We let the facts do the talking.

Television introduction revolution

My earliest memories of television are of pure excitement – begging and pleading with my parents to watch my favourite cartoon shows; finishing my algebra homework for some more ‘telly time’; tussle and tackle for the remote. I never really understood as a teenager what grown-ups got from watching news about Iraq or Kuwait, especially when I remember my geography teacher telling me that both countries were quite far from where we were.

Looking back I can clearly see how what I tuned-in to on television has changed & evolved over the years. Reports about gold and petrol prices, election results, e-coli outbreak or the launch of the latest Blackberry application are as much of an interest to me as the next episode of Desperate Housewives or the American Idol season
10 grand finale.

Working in public relations has changed how I look at media, especially television – it is no longer just a source of information and entertainment. It is also about the audience the show targets, how the spokesperson handled the questions, if they delivered the key messages, were the messages clear and more importantly, is there an opportunity to pitch for an interview for one of my clients?

When it was time for me to pick a blog topic, the first one that literally jumped at me was ‘television interviews’ – the holy grail of the PR industry. We all want them for our clients, but at the same time, we live in fear of committing the ultimate faux pas in front of millions, which I will show you some ‘interesting’ examples of in later posts along with some fascinating, real life illustrations of what to do, and, more importantly, what not to do, when facing the camera.

So when I got down to actually writing this blog I thought, ‘why not start from the start’ – talk about the introduction, evolution, impact and reach of broadcast media, and what it means for PR in the region.

Where did you come from?

Primates communicate with one another through body language and gestures, like King Kong thumping his chest to show aggression and dominance. Sounds quite like politicians arguing over a bill in the parliament if you add vocals to the angry fists.

Jokes aside, communication has been a big part of our lives for ages and nothing has changed our way of communicating with other people faster or more efficiently than television. Just thinking about how television has evolved, since it was first introduced commercially in the late 1920’s to today, is quite amazing. From the cathode ray tube to the very futuristic 3D television sets; from locally broadcast news and syndicated shows to internet television, the ‘TV’ has become commonplace in homes, businesses and institutions alike, particularly as a vehicle for advertising, a source of entertainment and the news.

Television networks have crawled through countries, borders and continents as news and information is disseminated across the globe in ‘live time’, be it stock market reports, Michael Jackson’s demise, the season finale of ‘Friends’ or the recent protests across the Middle East.

Television today is literally our eyes and it wouldn’t be wrong to say, our brain, to see and understand the world. What you make of the news depends on what side of the story you hear, or rather ‘see’, that’s why it is a very important medium in the PR industry.

What have you done for me lately?

The UAE got its first television around 1969, and the numbers have drastically increased since then. Talking about the growth of television in the region, what better example than the meteoric rise of 24-hour pan-Arab media giants like Al Arabiya, and particularly Al Jazeera, following their coverage of recent Middle East events. It placed them at an international level, so that even the President of the United States is watching Al Jazeera, and made his first public interview to Al Arabiya.

The recent political uprisings have been a pivotal occurrence for regional media bringing with them an enormous demand for news and an increased confidence in reporting from the region. Al Jazeera reported a “2000% increase in hits on their English-language website, and more than 60% of that traffic has originated from the United States.”

This is the perfect illustration of doing what you do best and then capitalising on it when the perfect opportunity presents itself.

TV, Online or Newspaper?

A lot of people might question if and how long television can match the onslaught of emerging media, especially with cases such as ‘Bin Laden Announcement Setting Highest Sustained Tweet Rate Ever, At 3440 Tweets Per Second’ or Charlie Sheen’s Guinness World Record for ‘Fastest Time to Reach 1 Million Followers’.

The competition is stiff, but television continues to hold its ground when compared to traditional or emerging media. Where print media – newspapers and magazines – are read by only a fraction of our population, television has a far greater reach and is accessed virtually by all. Some may argue that online media is exploding globally and television does not stand a chance against the triple threat i.e., Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, but my opinion is that online media has helped propel television even further with the incorporation of broadcast that has taken communication to an entirely different level.

This means that rather than targeting one medium for your client, it is important to take a holistic approach when appropriate, to target all channels and have them work together to push your key messages

How do I apply all of this here?

As far as the UAE is concerned, it is a dynamic country with a unique climate in the Arab world in terms of its media environment. The UAE’s relative freedom of press, its plethora of publications, television and radio stations, and its internet penetration rate are unmatched in the Middle East, thus creating a platform for expressed communication on all channels.

So let your creativity flow, and actually use the vast opportunity made available to you. In other words, use what you have before you lose it.

A lot has changed for me since I was that little girl, pining to watch cartoons. I remember following the reports on the ‘Icelandic ash cloud’ that disrupted flight schedules across the globe, not because I was travelling and not just because it was interesting, but because one of my clients was a leading manufacturer of videoconferencing equipment and it was the perfect opportunity to pitch for interviews and promote the technology.

Take each ‘bone’ that is thrown at you, and make it into a meal for your client. It is imperative that you, as a PR representative, keep an eye out for opportunities and then follow up with training before they are actually placed in the ‘hot seat’! In the posts that follow, I will go over some interesting scenarios – when the seat gets really hot, i.e., media interviews gone wrong – what to do and what not do, before someone else shouts cut.

