Personal questions in public interviews Feature

When worlds collide: personal questions in public interviews

Being asked questions on TV or radio is daunting. You’re on show, after all, with an audience witnessing every factual inaccuracy, lack of knowledge, or inability to answer.

The problem is exacerbated when your interviewer introduces something which is usually kept private into the mix. That’s when public and personal worlds collide; a combination of data which is out there and accessible to everyone, together with information known only to a few individuals.

Personal questions in public interviews

Never more was this evident than last weekend, when Sky News anchorman Trevor Phillips was interviewing Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, following the resignation of former health secretary Matt Hancock, after the latter had been photographed breaching the very social distancing guidelines he himself had been promoting.

Cleverly constructed and powerfully put, Phillips’ question bears repeating here in full:

“Mr Lewis, I wouldn’t normally do something like this – but I want to put a private… a personal question, I guess, to you. Over the past two days, every cabinet minister – including you – has come out essentially to defend the Prime Minister and Matt Hancock.

“The pictures that we saw were of an encounter on 6 May.

“On 11 May, my family buried my daughter who had died, not of Covid, but during the lockdown.

“Three hundred of our family and friends turned up online. But most of them were not allowed to be at the graveside, even though it was in the open air, because of the rule of 30. Because of the instruction by Mr Hancock.

“Now the next time one of you tells me what to do in my private life … explain to me why I shouldn’t just tell you where to get off?”

It would take a heart of stone not to be touched by Trevor Phillips’ story. He had been prepared to reveal information about the death of a member of his family in a public forum; about someone younger than him – his daughter – and only a few weeks ago. Such an intervention cried out for a sensitive and sympathetic response.

But Brandon Lewis’ answer – which can be seen and heard below – gave no indication that the question had touched him. He appeared to be so focussed on defending the former health secretary and the government that he didn’t even take the time to offer the interviewer condolences on his loss.

As a result, he came across as a message-spouting automaton; hard-hearted and uncaring; even callous.

The only way to answer a question like this is to ensure that you reflect the circumstances of the question in the response. Something along the lines of:

“Well, first of all, Trevor, I want to extend my sympathy to you for your recent loss. That must have been truly devastating, and I can only say how sorry I am for you and your family. But, in fact, this discussion only serves to illustrate just how important these social distancing rules are. What Matt did was wrong, he’s admitted that, and that’s why he’s out of a job.”

In fact, Phillips’ question was simply a more powerful version of those which start ‘What would you say to someone who…’, or ‘how would you react if someone said…’ but have the even more powerful impact of using the interviewer’s personal circumstances as an example.

So, if ever you’re faced with a question that turns personal, remember these three simple steps. Firstly – and crucially – acknowledge the question, then move on using a bridging word or phrase (as we teach in our media skills courses), followed by a key message.

In this case, that’s to say that in these exceptionally trying times of a global pandemic, most people have done the right thing. But those that have done the wrong thing – and that includes cabinet secretaries – don’t provide a licence for others to follow suit.

speak human feature

Speaking human is a must-have skill

“We need people who speak human”.

So said a Labour Party insider, following the party’s defeat in Hartlepool last week.

Whatever your thoughts about the successes and failures of the various political parties in the UK elections over the past few days, it’s interesting that the need to communicate naturally with your audience, has once again come to the fore.

And yet in so many of our training sessions, it’s clear that the temptation to do precisely the opposite when talking to the media is almost too great to resist. People continue to use phrases like ‘strategy outputs’, ‘deliverables’ and ‘reduced footfall in the vicinity’, even when simpler and more natural versions would surely come to mind if talking to family or friends.

speak human

When we ask our clients why this is, the reasons they give range from the need to appear ‘professional’, through ‘speaking to impress’, to avoiding sounding like they’re ‘dumbing down’.

But the truth is, if you speak like this, you’re putting hurdles in the way of people’s comprehension. It means that they have to work harder simply to understand the words you are using, let alone grasp the meaning that lies behind them.

speak human

Eric Dixon: ‘It’s not dumbing down, it’s wising up!’

