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Commercial awareness: what you need to know that no-one tells you

Our columnist Matthew Reeves on what he's learnt about commercial awareness from his own somewhat unusual experiences
Commercial awareness
Improving your commercial awareness

Commercial awareness, when defined by someone who still has an ounce of non-corporate personality left, essentially means reading the news. It's one of those paternalistic hangovers of yore - the idea than a "man (or woman) of letters" who scans the broadsheets is more capable than one who doesn't.

That's why the idea of commercial awareness always makes me feel uneasy. There's so much to be aware of these days, that being truly commercially aware can't just be about flipping through the business pages to know what's going on any more.

And I don't really believe in the news anyway. Sure, it's a nice comfort blanket to feel that you know exactly what's happening in the world, but it's all an illusion. All I find practically useful are details of which companies are going to lose and which are going to win so I can place my stock market bets and, one day I hope, retire to the Hamptons.

Here's a factual curveball: back in the day, newspapers used to just report what the government told them. Civil servants would literally give them the news - that's what led to the famous BBC "no news day" in 1930, when no news was delivered and they just played some light classical music instead.

Newspapers then saw an easy way to fill more papers (which in those days could be easily stuffed with lucrative adverts and sold by the armful on street corners) by having "eyewitness" accounts of stuff that had happened, which is what gave birth to modern journalism.

So from its origins, news has always been based on people just telling stuff to a journalist, which they then write out with commas in.

Today, I have a job running marketing for a business, and one of the most satisfying elements is working on public relations. We form relationships with lazy journalists (busy, if you want to be kind) and make their lives easier (do their job, if you want to be truthful).

We give them stories in digestible chunks, chunks that we've written for them and explicitly don't mind them plagiarising. When I say chunks, I mean complete articles or series of articles. Or articles and then responses to articles. It might also mean pre-written and approved quotes to stories that are likely to happen but haven't happened yet. "Pre-sponses", if you will.

The aim is to change the way journalists respond to us to promote the best outcome for my company. Events can be what you make of them.

And that to me is the key to responding to commercial awareness questions in application forms or in interviews. Who cares what you read or know? If you're faced with a difficult commercial awareness question, just answer the question you wish you'd been asked, control the conversation, and talk about how you - and the employer you're applying to - could profit from a situation.

And, with luck, you'll profit enough to retire to the Hamptons too.