Emily Maitlis feature

Emily Maitlis – Airhead: Why all PRs should read it

Emily Maitlis has written a great light-hearted romp of a read about the chaos behind the scenes of television news. I used to work with Emily (and have a lovage pesto recipe from her mum … just saying). I have watched her stellar career with admiration but absolutely no envy. I simply would not want the stress!

However, reading about it all is great fun.

Emily Maitlis

A Very Personal Account

Maitlis whizzes through encounters with Donald Trump, Simon Cowell, the Dalai Lama and of course that Prince Andrew interview in short chapters that can each be read in less than the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. She writes from a very personal perspective: What she saw, what she thought and above all what she felt. She details the gut-wrenching nerves ahead of the big set-piece interviews, the stress of broadcasting live from the front of the Whitehouse and that horrible creeping feeling that you are being played by Tony Blair, but you can’t work out how or why.

 What PRs Might Learn

The takeaways for PR people are many and varied but here are a few.

  • Newsnight is one of very few remaining broadcast news outlets that do any real research and then only sometimes. While Maitlis does detail some heavy-duty team meetings to discuss various angles for a big interview, she also explains that this happens relatively rarely.
  • While the PR machine may well be working overtime on your side of the equation what happens in the interview is crazily random, depending on the interpretation and concentration of the interviewer. Even after the long discussions, it is down to Maitlis as the interviewer, in the moment, to ask an inspired, a random or a distracted question.

 The ‘While I’ve got you …’ Question

  • The chapter that deals with a Sheryl Sandberg interview, shortly after her husband died (very unexpectedly) is particularly instructive. The agreed interview was about dealing with grief, something Sandberg wanted to talk about. However, she was and is still the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook. Maitlis felt she could not have access to Sandberg and ignore all the controversial aspects of Facebook. This despite the fact that the agreed topic was Sandberg’s very raw and personal grief. Maitlis spends considerable time agonising about how to frame this ‘while I’ve got you…’ question. When the moment comes, Sandberg switches seamlessly from grief-stricken widow to the pure professional and answers – well professionally. But afterwards Sandberg is furious that Maitlis did not stick to asking her about grief. Maitlis explains her professional duty but also points out that; talking about grief, Sandberg was very interesting. But when talking about the morality of Facebook she was very dull …. ensuring the bit Sandberg wanted to air would get by far the most airtime. We try to teach people this, but it is good to read a top-notch BBC journalist spelling it out to one of the most famous COOs on the planet.
  • The frustration of interviewing the Dalai Lama, who refuses to say anything interesting, should be compulsory reading for all overly controlling PRs. There really is no point (and it is damaging to your reputation) to do an interview if you have nothing to say. (My colleague Catherine Cross addresses this in this blog linked here, amongst others.) 
  • The constant tension between being a decent person and being a good and honest journalist comes up again and again. Alongside the romp, you get to experience the non-stop agonising about how to be both decent and professional. It is instructive because, despite the agonising, Maitlis chooses, again and again, to prove her professionalism rather than prove her humanity. The job comes first.

Emily Maitlis

My Personal Observations

With genuine thanks to the two people who bought me this book for Christmas …. I can thoroughly recommend it.

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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