Posted on

What that Gavin Williamson vs Richard Madeley interview tells us about media training

Richard Madeley interviews Gavin Williamson on GMBApprox. reading time: 3 minutes

I could almost hear Jeremy Paxman and Michael Howard breathing a huge sigh of collective relief. For years their Newsnight clash – the one where Paxo asked the former Home Secretary n times (where n is a large number) if he’d intervened in the day-to-day running of the prison service – had, for media trainers, been the go-to example of road crash interviews. But now we’ve got a new worst case scenario – the recent, well-publicised spat between the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, and the stand-in Good Morning Britain presenter, Richard Madeley. If you haven’t seen it yet I’d thoroughly recommend a watch.

It’s certainly entertaining. In a lemon-chewingly embarrassing way. But don’t worry if you haven’t got time because, in essence, Madeley called the interview to an unexpectedly early end when Williamson used the politicians’ trick of ignoring the questions and saying what the heck he wanted to say. Which is a pity because the Secretary of State was supposed to be talking about deploying British troops to help protect wildlife against poachers in Malawi – a good news story if ever there was one – but didn’t get beyond the preamble. Heck, he’d even gone to the trouble of doing the interview by satellite from West Midlands Safari Park.

So does this mean that media trainers like me will have to change our approach? Not at all! At ACM Training we teach interviewees to deal with the question and move on. But we always impress upon them the importance of striking the right balance between the two. Move on too fast or fail to deal with the question altogether and you risk what happened to Williamson happening to you.

“Let it be a warning! Us journalists used to say you’d been Paxo’d but I guess now we’ll have to learn to say you’ve been Madeley’d!”

No time to read this post and prefer to listen – with the added bonus of audio clips from the excruciating interview?

For a Defence Secretary, I thought Williamson was surprisingly tactically un-astute. Adversarial media interviews are (in very limited respects) analogous with battles. In both, if you try to defend disputed territory you can get bogged down, when it might be better to concede some ground and pull back to a line you can hold.

So first let’s explore what went wrong in MoD vs GMB. Madeley’s attack was to accuse Williamson of using Trump-like language. Williamson’s defence was to simply ignore this line of questioning and try to move on to how terrible the attempted murders of the Skripals had been and how wonderfully the emergency services in Salisbury had responded. But the Defence Secretary wasn’t able to move on to these, nonetheless valid, points because Madeley wasn’t satisfied he’d dealt with the question – repeatedly asked – well enough.

Now let’s examine the alternative. If I was Gavin Williamson’s media advisor I’d have prepared him on the basis that the Trump question was (a) wholly predictable and (b) entirely legitimate for a journalist to ask on the public’s behalf. I’d have told him that legitimate questions can’t simply be ignored because to do so risks antagonising the journalist and her/his audience. And, as a consequence, I’d have suggested he spend a little more time dealing with the question and a little less time moving on. If he asked what all that meant practically speaking I’d have come up with a few concede lines.

Williamson: “It’s certainly not the kind of language you usually hear from ministers I’ll give you that. But sometimes you have to be plain and forthright to make sure your message gets through to the intended target.”

Madeley: “So you’re admitting it was Trump-like language?!”

Williamson: “I’m saying that it’s important to be absolutely clear that attacking members of the public on British soil is unacceptable and making that point in a plain and forthright way is occasionally better than couching these things in the usual diplomatic terms.”

Madeley: “Sounds like you’re admitting to being undiplomatic.”

Williamson: “I’m admitting to being plain and forthright and, yes, angry too, because two innocent members of the public had been attacked in a cruel and unusual way and countless others – those who went to their rescue – put at risk.”

Now, of course, I’ll concede there’s no guarantee that this approach would have worked but I’m convinced it would have given the Defence Secretary a better chance of moving onto Malawi. As it was he had no chance at all because the interview was called to a premature and unceremonious end.

