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A lesson in the need to prepare for obvious questions

Nine minutes into a 12-minute interview on Remembrance Sunday this short bit of dialogue sparked an apparently unplanned controversy.

Composite Marr quotes

The interview is between Andrew Marr, on the Sunday Morning current affairs programme The Marr Show and General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of the Defence Staff. (Sorry but the link will only work until mid December 2015.)

‘Manoeuvred into criticising’ 

As a result of these two phrases from Sir Nicholas, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Opposition Labour party, is complaining to the Ministry of Defence. He says Sir Nicholas crossed the line on the military’s political neutrality. In an attempt to defuse the row, on Monday the former head of the Navy and a Labour Peer, Lord West said in another interview, he thought Sir Nicholas had been ‘manoeuvred into criticising’ the opposition leader.

Corbyn Complains compositeFor those who haven’t followed this, Corbyn is a life long member of CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and is hoping to persuade his party and the country to vote against spending between £20 and £100 billion on renewing Trident – Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

Watching the interview (the comments come at one hour and two minutes in if you are looking at the whole programme) you can clearly see that Sir Nicholas realised the danger of the question and tried to choose his words carefully: but still ended up in hot water.

Learning Points for us PR professionals:

–  This was a long and wide-ranging interview, over 12 minutes. The longer the interview the greater the risk. The comments come about nine minutes in.

–  The more senior the person and the less often they appear in the media, the more difficult it is for them to do what we would think of as a ‘disciplined’ interview. They are used to holding court and not used to having to be careful with every word knowing it can be elevated to a headline.

–  The ‘would you support Corbyn if he was elected?’ questions, of which the offending question here was just one mild version, are obvious and predictable.Huff Puff composite

–  It is not credible to imagine that Marr plotted to lead Sir Nicholas to that point with some Machiavellian line of prepared questions. But it is entirely likely that Marr knows what Sir Nicholas thinks and wondered if he could get him to say it on air. However, from a journalistic point of view it was a totally reasonable question in the context of the interview. This was not a bit of mischief tagged on the end.

– Actually Sir Nicholas got off very lightly. It’s obvious to us, that a different interviewer would have seized the phrase and been much more challenging on what exactly it meant. Marr let it slide.

– If Sir Nicholas was being supported by an efficient PR machine he would have been rehearsed in the line to take on this question and would not have been left trying and failing to stay out of trouble whilst in front of the charming Andrew Marr and a bank of TV cameras.

Possible answer

So how should he have answered it? We don’t know all the considerations but how about : ‘As you know, the military is politically neutral so I am not going to be drawn on that but what I would say is…’

At The Media Coach we call preparation for tough or politically sensitive questions ‘reactive lines’. The difficult questions need to be identified by someone who has professional PR (or journalistic) skills, and appropriate responses need to be crafted. Then, the interviewee needs to rehearse them aloud. Reading reactive lines in a document ahead of an interview is not an adequate way to prepare; role-playing them a couple of times is.

Lindsay Williams

About Lindsay Williams

Prior to founding her communications training agency, The Media Coach, Lindsay Williams worked as a journalist from 1983. She specialised in financial and business journalism since 1991. After thirteen years in the BBC with local radio, regional television, Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live, she moved to Reuters Financial Television as Deputy Programme Editor. Working freelance from 1998, she was contracted in a variety of roles including as an executive producer for Bloomberg television delivering half hour profiles of Chief Executives, as a producer with Sky Business Unit and at CNBC. She has had articles published in Sunday Business, The Business, The Times and in specialist magazines such as Companies & Finance and Impact. For the majority of her journalism career she specialised in reporting business and finance. Lindsay Williams hosts a range of bespoke communication skills courses for The Media Coach which include Media Training, Presentation Training, Crisis Media Training and Message Building.

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