How to handle the media

Image of Simon Kuper

Usually, I am the journalist asking people stupid questions. But because I have a new book out in the US, the roles are temporarily reversed: now other journalists are asking me. I like the situation. Because I’m the enemy myself, I know how to deal with him. Media savvy typically costs a fortune (which is why PRs outnumber journalists six to one in the US) but here is some free with your FT.

An interview is like a seduction: the journalist aims to charm you into giving him your best stuff. Sometimes the seduction is literal. Here in France, journalists shacked up with François Hollande, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Bernard Kouchner. Many interviewers borrow techniques from romantic conquest: one man I know, who specialises in personality profiles, books his subjects for lunch and then just keeps the wine coming. Always remember that however charming your interviewer seems, he is generally only after one thing: a good story.

In response, the interviewee should seduce (usually not literally) the journalist. Early in my FT career, I interviewed two British government ministers, William Hague and John Selwyn Gummer, in quick succession. Hague treated me like an old friend encountered at his club, and kept saying, “As you know … ” I cannot remember now what else he said, but I was convinced. By contrast, Gummer seemed perturbed that the FT had sent him an underage twerp, could not even look at me, and spoke as if in severe pain.

Today Hague is foreign secretary, while Gummer is chiefly remembered for having fed his young daughter a beef burger on TV in some ill-conceived stunt. The odd thing is that his brother Peter is one of Britain’s richest PRs.

Every PR knows the routine seduction tricks. “Hmmm. That’s a very good question” is the oldest, probably dating back to the world’s first newspaper in Strasbourg 400 years ago. When the interviewer makes a trite comment, respond with, “Exactly.” And if there’s something you particularly want to get into the paper, preface it with, “I’ve never said this before, but … ” My own favourite trick is to say, when the interview ends, “Thanks! I look forward to reading it.” Here the journalist will think, “Oh gosh, he’s going to read it. Perhaps I shouldn’t put in the bit about it being the most unreadable book since Mein Kampf.”

Often the interviewee leaves disgruntled, feeling that the journalist did no preparation, or perhaps mistook you for his next interviewee. I’ll always remember the radio host who greeted me with, “Simon Kuper! You’ve written a book! Tell us what it’s about.”

It’s conventional at this point to grumble about “lazy journalism”. However, that’s usually the wrong analysis. Lazy journalism is dying out as the newspaper business collapses. Nowadays most publications are so understaffed, and journalists spend so much of their day updating news stories online, that they don’t have time to be lazy any more.

In real life, Lunchtime O’Booze, the fictional drunken journalist in the British satirical magazine Private Eye, was made redundant circa 2000.

Sometimes seduction fails, and the journalist goes off and writes something plain wrong. Nobody knows this better than my ex-colleague Paddy Harverson, who, in 2000, made the baffling decision to leave the FT for Manchester United, where he became head of communications.

In mid-September 2001, United’s midfielder Roy Keane was sent off for a foul. That Monday Paddy picked up the phone to a tabloid journalist, who asked him to comment on Keane’s insult to the memory of the victims of 9/11.

Paddy said, “Excuse me. Could you run that by me again?”

The journalist explained: “At this time of mourning, he has dishonoured the dead with his despicable action.”

Paddy said, “I don’t really see the connection. In the US there’s been a terrible tragedy, and here a footballer has been given a red card.”

Initially, this sort of nonsense upset Paddy. He’d argue with tabloid journalists. But gradually he realised: “They don’t care. They aren’t trying to be reasonable or accurate. There’s no point in holding them to account.” So instead he tried to view them with ironic detachment. He now handles media for Prince Charles and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, which gives him lots of practice.

Ironic detachment becomes easier if you can hold in your head one insight about journalism: usually, it doesn’t matter. Most newspaper articles die in a day. There’ll be another scandal along tomorrow to supplant yours. Alastair Campbell, who micromanaged Britain’s media for Tony Blair, told me that with hindsight he should have been more relaxed. Writing up his diaries, he’d noticed how often Blair’s government was caught in media storms that then died. Campbell said: “We all spend too much time talking about newspapers. They are less important than they were, and social media have made them even less important.”

In these troubled times for journalism, here’s a new professional motto: we’re mostly harmless.

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