Interview by Magdalena Ball
Excerpt from the Media Magnetism
Inspiration often arrives at unexpected moments and in diverse forms. This book, for instance, owes its origins to a pack of Crest Glide dental floss. I had been sent by the local newspaper to do a feature story on the latest charity project of a prominent philanthropist. He graciously invited me to his office, pointed me to a comfortable chair and listened with interest to my prep-talk on how the interview would proceed as I set up my audio recording equipment on his desk. Within the first minute of my starting the tape, he casually reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew a white plastic container. I initially thought that it contained breath mints and was, thus, perplexed when he unspooled a long strand of dental floss. Having interviewed former smokers who occasionally rely on “props” to give their hands something to do, I assumed this was just one of the quirkier choices. You can imagine my reaction when he began using it for its actual purpose. If you’ve ever tried to decipher what someone is saying when they’re in a cavernous mid-yawn, try doing it when they’re aggressively going after mystery particles on their back molars. Over the course of 20 minutes – although it seemed much longer – he not only executed an intensely methodical cleaning worthy of a dental hygienist but also deposited all of his floss shrapnel in a messy, discolored mound right next to my microphone. No matter how scintillating or insightful the takeaway value of the feature story which was subsequently published, I can no longer see this man’s name or hear about the good deeds of his organization without recalling that unflattering image and feeling instantly repulsed. I’m guessing that’s probably not the message he was going for.
What possesses an otherwise articulate, intelligent and well groomed person to perform personal hygiene tasks in front of a total stranger? Were his actions a purposeful show of disdain for media intrusions on his life? Did he have someplace else he had to be immediately after our appointment and was just multi-tasking to save a trip to the bathroom? Had I inadvertently donned my cloak of invisibility and caused him to think he was talking to himself?
I’m so glad you provided us with the floss example. It really does boggle the mind that someone could even carry on a conversation while flossing, let alone conduct a formal interview. Is that the most extreme example you’ve come across?
I do think that is the weirdest. One of my colleagues shared a story about an interview she conducted via phone for her radio show. She started doing the interview and she heard this strange clicking noise and was trying to figure out where it was coming from. She checked and worked out that it wasn’t coming from her end and so she told him that she thought it might have been coming from his end and he responded by telling her that he was clipping his toenails. She asked him why he was clipping his toenails during her interview and he said, “Oh it’s radio, so no one can see me.” It’s extraordinary the things people think they can get away with.
You’ve mentioned how the book was inspired by the bad examples you’ve seen, but how did you get from cringing to the point where you knew a book was in order.
Well I do lots of media interviews, especially for the local press here in Southern California, with people from all corners of the world, and one of the things I quickly realised, certainly at the local level, was that no matter how well someone runs a business, they completely freeze up when they have to deal with someone from the media. I think that’s because there is a lot of misinformation about the media, and so what tends to happen is that they’re either excited that anyone is paying attention to them and they go overboard and are too friendly, or become terrified which I think is a product of how they see journalists portrayed in television shows. I’ve experienced this myself when I went to interview someone who sells cupcakes and I said “Oh this is interesting. Why did you go into the cupcake business?” The woman slit her eyes and folded her arms and asked “Oh, why do you want to know?” I said “I’m just asking about your cupcakes – I don’t know why you’re so defensive about it.”
I thought that the book was needed so that people knew how to react favorably. In the case of book authors, so many of them feel “I wrote a book and I should be on Oprah or I should be on the radio and the problem is that the media outlet is so often perceived as “you’re doing me a great favor by promoting my book” but the problem is that the media outlet is looking to promote stories that are going to appeal to their target audiences and resonate with them. It’s never about putting the emphasis on selling the book or the cupcakes. It’s about using your credentials to show that you’re the best expert on the creation of cupcakes or your book’s subject matter.
One of the consistent messages that comes out of the book with all the different experts is this emphasis on the public, and seeing that the media is neither trying to be aggressive or tease out what’s negative about you but nor are they there to promote you and I guess that the change in perspective about the media’s role is a big jump.