Now that we’ve learned a little about the history of Television and what that all means to PR, it’s time to move on to one of the most fear-inspiring ways to get your message out there – TV interviews.

When I first started working in PR, I couldn’t really understand what all the fuss was about when it came to TV interviews. The CEO of a multi-national company meets with dozens of people for business a day and answers countless questions. Then what is the big deal about talking in front of a camera – a lifeless piece of equipment, and what do they need media training for? It’s not like they are facing Russell Crowe, dressed as a gladiator, about to square off in a duel to the death.

But that was until I faced the music, the camera in this case, for a mock interview. What I heard wasn’t Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9; in fact, what transpired was far from it. Instead I was sweating bullets and talking gibberish.

That was when I realised that the camera may just be an inanimate piece of technology, but it can either intimidate even the best of speakers or make superstars out of those who know how to befriend it, depending on who is calling the shots i.e., asking questions at the other end and if the person facing the camera measures up. So after my first disastrous experience, I made sure I attended as many media training sessions as possible, to become the speaker I know I could become, because each time I learned something new and interesting.

Here are some great examples I’ve come across along the way.

When your crisis management is more disastrous than the catastrophe

A crisis has hit your company and all attention is on you. This is not the time to skimp on your media representative, because what they say can either lift you up in the eyes of the public or send you into a spiralling black hole.

All of us remember the British Petroleum oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, a classic example that demonstrates how badly conducted interviews, especially on TV, can negatively impact your company’s reputation. BP’s multi-million-dollar, award-winning, re-branding campaign to position itself as being ‘green’ drowned in a sea of leaking oil and in the gross mismanagement of basic crisis communication. As the CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, appeared repeatedly in the media to address the issue, he enraged Americans and the world when he played down the effects of the oil spill and said that BP was not responsible for the accident. His answers in a flat, impassive tone is example of how a spokesperson, who would’ve been carefully, coached by legal and media teams, failed to step up in a crisis situation.

Besides not assigning the right spokesperson (a good communicator) to be its single source of information, BP reportedly failed to adhere to some of the basic tenets of public relations by attempting to block the free flow of information and obstructing the media’s coverage. Maybe what he needed was training on ‘What Not to Say When Your Company Is Ruining the World’.

Practice, practice, practice, and then practice some more.

Do you really think stand-up comedians just go out there, grab a mike and then spew out funny? I don’t think so. All that perfect comedic timing, the great jokes and the right gestures have taken hours and days of practice in order to sound spontaneous and hysterical.

If you have agreed to go for an interview, where you will be subject to scrutiny by thousands or maybe even millions, preparation is vital.

You don’t want to be in a situation where you are cornered by a tough interviewer on live television like a senator from Texas who failed to realise the importance of preparing before an interview (and boy, is it brutal). He unsuccessfully tries the bridging technique, and ultimately reveals a lack of knowledge about the candidate (Barak Obama) he had publicly endorsed. (I highly recommend you see this, because you definitely don’t want that to be you)

As the spokesperson, it is crucial that you are prepared to answer any question put forward and are able to respond convincingly. For the poor senator, gathering information about the reporter would have helped him anticipate his ‘hardball’ approach.

Finally, if you are sitting in for an interview, make sure you at least say something.

When the wrong guy gets it right
Where a senator and a CEO clearly lacked the knowledge and skills for tackling an interview (and in the process paid heavily for it), this is an example where the wrong guy handles the situation better than some of the professionals would.

Mistaken for the spokesperson, this business graduate from the Congo was at BBC for an interview when he was unexpectedly plopped on the hot seat. What’s the lesson? He actually handles himself pretty well for the situation, and manages to complete the interview and give logical input on the topic. That comes from using your head, conquering the unexpected with rational thinking and being confident. Deal with what life has dealt you and do it to the best of your ability.

Even if you are not the spokesperson it is worth your while, and beneficial for the company, that you, as a representative, are fully aware of your company’s goals and messages. You never know when you might be questioned.

As for Guy Goma, following that little mix-up he appeared on several TV shows including BBC, CNN, and even has a movie being developed that’s based on his life.

Now leaving you with some general tips, make sure you avoid these top three media mistakes, and that’ll help you to gravitate towards better interviews.

– Talk non-stop or about something irrelevant to what’s being asked. It’s nearly impossible for a journalist to get a sound bite and the random rambling will just wind up on the cutting room floor.
– Worst is when spokespeople give one-word answers. For example, if the reporter asks you, ‘What’s your favourite colour’? A lot of people will just say – ‘blue’. That’s fine, but the best answer from someone who has been media-trained is a complete thought that can stand on its own. So the answer should be, ‘My favourite colour is blue’.
– And finally when you don’t listen to the question and jump the gun or don’t understand what’s being asked. If you are not sure, ask for a clarification and then proceed to answer the question.

Next time you get the opportunity make sure you are prepared. That will decide who you become: the next ‘Hayward’ or the next ‘Guy Goma’, either landing yourself jobless or on a primetime TV show. The decision is yours.

Any interesting examples where TV interviews have gone extremely wrong or really right?