Here at The Media Coach, we call it the Language Ladder. On the top few rungs is the type of language you might use when you are writing a document or a report, including abstract terms and jargon. Down at the bottom is colloquial language – the normal language you would use when having a conversation. Counter-intuitive as it might be, the sensible thing to do is go down-ladder whenever possible.

And far from ‘dumbing down’, clearing the channels of complexity actually allows you to put more intelligent thoughts into the discussion. In short, using simpler language enables your argument to be more sophisticated; not ‘dumbing down’, but ‘wising up’!

So not only does speaking more colloquially mean that your audience is more likely to engage with what you are saying, they are more likely to take the action you are proposing – such as adopting a new way of working (if you’re in business), or voting for you (if you’re in politics), for example.

All this simply by speaking more conversationally.

More naturally.

More… human.

super league apology

Super League Apology and Why Sorry is the Hardest Word

‘Sorry’, as Elton John was keen to remind us in 1976, ‘seems to be the hardest word’.

And if it’s difficult enough to utter privately, it is, perhaps, even more challenging to say in public.

But that’s precisely what the American owner of Liverpool Football Club John Henry did last week, in the furore over the doomed attempt to create a European Super League.

As a communications coach for over 30 years, what fascinated me was the heartfelt and personal way in which he responded.

People saying sorry publicly usually hide behind two words in their statements to the press – the first of which is “apologise”.

There’s a subtle difference between saying ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologise’. An apology is a formal admission of wrongdoing which may or may not be said from the heart. This means that the person concerned may or may not feel remorseful – it’s hard to tell. But saying “sorry” is usually seen as a more genuine admission of regret.

The second tactic often used is to call upon collective responsibility – simply by using the word “we” – to spread the guilt amongst a range of people, none of whom is identified individually.

So when I heard John Henry’s opening words, “I want to apologise to all the fans and supporters of Liverpool Football Club…”, I was expecting the usual bland sentiments, couched in vague and unemotional terms, with any blame attributed to the group as a whole, rather than him personally.

But within seconds it was clear that this wasn’t going to be that sort of statement:

“I want to apologise to all the fans and supporters of Liverpool Football Club for the disruption I caused over the past 48 hours… In this endeavour, I’ve let you down. Again, I’m sorry – and I alone am responsible for the unnecessary negativity brought forward over the past couple of days. It’s something I won’t forget.”

It’s true to say that the fans won’t forget either; saying sorry like this doesn’t automatically get you off the hook. But what it can do is shorten the likely period of retribution. His words can later be used as proof that the expressed remorse was genuine. There will be those who will quite reasonably argue: ‘He said sorry quickly and honestly and shouldered all the blame himself. What more do you want?’

Catherine Cross

Catherine Cross, crisis communications expert

From a media  training perspective, saying “sorry” should always be a planned, considered response, never uttered on the hoof. As my colleague Catherine Cross, an expert in crisis communications points out, “If your company or organisation is likely to face law suits as a result of the crisis, the legal team will very quickly become involved. There are cultural and legal differences in each country but often lawyers, particularly those for companies with operations in the US, have argued that the specific word “sorry” implies responsibility so should be avoided.

“In fact, before the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, lawyers often argued that it was safest not to comment at all. However, in the last 10 years, particularly with the power of social media to whip up anger and offence, companies now have to balance the implications for the court of law with the court of public opinion. Both can result in your organisation’s bottom line (or operations) taking a serious hit.

“Part of an organisation’s crisis management planning is defining different types of crises so staff understand the subtle differences needed in approach and chose their words accordingly. Sometimes the most lawyers will only let a company say is that it is “sorry for the inconvenience caused…” or that it “deeply regrets” an incident took place. With my journalist’s hat on that can sound slightly like weasel words, but with my PR/trainer hat on I accept that they may be as much as you can say at that time.”

(You can find out more about Catherine and her work here.)

Nevertheless, there’s a common theme running through all this: saying sorry is problematic.

Six years after Elton’s song hit the charts, American rock band Chicago released the power ballad ‘Hard to say I’m sorry’, in 1982.

They’re right, it is.

