'Lean forward a bit darling', Experiences of working with the media,
Dr. Nick Hiley.
Nick Hiley is the Head of the British Cartoon Archive. The Cartoon Archive Rapid Digitisation project digitised 14,500 political cartoons as well as 1,300 seaside postcards prosecuted for obscenity by the Director of Public Prosecutions. This latter collection caught the imagination of the media, and gave Nick exposure to working with newspapers and television on a local and national level. Here, he outlines the lessons he learned from the experience.
You want control of your message, but you can't have it. You will lose the power to define your message, except in its bare outlines. You won't be able to see the news item before it is broadcast, or printed, or put on the web. You won't be able to correct it afterwards. Your name will be spelled wrongly and pronounced wrongly, but you won't have to mind.
The media are dedicated to personality-based entertainment. You are going to have to provide them with a personality, who is going to have to perform if your message is to get across.
You need to divide your message into its constituent elements, starting with the absolute basics. You want to publicise your institution, so you want the media to get the name (and hopefully the location) right.
Prepare press releases, and if possible material on a website to which news media can be referred.
You may be part of a larger institution, and you may desperately want to publicise the funder of a particular project. Forget it - the media are interested in a single person telling a simple story, and they are not interested in the University of Kent, or the Higher Education Funding Council.
Prepare some images without copyright problems - either you own the copyright, or copyright has expired, or you have agreed with the copyright owner that these images can be used. This will help you to control some of the reporting.
Prepare some quotations that you know will be used. This may involve compromising your message from the start, but it will give you some measure of control.
Think hard about those aspects of the story which could be mishandled. Be prepared for the awkward questions - “why should taxpayers be paying for this?” - which might take your story in a different direction. These will often be dropped on you at the end of an interview.
You want the media to help you with your work, but try to recognise the point at which you start helping the media with its work. If you get asked for four images for a newspaper, that's fine and they are helping you. If the Daily Mail asks for twenty-five images for its website, you may think that it is wonderful publicity, but in fact you are helping them, and they are likely to give you very little credit.
You should also realise the amount of time which encounters with the media can take. They will not necessarily be very efficient at what they do, and a short TV item will take at least three hours. A single section of a TV documentary could tie up your entire staff for a day. You need to think about charging for the sheer disruption, and discussing this with the TV company before the cameras arrive.
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