April 28, 2020
The new COVID-19 working environment certainly represents a watershed moment for media relations even if there’s a desire for continuity from the media. While interview opportunities for clients have continued with little respite, routine public relations practices have undoubtedly changed. Among the most obvious has been the growing use of videoconferencing for media interviews and client meetings – a trend likely to continue long after the lockdown has ended.
For clients and journalists alike, the era of Zoom and Skype is upon us. So, we best adapt.
Besides turning everyone and their uncles into part-time quizmasters, the advantages of videoconferencing solutions have proven numerous. It’s a terrific medium for maintaining the personable nature of a face-to-face interview and allowing conversations to flow – aided by the nuances only visual cues and facial expressions can provide. It even removes some of the PR’s bigger concerns, such as the supposedly ‘off-the-record’ post-interview elevator question.
Yet, if not managed correctly, the medium’s pitfalls can be equally large in number. Indeed, there’s a whole new ‘videoconferencing etiquette’ emerging likely to form a key element of any future media training courses. Here’s our thoughts on what to include:
- Addressing the tech issues
Too many videoconferences fail even before you can say: “Can you hear me now?”
Ensuring that interviewees can access the conference ahead of the start time, complete with a strong wi-fi connection, is essential. Good-quality headphones can help prevent grating feedback being audible, while also blocking out any (albeit faint) distractions. Our advice is to have a dry-run (or two) to ensure that all participants understand the basic features, such as muting and screen-sharing. That way, you can eliminate the risk of a tense spokesperson before the first (real) question is asked.
- Get the backdrop right
Ensure that any background views are neutral. While the ‘Rishi Sunak’s bookcase backdrop’ is the envy of us all, it’s unlikely to build rapport with a journalist. Interviewees should therefore avoid the temptation to show off memorabilia or a stunning vista: the call is about relationship-building with a journalist and therefore should focus on the interviewee’s expertise and knowledge rather than his or her enviable surroundings.
- Smile, you’re on camera
Interviewees should be aware of their facial expressions. Any signs of mild irritation or discomfort at a particular question will be amplified by the format (and reviewable if the interview is being recorded). Yet the same applies the other way. The journalist’s facial expressions can signal if their interest is waning – an enormous benefit over the phone call interview.
One final tip: the ‘80/20 rule’ often used for eye contact still applies – instead, interviewees should focus their attention on the camera rather than the journalist on the screen. It’s far more engaging.
- How to dress
One that splits opinion is clothing etiquette, so it’s important to stress that there’s a balance to strike. The blazer or full suit is best left to MPs at virtual Prime Minister’s Questions, though interviewees can still strike the wrong note if they look like they’ve just woken up or come in from exercising.
- Beware the screenshare
The screen-share function is a welcome addition to the media interview. When used correctly (as a visual aid rather than a walk-through of a full PowerPoint deck) it can make press engagements far more polished. Yet it’s a tool to be mastered. Fumbling around looking for the right file while on live screen-share can inadvertently present a security issue with journalists getting a sneaky peak at that confidential spreadsheet or email exchange. Though many platforms give the user control over which windows to be shared, ‘better safe than sorry’ comes to mind. Close all windows before beginning the call.
- Avoiding disruptions
Professor Robert Kelly’s BBC interview, in which he was interrupted by his children, is now part of media relations folklore, to the extent that similar intrusions have even been faked. Yet there is no guarantee the journalist will find an interviewee’s children or pet cute. Undeniably, the merging of home and work life presents challenges but, to some extent, these can be controlled. Scheduling crucial engagements for times when disruptions can be minimised is important, as is the space to conduct the interview (while retaining that important wi-fi connection). Also, putting your phone on flight mode and exiting any apps that push out notifications can prevent those annoying pings and beeps that can zap concentration and irritate others.
Of course, all the many other rules of engagement are still in play: from understanding what is ‘on’ and ‘off’ the record; avoiding criticism of rivals, arguments and self-deprecation to name a few. There’s plenty to remember when engaging the media and, while much of it can be filed as common sense, the odd refresher can come in handy from time to time – especially in this new environment.
“Now, did you catch all that or was I on mute?”