January 5, 2012

Tim Mahon and the Training & Simulation Forum (Part Three)

This is the final installment of my interview with Tim, whom by now you know is a great writer with a lot to say (check out part one and two of our discussion). Today, Tim gives us a little advice on how to propose story ideas and why we all need to recognize we’re on the same team working toward a common goal – a good story!
I’m sure this isn’t the last conversation we’ll have with Tim and I hope this has inspired you to join the Forum.
DTP: What advice do you have for PR and marketing people who want to pitch you and/or contribute to TSF?
TM: Be honest and forthright. Not every journalist out there is a scandal-monger, seeking to embarrass, expose or vilify you in print. Some of us work very hard at finding the positive side of any story and relating it to the most important part of any social, political or industrial construct – the people. Sure, we will ask searching questions. Yes, some of them may have the perceived potential to be embarrassing. But I firmly believe that if you have a good relationship and open communication with a journalist, you should be able to help him or her shape a story that retains objectivity while not being an ‘in your face’ damnation of the company or ministry you represent. Honesty, in this case, is the best policy by an almost incalculable margin.
There are lots of cynical journalists out there. That is a given. It’s worth asking, however, what made them cynical in the first place!
Be prepared to add context that brings value to a story, please. An announcement that Liverpool Floggletoggle Limited has delivered the last three MysticKey Widgets to the Ministry of Irrelevance may have some value for a list of industrial contracts. But for an interactive service aimed at informing people as to what is important, it would be far more effective to provide information on what this contract has meant for local employment, what interest has been expressed by other potential customers, what are the enabling technologies or how the wretched thing actually works. You can’t put all this in the press release, I realize that. But you can, when approached for further information, find an answer better than “it’s all in the release.” That defeats both parties in a single brilliant stroke of apathy.
Oh! And images, please. The Internet has given rise to a thirst for imagery that grows unceasingly. Print pubs will need hi-res photos, web-based services will prefer low-res. But they need to be stimulating and relevant. Let’s see equipment in people’s hands, not photos of a black box in a pristine factory environment that demonstrates how uncannily like a black box it looks.
And as to contributors to the Forum, the fist article of faith above is the overriding consideration. Be honest. You can be controversial, provocative, questioning, humorous, even transparently self-serving. But please – be honest!
DTP: What is your perspective on the influence of social media and journalism?
TM: Three years ago I ran for political office here in the UK at the local level. I learned a great deal from that experience, not the least aspect of which was how to be gracious when coming second. The most important thing, however, was seeing how the use of social media on my behalf by my mentor engaged the electorate and brought into starkly clear focus the issues on which we needed to campaign. The fact that it was potholes, parking and planning applications rather than my frankly Benthamist approach to seeking the greatest good of the greatest number did not detract one iota from the power of that lesson learned.
Fast forward to 2011. We started to use social media as a means of promoting the Forum about three months ago and the results have been staggering. We have much to learn yet and a great deal of experimenting to conduct, but we can already see the results of our Twittering and LinkedIn efforts far outweigh direct mail and personal contact in driving engagement.
I come from the ‘digital colonist’ generation, unlike my 21 year old nephew with prehensile thumbs and a complete lack of fear about potentially exposing his views to the entire planet. Social media was an uncomfortable foray into the unknown for me. But I am enormously pleased that my initial efforts have proven to be wonderfully productive. I have seen the light!
Journalists tend to be Type A personalities and have almost as many opinions (if not more) as the numbers of questions asked. Blogging is a heaven-sent opportunity to ‘let loose the dogs of war’ and engage in direct contact with the readership. Small wonder there are so many bloggers out there!
DTP: What is the biggest mistake (or missed opportunity) you see PR people make when pitching you and your colleagues?
TM: Transparent apathy, if I can call it that without causing unnecessary offence. It’s the antithesis of the “be honest” article of faith mentioned above. Issue a press release that says nothing much and deliberately avoids answering questions obvious to the meanest observer and you have a recipe for the release to be ignored. Organising a press visit or briefing for which the presentation slides cannot be released means we have to take more copious notes and risk missing the essential additional or anecdotal points made by the presenter. It wastes everybody’s time and effort. Sitting at a press dinner next to an executive who doesn’t know (or care) why he is sharing a rubber chicken with a member of the Fourth Estate, or what he is ‘allowed’ to say, is an exercise in frustration.
All these mistakes, errors, missed opportunities etc., can be cured with frankness, openness and honesty. The answer to a question you can’t answer is “Sorry, chum – I can’t answer that.” Most of us are intelligent individuals with an appreciation of the limitations and restrictions under which you operate. We understand there are some questions it is impolitic for you to answer. But that won’t stop us asking them, or speculating on the reasons (if the question is legitimate) they can’t be answered.
And press conferences need a real purpose. At an event like Farnborough we as individual journalists need to choose carefully among the dozens of events taking place at the same time. To turn up at a conference the theme of which is “We are holding this conference because we always hold one at Farnborough to tell you what we said last week/month/year” is not an ultimately productive policy, dare I say. 
DTP: Any words of wisdom for the defence community that you’d like to share? Any information about TSF that you want people to know about?
TM: Defence is an insurance policy and carries with it the necessity of paying a premium. We may not like the size of the premium and we are entitled to discuss and debate methods of providing the insurance more effectively. But it is pointless to try to do away with the responsibility of paying those premiums. If I insured my car for theft only and watched it burn to the sills as a result of a car park fire, would I be entitled to moan at the insurer? We need to ensure that our defence planners are empowered to prepare responses to a wide range of existing and emerging threats – not just able to respond to yesterday’s events.
What do I want people to know about Training & Simulation Forum? I want them to know, perceive and believe it is their Forum, not ours. If the dream of making this the Forum for informed debate, sharing and polling of resources, experience and expertise, it is up to us to provide the facility – and up to the wide world out there to take advantage of us.
Come on in, folks – the water is fabulous!

Photo Credit: Ian Kahn


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