We’ve all been there. We have finally, finally, persuaded a journalist to meet the expert or thought leader we are promoting. And the interview goes fine. Just ‘fine’. But we know, in our hearts, that the journalist is disappointed. And perhaps resentful of the time.
Sometimes we get this feedback explicitly afterwards. Sometimes we hear it implicitly in the interview itself, as the journalist asks if the expert could say something in a bit more detail about this or that, or to give an example. Often we know it because the journalist never seeks to contact us about the expert again, and doesn’t respond to further information from us. It might even put them off meeting others from the same company, especially if it’s a smaller firm with no real purchase on the journalist.
Those handling experts often take comfort that the meeting happened and that the expert is positioned with the journalist to “be useful in future”. That flatters to deceive. Most of the time, journalists make their mind up on first meeting, just like most of the rest of us.
To be clear, this is not to say that all the fault is always on one side. Journalists can disappoint as well. They can be uninformed, ill prepared and not live up to their publication’s reputation. They don’t get what’s important, perhaps they don’t have the necessary technical background. But since the expert is seeking to get quoted by the journalist, the problem lies with the expert and his or her advisors.
There is a cost to this disappointment – because for every expert interview that happens, hundreds of unsuccessful pitches lie strewn around. An interview with an expert, unless someone is essential to a story, is usually the result of hours of work over weeks, stalking a journalist.
A common refrain after a disappointing interview is that expert “needs media training”. While essential, this is not a deux ex machina and is often not sufficient.
The root of the problem can be:
- The expert doesn’t have material or views of interest to the journalist
- The expert has material or views of interest, but can’t say thing due to client confidentiality and commercial considerations
- The expert has potential material or views of interest, but hasn’t prepared or practised how to make this interesting
- Or all of the above.
Experts differ in whether they know they’ve disappointed or not. For senior people, dealing with a much younger journalist (who might be several layers below them at a big bank or firm) often makes it harder for them to tell. In my experience, the more self-aware executives tend to get it, and grasp whether they can reasonably fix the problem, or whether they are just not well placed to be an expert on that topic.
One simple way to think about this is to assess the gap between the role of expert commentator and the individual’s day job. If you’re an equity analyst, commenting on stocks you follow is very close to your day job. If you’re managing a widgets factory, then talking about flexible working or widgets in the circular economy may be quite far from your day job. The further it is from your day job, the more you have to prepare, and try out your material.
The trouble is that sometimes that prep takes the form of endlessly polishing weak material. It's polishing something that’s not good enough, in terms of news value or relevance. Fluency and media handling chops without material won’t work.
Often organisations try to fix lack of strong material by surveys or research which equips the expert with something to use. Often this works. But sometimes the stitching shows, especially when the research has been done by someone else and the expert is not in full command of it. One of the most painful things in a broadcast interview is seeing someone cling to a factoid from a survey by their organisation, rather than take the opportunity to say something more compelling, if brave.
Securing coverage from expert interviews is still an art not a science. And, especially at a major firm, you often get a second chance if you didn’t make the most of the first one. Make sure your comms team keeps close to the journalist. sending info. Indeed keep in contact with him or her yourself, connecting on social media for example. Spot them at conferences, and try not to appear too transactional in your interactions.
Standing out as an expert, in an age of Wikipedia and google, has never been harder. There’s no simple solution, but one way of preparing your material (and assessing whether someone is right for the expert role) is to assess it on three criteria, the three Cs:
Content – make sure it’s good and relevant, has news value, and that the expert is genuinely in command of it.
Credibility – this is contextual and institutional background. What is it about your firm and your expert that makes them irreplacable for the journalist – for example that they had worked at the Justice Department in the past.
Colour – this is linked to credibility, but is about showing that the expert is out in the field today. Anecdotes, examples, descriptions of clients even if anonymous, add to colour.
Andrew Marshall is Cognito's vice chairman