The art of the media grab: Serving up a buffet, not a dog’s breakfast

What does a good media grab look like?

Federal politicians might reasonably be criticised for many things, but their ability to pump out media grabs isn’t usually one of them. In an age where audiences have short attention spans and will habitually disengage from anything meatier than a vegan’s salad sandwich, it is only through sheer necessity that politicians have honed the art of the soundbite, sometimes to grating effect.

We previously looked at an example of an ineffective grab – one that, against all the odds, managed to sneak through into the news report. Very rarely will bad grabs make their way into Australian living rooms, particularly when the topic is already complicated. Without simplifying the message (make your point in 5-10 seconds) and speaking plainly (avoid technical terms and industry jargon), the interviewee will struggle to have a share of voice in media coverage of any given issue.

If ever there has been a topic most likely to cause mass confusion or hysteria across the populous, it’s economics. Even highly media-trained politicians struggle to explain economic theory. John Hewson’s sell job on the concept of a GST in the lead-up to the 1993 federal election is perhaps the most infamous example.

John Hewson - The GST Interview (Source: YouTube)

Yet there are many fine examples of effective grabs and even rare occasions that they transcend from a 24 or 48-hour life cycle to being used to neatly define part of history.

Such was the case when former federal treasurer Peter Costello announced a baby bonus in the mid-2000s. In simplifying the premise behind the cash splash, Costello called for Australian couples to have “one for mum, one for dad and one for the country”. With a grab that succinct, there may even be room to include a second soundbite later in the news report. At the very least, time-poor journalists will make a note for next time. Journalists gravitate to interviewees that have a track record of producing punchy and meaningful grabs. Never underestimate the power of brevity.

In the world of grab-production, Costello was a large-scale factory. You can sample more of his wit here, such as this retort to Kevin Rudd in 2007: "If you do not understand the income tax system, you cannot understand the Australian economy. Tax thresholds do not cascade. Cascade is a form of beer".

It isn’t just the politicians who have had to hone their media skills. In an increasingly noisy environment, economists have made themselves more relevant to the media by learning to distil their expertise into neat grabs that can be dropped straight into the news coverage.

Deloitte Access Economics partner Chris Richardson was once asked about the effect of the federal government’s tax cuts and economic stimulus at a time when the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) was adjusting interest rates. An extensive Google search failed to turn up the precise quotation. Yet the fact it remains in the memory perhaps a decade later speaks to its effectiveness in succinctly summarising the situation in a way that someone with no understanding of economics can quickly grasp. Richardson’s response was something akin to: “The RBA has been firmly applying the brakes, but the government has hit the accelerator – it’s no wonder the economy is producing lots of smoke”.

Costello and Richardson would be marked in every journalist’s contact book as what the media calls “great talent” – people that understand how the media operates and adapt themselves accordingly.

How to produce great grabs

As interviewee, it’s your 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 your views. What are three tips to producing great grabs?

  1. Limit yourself to three key messages and practice delivering them all together in a neat package. Use the mirror.

  2. Speak plainly. Don’t use technical terms or industry jargon. If your 10-year-old can’t understand what you’re saying, go back to your notes and simplify the language further.

  3. Be succinct – delivering your message in 5-10 seconds will give you a much better chance of inclusion in the news coverage.

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