Dealing with the media

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First – sorry about not dealing with all the comments that people have kindly sent. I am having trouble with posting responses.

A young friend asked me for advice in dealing with the media. Although I have some training in this area, the following is based on personal experiences rather than fully authoritative. This is an edited version.

Basically the media/journalists are interested in “stories” that get their articles/programmes published/commissioned in the face of stiff competition. “Sources” like you and me are means to those ends. This does not mean that are are not interested in causes and rightness – and there are some very good, committed programme-makers – but the final reality is commercial. TV programmes generally need an American market if they are medium or high budget. America likes sensation. Detailed cases, such a an elaborate scholarly provenance for a work of art, is not their priority.

The basic tenor of articles/programmes is confrontational. That is to say any case needs counter-arguments for the sake of what is called “balance”. This may mean trawling around very peripheral/marginal/dubious “authorities” to oppose what you and I might be saying.  We should always ensure that we know to whom they are talking and ensure that our contributions answer their opposition. If possible, it is good to see an outline and then the script.

With journalism, the “story” is everything. The journalists want something that gets them column inches.  This does not mean to say that truth counts for nothing, and journalists would rather get things right.  Make it clear what is off-record and what is not. Most stories are ephemeral. It is good to bear this in mind if thinking of responding.  Often a response simply draws attention to the opposition, and in some cases plays into the hands of those who thrive on polemic.  Any response is best founded on gross errors not opinions. In responding, it is always best to emphasis the positive from the start, not to get on the back foot in relation to any attack. Defensiveness is the worst tactic.

At each stage you should make it clear what you are offering to do/disclose, and on what basis. I give one free consultation (often off the record), and make it clear what is confidential at that stage. Any further engagement with a projected programme needs some kind of agreement/contract (which my agent handles). You are in a less strong position than me, for obvious reasons, but you should make it clear that you need to be treated on a professional basis. At the end of the day, even the best of producers are interested in getting the best out of you and me for the smallest amount of money in order to serve their ends. The only way to modify this is by: 1) having exciting material that they cannot do without; 2) developing a good, collaborative, professional  relationship with all involved in a way that develops trust.

The big rule is, do not over-react. It’s easy to get a reputation for being “difficult”.