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Career development: Dealing with the media


As their media presence increases, planners need to understand how to portray themselves – and the profession – in the best light. Helen Bird finds out what you need to know when talking to the press

Let’s face it, planning is news. Large-scale regenerations, new developments, transport link improvements, the housing crisis – all are matters that thrust planners into the public eye, and yet most planners receive no formal training in communicating with the public.

Talking to the press, whether it be for print or broadcast media, is an important skill that, more likely than not, planners will need to draw upon at some point in their careers. But they must first understand how to approach it to communicate their message effectively.

Fiona Edwards: The bigger picture

Fiona Edwards, development planning manager for Cheshire West and Chester Council, was part of the planning team featured in the BBC Two series Permission Impossible.

“We were approached by the BBC and I met the producer to discuss whether we would be willing to take part. I was pretty sceptical to begin with, because I didn’t really want to take part in what I thought could be another planner-bashing series. But we volunteered to do it because we saw it as an opportunity to promote the profession, as well as the borough.

"After the first episode aired I was asked to go on BBC Breakfast. That is a bit nerve-racking because you’re going on live TV, and you’re not given the questions beforehand, which makes you think: 'I hope I don’t clam up'. But luckily I didn’t.

"Be honest, because if you’re a planner you’re in it because you’re proud of your profession. Working as a local authority planning officer, you’re not in it to make loads of money and cover yourself in glory; you’re there because you want to make a difference. So be yourself, and be proud of what you do.

"At my council, all of our planning committee meetings are now live webcasts, so although there aren’t intrusive cameras in your face, you are aware that what you’re saying is going out to a live audience, no matter how small it is. One of the most difficult things is trying to keep a passive face when somebody is saying something that you really don’t agree with. No matter how gifted you are in front of a camera, your emotions, hand gestures, the movement of your features, can give away what you’re really thinking.

"It’s important to promote the work that planners do. People think that we’ve got ulterior motives, that we’ve got some sort of personal hidden agenda, but we truly haven’t – we’re just really passionate about what we do. We wouldn’t come to work if we weren’t.”

The interview

Usually, journalists will already know what they want to say – they just need you to help them say it. Very rarely are they out to trick you.If they do become pushy when questioning you it’s important to keep your cool and stick to the point.

Don’t assume knowledge – communicate in jargon-free language and try to be as helpful as possible.

Rather than treat the interview as a Q&A session, try to offer responses that answer the question while introducing a new idea that will interest the audience. This way you have more control. Finding different ways to repeat your key points, such as by using examples, lets the journalist know what you think is important.

Anticipate any sensitive issues to prepare your most effective lines of response, with evidence to back up your case.

Know your boundaries – if you’re asked something that is not your responsibility, pass it on to the appropriate person for response.

Avoid saying “no comment” when asked about a difficult issue, as it makes you look guilty. If you can, give reasons why you may not be able to fully answer the question.

Ultimately, it is the audience – not the journalist – that you should keep in mind throughout the interview.

With thanks to Tom Maddocks, course director at Media Training Associates

James White: Prepare for the spotlight

James White is managing director of communication training specialist Media First

“Planning is such a hot topic and has the potential to be very emotive to nearly all of the population.

"A planner could affect many people’s lives with their decisions so they’re bound to attract the attention of the media.
"It’s vital that anyone speaking to journalists – whether this is a planned or unplanned interaction – has the skills and confidence to deal with the interview professionally, politely, confidently and coherently. They have to be able to manage a political minefield and deliver their thoughts in a manner that their audience will understand.

"The best media training will help you to prepare your messages quickly and give the confidence and ability to handle even the most contentious of questions. Each case is different but it pays to keep the audience at the forefront of your mind and show compassion and humility. This not only applies to what you say but how you say it.

"If something has gone wrong you must demonstrate that you are taking it seriously by giving examples of how you are trying to fix it.

"Using appropriate examples and human case studies will really help you to reinforce your points and regain control of a tricky interview. The news is full of people putting their side of the story forward, so you need to work with your communications team to ensure that you have positive examples in place to help you manage any difficult times.

"Each type of interview is different and the techniques required to deliver an effective interview are also different. For example, it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security when you’re doing a phone interview as we are so used to talking on the phone. There’s also a big difference in how you manage live and recorded interviews. It’s all about understanding what the journalist needs, what the audience wants and what your organisation has to say.

"Preparation and practice are key.  Ask colleagues to ask you questions and help you figure out how you should respond to them. You are unlikely to have all the answers to hand and that’s where the value of media training comes in.

"Never cram too many messages into your interviews. In our training we ask delegates to focus on three key points but to just have one key point that they want people to remember.

"Once you’ve decided on your message, make sure you get it out early in the interview – and then keep reiterating it in different guises.”


Top tips

1. Always involve your communications or media team;

2. Don’t be afraid of the media – it’s a powerful tool that will help you communicate to your audience really effectively; and

3. Know your limits and get some media training.


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