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Prickly media – handling a hostile press

The most poisonous pens write for media outlets with credibility and reach. So grant them access to your clients but be on your guard. And beware that ‘one last question’.

By Zoe Brennan

He’s been likened to “a fairground prizefighter taking on an amateur”. Indeed, John Humphrys has claimed many scalps in his 30 years on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Most famously, the acerbic interviewer took on his own boss. George Entwistle resigned as BBC director-general just 12 hours after a gruelling encounter with Humphrys in 2012, described as the “dead man walking interview” by The Guardian. Entwistle had revealed his ignorance about a Newsnight report that wrongly implicated a Tory peer in allegations of sexual abuse.

Humphrys later said: “Once you start an interview like that, the years of doing it take over and you don’t think: ‘That is my boss.’ You just do your job. Then, when it’s over, you think: ‘Oh my God.’”

But, perhaps most cuttingly of all, Humphrys grilled former chancellor George Osborne last year, after he missed two of his three key economic targets, finally asking: “What’s a bloke got to do in your job to get the sack?”

An interview with Humphrys can make or break a career. He is not alone. Certain journalists and outlets have a Rottweiler-like reputation for aggressive questioning, dogged persistence and brutal character assassinations.

Political journalist Michael Crick, say, is notoriously direct. And then there is Jeremy Paxman, grand master of tenacious interrogation. His infamous style is perfectly exemplified by an interview with shadow home secretary Michael Howard in 1997 in which he asked the same question – “Did you threaten to overrule him?” – 12 times.

More recently, in 2012, he pilloried then junior Treasury minister Chloe Smith in a cringeworthy exchange: “You can’t even tell me when you were told what the change in policy was… You were told sometime today, clearly. Was it before lunch or after lunch?”

There are examples of prickly media in many sectors. The mere thought of The Sunday Times’ Style magazine apparently strikes terror into the heart of beauty PRs, wary that their products will be trashed with a few strokes of the keyboard. And the arrival of the critic AA Gill at a restaurant struck fear into the heart of every chef and their well-meaning comms team…

So should a PR professional ever encourage a client to engage with a killer hack, or should they be advised to run for the hills? Without a doubt, the answer is: yes, take the opportunity. Be brave. Be scared. But, above all, be prepared. For, despite the fear factor, these interviewers and outlets can actually have greater credibility than ‘softer’ alternatives. Such is their reach and clout that they often present a wonderful opportunity to showcase a client’s integrity.

As a comms professional, your role is to present your client and tell their story to their best advantage. An important point, however, is that the client must be able to be truly transparent and must tell the truth. A good journalist can sense an area of unease, and will chisel away at it.

Having worked as a political journalist at several national newspapers, and written features at The Daily Mail for a decade, I learned the art of aggressive journalism from the best in the business.

Given some thorough research, a little artful warm-up, and a sudden bombardment of difficult questions, interspersed with some long, intimidating silences, even the most resilient interview subjects eventually crack. A comms adviser can ask for copy approval in exchange for access, but these are tricky waters to navigate successfully with harder-nosed journalists or publications.

Beware the journalist who promises to deliver on this. ‘Copy approval’ suddenly becomes ‘quote approval’, with the article taking on a snide slant. I have often seen such agreements simply ‘forgotten’ before the piece goes to press. One hard-hitting ex-Sunday Times journalist tells me: “This is the mark of a naive or inexperienced PR. I would never in a million years give copy approval. Some magazines do it, but the question just flags up to me that the PR has had little contact with big-league journalism.”

Likewise, be wary of ‘off the record’ conversations. The journalist’s job is to publish your client’s secrets – take this road and you are a sheep doing deals with a wolf.

So how do you prepare a client for a difficult interview? This is where canny media training comes in. Those who ‘win’ at this game are ultra-prepared and on top of their subject.

Critically, they are not defensive. They acknowledge difficult areas or failings, and then move on to deliver their message calmly, confidently and clearly. If you are on the ropes, come back to your core message and repeat it – two can play the Paxman game.

The less defensive you are, the harder it is for an aggressive interviewer to find their mark, because this journalism is all about conflict – which, of course, makes for interesting viewing or reading.

Focus on facts. Practise reeling these out in response to difficult questions.

And a final piece of advice: it is often the last question that catches people out. I’ve lost count of my ‘Oh, one last thing’ triumphs at the end of interviews. The tape recorder is still on, and the camera still rolling. If you’re in the boxing ring, keep your guard up till the end.

Zoe Brennan is a partner at Portland Communications. During her 20 years in journalism, she was Westminster correspondent at The Sunday Times, and senior features writer at The Daily Mail

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This article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q2 2017.

Posted in Featured, Public Relations
One comment on “Prickly media – handling a hostile press
  1. Great stuff, Zoe, thanks!

    Kind regards,

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