But sometimes – on certain specific and carefully considered occasions – it might just be the very best response you can give.


John Henry Feature Image: By Webjedi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Piers Morgan

Piers Morgan should know better: walking off set is never good

Piers Morgan is irascible, dogmatic and for me highly entertaining. He of all people knows that media interviews are a sometimes uncomfortable blend of entertainment and information, often generating more heat than light.  And for a hapless interviewee, the pressure occasionally gets too much. But tempting though it might be, storming out of a TV or radio studio in the middle of a discussion is never the best course of action. Piers should know that, too.

Whilst leaving gets you out of your immediate predicament, what you were trying to say will be forgotten, whilst the memory of your disappearance will last for years – and, as in the case of Piers, will have its own consequences.

“O.K. I’m done with this. Sorry, no, sorry. You can trash me, mate, but not on my own show. See you later. Sorry – I can’t do this.”

With these words to fellow presenter Alex Beresford, Piers walked off the set of Good Morning Britain: he clearly didn’t like being criticised for his provocative comments about Meghan Markle, live on air.

The footage – which has now gone viral on the internet – may only have happened this week, but it followed in the footsteps of a long line of TV appearances interrupted by an unexpected departure.

One of the most famous, of course, was then Defence Secretary John Nott being quizzed by veteran interviewer Sir Robin Day on the BBC’s Newsnight in 1982:

RD: “But why should the public, on this issue, as regards the future of the Royal Navy, believe you – a transient, here today, and if I may say so gone tomorrow politician – rather than a senior officer of many years…”

JN (getting up, removing microphone): “I’m sorry, I’m fed up with this interview. Ridiculous…”

Nott’s autobiography, published twenty years later (after he became Sir John Nott), ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’ (2002) was named after the incident.

But it’s not just in the world of politics that a sudden flounce off set brings things to an early conclusion. Take singing trio The Bees Gees on the chat show Clive Anderson All Talk in 1997, when the host adopted his trademark cynical questioning of his guests. First, it was Barry (“In fact, I might just leave”), then Robin, and then Maurice (“Oh well, I guess I better join them”), who became the last of the Gibb brothers to disappear backstage.

TV commentators can also fall foul of the temptation to remove their lapel microphone and vanish from the screen. After the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016, it happened to Guardian columnist Owen Jones, who objected to the stance of Sky News on Sunday presenter Mark Longhurst and fellow guest Julia Hartley-Brewer during the newspaper review (“I’ve had enough of this… I’m very upset… sorry”).

The common theme amongst all these interactions is that any of the main points being made (we call them ‘key messages’) are lost amongst the drama of the departure. In Owen Jones’ case, he wanted the shooting to be “called-out for what it is – an intentional attack on LGBT people”. But for the viewing audience around the water cooler in the office the next day, the gossip was likely to be about his leaving the set, not the message he was trying to convey.

No one remembers what the Bee Gees were saying, nor John Nott’s point on Newsnight. Similarly, Piers Morgan’s lengthy critique of Meghan Markle has now been overshadowed by the impression of a petulant host unwilling to take what he so regularly gives out.

So, whether you’re a TV presenter, commentator, or interviewee; whether you’re from the world of politics, entertainment or sport; however much heat is being generated by the discussion, it’s always best to stay in the proverbial kitchen.


For Leaders in Lockdown: Arnie shows how to deliver a script

If you haven’t seen this Arnie movie I recommend it right now.  A seven-minute-long piece to camera, which shows just what can be done with minimum tech and minimum production. At a time when corporate and organisational leaders are looking for ways to connect with their teams via videos or zoom town hall meetings, there are few great lessons we can grab from this.

Ok, I know he is a senior politician and an actor – so he knows a thing or two.  That is why of course, it is a masterpiece.

