack of focus can mean a company’s message is over-looked entirely, says Sharon Francis, managing director of media training group Media First: “Even if a message is positive, if it’s delivered in wrong way or is too long or rambling a journalist won’t even use it. If they can’t grab a soundbite in first ten seconds, they’ll go elsewhere. So it’s about getting executives to plan, prepare and deliver messages in a concise way.”

The Public Relations Consultants Association runs a suite of media training courses. Its director of communications Richard Ellis believes training helps companies with bullish news avoid positive navel gazing. “The important things are to help them understand why the message is positive to other stakeholders and to provide context,” he says. “The interviewee’s language, posture and energy need to reflect the message while engaging with the audience and maintaining their confidence.”

Of course, it’s not just about presentation. Catherine Cross, director of media training at communications consultancy Hill & Knowlton, counsels that a flimsy story won’t gain much traction in the media. “As a journalist I wanted to scream every time I heard a company proudly proclaim that its strategy was ‘to add value to customers’,” she says. “Are there any companies who don’t aim to do this? So we help clients identify relevant examples, illustrations and proof points to illustrate simply how the company’s strategy was actually beneficial to its customers. This ensures the messages are really robust but also that the company doesn’t come across as smug.”

That, after all, is the danger of communicating good news: straying into the realms of boastful chest-thumping. But training can help to inject sensitivity into these messages.

“If the picture it is not universally bright, and some are still suffering, it is vital that you acknowledge that,” says Andrew Harvey. “An expression of sympathy for those not enjoying good fortune will go down well. To ignore those who are still suffering will simply sound cold and uncaring.”
Carter echoes that view. “Employers may need to be mindful of the victims of recession when lauding their own survival or success,” he says, “so getting the messages just right, and testing them robustly through journalistic inquiry is even more important than usual.”

Interview checklist
Claire Southeard, managing director of TNR Communications, offers her top tips on making the most of media interviews.
• Preparation is key
• Set a Business Objective (know why you’re there)
• Picture the ideal headline if this were in a paper
•Select three key messages to support that headline
• For every message, have evidence to back it up
•Prepare human stories which make your points for you
• Establish control - ask what the first question will be
• ’Bridge’ from unhelpful questions to your messages
•Drop jargon and use language listeners can repeat
•Gesture, even on radio… it energises your voice!
TNR Communications provides media training at the Press Association