I was fortunate to attend a training course called “Dealing with the Press” at one of the top London press training agencies, used by politicians and newly-minted celebrities alike, where I had an eye-opening time learning how to conduct interviews in writing, telephone, face-to-face, radio and live TV, skills I have regularly used since.

“Dealing” with the press or public is a common, yet unfair description of the activity of PR. When it comes to the press they have a simple job – uncovering a relevant, interesting story then getting the facts that support that story (and if they are a good journalist filtering out the half-truths and blatant lies). True investigative journalism, sniffing out the unknown, has always been a specialised field as journalists are routinely pummelled with press releases from eager companies keen to gain free publicity and advertising. Journalists, mainstream press or specialist industry press, all maintain a regular roster of reliable sources to back up the initial headlines. Of course there is always the danger to the company of unleashing staff upon an inquisitive member of the press, as a poorly worded statement, fudge of facts or misquote can at best give a negative rather than positive spin to whatever information is being shared with the press, or – in the worst case – send a companies share price plunging. As we often see with politicians on TV the trick in a really hard interview is to control what you are talking about, and to answer what you want to rather than what may be being asked. Stick to script, know in advance what you want to say, bridge over trouble.

Yet they rarely are stressful or risky, as journalists are an amiable gang who just want the story, facts and copy as soon as possible to satisfy an impatient editor. The way to a journalist’s heart is often a well-written press release that can be used verbatim and your number to call with questions.

Having been responsible for customer experience for a consumer marketing department with over a million customers I understood that Public Relations is more about having a good customer service team in place and the dissemination of information relating to your product and service offerings, FAQs, facilitation of problem escalation and creating a sense of open lines of communication with customers – both active and potential. All companies at one time or another will have a crisis, either real or imagined, that can impact public perception. How this is dealt with is a mark of the senior management’s capabilities, the proactive planning of all involved (I ensure my company had pre-crisis planning in place for a variety of scenarios, often taken from the horror stories of competitors) and the sheer honesty of the organisation in the near-transparency of a 21st century, social media-driven company (I am very cautious about to whom I give the keys to any corporate Facebook or Twitter account).

At the most basic level customers who have genuine problems should be given genuine resolution and restitution. I highly recommend everyone in a company regularly takes calls from customers to the help line/call centre – an eye opening experience to senior management who are far from the coal-face they help create – as well as make available contact information for customers to directly access relevant staff (although I appreciate this needs to be done with caution as disgruntled customers should always be dealt with first by specifically-trained customers support staff). What I found worked well was having the call centre escalation team send me and my team directly the real problem cases – the 1% of issues where a personal call from a company director can turn a furious, near-former customer into a future advocate.

Public Relations = the personal touch.