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A programme entitled ‘Britain’s Fat Fight’ may seem like a dubious starting point for a media training blog.
But this unlikely source actually provided an excellent example of the perils of turning down an interview request.
The BBC One documentary series sees Hugh Fearnley-Whittingsall turn the spotlight on popular restaurant chains and food companies and encourage them to be more open about the ingredients of the products they sell – particularly the quantities of sugar.
Part of a recent episode, which you can watch here at 34:05, focused on Kellogg’s and its refusal to standardise its cereal packaging with ‘traffic light labelling’ – a move recently adopted by its main rival Nestle.
Initially, viewers were told by Mr Fearnley-Whittingsall that the brand, known for Frosties and Cornflakes among many others, wouldn’t give an interview, then that it was ‘reconsidering’ that position, and finally that it had settled on responding through an email.
Not only did the approach it eventually settled on make the cereal giant appear incredibly defensive and secretive (not a good look for any company, let alone one producing food), but it also resulted in the somewhat farcical and embarrassing scene of Mr Fearnley-Whittingsall hanging around outside its Manchester headquarters, handing out leaflets to staff, and trying unsuccessfully to get through to its press office.
It was a sort of ‘empty-chair’ move other organisations have suffered in the past when they have turned down interview requests.
The other crucial outcome was that viewers were left not really knowing why the company would not change its labeling.
Results from our #TurnYourLightsOn poll last week - 85% of you said that clear traffic light labelling would help you make healthier choices. @NestleUKI have stepped up, but what about @KelloggsUK.... #BritainsFatFight 🚦🚦🚦 https://t.co/eBR0khpXIn— Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (@HughFW) May 2, 2018
Mr Fearnley-Whittingsall did read out part of the email it had sent as a response, but there is no doubt Kellogg’s would have got more of their messages across to the audience and been able to shape the debate more had it put someone forward for an interview.
Perhaps it was concerned the interview would be hostile, but this is a programme presented by a chef and isn’t a hard-hitting news programme fronted by the likes of Jeremy Paxman.
As a media training company it is perhaps not surprising that we would advocate the importance of accepting interview bids.
In a crisis media management situation interviews can enable organisations to appear transparent and shape the debate, while interviews on proactive subjects are a golden opportunity to showcase expertise and have views and opinions seen and heard by millions.
On the flip side, particularly during a crisis, turning down a media interview can not only cause reputational damage but also impact relationships with both the media and customers.
However, there are some situations where brands should turn down interview requests:
When you don’t have a media trained spokesperson available: Saying the wrong thing during a media interview has the potential to cause huge reputational damage. And in the digital age, it is no longer the case that what people say in an interview will be tomorrow‘s fish and chips wrapper – bad interviews now live forever online. Just look at how much criticism Diane Abbott still receives about an interview she gave during the last general election.
It is crucial organisations have a number of experienced spokespeople with recent media training available to talk to journalists, but if you really can’t get one ahead of the reporter’s deadline, the request should be turned down.
Interviews cannot be winged and a spokesperson without media training would be horribly exposed.
Bad association: If someone in your sector is in the news for the wrong reasons you could be asked to give your views.
For example the boss of a charity could have been asked to give their views on the Oxfam crisis which broke earlier this year.
But would it really be a good idea for you to go on television or radio to talk about this? You could inadvertently be linked to the negative incident in the public's eyes.
When the subject isn’t relevant: In the world of rolling 24 hour news channels sometimes journalists just need a spokesperson to talk about an issue, and the link can occasionally be a bit tenuous.
If the topic is not relevant to your organisation, there is nothing really to be gained from doing the interview.
And your spokesperson could find themselves in a position where they are discussing something they have no real expertise on or becoming embroiled in speculation, both of which could be very damaging.
Exclusive interviews: If you have already given an exclusive interview to one particular organisation you cannot set up one with a rival media outlet.
The key here though is to ensure the journalist does not completely lose interest in your organisation. Is there a different story you can offer them? Could you offer them an opportunity at a later date, perhaps a feature interview if it is a print journalist?
Bad experience: If your organisation has had bad experiences with a particular reporter, such as spokespeople being repeatedly misquoted, it could be a good option to decline the request.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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