Distilling 10,000 hours of expertise into five seconds of news

In an age of rampant distrust of expertise – be it doctors, economists or climate scientists – it may be surprising to see that the media still values expert analysis when compiling television, radio and written news. The availability of expertise gives the media credibility still not otherwise achievable through shoving a camera in the face of a random person in the Westfield nearest to the newsroom. In this respect, at least, the rules of the media game haven’t changed.

But expertise is rarely required in all its 10,000 hours of practised glory. Journalists simply don’t have the time to get stuck into the detail and neither do their audience. Expertise must be simplified – dumbed down to everyday language – and presented with an appropriate tone.

The traditional news grab – or “soundbite” – is as relevant as ever. It’s the interviewee’s job to dish up a buffet of tasty grabs, not the journalists job to sort through the expertise and find a section that succinctly summarises the interviewee’s position.

What not to do

Source: Twitter

The media management of a recent explosion on a suburban train in Sydney provides some insights into what it looks like when the information isn’t distilled and the tone is off-the-mark.

Sydney Trains understandably avoids using the word “explosion”, but when witnesses describe an “almighty bang”, “kaboom” and “firecrackers”, there is no point arguing semantics with a busy journalist.

The spokesman – in this case chief executive Howard Collins – uses a technical explanation, describing the incident as “a flashover of the static inverter on top of the Waratah train… that caused debris to fall outside the train, and also some interior damage”. It’s likely the grab used is actually a fusion of two separate responses – which suggests there wasn’t a suitable grab dished up – but in any case, as media grabs go, this doesn’t cut it for two reasons:

  1. Technical descriptions don’t translate to the audience. If your media response relies on terms such as “flashover” and “static inverter”, it’s time to go back and simplify further.

  2. The tone and language could be perceived as an effort to downplay the significance of an incident that had the potential to injure a passenger.

Here are two simple solutions to improve the grab and get your messages across:

1. Boil it down

Wherever possible, use common speak to explain events. A static inverter is clearly an important piece of electrical equipment for the Sydney Trains engineers, but for the purposes of media interviews the term “electrical equipment in the train’s roof” would suffice.

Similarly, rather than “flashover”, the term “short-circuited” would translate more effectively to the target audience.

2. Set the right tone

When your job is to get people from A to B safely, any time the passengers hear an explosion-like noise and watch parts of the train blow off, landing where people normally stand, there will be cause for concern. You should share this concern and demonstrate in your response that you take seriously the responsibility to provide safe travel.

Phrases such as “some interior damage” and debris “falling outside of the train” read like weasel words straight out of Yes Minister. When the media has images of multiple sections of roof on the platform, euphemisms make a spokesman look silly and do nothing to demonstrate a concern for potential victims.

The aftermath of an incident is the time when others will tend to over-react or exaggerate. There can be a temptation to act like the least concerned person in the room, downplaying the seriousness of the incident. This tends to backfire. The opposite is a better approach.

You should see it as an opportunity to emphasise your organisation’s commitment to safety. Ultimately, most organisations are genuinely serious about safety – no one wants to see a customer, employee or bystander injured – so use the opportunity to talk about why safety will always be your number one goal and why you feel like you have let your customers and yourself down.

A better grab

Journalists want a succinct explanation of events. For Sydney Trains, this might be: “Our initial investigation has found that a part of the train carriage’s electrical system short-circuited, which damaged the roof and has caused understandable concern to passengers and inconvenience to other commuters”.

But your primary job is to create a memorable grab. In this case, you might go for: “While we’re relieved no one was injured in this isolated incident, that doesn’t change our commitment to fully investigate how it occurred so passengers can have every confidence that their train journeys will continue to be safe”.

For more tips on producing a memorable and effective media grab, click here.

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