Well trained media spokespeople are now the norm, habituating every nook and cranny in most news programmes. If there is an issue that an editor wants to focus on, then hey presto, the PR handlers offer up a genetically modified human, built in a workshop, to face the foe. These well trained “greys” are regularly heard on the BBC Radio 4’s “The Today Programme”. This news agenda setter is a formidable programme which has prided itself on its aggressive, no nonsense style of news reporting, cutting to the quick and asking those difficult questions that its audience wants answered. But is it being foiled? I ask that because of the way it failed to turn up the heat on Barclays on Tuesday morning.
As I was shaving , it was no surprise to hear Barclays Bank’s annual profit jamboree was about to feature; just the type of news story that gets pounced on by “Today” editors. But listening to the well trained talking head, I wasn’t surprised to hear the Today reporter being foiled by a well prepared suit. The cuddly, friendly High Street bank had declared record billions worth of profit and the PR minders of the bank had prepared their defence extremely well. A well heeled spokesperson, John Varley, the Group Chief Executive strutted his trained and rehearsed response to the business reporter, Greg Wood. Of course, Mr Varley was expecting hand grenades to be hurled in his direction but he did seem to de-arm all the charges.
I marvelled at Varley’s platitudes. By the end of the encounter he had attempted to suggest that some of Barclay’s profits were used for philanthropic good. I noticed that each question was answered with three points which is key for all great media training. After all, a listener only takes three things away from any interview, Varley made sure his soundbites were memorable.
The power of a well orchestrated PR campaign stems from trained spokespeople who know that they’re in the stocks but if their preparation is top draw, they will come out virtually unstained. It’s proving more difficult for journalists to find a soft underbelly, with so many media consultants now providing such sturdy armour for clients to wear. I remember when I was rigorously training a spokesperson for a launch (no, I’m not telling you who); the arrogance that was impregnated into his character counteracted any media training because of his inability to listen. If the 4th Estate is going to be successful in taking on the well equipped corporate might of big business, it will have to be a lot more effective in the way it tackles its interviews. As the media institutions become more cost conscious, then perhaps decisions to throw veteran producers, editors and journalists will be their ruination. Will punters pay for a sappy paper that can’t nail the real issues? It seems that the inherent wisdom is being jettisoned because of cost and this forces more reliance to be placed on inexperienced journalists to cut to the quick. It’s ironic that PR companies are profiting from this short term-ism, and it’s the big agencies that are buying up ex journalists who are paid more to utilize their considerable nouse in tackling aggressive newsroom issues. Are we are witnessing a vicious circle which will result in more big corporations being able to avoid negative PR with the help of these game keepers, turned poachers. In truth, it will further perpetuate the powerlessness of the consumer in an age dominated by the call centre culture.