Can you see what the journalist writes before it’s published? Probably not, but here’s the next best thing

It’s one of the most common questions to come up during our media training courses – “Can I see what the journalist writes before it’s published?” Almost always the answer is “no.”

“I remember being at a press conference a few months ago when the main speaker finished his comments by adding ‘And obviously I’ll want to check anything before you publish it.’ Cue cynical laughter from assembled hacks,” says Simon Brooke, one of our journalist/media trainers.

The question of “copy approval” as it’s known, is an increasingly thorny issue among journalists and public relations people and it’s arisen in some quite unlikely quarters recently. Clare Balding is regarded by many as a national treasure and you wouldn’t think that Saga magazine was out to turn over the people that it interviews. So how could this much-loved TV presenter and this easy-going publication end up at the centre of a row over copy approval?

media training, media skills, doing media interviews, media skills training

Let’s have a look. Clare Balding reportedly asked for copy approval

Well, apparently they have. The interviewer, Ginny Dougary, claims that Balding was allowed to check and amend her copy even though the magazine denies it.

Whatever the truth of the matter this spat is causing some journalists to ask whether the increasing demands by PRs and celebrity publicists to vet articles before they appear, has gone too far. Certainly A-list celebrities and movie stars have long been able to control what journalists write about them, hence the gushing profiles you’ll often read in glossy magazines.

Even if you can’t get copy approval…

But for those who aren’t Hollywood movie stars and are simply business leaders, spokespeople or anyone doing an interview on behalf of an organisation the real question is: how can you gain more control over a media interview and how can you ensure that the journalist reports you accurately?

As we tell people when we do media skills training, the simple answer is that you can never have 100 per cent control over what appears in the final product unless you buy advertising space and, as we know, people don’t give adverts the same amount of credibility that they do editorial. In fact it’s estimated that what journalists write – even these days – is nine times more believable than what appears as advertising.

That said, here are six tips that we give people in our media training courses to enable them to gain greater control over the final article or report.

One. Be clear about your message. This is the most important thing to bear in mind when doing a media interview. If you give the reporter lots of different thoughts, facts, observations and insights you don’t know which of them they will take away and use so stress at the start and the end of the interview what you’d like them to concentrate on. Provided that your messages are newsworthy most journalists are quite happy to get some guidance and focus during an interview.

This often means paring down your message. As part of your preparation for a media interview you need to work with your Comms team or PR consultancy to remove anything that might be confusing or distracting. Less is more when it comes to doing media interviews.

Two. Back this up with interesting, human examples that both illustrate and prove your point. Journalists are always looking for stories and by giving them what they want you gain control over the interview – and the end result. As always in media interviews, if you proactively give the journalist information that works for them then you’re in the driving seat rather than acting as the passive recipient of their questions.

Three. Stick to your key messages. Once you’ve laid out what you want the journalist to report you as saying then don’t get drawn into other subject areas. Keep coming back to this key point and stress that it’s what you see as being the most important issue here. If the journalist tries to take you down a different track be polite and firm and keep to your chosen subject. We have a number of techniques to help you to do this.

Four. Make sure that what you’re saying is relevant to the audience. As I say, it’s very important to have a key message but if that message isn’t relevant to your audience and doesn’t connect and resonate with them then the journalist will simply ignore it. So to gain more control over a media interview make sure that you’re speaking directly to the audience. To put it simply, tell them something they didn’t know and make sure that it is interesting and useful.

Five. Think about the journalist and who they’re writing for when you prepare. If their focus is on consumer rights and you’re a utility or big service provider you’ll need to be extra careful. Similarly, if they’ve just started writing about a specialist subject their knowledge will naturally be minimal and so you’ll need to hold their hand and not make any assumptions.

Check out their work on line. Do they have a particular hobbyhorse or strong point of view? Is what they write often negative and challenging? Your PR firm or Comms department may well be able to warn you that, for instance, they sometimes play fast and loose with the facts or that they’ve had a confrontational relationship with your organisation in the past.

Six. Send an email to confirm your points after you’ve spoken to the reporter. This might include figures and statistics that can get mangled in even a well prepared and rehearsed media interview. Did you say 15 per cent or 50 per cent, for example? Is that amount in sterling or dollars? With an email after the interview you can ensure that you’ve spelt out trade names correctly and you can make other details clear. One tip we always give – written language is unlike spoken language so make your quotes conversational and punchy rather than formal.

Most harried journalists struggling through their notes with a deadline looming will be happy to copy and paste from an email, giving you further control over the final article. If they’re new to the issue or are not a subject specialist a reporter will be especially grateful.

Ask but don’t demand

Just one final thought. As a working journalist I’ll sometimes allow people such as doctors, lawyers and scientists to check their quotes and some key facts (but probably not the whole piece) as I don’t want to get details like this wrong. So, you can always offer to check your quotes with a journalist. Don’t demand it but say something such as: “I hope I’ve made myself clear. I’m aware that this is quite a complicated issue so I’d be happy to check my quotes if that’s helpful.”

As we often say in our media training courses, it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear. This is particularly important with media interviews. But use these simple techniques and you’ll have a better chance of ensuring that the final article says what you want it to say.

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Posted by Simon Brooke on at

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