Books: Say no to 'no comment' - Peter Hobday's guide to handling journalists is so loaded with common sense that David Brewerton wonders why it wasn't written before

Books: Say no to 'no comment' - Peter Hobday's guide to handling journalists is so loaded with common sense that David Brewerton wonders why it wasn't written before - MANAGING THE MESSAGE by Peter Hobday. London House pounds 16.99.

by DAVID BREWERTON
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

MANAGING THE MESSAGE by Peter Hobday. London House pounds 16.99.

Don't you just love reading stories where you know the plot and the ending? Especially if they are about a subject that to many is a mysterious black art. Reading about a familiar subject can make us far more critical - and far more enthusiastic - by turns than we would be about a subject that merely interests us.

When it comes to managing the media, Peter Hobday knows his stuff. He should, too, having spent a long career in print and broadcast journalism, including 14 years on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. Today still instils the greatest respect and the greatest fear among my clients - few of the candidates paraded through the court of Humphrys and MacGregor emerge with their reputations enhanced. Those who do are well-remembered, at least in our game.

If any politician or businessman were to read, digest, memorise and then act on every piece of advice in Hobday's tome, they could go on the Today programme as often as Michael Howard used to with ease, and each day would walk that little bit taller.

Despite his many years in broadcasting, Hobday's roots in print journalism manifest themselves frequently in the book. At times this is a negative aspect - at one point I felt I was reading a piece of freelance copy belted off the word processor in exchange for a modest fee. But, mostly, I felt I was reading such a commonsense approach to dealing with the media that I thought somebody must have written this book before.

The approach is practical yet entertaining, constantly reinforcing my own view as to what is required for a successful hearing in the media. And it starts with recognising the need to understand what the various media do, and don't, want.

Many times clients have told me that they do not want to deal with this or that particular journalist, 'because they do not like us and want to damage us'. But the truth is, journalists on the whole have neither the time nor the emotional energy to engage in vendettas against people who do not matter to them. Life is simply too short.

The curious thing is, although few journalists can be bothered to hate particular companies or individuals, the same is not true the other way around. Business people frequently voice their dislike either of the media in general or of particular journalists. As Hobday says, when he has done media training, it usually involved 'talking to scared executives at the highest level and listening to them rant about how much they hated the media.'

Business people mistake, far too often, the posing of a tough question for hostility. It is a major part of my job to prepare clients for the tough question. I remember one Sunday afternoon sitting with a client about to reveal some very unpleasant trading news and rehearsing him for the inevitable grilling.

'David,' he said at last, 'why are you doing this to me?'

'Because they will do it to you tomorrow.'

'But they are my friends.'

When it comes to a story, friendship is some help, but does not prevent the tough question, any more than a lack of friendship creates the tough question. What a decent relationship between a business person and a journalist can do is get business people a hearing.

It is in this area that I find this otherwise excellent guidebook slightly lacking, and where Hobday's experience of politics and broadcast media over that of business and print media leaves the reader at a disadvantage.

Both politics and broadcast media lean in the direction of confrontation.

Business and print media lean in the direction of longer-term relationships.

Getting an audience and being given the benefit of the doubt can be invaluable.

It can avoid the drama turning into a crisis. It is never too soon to begin to forge an understanding with the media, which has its own - but legitimate - agenda.

David Brewerton, a former business editor of The Times, is a partner in Brunswick Public Relations.

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