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Mike Bithell's golden rules for media

Volume, Thomas Was Alone designer offers up advice to indies who haven't had any media training

Hey, indies who've never acted as a spokesperson for someone else's company.

If you've never had to talk on behalf of others, chances are you've never 'done' media training. It's pretty standard practice at big companies: Oh shit, Mike has quite a few twitter followers and is doing interviews, let's get him trained up so he doesn't say something stupid.

So, I've been media trained (taught best practice for talking to journalists), I'm no expert, but I have a couple of bullet points in my head during most interviews, and following some recent interviews that seemed to lead a dev down an odd path, I thought I'd share them, for free! Go me. Heroic, I am.

(Disclaimers: 95 percent of game journos are not trying to be dickheads. Their primary goal is to serve their readership and get views, but they won't do that at the expense of ruining your day. Problem is, the 5 percent don't wear handy dickhead badges. Also, thinking about this stuff can make you a bit robotic, and less interesting to interview. So bear that in mind too: basically, feel free to ignore this stuff, but be aware of the risks involved in doing so).

1) It's OK to refuse an interview

No journalist is owed your time, just like you are owed zero column inches on any website. It's a symbiotic relationship, but don't feel pressured into answering every request for interview. If an outlet seems dodgy to you, or you're aware the journalist in question has written nasty stuff before, have no shame in politely declining to comment. There are certainly folks who I don't trust to represent interviews truthfully, and... well... I don't do interviews with them :)

2) It's OK to refuse a specific question in an interview

"Try to ensure (as much as possible) that sentences hold their meaning, self contained...This makes them harder to quote out of context (for bad folks) and easier to turn into pithy, concise prose (for good folks)"

Don't fancy being the latest ignorant talking head on ISSUE X? No worries, politely decline to answer. It's natural in organic, social conversation, to want to keep things flowing and answer everything, but if you are genuinely uncomfortable talking about something, refuse to. Feel free to point the journo in the direction of a better informed person.

Side note: Don't try and do this in a tricksy, natural way. If you're asked your opinion on blue skies, you don't want to comment on skies, so ramble a bit about blue oceans, you're distracted, you're stressed, you will probably say something you don't mean to about oceans...

"I'm not really comfortable talking about that right now".

3) Know the three things you want to say

Ever read a bunch of interviews with one dev, from the same event, and notice how, basically, the content is 90 percent the same? That's because pro media training teaches folks to guide a question to an answer they want to give. Let's say you wanted to ensure folks were talking about the cool tiger in your game?

"So, the world's beautiful in the game. What was the research process like?"

"Thanks, that's kind, yeah, we researched everything we could, from leaves to castles to tigers. Hehe, funny story about the tigers actually...."

It's a politician's trick. It pisses off journalists, because they don't get the content they're looking for. I, personally, would recommend against it. However... having a few things that must be said in an interview, and peppering them in amongst what the journalist is trying to get, is fair enough. Have these things floating in the back of your head while you're doing the interview and tick 'em off as you go.

Just, you know, if you decide to answer a question, actually answer it.

4) Talk in soundbites

This is a fun one, because it helps good journos, and screws over bad ones. Try to ensure (as much as possible) that sentences hold their meaning, self contained, and without the caveats either side of them. This makes them harder to quote out of context (for bad folks) and easier to turn into pithy, concise prose (for good folks).

Example: "Man, the Sega Megadrive is not a friendly place for indies. I would add, however that they are doing everything they can to improve that!"

Nasty Headline: SEGA MEGADRIVE UNFRIENDLY TO INDIES, SAYS DEV

Better: "I'm excited by the improvements Sega Megadrive is making for indies, and that's only going to benefit everyone in the long run."

The better text makes for easier copy, and limits your capacity to be misrepresented by that 5 percent. That said, it will still happen... And it'll suck. Still. Play the numbers game and keep those headaches to a minimum.

5) Don't be negative, unless you need to

Remember those three bullet points you have in your head? Are any of them 'intentionally limit opportunities for myself with company X in the future'? Yes? Then ignore this point. Also, well, good luck.

Still here? Cool. So, you're not going to insult the latest AAA game everyone hated, yeah? And you're not going to comment on negative news about another developer, yeah? It's possible to be cheeky and stay on a fine line here, but knowing that line is tough... and it's something you're going to need experience to work out. Too many indies screw up massively by saying something cheeky about a partner company on twitter or in interview.

Like it or not, you're a spokesperson now, not some chump in the comments.

6) (For European people) How does this read in an American accent?

A mistake I made a lot starting out. That rye cynical tone we use? That charming gosh blimey self deprecation? In video or podcasts, great. On the page? Reads like a dickhead who thinks their work is shit. Find a comfortable point of pride in your work, but not arrogance. If, like me, you hate your work, wear that shit like an outfit.

7) Or ignore all of this

One of the big reasons journos like interviewing indies is that they are candid. Putting up walls can make you a lot less interesting as a subject, and make getting press tougher. Take the risk and openly do stuff if you feel comfortable.

Twitter is great, as you get to control how your words are presented (just be prepared to own every mistake you inevitably make). With the rise of jpeged conspiracy misquotes, even this can be risky. 140 char soundbites are harder to misrepresent, and honestly, most of the above is useful advice for tweeting responsibly too.

Likewise, there will, over time, be journos you know you can trust not to screw you over, and can therefore be more comfortable speaking to candidly. Honestly, it's mostly the small sites, the inexperienced journos, who will favour pissing you off to get extra clicks over building a long term respectful relationship. Most of my flare ups have been with relatively inexperienced young journos.

And, as I've said in previous posts: It's ok to be a punk too. If you wanna call out everybody, yell from the rooftops and stand out, I respect that choice. The consequences will be tough, but if you can weather them, hell, it may be very worthwhile.

I don't have the guts ;)

Reprinted with permission from Mike Bithell's tumblr page

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Latest comments (1)

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development3 years ago
Good advice, I'm going to try and remember this on the rare times I get to talk to a journo.

Most of the time I've been represented on the internet it's when I've been caught off guard ranting about something though. People can't wait to tear you down if you say something controversial - even if it's right - so it can be a hard place, but also a good way to actually get aired.

For me it's hard to stay "up and positive". Not because I chose a "down" spin deliberately, but because I'm basically a cynical old bastard! :)
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