EU doorstep interviews should be seen as an opportunity not a threat. Prime Ministers and Heads of State recognise the PR value of a good EU doorstep – a mini interview or statement done on the way in or out of Summits. Small countries that hold the EU’s rotating presidency, ambassadors and other officials often miss this opportunity to raise their profile and punch above their weight with an agenda setting doorstep quote. Often all it takes is a little preparation.
EU doorstep: recognise the PR opportunity
Even for smaller meetings where ministers or ambassadors need to broker an agreement, there will almost certainly be one or two news agencies covering it as well as the Council’s host broadcaster, which will then publish footage. So advisers and spokespeople should always prepare for Council meetings in expectation that there will be some form of press waiting for them when they arrive.
EU doorstep: prepare
The EU Presidency may hold the role of agreement broker but that does not mean spokespeople should do a read out of the shopping list of tasks and processes that need to be managed (or were managed) at the meeting they will or have hosted (see the example of the Lithuanian Ambassador to the EU below). This is tedious and journalists will struggle to find something interesting they can use. Advisers and spokespeople should focus on one main message with a clear soundbite and then prepare a couple more in case they are happy to take follow-up questions.
Angela Merkel is a good model to follow. She gets out of her car, goes straight to the German cameras, does a well prepared 40-second statement and then walks straight into the meeting. EU Commission Vice President, Frans Timmermans is also a good example of this kind of discipline. There is no reason why ambassadors and ministers shouldn’t do the same.
EU doorstep: rehearse
Usually, spokespeople do an EU Council doorstep in English and one in their mother tongue. All spokespeople should rehearse, particularly if they are not completely confident in English. One way to manage this could be for PR advisers or aides to do a quick run through of the main messages/reactives in the car on the journey to Council (or just before if the PRs aren’t going as well). Switching to English at the beginning of the journey would be even better because the ambassador or minister will be ‘warmed up’ by the time they get to Council and won’t have to consciously change languages when they get out of the car and see the waiting media.
EU doorstep: behave confidently
Confidence is key to a good doorstep. A lot of the time inexperienced spokespeople are caught off guard and look slightly surprised and suspicious when they see TV cameras and press waiting for them at the back of the Council. This is then picked up on camera and doesn’t do anything to give the impression of authority. Advisers should give spokespeople a steer on what to expect and between them, the spokesperson and aides should decide if they plan to take follow up questions.
The spokesperson should then get out of the car (or leaving the building) in a decisive manner, stand with firm body language and focus their eye contact on one particular journalist. This will look far more authoritative than a shifting gaze. If they have planned to take a couple of follow up questions they should take them before ending the exchange gracefully but firmly and moving inside.
There is a technique to this. David Cameron was roundly mocked for stalking off the minute he had finished speaking and not even saying ‘Thank you’ or ‘That’s all for now’. He probably thought it looked powerful and decisive but most journalists and PR consultants I speak to think he came across as afraid to be challenged.
So there is a lot that spokespeople and advisers can do to deliver a good doorstep. And done well, the journalists will be grateful because they’ve got something interesting and colourful and PR advisers will be happy because their spokesperson has been quotable and in control.
Here in Brussels I train officials and politicians to handle doorsteps and other media opportunities. If you think you or your spokespeople are missing out why not get in touch and discuss how I can help.
EU Doorstep: advice from elsewhere
Politicians and officials are not alone in facing doorstep or ambush interviews. Here are some tips from elsewhere that apply more widely.
This one from a PR company gives tops for dealing with aggressive and persistent ambush interviewers.
Here is some advice to would be journalists on how to do an ambush interview. Its included here as it is good to understand what happens in the mind of the doorstepped. In the same theme here is the BBC’s guidelines to staff on the rules of doorstepping.
Here is a very old article from PR week on the subject. I guess not much has changed except the removal from public life of Max Clifford!