In the United Kingdom we are seeing the Brexit campaigns (for and against leaving the European Union) hotting up by the day.
Very soon we’ll be seeing the next presidential election in the United States stepping up a gear as we get ever closer to election day.
In Brussels we recently witnessed the appointment of successors to Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission and Donald Tusk as President of the European Council of Ministers.
So, we are in the middle of a busy period as far as news is concerned, during which journalists will increasingly be demanding answers from politicians and bureaucrats with regard to where they are taking the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union.
A news story has broken, or there’s been a new development regarding Brexit for example, and the media are chasing those at the centre of the story for answers to their questions regarding what is going on.
Very often, these answers will be looked for when a news station or a newspaper reporter requests an interview and the person in question agrees to sit down with the journalist.
Obviously, it’s not only politicians who can get caught up in a media frenzy. It can happen to businessmen and women, public service representatives, those heading NGOs and celebrities.
When the news story has broken, and the person at the centre of the story refuses to be interviewed by the media, journalists don’t stop there.
In a typical newsroom you would rarely hear a conversation along these lines:
REPORTER: “I’ve chased the CEO of XXX about the financial scandal that’s suddenly engulfed his company, but he’s not answering his phone and his press relations officer tells me they’re not putting him up for an interview”.
NEWS EDITOR: “Ok. No problem. Thanks for trying. We’ll drop the story”.
A more likely response from the News Editor would be:
“They’re running scared. We’re going to chase this story and hunt down the CEO and doorstep him.”
What’s a “doorstep”?
That’s journalistic language for an ambush. It works like this.
In the newsroom, the journalists know there is a news story that needs further chasing.
The fact that the CEO of the company is not available, or indeed anyone else from the company, does not mean it’s the end of the road for the story. Even if the CEO or another company official puts out a tweet containing some pathetic, bland apology, that will not deter news teams from continuing to chase the story.
The chasing happens like this.
On the morning that the story breaks, the news department have their regular editorial meeting. The Home Editor explains to the team that the company is avoiding all comment despite the seriousness of the scandal that’s hit it.
The News Editor instructs the Home Editor to get reporters onto the story.
The Home Editor returns to the newsroom and sees one of his financial correspondents grabbing a coffee from the machine in the corner of the room. He wanders over to him or her. He asks the correspondent whether they have any good contacts at the company who could pass on more details about the scandal.
At the same time a couple of reporters are tasked with finding out where the CEO might be that day – where does he live, what time does he normally arrive for work etc.
In other words: “If you won’t agree to talk to us Mr. CEO, we’ll come looking for you”.
And nine times out of ten, journalists will find the person they are hunting.
The reporters assigned the story do the normal internet searching, phoning contacts etc. to try to find out where the CEO could be found.
One of the reporters discovers that the company at the centre of the scandal (a major international firm) is holding a European management conference in Frankfurt starting at two o’clock this afternoon. The CEO will almost certainly be attending the conference, thinks the reporter. We can perhaps grab him as he arrives at Heathrow airport this morning to catch his plane to Frankfurt. It’s only guesswork but a lot of good journalism is based on guesswork that works.
It’s not just in one newsroom that journalists will set to work tracking down the CEO. Across the media – TV news stations, newspapers – teams of journalists will be similarly focussed.
Eventually it’s common knowledge across the media that the CEO might well be arriving at Heathrow airport this morning for his flight to Frankfurt.
The media are on his case.
Consequently, when the CEO’s taxi (or chauffeur-driven limousine) pulls into the drop-off zone at Heathrow there’s a virtual media camp waiting for him. That means reporters, camera crews, photographers and possibly a few satellite trucks ready to broadcast the upcoming “doorstep” live on a 24-hour news channel (that’s assuming Heathrow parking attendants will allow them to park there).
Not what the CEO expected – or did he expect this?
There are two scenarios here.
- The news story about the financial scandal surrounding the company has broken overnight. It made the midnight news last night and is on the front page of all this morning’s newspapers. The company’s press relations officer is alerted to the breaking story overnight. They know that the CEO will be on his way to the airport first thing in the morning and that the media will almost certainly be waiting for him. THE PRO phones the CEO ahead of his arrival at the airport – either while he’s having breakfast or while he’s in the taxi en route to Heathrow. They have a quick discussion and agree that it’s best to give the waiting media a short statement. The two of them agree on the wording of the statement. The CEO jots it down as he’s eating his bacon sandwich or in the back seat of the taxi.
- The news story breaks while the CEO is in the taxi. In fact, it happens just a couple of minutes before the taxi arrives at the terminal. The taxi driver doesn’t have BBC Radio 4 or LBC on his cab radio. Instead, he’s tuned into a music station. It’s 0840 and so the top-of-the-hour news is twenty minutes away – too late for the CEO to hear about the breaking story before he gets out of the taxi.
Whichever of the above two scenarios confronts the CEO, the way to handle this “doorstep” or ambush is as follows.
