A coherent message

At the height of the Northern Rock crisis, as news broke of the Government bailout, one high-profile commentator, Justin Urquhart-Stewart, co-founder of Seven Investment Management, had this to say about the sub-prime mortgage loans that had caused the problems in the banking sector: 'We don't know where the poison went from all these bad loans and you have to look at all these bad loans as a bit like a blancmange that's been hit very heavily by a spade and it's gone everywhere. They turn up in all sorts of strange funds and therefore we don't know who's got the losses.'

It is no wonder that Urquhart-Stewart has long been the darling of business journalists in need of a quote, when he can rattle off sound-bites as good as this at the drop of a hat. Known for his red braces, he has appeared prolifically in print articles and on television commenting on economic and investment issues.

He was at his most high-profile when he was business development director for Barclays Stockbrokers. Legend has it that his colleagues once performed an informal cost/benefit analysis of his media appearances and it was estimated that he was worth £1,000 to the firm for every minute he spent on air.

'He was a very frequent guest when I was anchoring news programmes,' says Peter Coë, managing director of media training group Media Speak and former television news presenter. 'He was a natural at speaking to the media, both print and broadcast. He knew what both the general audience and journalists wanted. It was his job to raise the profile of the business and he was enormously successful at it.

READY AND ABLE

'Most people are not naturally gifted communicators. But there are a number of people who can, through training, begin to get close.'

Media training has become increasingly popular - and more sophisticated - in recent years for a number of reasons. With a seemingly endless supply of news outlets and developments in new media, news on tap has become the norm.

'The audience expects immediate news and immediate responses,' says Blaise Hammond, director of PR agency Racepoint Group, which encourages all its clients to undergo regular media training with training group Fides Media. 'If a story breaks at 8.30am, you need a response for 9am and you need a spokesman who is very in tune with how to deliver the message.'

As a result, companies are increasingly using media training in a pre-emptive way, rather than just in response to a crisis or other particular event, such as a product launch.

'Companies are now developing a stable of runners and riders who can be brought out to deliver messages,' adds Warwick Partington, managing director of Media Training Masterclasses. 'You need to know who on the team can be wheeled out.'

This is particularly important at a time when the audience is at its most cynical and demanding. They know when someone is being less than straight, and they want to hear the message from the people in charge. Vague statements simply will not do.

'The age of spin is over,' says Partington. 'People want genuine, honest communications from people prepared to stand up and say we got it wrong and this is what we are doing about it.'

Sharon Francis, managing director of media training group Media First, adds: 'There is great pressure on companies to appear more accountable. There is a voracious appetite for news and you have to respond to even minor incidents. Reputation management is becoming such a large part of any company's communications strategy.'

It is therefore vital that spokesmen do not appear to have been trained to speak to the media, even when they have been, which means the training itself has become much more tailored and in-depth.

Michael Wadley, director of Fides Media, says: 'Media training needs to be 'invisible'. If it is painfully evident you have been trained, it can make the message seem insincere and artificial. It needs to look like a natural interview.

APPEARING NATURAL

'These days many TV viewers and radio listeners - even newspaper readers - do recognise when an interviewee is answering a question in a way that has been coached to them. '

To avoid this, many media trainers now use psychologists and voice and performance coaches as well as professional journalists who conduct simulated interviews.

Andrew Caesar-Gordon, managing director of media training group Electric Airwaves, says the industry has become very much 'professionalised' in the two to three decades it has existed in response to a need for greater sophistication. 'It is not just about how to do an interview; it is about how to exploit the media opportunity you have to deliver your messages in an interesting and compelling way.

'We have 50 journalists who are still working in the industry and who are therefore up to date with the technological changes and shifting working patterns that the media is undergoing. We also train our journalists how to teach and use our own TV studios, it is no longer enough to just have a journalist along to give a few tips in your boardroom.'

MORE THAN JUST WORDS

'Just getting a journalist along to speak is only one-third of the process,' agrees Partington. 'Good media training coaches you in the effective use of voice and non-verbal communication and how they affect the message. Whether it is a print journalist or broadcast, facial expressions are very important because they alter the tone of your voice.'

