The controversy over the Bahrain Grand Prix is a textbook lesson in how picking and training the right media spokespeople can have a huge influence over the way difficult issues are covered by the press and filtered into the public domain.
John Humphrys’ BBC Today Programme interview (this morning) with Fahad al-Binali, the Bahraini Information Authority Affairs spokesman provides some useful lessons for organisations that find themselves the subject of hostile media challenges.
What this interview tells us:
1. The Bahraini Government realises saying nothing is not an option. This may sound like a no brainer but the act of putting spokespeople up to be grilled live on tough Western news programmes such as Newsnight and Today is a signal that the Bahraini government wants to be seen as being open and transparent. Before you even get to working out what to say, the first decision that organisations need to take when in a tight spot is deciding who will talk, particularly as the Bahrain Grand Prix has been generating a huge amount of chat on Twitter. In other words, in an age where saying nothing is not an option, going live with tough media inquisitors sends the signal that you understand why it’s important to be part of a process of engagement.
2. Strong messaging should form the basis of all interviews.
Despite how it may have sounded, this was not a reactive interview. Mr Fahad and his advisors had clearly spent some time working out what messages would leave a lasting impact on the audience and portray themselves as reasonable, moderate and open. Two key messages were Bahrain is undergoing a process of human rights reform, and that there is a big difference between ‘violent assault’ and legitimate freedom of expression. But messages on their own aren’t enough. Mr Fahad had built his case using good ‘sizzle’ such as ‘sweeping institutional reforms’ ‘we have opened ourselves up to scrutiny’ and ‘positive action’ to make sure he got quoted in a favourable way. And lo and behold, the ‘positive action’ quote is the bit that got picked up by the BBC. Similarly, using numbers such as ‘100 cases of mistreatment’ and ’50 police’ added authority to Mr Fahad’s statements because they suggest he – or someone in his office – had bothered to find out details. Numbers are hugely important in media – they make things concrete: otherwise you are merely making wild assertions.
3. Showing that you are across the wider discussion makes you appear to be listening. During his interview Mr Fahad made several references to how the Grand Prix controversy was being discussed on other media outlets. He referred to an Al Jazeera interview with David Frost and the leader of the Bahraini Opposition on 10 March and also to other reports on the BBC in which the journalist had mentioned that protestors were throwing molotov cocktails at police. Some people may view this as slick and controlling – a way to pre-empt criticism which, of course it is. But this is a legitimate tactic in media interviews and Mr Fahad was also discussing the criticisms not just batting them away. This is an important exercise, particularly in a situation where his government (like many others in the Arab world) has been accused of not listening.
4. You can embrace your critics while maintaining your line. Mr Fahad was unfailingly polite, came across as thoughtful rather than too polished and stood his ground while seeming open to discussing criticism. He used phrases such as ‘We do respect Amnesty International and human rights advocacy’, and attempted to pre-empt criticism with statements such as ‘Even the most liberal Western democracy would draw the line’ (at violent assault on policemen and molotov cocktails). At the same time he came across as tough by rejecting certain criticisms through the use of bold statements such as ‘an unfair assessment’ and ‘unjust allegation’.
These are just some of my observations. Mr Fahad was clearly helped in this scenario because John Humphrys was not at the top of his game – his questions were too general and he didn’t deliver any killer blows. But overall, Mr Fahad showed us that being a good spokesperson is as much about listening, hard work and discipline as it is about natural skill.