How to work with TV journalists – 12 tips

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Television journalists need experts that are available at short notice, know what they are talking about and can express themselves clearly and concisely, said Deutsche Welle Brussels correspondent Catherine Martens at a meeting of NGO communicators Monday.

Martens, who has covered the EU for 11 years for the German public broadcaster, said TV news was “completely different” to print because of the speed at which it operates. “On TV, time really, really matters,” said the French-German journalist, who previously worked for France Télévisions in Paris and Lille.

Martens was speaking at ‘News and Booze’ – a monthly meeting of NGO communicators hosted by Clear Europe, Conscience Consulting and Julia Ravenscroft from the European Network on Debt and Development. She said reporters needed NGOs to provide expert opinions but offered a number of tips to help then work better with TV journalists:

1. Don’t sell stories

“Journalists don’t like when others tell us which stories to pick,” said Martens, upending conventional PR wisdom about the importance of pitching to reporters. “It’s a waste of time to sell us stories. We do our homework before we reach out to you.”

2. Don’t call

“It’s not because we’re impolite. It’s just that we’re very busy.” Global surveys also stress journalists prefer to be contacted by email rather than phone.

3. Keep it short

“The most important thing is to be short and precise,” said Martens. A classic TV news report is 90 seconds long. So she urged NGO communicators not to waffle, speak in vague generalities or utter meaningless platitudes.

 4. Keep it simple

“How would you explain this to a 5-year old?” is a question all experts should ask before trying to explain a complex issue to the general public.

5. Flag in advance…

State what issues your spokesperson is an expert on and provide background information in FAQs and Q&As.

6…But be prepared to react quickly

“It’s possible you send an email at 6am and you’re on TV at 12,” said Martens. “It’s a very fast business.” During an event, she said journalists will search for key players on Twitter and follow them immediately to get a reaction or do an interview. So spokespeople have to be prepared to speak about issues at very short notice.

7. Be available

“If you don’t call back fast we’ll get someone else,” was the blunt message to experts failing to hit deadlines. If you’re not available or are not an expert on the issue, say so, Martens added. She also said it was essential to provide mobile numbers (“We don’t call landlines”) and SMS (“TV people love text messages.”)

8. Know your audience

Be aware which journalist from which media you’re talking to. “Every TV channel has its own culture. ARD won’t cover Africa stories but Deutsche Welle or BBC World will,” said Martens, who extensively covered the refugee crisis in the Balkans in 2015.

9. Know your subject

“Don’t ask for the questions before the interview,” Martens advised. “You are the experts.”

10. Don’t expect journalists to follow-up

“TV journalists are like doctors – after the operation, they don’t go back to ask how it was.”

11. No conferences, please

“Man getting out of the car walking into a building, a man walking out of building getting into a car,” is how former BBC correspondent Chris Morris described covering the EU for television. The way to avoid making the EU even duller on screen than it is in reality, according to Martens, is to avoid images of men in suits talking around tables. “We do stories where they happen, not where they’re being talked about.”

12. Get training

“It’s very important you train your experts. Some people are brilliant on the phone but put them in front of a camera and we can’t use them.” Martens offered the following on-camera tips:

  • It doesn’t matter how you look (except if you’re an anchor)
  • Use clear language, not technical jargon
  • Be lively

Of course, we couldn’t agree more with tip 12 at Clear Europe – which is why we run a series of tailored one-day courses on mastering media interviews, working with journalists, influencing the EU media and shooting and editing video. Please contact us for more information about our customised coaching.

At our next News and Booze meeting on 24 April, US consultant George Perlov will draw from his recent global study to explain why some campaigns work and some don’t. More details here.




About Gareth Harding

Gareth is the Managing Director of Clear Europe and head of the Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels Programme. He is a former journalist, speechwriter and political advisor.

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