Remember this: you can only move on if you deal adequately with the question asked. To deal adequately with doesn’t have to mean to answer (although it can). Think of interviews as question and response session,s rather than question and answer sessions. Tailor your response not only according to your own needs but also to those of the interviewer and audience. Williamson was never going to admit to using Trump-like language (and nor, given Trump’s track record, should he have). But without conceding a little he gave away a lot.


This is a partial transcript of Richard’s five minute masterclass on the lessons of Williamson v Madeley. Click here if you want to hear the whole recording and listen to our other five minute masterclasses.

Posted on

WHAT MAKES NEWS?

Approx. reading time: 6 minutesA well written news release can persuade the media to act as your de facto advertising agency and help you “sell” your “product.” The product can be something tangible that you want to market for strictly commercial reasons. Or it can be an intangible idea being marketed for social reasons. Trouble is, in both cases, most news release fail to get published or broadcast. And that means that an awful lot of creative juice is being spilled for nothing. So why do the majority fail? Most don’t work because they never quite overcome what I call the so what factor – that is they are of little or no interest to the newspaper-reading, radio-listening, television-viewing public or, in the case of specialist publications, of limited value to even the readers of the trade press. Some stumble because they are poorly written. Others trip up for seemingly arbitrary or trivial reasons like they were sent to the wrong person or on the wrong day.

This article was written as part of the course material for ACM Training’s writing press releases workshop. If you’d like to find out more about this workshop or the many others we offer in the fields of media, communication and organisational development then please click here.

To make sure that your news releases don’t fall at the first of these hurdles it’s worth exploring what makes news. And that means doing an almost forensic dissection of your target media – the media outlets you’re aiming to get your release into or on because that’s where your target audience are. Doesn’t matter if you’re pitching at mass circulation daily papers or magazines, your local papers or specialist trade publications. Read them from cover to cover. Get to know them inside outside out. The same applies if you’re targeting television or radio programmes except, of course, you’ll be watching or listening instead of reading. What sorts of stories do they cover? Draw up a list. It’s likely to be a fairly long one but I bet you people will be at the heart of most, if not all. That’s what we’re after – human interest stories (even if they’re about animals). 

Dog bites man, as the old saying goes, is not news. Happens all the time. Just ask your local postie. But man bites dog is news because it bucks the usual trend. So trend bucking is one news category. What are the others? Well, on the subject of trends you could add stories that conform to trends – those that serve to reinforce our world view. For example, most stories about global climate change fall into this category. I say most because those dissenting voices who say that climate change is natural rather than man made fall into the previous category. And before we leave trends behind there’s a news category dedicated to trend creation the most annoying of which are the stories in the style pages of Sunday supplements and glossy magazines which tell us gushingly that brown is the new black, or that the Boysenberry is going to the next must-have electronic gidget (that’s a cross between a gadget and a widget by the way and not a typo). Private Eye has a satirical column dedicated to these stories. It’s called the Neophiles. Despite this, it’s a rich vein worth tapping into if you possibly can and, who knows, you may get some additional, free publicity courtesy of the Eye if you pull it off.

Another vein you might exploit is nostalgia. Not news, of course, in the traditional sense because it’s the exact opposite – history. But local papers, especially, love stories about the way we were and publish old black and white photos by the column mile. If, for example, you’re a business trying to promote the opening of a new building, your local newspaper may ignore your news release because it’s deemed too commercial. But if you can find some old photographs of what was there before and engage a friendly local historian to say a few warm words then it may get picked up, even if only as a kind of before and after photo story. Better than nothing.

The Oxford Times recently carried a full page feature about a local company developing a jet engine which could cut the flight time from Britain to Australia to just a few hours. This is a classic example of the cutting edge category. It doesn’t have to be high tech engineering as in this case. It can be in medicine, construction, commerce…pretty much any field, including a grass one if it’s an agricultural story. 