He adds that this is crucial because audiences are now very good at interpreting what they are seeing and hearing.

'I use a clip of Gordon Brown at the beginning of my media training sessions and ask Is this an effective piece of communication? And 95 per cent can come up with at least five key factors that are not effective in his delivery. This is an untrained group. This tells me we have a very sophisticated audience. They can tell if you are reading from an autocue, they see anxiety if you are breathing in the wrong place, and a whole host of other factors.'

Francis adds: 'If you have your arms folded, for instance, you will look very defensive. It is about being appropriate, looking responsible and authoritative. It is about building trust with the viewers or readers via the journalist. communicating. If you appear credible and have a consistent message, journalists will come back to you again and again.'

'There is a cynical view that media training is about how to avoid questions but I am fundamentally opposed to that view,' says Coë. 'Avoiding questions is extremely unhelpful and is counter-productive. You see politicians who have developed their own style of not answering the question and it is utterly wrong. It is not necessarily about answering all the questions in the way they have been put, it is about answering the issue behind the question.'

Media training has also changed to reflect the changing needs of journalists, who these days must provide online content as well as recording webcasts on top of their usual deadlines.

Although many people still regard journalists with suspicion, it is crucial to understand that their questions are not personal and all they are interested in is getting stories. If you feel negatively towards a journalist, this will show through no matter how much you try to disguise it.

UNPREPAREDNESS SHOWS

One senior journalist on the Times says: 'What annoys me? I guess it is basically when people are either lazy, uncooperative or make me think I am wasting their time. Formulaic answers to questions are pretty annoying too. I do like to think that my questions deserve bespoke answers!'

Preparation before interviews or expected calls from the media is vital. A senior correspondent at the Financial Times says: 'I called someone for a piece of simple information about a report; she called back eventually with a simple answer but no understanding and no ability to answer a reasonable follow up, but wouldn't put me through to the analyst who'd done the report.'

There is another compelling reason for proper preparation, which media training will teach - it can improve your communications strategy in other areas of the business. 'The process you go through in good media training makes you sit down and work out what your key messages are and share them with everyone, which helps bring a consistency to your messaging,' says Partington. 'The act of going through key messages and justifying them enables you to learn better communication between yourselves.'

Wadley adds: 'Media training does develop skills in other areas. I have had emails saying  I'm now better at selling, for example. Key messages must reflect through all the communications channels of a company. We've found we have inspired people to boost up other parts of their communications. Media training can highlight flaws in those.'

SIMPLIFYING COMPLEXITY

Hammond, whose clients operate largely within the Internet and technology industry, says this is particularly important for companies with complex messages to explain to the public. 'Media training is extremely important as a way to test messages. Lots of our clients deal with complex propositions. The plan is to have a series of spokespeople with specific remits and then train them according to the types of questions they are likely to be asked.'

One of his clients who falls into this category is Nominet, the Internet registry for UK domain names, which has to deal with complex areas of Internet governance. Nominet carries out regular media training for its spokespeople, holding refresher sessions every six months.

Phil Kingsland, director of marketing and communications at Nominet, says: 'As a leading participant in many UK and international Internet issues, we welcome the opportunity to test our responses to a variety of lines of questioning, both to our own team and to an expert who doesn't live our issues day in and day out.'

As chief executive of the British Security Industry Association (BSIA), John Bates is also overseeing the flow of complex messages. The trade body runs media training sessions with Media Training Masterclasses twice a year. Bates says: 'We have found it is a way to assist those who lead sections of our association who are spearheading initiatives, for example, as occasionally opportunities come up to speak to the media.

'If you have never been exposed to the media, you don't necessarily understand what journalists are after. We are also ensuring a consistent approach to modelling communications throughout the organisation.'

Being prepared before you have to speak to journalists is key, therefore.

'You have got to think about what you want to say before you

even ever talk to a journalist,' says Coë. 'Give yourself time to prepare. You might be an expert, but you need to focus.'

After all, if a journalist is forced to rewrite what you are saying, you lose control of your message.