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tough media interviews

Tough Media Interviews – How To Prepare

Tough media interviews require proper preparation. There are so many car crash interviews that you wonder why anyone ever goes on TV.

From a media training point of view a different question springs to mind. Why do very intelligent successful people make the mistake of not doing their homework, and allow themselves to ‘lose it’ on air? At the end of this blog post, I share my tips for exactly how to do that homework.

Keep Emotions Under Control

But first, let’s look at how not to do it. In the US this week there was a classic overreaction from a soccer coach who was asked a pretty ordinary question that, I read, was predictable and had been asked before. It would have been better to give a prepared diplomatic answer rather than storming off.

Tough Media Questions – Have a Prepared Answer

The Coach, Bob Bradley probably didn’t do himself much harm with his public display of petulance. But the former Persimmon CEO who was caught out in October last year, almost certainly lost his job, in part because of his refusal to answer a gently put question about his £75 m bonus. It was a subject that had been all over the media just a few months before and surely it would have been possible to have a neat answer such as ‘my salary is set by the remuneration committee, not by me’.

Tough Media Interviews – Do Your Homework

And here is a really old one that I had not seen until last week. It’s funny because this very senior chap thinks he can stop BBC Watchdog using the pre-recorded interview by waving his hands around. This may have been an issue of poor risk assessment. It was a pre-recorded interview and the Dental Association rarely attracts controversy. Plus the issue of mercury in fillings is an old chestnut. But this was Watchdog, a show whose reputation is all about tough interviews.

Refusing to answer a question, walking away, storming out, getting cross and ‘losing it’ once the camera is rolling is a seriously bad idea and is bound to make a bad interview more damaging than any uncomfortable struggling through.

The one everyone of a certain generation remembers is 1982 when then Defence Secretary John Nott stormed out of an interview. This is mentioned in a useful New Statesmen compilation of the worst political interviews ever.

It is much harder for politicians to anticipate all the tough questions and have all the numbers front of mind. I have quite a lot of sympathy for Dianne Abbot who spectacularly failed to do her sums when interviewed by Nick Ferrari on LBC two years ago. For business people, it tends to be a much more limited universe of possible nasties.

How to Prepare for Tough Questions – My Top Tips

  • With more than 2 people in the room brainstorm what the tough questions might be for any particular interview. It’s important to include generalists who have not been close to the issue.
  • Before the brainstorm, someone needs to look at the stuff the journalist has written about before. Check the cuttings.
  • Also, do not limit the discussion to directly relevant questions. What is ‘out there’ on the wider news agenda? Look at politics, regulators, scandals or trending stories such as the gender pay gap or mental health at work.
  • Once you have a list of tough or difficult questions, work out short but credible answers. These may be factual and dull or they may be ‘close down’ answers such as ‘that is simply not a question for me’. Either way, these lines can be prepared. These reactive lines need to be written down and stored somewhere secure. Do not take them into the interview with you unless they are locked in a briefcase or password protected.
  • Finally, rehearse the reactive lines aloud. Reading them in the taxi on the way to the studio is simply not real preparation.
  • Practise delivering the lines not just correctly but with the appropriate level of humility, warmth, authority, etc. Get the tone right. (I blogged about getting the tone right here.)

Of course, the sure-fire way to prepare for a tough interview is to hire Media Trainers with real front line journalism experience, who can, not just role-play the interviews with you (or your spokesperson), but help craft the lines and coach on getting the tone right. When you have been helping people get it right for more than a decade it becomes pretty obvious what works and what doesn’t.

authoritative feature

7 tips for appearing more authoritative as a woman

About half the women we train struggle to sound as authoritative as they would like –  when presenting or being interviewed by a journalist, or on camera. It is often something that is relatively easily improved, if not fixed.