Here is my list of the transferable highlights:

  1. Start with a personal story. If you can include emotion it will make it memorable.
  2. Expand the anecdote into the public narrative formula: the story of me, the story of us, the story of now (or our challenge for the future). If you are speech writing it is worth becoming au fait with the public narrative style. It is super simple and effective.
  3. Use short sentences. There is barely one example of a sentence more than 16 words in this video.
  4. There is absolutely no jargon or difficult language in this. The one German phrase is clearly explained.
  5. Paint a picture with your words. (For example ‘pound it with a hammer, heat it in the fire’ – 5 mins, 20 seconds into the video).
  6. Use a prop. Conan’s sword (explained here) was a prop that reminded the audience of the politician’s film career but also served as a clever and powerful metaphor.
  7. Understand, a good speech is all about emotion.
  8. Be prepared to use repetition. It can lift a speech from prose to poetry.
  9. End on a positive, forward-looking note.
  10. Include a call to action. He asks people to lend support to the president-elect, whatever their political beliefs.

Some other thoughts:

  • Arnie is reading a script. A carefully written, fine-tuned, masterpiece of a script.  It is on autocue. Most people cannot read autocue without being trained or training themselves. One of the benefits of short sentences is that they make reading aloud much easier. So the script is written to be spoken, not written to be read. (We teach this.)
  • The background is relevant and personal, his study. But it is way too busy and distracting in my view. I prefer a cleaner image.
  • I suspect this was not done in one take. You will see that there are what is called in the trade ‘cutaways’. A different view – from the side. Cutaways allow inconspicuous editing, so it’s likely even Arnie had several goes at it. Planning for cutaways makes life much easier for the performer. In this case, the cutaways are very amateur but they still made for easier editing.

If you want to learn to write for autocue or read autocue well, give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.  We are also helping leaders in lockdown to connect with their Townhall audiences by sharing stories and ad-libbing using a message house. We can teach you how to do this too.

feature communicating strategically

What I wish I had known 30 years ago …

I have been asked to share with a group of young people, future leaders, a few tricks and tips for what I think of as ‘effective professional communication’.

communicating strategically

Nine Top Tips for Communicating Strategically

I think the following rules cover anything from job interviews to fundraising pitches, conversations with teachers or negotiations for an internship. Pulling it all together has made me think – I wish someone had told me this stuff 30 years ago!

Let me know if you think I have missed anything.

Before you Start

  1. There are no rules and there is no perfect. It’s about being the best version of you; or as the Berocca copywriters put it, ‘you, but on a really good day’. (I have to thank my fellow trainer Eric Dixon for this little nugget.)
  2. Have a plan. Know what you want to achieve. 5 minutes thinking about what would be a great outcome from any conversation, what would be a good outcome and what would be a bad outcome, will help you focus. Trust yourself on this. Anything you think is fine.
  3. Also, ask yourself what you know about the other person or the audience. What matters to them? What are their priorities? Do they have problems you can solve or priorities you share? A back of envelope audit about your target can shape your messaging. It can also help with rapport (see point 9)
  4. Having worked out your goal, think about how you want the other side – be it one person or many – to feel, to think and what you want them to do, as a result of the conversation or presentation. Again clarity of thought here will serve you well.

    Plan the words – or some of them

  5. Having worked through points one to four above, you can work out what you want to say and how best to say it. There are no rules, but clearly articulated ideas will help everyone. For example, if fundraising: ‘we know how to help, we just need the funds’ or if in a job interview: ‘if you gave me this job, I could transform your social media’.
  6. Having identified a few key assertions or toplines – find ways to ‘prove it’. In the example above you are looking for either facts, numbers or anecdotes that will ‘prove’ you can transform your potential employers social media. A fact might be: correct use of tags on Twitter typically increases ‘shares’ by 30%. An anecdote might be ‘I helped a shoe shop in my high street double the number of customers simply by using social media to talk about footwear trends in Gosport.’
  7. And that brings us to stories. Tell more stories. Learn to tell stories. Try them out on friends and family. Stories, anecdotes and examples will influence people much more than real hard evidence. They will also make you a better leader, help you sound more authentic and above all make you more memorable.

    And then …

  8. Once you have considered the substance of any message, rehearse it aloud. This may make you feel silly, but it will really help.
  9. Finally; study rapport*. Learn ways to make a connection with people you don’t already know. Rapport is key to so many conversations and while it is no silver bullet, building rapport will never be a bad thing.