Absolutely. You need to know the listeners and readers and target demographic and they are really the media’s focus. But the book does address the issue that can occur when a company has created a negative issue and how to wriggle out of those embarrassing situations. For example, maybe you’ve used something new in your product, and the first time you go to wash it all the chemicals dissipate all over. So with these negative situations that can happen, the very first thing anyone should do is see it as an opportunity to turn it into something positive. You might say something like “We are now imposing new safety measures.” “We’re instituting higher standards of safety.” “We’re taking this opportunity to self-correct and reinvent ourselves.” The positive thing is being prepared for anything that can go wrong, which will make it significantly less likely that something will go wrong.
In the many years you’ve been dealing with the media, in one form or another, I bet you’ve seen some changes.
I think the biggest change related to marketing and promotion is that there are so many digital options available now for authors, artists, entrepreneurs, and businesses to get their message out and one example of this which is constantly escalating is the whole notion of social media. People often make the mistake that they can promote, promote, promote for free through social media channels through Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. They think they can just do it themselves and a couple of times a day just blast out “look at me, buy my cupcakes, read my book” and it’s never going to be a complete substitute for traditional media because not all of their audience demographic will be part of their social media group. Not everyone you want to reach is reading your Twitters or Facebook updates.
The other issue is that many people have a problem distinguishing personal from professional. As an example, I have a colleague who is a great ghostwriter and she’s doing great and we’re all very happy for her, except that she’s a single mum and she posts all these things on Facebook – “Oh I met a new guy; he’s really great; I think he’d be a great father to my daughter. I wonder if he’s going to call.” And then a few days later she’d post up something like “I’m really depressed, he hasn’t called. I wonder if it’s because I’m fat and ugly and I’ll never be with someone again”. So many people, including prospective clients are realising how active people are on social media. You’ve heard the story of people who’ve applied for a job and employers go to see their Facebook page and see pictures of parties they’ve posted and think “Hmm, perhaps he doesn’t have the level of maturity we’re looking for.” People who are looking to hire someone might go to see what they’re Twittering. So as much as I like this person, I’d never hire them. I’m going to go with someone who isn’t just opening up their heart and just spilling it over the page. So that’s a really big concern that people need to be conscious of.
I suppose there was a time when those in need of media support hired a PR person, but nowadays we all need to learn how to handle the media don’t we?
I think that there are people who do need to hire public relations people to manage their account and their image and we cover this in the book in the context that readers will not only come away with the knowledge of how the media works and how they can apply this to their own situation but also how to obtain help with their peer marketing with their exposure. This is a very important job and it’s not the kind of job you’ll just hand over to your nephew who’s not doing anything. You start to know enough about content to recognise that when you need help and have a job that requires a professional. I don’t have the time or the talent to handle all of my media relations anymore. You do need to know what to look for in an agency that you’re going to hire and what your expectations are for that person. if you hire just a one person small town advertising agency, it’s probably a little unrealistic to say “Oh can you get me on Letterman”. You’re both going to be disappointed when that doesn’t happen. So you need to know what they can and can’t do and what you need them to do and what you can do on your own.
Buzz is getting people excited about what you do and creating a call to action – whether it’s to open their mind, open their heart and move them to do what you want. The distinction here is between want and need. When you’re offering an upper end luxury product you have a much bigger challenge in creating a buzz than you would if you were opening a new grocery store that sold fresh everything at the lowest prices in town. The basic necessities are things that people need to have – they need to have a roof over their head, they need to have food, they need to have some way to stay warm The other things are things that people want to have: maybe status symbols that might impress the neighbors or make them feel good, but that’s a very hard thing to create buzz for in the current economy. Most people will place needs ahead of wants.
I don’t think there is any such thing as bad publicity because bad publicity is always an opportunity to make yourself look better. It also means that people are talking about you, which his far better than people being blasé about you or not knowing you at all. If you’re moving forward, keeping your finger on the pulse of what your audience wants from you it will help generate buzz which will create more buzz as people talk to other people about you and pretty soon everyone’s buzzing and you’re the queen bee.
The book has a lot of experts – in a diverse range of fields. How did you decide who to include?