Here are my top tips for appearing more authoritative

 

authoritative

1. Prepare mentally
One of the very obvious patterns we see as trainers is that people find public speaking or being interviewed so uncomfortable, they really don’t want to think about it until they absolutely have to. If this is the case, my first suggestion (of course) would be to find someone to pay for training with The Media Coach. We really can help. Failing that, be aware that, like an exam or a job interview you cannot give it your best shot without thinking about it. By preparing mentally I mean articulate, to yourself, how you want to come across. I know this sounds self-obsessed, but it really works. Identify the version of you that you want your audience to see. ‘Confident’ is not necessarily the most useful adjective here – I prefer words like warm or kind, definite or flexible, trustworthy, knowledgeable, in control, etc. It would be really useful to remember a time when you felt all those things on your list and as NLP practitioners would say ‘hear what you heard, see what you saw, feel what you felt’. In other words, tell your subconscious as clearly as possible – ‘that’s it’! That is the person I want to be when I stand up. If you can’t find a version of yourself, find a role model. Practise thinking yourself into this ‘mood’ or ‘mind-set’.

2. Body language
You want your body language to communicate the image of you that you have identified in step one. This usually means shoulders back, chin parallel to the floor (not tipped up or down) and then consciously relax a little. Breathe. Shake your shoulders out without losing the frame. Again, stepping into a controversial area one easy thing to try is the power-pose. Some believe that simply standing for a minute or two in a powerful pose – hands on hips, legs apart – can trick your brain into feeling more powerful. Others think this is bunkum. But it costs nothing except a couple of minutes to try. And, at the very least, those two minutes might give you time to remind yourself of the sort of person you want to project. One word of warning please do this in private or in a safe environment.  Power-posing in public is guaranteed to lead to ridicule as it did for Sajid Javid last year.

3. Pause
I know I have said this many times before, including in a recent blog post. But I cannot leave it out. Authoritative, confident people do things in their own time and are not overly influenced by the excitement or energy of others. You can control a room with silence. But baby steps first, take a breath, pause, gather your thoughts and you will sound more authoritative.

authoritative

4. Slow down
Obviously, closely related to the pause but not the same. Many people and in particular women speak too fast (myself included). What stems initially from insecurity, fear of boring others or a desire not be bored yourself, becomes a bad habit that is difficult to shake. The ideal is to be able to consciously vary the pace you speak, slowing down when you need the thinking time, or you are trying to land a point but speeding up when it is unimportant detail. But the first step is to get control of the speed. I spend quite a lot of my coaching time finding ways to help people to speak more slowly.

5. People pleasing
Not exclusively a female trait but seen more often in young women than in other groups. It can take various forms but often involves too much smiling or an unconscious verbal agreement with the other person talking: as in ‘yes/sure/absolutely’ etc. When coaching some people, I will often try asking them to act really irritated, grumpy or annoyed. When they do, and we record and playback, what we get is a million miles from grumpy, but it just sounds a bit more definite and authoritative. It is difficult to gauge this for yourself without the help of either an audio or video recording.

6. Lower voice
Margaret Thatcher famously had coaching to lower her voice – you can judge for yourself from this video if you think it was an improvement. Personally, there are a lot of other things I would change (for example she is too slow) but it does show what can be done.

7. Self-talk
One of the most useful bits of self-help advice I ever had was ‘be careful what you say when you talk to yourself’. Negative self-chatter is stressful and life-sapping. Having high standards, being critical of yourself is one thing, but constant self-sabotage is very common and hugely damaging. I once made a terrible mistake in a public speaking competition – as MC I forgot to introduce the person who was to give the vote of thanks. I was, at the time, absolutely mortified. However, I had a great boyfriend who said: let’s be clear you got up and had a go when most people wouldn’t. You can hold your head up high. Speak kindly and encouragingly when you talk to yourself.

The benefits

My own view is that putting a bit of effort into conquering a fear of public speaking and moulding your communication style can pay huge dividends in life. I often hear from former clients and I remember one young woman terrified of public speaking who made huge progress on one of our courses. Two years later she wrote to thank me and tell me she had become an ‘ambassador’ for one policy initiative in the UN, had completely changed her job and her life and now routinely did large policy presentations. The word empowering is overused but being able to speak confidently in public is genuinely empowering.

start with the end in mind

Plan Your Communications: Start with the End in Mind

Starting with the end in mind is such a useful way of thinking. I am aware it does not only apply to media interviews or presentations but is widely useful in everything from preparing a roast dinner to writing a business plan. So crucial is this idea that it is one of the seven habits of highly successful people identified by author Stephen Covey. 

start with the end in mind

Planning your communications: start with the end in mind

However, as a media and presentation trainer, I can tell you that most people do not apply this simple way of being more effective when it comes to planning their communications. In fact, most people don’t plan their communications, period.  The reasons they give are many and varied:

  • Too busy.
  • Talking or communicating is already a professional skill (so detailed prep for an interview or for a presentation is not necessary).
  • It is boring.
  • It’s not about me, it’s about the subject.
  • I am not clear what if anything I want the audience to think or do.