The Media Coach provides bespoke training in Effective Communication in many different ways. Media Training, Presentation Training, Personal Effectiveness Training and Video Skills for Business. Please email or call us  +44 (0)20 7099 2212 if you want to discuss your needs.

*As I have said before, if you don’t know what is meant by rapport (and can cope with more than an hour of full-on Tony Robbins) this OTT video will give you more than you ever need to know.


boomerang phrases,

Boomerang Phrases and the Art of Influence

There it is again, leading the news. I have lost count of the number of times I heard the ‘reset’ phrase in the last week.

As Lee Cain walked out of Number 10 the phrase started to do the rounds: When Cain was followed by Cummings, every political player or commentator it seemed, led perhaps by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, used the phrase ‘chance for a reset’.

Boomerang Phrases

This is what I think of as a ‘boomerang phrase’.  A phrase that someone comes up with, which just captures the moment, or the message, or the circumstances: and then everyone starts using it, and within a couple of hours it is being used right back at you.

boomerang phrases

Boomerang phrases can be organic. As far as I know ‘the new normal’ did not come from a spin doctor. But a good spin doctor will, from time to time, come up with phrases that both resonate but crucially also make people see the existing facts differently. That in turn will influence a million micro decisions and some huge ones.

If an audience both recognise something in the phrase but also see things differently because of it – the author has a good chance of achieving change.

Of course, great phrases don’t always catch on. But, if they work they can have extraordinary power and in some cases are repeated down through history. Repugnant though it still is, Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of blood’ phrase is not just remembered but it had huge influence. Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ is in the same category.  The triplet ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité was influential way beyond the borders of France and the simple phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ ignited protest and policy responses around the world, earlier this year. There are thousands more I could use to illustrate the point.

‘Reset’ is clearly not in the same premier league of history-changing phrases as those listed above. But it was a good attempt to capture the moment and spin something positive out of the political shenanigans. I don’t know who first used it to define the post Cain and Cummings mood, (Carrie Symonds perhaps) but it was already doing the rounds before it was picked up and applied to a small domestic disturbance at Number 10.

Reset is A La Mode

‘COVID 19 – The Great Reset’ is the title of a book out earlier this year and refers to resetting the World Order after the pandemic. The phrase may have originated from Klaus Schwab – who runs the World Economic Forum or perhaps his co-author Thierry Malleret. Or perhaps their publisher.

boomerang phrases

But it doesn’t stop there. It is easy to find a dozen headlines for ‘reset’ as applied to the departure of Cummings and Cain but many more applied to Biden’s presidential victory. It doesn’t matter that it is a repurposed phrase: it can still do the job. One of my clients many years ago referred to reusing other people’s phrases as ‘stealing with pride’.

boomerang phrases

boomerang phrases

Leadership Skill

Boomerang phrases are a powerful leadership tool. They are just as influential amongst smaller groups and within companies or organisations, as they are on the political stage. Being able to craft a phrase that everyone else can hang their hat on, is a real and rare skill.

The irony is that Cain and Cummings were brilliant at it. ‘Take back control’ and ‘Get Brexit done’ were probably among the most influential boomerang phrases of recent history.

At The Media Coach, we eat, breath and live effective communication. Email me at to start a conversation about how we can help you or your team. Full details of all our bespoke coaching courses can be found at


A Catch in the Throat

Watching Kamala Harris’ victory speech from my settee on the other side of the Atlantic, I felt emotion rise in my chest to the extent that for a few moments I couldn’t speak.

And yet this is a woman I know very little about. I am not an American and while I care about the presidential election, it is not central to my life.

The Power of Emotion

It was the emotion of the speech that caught me.  The crafted emotional narrative of significant victory after a long struggle. And yet there was no over claiming and a real sense of humility.

I am sure there are women leaders before who have chosen not to hide their emotions and instead use them to pull people in behind them, but I can’t immediately name them.