That was tough. Some of them were people who I interact with on a regular basis. I was looking for people who had years of experience in print, in design, in social media, because I wanted to have a broad spectrum. I wanted to have male, female, different ethnicities – because every one of these experts thinks in a different way. It’s like going into a conference and hearing different speakers and some will resonate with you personally more than others. So I wanted to have those different voices and also wanted people who were good writers as well – people who could explain things in layman’s terms, user-friendly terms that the average working person could understand. Because sometimes if you work in an industry for a long time you know everything to do and all the shortcuts it’s hard to explain it to someone else – it’s like another language. So I wanted to find people who had both the calibre of experience I was looking for but who could also write in a conversational way. It took over 6 months to pull all of this together. The majority of this was done by email and once I had all the data I faced the bigger challenge of gathering together all this amazing data which was all coming to the table at once. Then I had to figure out what’s the best order – the easiest start to finish way for my readership to be able to go to it from start to finish and find the information they needed easily.
Did you provide assignments for your experts or did they have carte blanche on what they could write?
What I did at the beginning was that I had an outline of all the topics that I wanted to cover and I was using two sources – one of which was Reporter Connection and the other was Help A Reporter Out. I posted ads on both of those sites telling people what I was doing and asking them to let me know, if they were interested, what their level of expertise and experience was. Once I had my talent, I provided them with a table of contents, and told them to pick the topics that were in their biggest area of expertise and that they wanted to write on. Then I created a master list with all the topics and what was still needed to be filled. As this was going on I discovered a few areas that hadn’t been covered and I needed to put out a second call to fill those holes – following the same criteria. It was a fun project.
I bet. You’re an expert on dealing with the media yourself, but did you find you were learning new things as you worked through the material?
Yes, I was. My background is that I hold a degree in communications with a focus in audience analysis and message design, and this has served me well in all areas of writing that I do – it’s all about working out what your audience wants and what’s going to resonate with them. So Media Magnetism was the kind of book, given my background and my experiences, I’d originally planned to write myself. But the more I thought about it the more I thought that I needed the credibility and interest of multiple voices and experiences, and I was learning a lot. I thought I knew a lot but I did come across a range of interesting perspectives. What was very refreshing for me was that when the book came out and my two dozen experts received their copies the universal comment that they were repeating was “Oh, I had no idea I was in the company of that person.” It was like 24 new relationships were fostered through this project – it brought so many people working together and they’re all now working together, supporting one another, and that’s a very satisfying element that I’ve been able to bring these people together.
You’ve done so many different things and written on so many topics. Is there a project you’re hankering after?
One of the reasons I never get writers block is that I have so many different things going on at the same time, and they all call upon different skill sets and different writing styles. Right now I’m doing a lot of plays for young people and for the first time I can talk about an exciting project we’re working on Seussifying Shakespeare. I’ve found out that a lot of young people like Dr Seuss. The reason Shakespeare’s work is still being read and studied so many years on is because of the timeless themes of love, revenge, fortunes and poverty – you can take anything you want out of this and put it in any genre and it’s still captivating. So my playwriting partner and I are captivated to create this project for contemporary drama students. We’ve done “Meet the Macbeths” and “Hamlet Hears a Who” and we’re now working on Romeo and Juliet set in a restaurant with the Capulets and Montigues who are working in competing restaurants – one of the reasons they don’t want their children to get together. I’m also working on lots of other things – ghostwriting, and also script consulting for the film industry which means that I’ve stopped some really bad films from coming to a theatre near you. But I have to tap into my schedule somehow to find time for naps. I think I’m working 29 hours a day – not sure how I’m managing it.
How can readers find out more about you and your many books?
My principal website to stay on top of the plays and the book – I also do online classes in playwriting and screenwriting and fiction – all of these things are at www.authorhamlett.com.
To find out more about Media Magnetism, go to www.mediamagnetism.org and that is the companion website to the book and every month I have guests for even more subjects from around the world so if you don’t find something in the book just finish the website chances are you’ll find it there, and then some.
About the interviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.