While Brexit dominates the news with almost wall-to-wall coverage, it can be hard to find examples of spokespeople discussing anything else.
But they are still happening and one captured my attention yesterday.
If you tuned into Radio 4’s Today programme you might have thought you were listening to a deflated spokesperson discussing a particularly damaging set of financial results.
You probably would not believe the spokesperson was from a company which had reported a 10 per cent leap in like-for-like sales in the UK and a 47 percent surge in revenues across the group.
JD Sports executive chairman Peter Cowgill gave the impression of doing the interview very reluctantly, adopting a downbeat tone, despite having a positive story to discuss and some pretty gentle questions.
Reporter: “Other retailers are struggling; you are having a record time. Why?”
Mr Cowgill: “I believe that we make a relevant offer to our target consumer and I think we communicate that very well in a good environment and therefore I think the consumer experience is strong.
Reporter: “But lots of retailers say exactly that. We’ve had the boss of Marks & Spencer and John Lewis coming in and talking about being online, retail theatre, great shopping experience. They all say the same thing but you actually produce the results.”
Mr Cowgill: “I think there are degrees of consumer experience and I happen to think JD sits in the top tier of that.”
Now, you need to listen to the interview to fully appreciate the tone and you can do that by clicking here and forwarding to 1hr 24 minutes and 40 seconds.
But you can see from the transcript that the responses are short and don’t add anything of value to the story, even though they are pretty much an invitation to talk about what the company is doing well.
On our media training courses, we always stress the importance of examples. And some examples here of what the sports retailer is doing differently to achieve its success would not only make the answers a better length but also bring the content to life.
The strongest interviews are those where a spokesperson is prepared to go beyond what has been said in a press release or in pre-approved lines to take and provide some fresh insight.
Perhaps the other reason Mr Cowgill appeared reluctant was because he also sounded scripted – there were lots of mentions of ‘consumer experience’ and ‘relevant offer’, which are ultimately pretty meaningless and do not help to create the natural-sounding conversation a spokesperson should strive for.
PR team: 'Just keep saying "relevant offer" and "consumer experience". You'll be fine.'— Neil Armstrong (@_neilarmstrong) September 10, 2019
Cowgill: 'I'm really not...'
PR team: 'YOU'LL BE FINE!'#R4Today
As well as the Radio 4 interview, I also caught Mr Cowgill’s interview on Good Morning Scotland – and it was a similar story there.
Asked there how his company was bucking the high street slump, he said: “I think we offer a great consumer experience in-store and I also think we provide a relevant offering, in terms of the best product, to our target consumer and I think we communicate it very well.”
We can only assume that good communication does not extend to media interview performances.
Of course, I am only surmising that Mr Cowgill was reluctant to do these interviews.
But it does raise the questions of how those who may be reluctant to appear in front of journalists can be encouraged to produce engaging interviews.
Here are a few tips:
The best way to ensure a spokesperson feels comfortable and confident about taking part in a media interview is to make sure they are properly prepared and know what to expect.
Explain how you will work with them not just on messaging but also on identifying likely questions, particularly the negative ones, and how they should respond.
Make sure they know who the journalist is they will be talking to and the publication they work for.
Mock interviews can also work well in advance, particularly with strong and honest feedback about what went well and what needs to be improved.
Some spokespeople – particularly the more senior ones - may be reluctant to give up their time for media interviews and even question the value of doing them.
You may, for example, have encountered the phrase ‘can’t they just use what is in the press release?’
The key in these cases is to show them both the value to the organisation and their careers of accepting interview requests.
Show them what rival companies are doing in the media and how it is helping to ensure its messages and story are heard by a wider audience.
Also outline how joining in the conversation with engaging, entertaining interviews, delivered with clarity and confidence, will ensure they are viewed as an expert and thought leader in their field.
Loosen the noose on your messaging
Sometimes spokespeople feel uncomfortable because messaging uses language they may not be comfortable using.
Empowering and encouraging them to use their own words (within corporate guidelines), anecdotes and examples will not only increase their confidence but also help bring messages to life.
We regularly find some of our clients come back to us after media training courses to help them develop and fine-tune messages so that spokespeople have more confidence in what they are being asked to deliver.
It’s not about talking to journalists
It is important reluctant spokespeople understand and remember interviews are ultimately not about talking to a journalist and they are actually about speaking to customers.
Carrying out regular interviews will give your organisation a voice and, in the case of television interviews, a face.
A newspaper article, TV spot or radio interview can generate huge, entirely free publicity with your organisation’s views and opinions seen and heard by millions.
The best way to improve the confidence of spokespeople is through realistic media training which exposes them to current working journalists in a safe environment.
This will give them the skills and opportunity to practice controlling messages and honing messages.
If your spokesperson has had training before, it is worth remembering the media world and the techniques and methods used by journalists changes quickly and it is important to keep pace with these developments.
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.