The sort of women leaders I have been watching for the last thirty years are those who chose to hide emotion; to look totally professional. They projected reason or logic and strove not to give ammunition to people who think leaders don’t cry, don’t emote. I am thinking of Margaret Thatcher, the original iron lady, Theresa May, Angela Merkel.

How refreshing and how right for the moment to hear a woman speak with warmth and emotion. In this case sheer joy.

Scientists Jump for Joy

There was another unusual display of emotion this week. From the Chief Scientist at Pfizer talking about the success of COVID vaccine trials.


It was a short clip (which can be seen in this video at 1’ 38”) but the emotion was authentic and unusual. As many of you know, persuading scientists and policymakers to share stories or anecdotes, let alone emotion, can be an uphill talk. But here we have a scientist talking about jumping for joy.

Having said I could not think of another female leader prepared to share emotion … there is another.   New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has shown us several times she is prepared to share emotion, good and bad, in her public speeches.

Her victory speech at winning her 2020 General Election was full of joy and can be found here, but she is also famous for sharing sorrow. I find this clip the most astonishing. Not a speech this time but still an act of humanity and leadership.


The Media Coach team can help you prepare for an event, craft a narrative and pull together media messages. Give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

create rapport over Zoom feature

The Problem of Rapport and Zoom: My Seven Top Tips

How do you create rapport over Zoom? I hear this question from all sorts of people, most days.  Some are genuinely asking, and some are already resigned to it just not being possible.

Rapport Online is Entirely Possible

Well, it is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about and also done a fair bit of reading around. And of course, I try to do it every day – I am typically running two or three training sessions a day on Zoom, Microsoft Teams or WebEx. I believe the technology of Video Calls is amazing and actually, it is entirely possible to create rapport in these meetings.
create rapport over Zoom
Here are my seven top tips:

  1. Work harder at it. Sorry but that is just the truth. Connecting with people – when we need to – is something we took for granted in the room. It is harder online and requires more thought and more effort.
  2. What works in the room can probably be made to work online. The chit-chat that happens in the few moments while you are waiting for the formal proceedings to start is a valuable time to connect with people. If they are English, moaning about the weather is the traditional way to do it, but there are plenty of other shared inconveniences in the ‘new normal’ to pick out something we are all adjusting to. Chip Massey – quoted in Inc. – talks about Forensic Chit Chat. He uses open-ended questions (so you can avoid yes and no answers). He suggests talking about hobbies or celebrities, I prefer the latest news story or WFH experiences but I don’t find I need to be formulaic about it.
  3. Get the Eye-line Right

  4. Try to keep the eye-line right as much as possible. Looking at someone while talking to them is psychologically important. It is harder online but you know where the camera is on your laptop or computer – or perhaps you have a standalone camera. Try to look straight at it for at least some of the time. If your system allows, move the little thumbnails of other people to just below the camera: this makes it much easier to look in roughly the right place.
  5. If you have a friend online, indulge in a bit of banter or teasing. Clearly, we want to keep it appropriate, but I like to insult my fellow trainer, Eric Dixon, at least once per session because it lets the rest of the meeting know that there is an informal, jovial atmosphere. Often the clients follow suit and we end up having a really good laugh – whilst of course getting the work done.
  6. Verbal mirroring is something most people do in business and it should be used, just the same, in online conversations if you want rapport. You want to deliberately describe experiences or issues using the words your online colleagues are using. This is not hidden, we often say ‘as you describe it; ….’ or ‘as you rightly say ….’. Again, Massey gives it a formula, this one he calls ‘Three Magic Words’. He repeats back the most important three words a person has said–or just the last three words of their last sentence–to show them he understands and finds value in what they’re saying.
  7. Show You Care How Others are Feeling

  8. If you see another person react to what you are saying – positively or negatively – pick it up and check it out. I like to use phrases such as ‘I can see that chimes with you …’ or ‘I am sensing or guessing that is not your experience’. Chris Voss in his book Never Split the Difference has a whole chapter on the benefits of labeling someone else’s emotions. Fortunately, few of us are in life and death hostage situations (where he learned his trade) but it is really helpful to demonstrate you understand how someone is feeling if you are working to influence them.
  9. Finally, I believe ‘faking it’ can help. TV presenters communicate huge warmth and fellow feeling in what is actually only one-way communication. They are acting but it is a great skill.  We all know people who are almost saying ‘feel the warmth of my personality’. It can go too far but if you are not getting rapport online you might want to up your game a bit.