Firstly, it’s inadvisable to utter the words, “No comment” as the journalists surround you. In the mind of journalists, and indeed many members of the public, those words mean that the person being confronted by the media is either guilty and knows it or knows something they are not prepared to talk about.
Secondly, trying to push the media out of the way, or brushing them aside using abusive language, will also backfire. The reaction of most people will be: “My goodness, this guy’s under pressure. This scandal must be mega.”
An important thing to bear in mind is that, if the story is big enough, the number of media representatives waiting for you could be very high. Moreover, there is not a journalistic code of conduct that is in place for a “doorstep” interview. Therefore, such occasions can be quite chaotic. Reporters from the 24-hour news stations will want to shout out their first question ahead of everybody else, knowing that they are “live” on air, while photographers and cameramen are trying to barge their way through to the front of the ambush in order to get the best pictures.
As the person being targeted you don’t want to get dragged into this chaos.
Don’t start trying to answer ten questions at once.
Two important approaches should be adopted by the person who’s confronted by the media in this way.
Firstly, the moment you get out of the taxi or you walk out of your office door and come face-to-face with journalists in this way, decide immediately for how long you will remain with the media. If you’re being ambushed because your company has been named as the best employer of the year, you might be quite happy to hang around for some time. If you are the CEO mentioned above, whose company is suddenly at the centre of serious allegations, you should make this a very brief encounter, but without appearing as though you are trying to run away.
Secondly, you need to try to take control of things. One way of doing this is to stand still in front of the journalists and wait for their bombardment of opening questions to subside. The reporters will quieten down because, after all, they need to hear from you.
A further step towards taking some control is to tell the journalists how you intend to conduct the occasion. Inform them whether you have a statement to read out on behalf of your organisation and roughly how many questions you intend to take.
Then, deliver your statement and take however many questions you wish to respond to.
There’s a huge chance that, either while giving your statement or answering questions, you will be interrupted by another question or questions.
The key response here is not to get angry or irritated with the correspondent or correspondents who interrupt you.
For example, let’s say the CEO is reading out a statement on behalf of the company and this happens:
REPORTER’S INTERRUPTION: “Isn’t this the most shameful scandal that’s surrounded any company in this country?”
CEO’s REPLY: “How dare you make that outrageous allegation? You and the rest of the journalists here are a disgrace to the country.”
That’s not the way to handle such a moment. First of all, it wasn’t an allegation, it was a question – something journalists are perfectly entitled to ask.
Secondly, by exploding in the way he did, any viewer watching this “doorstep” of the CEO on 24-hour news might think: “Goodness me, this guy’s rattled. That question clearly left him in tatters. Obviously, the journalist was right. This bloke is clearly heading a company that is caught up in the most shameful scandal that’s surrounded any company in this country.”
A far more sensible way to respond would have been to stay cool and not to start firing off missiles at the journalists who, after all, are just doing their job.
The kind of response to come up with at such a moment is something like: “I’ll take that question in a moment or two when I’ve finished my statement” or, if the interruption comes while you’re answering a question from another reporter, say something like: “Just let me finish answering the question from your colleague and then I’ll take a couple of more questions.”
In other words, keep it low key. The more you raise the temperature, the more rattled you appear to be.
Then, there’s the whole question of how you end an encounter like this with journalists.
If you are suddenly surrounded by the media in this way, especially if you had not expected it and were not therefore very well prepared, don’t hang around for too long. The journalists will try to keep you there for as long as possible, in the hope that the longer it goes on, the more chance there is of you making a mistake in one of your answers that will make for a fantastic news story on tonight’s news or in tomorrow’s newspapers.
Moreover, the long it goes on, the more piercing some of the questions might become.
So, after you have answered the number of questions you’ve decided to take, leave straightaway. Don’t say you’re going and then keep coming back and forth as more questions are asked. That looks like somebody who doesn’t know if they are coming or going.
Tell the journalists something along these lines: “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. My company will be issuing a fuller statement later today. In the meantime, thank you for your time.”
Remember that the cameras will be rolling until you disappear. Therefore, a decisive departure will always look better.
There’s one other thing to bear in mind about the cameras. The crews will be filming from the minutes you step out of the taxi or walk out of your office door until, as just mentioned, you disappear.
The questions from the reporters might have ended but the journalists still have one eye on you as you walk away.
Let’s say this “doorstep” has happened in mid-January. It’s freezing cold – wintry conditions everywhere. As the CEO walks away from the media and heads into the entrance of the terminal building at Heathrow, he fails to notice there are some icy patches on the walkway. Suddenly, he slips on one of the icy bits and struggles not to fall over. He just about manages to regain his balance.
A reporter from one of the TV stations turns to his camera crew and asks: “Did you get him slipping on the ice?”. The camera technician confirms it. It’s gold dust for the reporter.
He or she starts their news report on the lunchtime news with pictures of the CEO slipping and the words: “The CEO of company XXX was quite obviously skating on thin ice today as he was engulfed by one of the biggest financial scandals ever to hit a UK company”.
So, when “doorsteped” by journalists, don’t just be careful with your words – also your actions.