The tabloids, in particular, are obsessed with the rich and (in)famous. So your news release might be able latch on to this. Charities especially, realise the importance of celebrity endorsement. They understand that if you keep the message the same but change the messenger it can make the difference between being ignored and being talked about. You don’t even need the celebrity’s permission to invoke their good name. For example, if you are trying to promote healthy packed lunches for school children and would like, but can’t afford, Jamie Oliver to launch your campaign, then I see nothing wrong with saying in the top line of your release: packed lunches in Anytown are getting a Jamie Oliver-style makeover. The celebrity doesn’t need to be a household name. If you can’t get anybody on the A-list don’t worry, there are another 25 letters in the alphabet. Okay, so Z-list celebs may not have universal appeal but even the Mayor or Mayoress of the smallest place ranks as something of a celeb in their local media. As a fellow Z -lister I know, having opened more than my fair share of summer fetes when I read the television news from Pebble Mill in the BBC’s Midlands region. The organisers of those events misguidedly assumed my mere presence would boost takings a thousand fold. It didn’t but what it did do was almost guarantee a pre-event announcement and/or a post-event snap in the local paper and, frequently, a mention on local radio too. Years later the transient nature of (very minor) celebrity was brought home to me in my local town, Ludlow. One of the area’s best loved but slightly eccentric characters came up to me in the street and said without a hint of irony: “You used to be that Richard Uridge on the telly didn’t you.”

The old saying there’s nothing new under the sun could be re-worked along the lines of there’s nothing new in the Sun. There’s very little genuine news around – that is, literally, something new or novel. So instead hundreds of acres of newsprint and thousands of hours of airtime are dedicated to stories that add to the debate on topical events or include expert opinion or speculation. The rolling news channels such as BBC News 24 and Sky News and stations like BBC Radio Five Live couldn’t function without these time-filling categories. They have an almost insatiable appetite for information to the extent that one of these days a broken toenail is going to get the breaking news treatment. Well maybe not quite, but if you’ve got an expert in your midst why not suggest them as a guest? Universities do. However, they and other organisations could do much more to help meet the demand.

You can even search religious texts like the Bible for clues as to what makes news. Papers are full of parables such as David and Goliath and the Good Samaritan. Here are some examples. Plucky pensioner (David) refuses to pay council tax to local authority (Goliath). “Metric martyr” grocer (David) takes on the crazy Brussels bureaucrats (Goliath) by refusing to sell his produce by kilogrammes. Defiant granny (Davina) bashes yob (Goliath) with handbag. Have-a-go hero (Good Samaritan) rescues kids from blazing house. Disgraced MP in expenses wrangle gets job as swineherd. Okay, I admit, I made up the last headline. Casting my mind back to Sunday School it’s the first part of the story of the Prodigal Son. That or wishful thinking. But you get my point. Can you reframe your story to give it a familiar feel?

Perhaps the single definition that underpins all of the others is impact on other people. Does your story impact on other people in any way? The bigger the impact and the greater the number of people affected the better. Step back from your story and try to look at it with objective eyes. Of course you are interested in it. But will enough other people feel the same way? The whole purpose of working out what makes news is that your news release must be newsworthy in someway. As we’ve seen, it’s a pretty broad definition that doesn’t have very much to do with news at all in many cases so there’s plenty of scope. But if you can’t picture your proposed story sitting comfortably within whatever programme or publication you are pitching it at, then you’ll probably be wasting your time writing it up. Save yourself the trouble. Concentrate on those news releases you feel have a better chance. Look at it this way – if your news release doesn’t tick at least one of the definition boxes then it may not work. Journalists are unlikely to risk breaking a tried and tested formula. We think we know what our audiences want and, rightly or wrongly, feed them this staple diet week in week out. To continue with the foodie metaphor for a moment, if you want us to change the menu then what you’re offering better be appetising because we don’t want our readers turning up their noses and going to another restaurant!

Got a category to suggest? Something that’s paid off for you and you’d like to share? Click here to email me and I’ll add it to the list.

Next time…structure and how the Pyramids of Egypt can help you write a successful news release.