If you want help Presenting or Pitching via Zoom or similar we can deliver bespoke two-hour online courses that will give you plenty to think about. As ever just give us an email at or call: +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

The two faces of negotiation

The Two Faces of a Negotiation

Brexit talks remind us that there are always two faces to negotiation. What you say in public and what you say in private.

In western democracies, there is an assumed right to know what is going on in negotiations involving governments, unless there are very good reasons why not. Journalists shout questions, ask repeatedly and people scream on Twitter about conspiracies and hidden agendas.

The two faces of negotiation

You Cannot Negotiate in Public

Any intelligent person knows that you cannot negotiate in public. Negotiation requires compromise and today’s expected outcome will be tomorrow’s cat litter. Commercial organisations almost always reserve the right not to discuss deals until they are signed. Stock market rules support them: if a deal will affect the share price it is essential that all investors and possible investors know at the same time, to prevent unfair or insider trading.

But politicians have an impossible situation to manage. They must negotiate in private but update, at every stage, in public. Very few negotiations have had as much public scrutiny as the Brexit deal.

There is an added wrinkle to this negotiation in particular – public opinion almost certainly influences the negotiation. That means it is in the interests of both sides to influence public opinion: and opinion is, of course, being deliberately influenced by the, now daily, updates on the negotiations.

There is a procession of headline-grabbing quotable phrases from both sides. This clip includes several carefully crafted phrases from Prime Minister Boris Johnson.


To pull out just one: ‘After 45 years of membership (the EU) are not willing…to offer this country the same terms as Canada.’

Some more of the phrases used by the UK government spokespeople in the last few days include:

‘Time is running out’. Boris Johnson specifically to business leaders urging them to prepare for Brexit.

The EU has not shown ‘the respect and flexibility’ expected in international negotiations. Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick.

‘Door is still ajar’. Michael Gove and Robert Jenrick.

From the EU:

The British ‘are much more depending on us than we are on them’. President Emmanuel Macron.

‘We want a deal, but not at any price.’ ‘It must be fair’. This was said by a number of European leaders after talks last week. The BBC did a brilliant edit to illustrate consistent messaging from the EU side. Sorry, we can’t insert it but it was posted at 20:47 pm 15th Oct (click the link and scroll down until you find the video entitled A few words on Brexit). It is worth a watch.

And we also have off-the-record briefings. Also designed to influence public and political opinions. Unofficial comments that I have seen include:

  • The FT quoting a senior UK official with knowledge of the talks saying the mood on the British side was ‘very gloomy’.
  • The Express claimed that chief negotiator Michel Barnier and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were ‘fed-up’ with France’s Emmanual Macron for digging his heels in on fishing rights.
  • And Politico reported a senior German official who knows Merkel well, summed up thinking on Brexit as ‘Better if in, but if not then close’.

Is it All for Show?

I am sure there are plenty more on and off the record quotes. All part of the theatre of international trade negotiation.

But here are some quotes about the negotiation process that I personally give weight to.

“There is now too little separating the two sides for either to afford a no-deal outcome. Of course, Downing Street will inflate their language to put pressure on the EU. But my judgment is that Johnson is too weak politically to have the commotion of no-deal coming on top of the Covid mayhem.” Peter Mandelson, former EU Trade Commissioner. Quoted in the FT behind a paywall.

And here is a snippet from Politico’s Sunday Crunch:

Perhaps worth remembering … former Brexit Secretary David Davis’ words at the end of 2018, when we were nearing the deadline for a draft Brexit divorce deal: “We’re going to have a very scary few months — from now until about November it’s going to be really scary,” he said. “Everybody’s going to be calling each other’s bluff, there’s all sorts of brinkmanship going to go on — that’s normal, that’s the European Union’s daily bread and that’s what we’ve got to be ready for.”

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