tough and aggressive media interviews

Dealing with tough and aggressive media interviews

Tough and aggressive media interviews are in evidence most days in the British media. The Brexit frustration, chaos and confusion is making most of us exasperated and the journalists are reflecting that with challenging interviews.

As a student of managing media interviews, this throws up lots of examples of people handling difficult questions.

And this is front of mind for me personally as I had a client last week (no names, no pack drill, of course) who wanted to practise really aggressive interviews – interviews which in my view he is very unlikely ever to face outside a training room.

I always say the most difficult questions are those where you can’t tell the truth but you definitely can’t lie. Many people, when faced with aggression and persistence will give in and tell the truth even if they know they shouldn’t, which of course is why barristers and journalists have perfected the art of being aggressive and persistent.

[Just to be clear there are lots of occasions when it is ethically the correct thing to do – not to tell the whole truth. For example: when publicly asked about personnel matters such as salaries or sackings, ahead of mergers or take-overs when it is illegal to reveal to one set of shareholders something that is not revealed to all, ahead of legal proceedings and of course during negotiations.]

Most people who talk to the media will never face really aggressive questioning, but it is instructive to analyse how others do it. The most aggressive interviews that I am aware of these days are probably not on the BBC but are perhaps on LBC. Nick Ferrari and Eddie Mair are both capable of making anyone feel very uncomfortable.  Here is an example from a couple of weeks ago which not only shows Mair’s quietly aggressive style, but also that Jacob Rees-Mogg goes into the studio prepared to give as good as he gets. This ‘have a go back at the journalist’ technique is not one that we recommend but it does stop you as the interviewee being the victim. The question, of course, is does it damage or support the authority of the government’s message.

On Sunday we saw the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, interviewed on Andrew Marr. Javid appeared to blatantly make two mutually contradictory statements: One was that the government will abide by the law of the land and the second is that it will leave on October 31st even though a law was being passed to prevent leaving without a deal. What is interesting about the interview is the confidence and clarity with which Javid holds the line on this apparent impossibility, despite Marr’s best efforts.

The viewer’s reaction to this performance will depend on whether he or she supports or despises the current government. But again it shows politicians refusing to be bowed or manipulated by the interview process. I would conclude that the government spin doctors do not care what Andrew Marr and the Remainers think, they want the team out there talking directly to their own supporters. Javid is getting a message out to those that matter at this moment.

On the same programme, we heard Amber Rudd explain why she quit the government and the Conservative Party. It was absolutely obvious that this was a very well-prepared media event, well messaged and each line clearly articulated. For example, she had what sounded like evidence of not enough effort going into making a deal: ‘I asked and I was sent a one-page summary’. She also said ‘21 of my colleagues, who are good moderate conservatives’. Not a phrase she thought up during the interview. Personally, I think she came across extremely well in this interview and wonder if she is positioning herself as a possible next prime minister.

This is not a very aggressive interview but I have included it because asked by Marr if the issue that led to her resignation was a question of lack of trust, she said ‘I am not going to use those words…’

This is a very standard line that we often suggest in Media Training. People are usually surprised that we recommend they are so direct – but it is important to understand that every journalist is looking for a quote, a headline or a soundbite and they are often keen to write this themselves – and ask you to agree. Had Rudd said ‘yes’ to that particular question the headlines would have quoted her as saying she left the government because she couldn’t trust Boris. Stating bluntly that she will pick her own words allowed her to control both the interview in the moment and also the way it was reported during the day.

We have written about managing tough interviews many times before. Here are a selection of previous blogs.

10 Tips for surviving aggressive interviewers 

Media Interviews you just can’t win

Your TV interviewer may be annoying but storming out isn’t great either

If you think you need support preparing for a media event or a media interview give us a call to discuss how we can help tel:+44 0(20) 7099 2212.

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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