I could go on.

5 minutes strategic thought saves hours of preparation

start with the end in mind

Of course, the reality is 5 minutes serious thought will save hours of preparation and will deliver a better result.

So, if preparing for a media interview it is worth asking yourself these questions:

  • Who is the audience?
  • Which bit of that audience matters to me? If you are doing national media it is clear that most people watching, or reading will have only a passing interest in the subject but the audience will include a few hundred key influencers, potential clients, important regulators etc. Knowing broadly who these people are and what you want to say to them is helpful.
  • Is there anything I want people to do as a result of this interview: click a link, pick up the phone or make a purchase for example?
  • So crucially – what headline or main idea do I want to see in the finished piece – or if television or radio, what do I want the audience to remember?

Once you have this clear in your mind the preparation of ‘messages’ or if you prefer your argument will be much quicker.

For a presentation, it is a similar process:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What do I want them to remember from the presentation?
  • Is there anything I want them to do as a result of the presentation?

Advice to a younger me

If I could meet my younger self I would have a number of pearls of wisdom to pass on – top of the list would be to stop wearing heels to walk in. (Apparently crushed toes 20 years ago mean I now have misplaced toes so my feet find it difficult to keep me upright.)

But also high on the list would be to ‘start with the end in mind’ for all significant conversations. Even more usefully, I would advocate the practice of not only preparing for important conversations but preparing for unimportant ones. Once they have taken place I would suggest that my former self got into the habit of reviewing her ability to continue the conversation with the end in mind. Preparation can easily go out of the window in the intensity of the moment unless you have trained yourself. Training is easy to do because every conversation with the butcher, a neighbour or your stroppy teenager provides good opportunities for practise.

The guy that made me take this simple mantra – start with the end in mind – from a vague idea to a solid practice, was a UN negotiator I met in Kampala. I have forgotten his name, but I vividly remember his stories of negotiating with rebel leaders who had committed atrocities, in various parts of the continent. He had trained himself out of having any emotional reaction to the history of those he was dealing with and instead stayed completely focussed on his strategic aim, knowing the lives of innocent people (sometimes hostages, sometimes children) depended on it.

Few of my clients have such critical communication challenges, but we could all learn from his ability to keep his target in mind.

Here are other blogs we have written on related subjects

Preparing for a Media Interview: 5 key steps

5 Ways to improve that presentation

Developing Messages: Are you guilty of navel gazing?

The Media Coach is a group of working and ex-journalists who provide media and presentation training and message building for a wide variety of organisations. If you think we can help your team give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Photos used under creative commons licence.

 

Answer the question

Answer The Question! A Media Training Basic

Answer the question! A phrase that must be shouted at the radio and television hundreds of times a day. It is also a plea used by many a frustrated political interviewer. But last week interviewer Richard Madeley (of Richard and Judy) went one step further and after several attempts to get Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson to answer a question announced ‘interview terminated’ – out of sheer frustration.

I must admit I missed this storm in a teacup initially but by the end of the week, everyone was talking about it. And since then Madeley has written about it in The Guardian  (apparently it was the most popular thing he has ever done on television) and Charles Moore in the Spectator has stepped in to suggest that Madeley was in the wrong, not Williamson.

Just in case you like me missed it, here is the end of the Good Morning Britain interview. (The elephants in the background were explained earlier – Williamson was doing the interview from a Safari Park.)

This ruckus highlights something that has puzzled me for a very long time. Why have our politicians all been taught (and surely they must have been taught this) not to answer a question?

In our sort of media training, there is very strong guidance against ignoring a question. It is bound to lead to the journalist obsessing about the point and often prompts downright aggression. Much better to answer it and then also add something you want to say.

[I blogged here in September 2016 about the Prime Minister Theresa May’s mistake in constantly refusing to answer a question.]

In last week’s case, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was being asked by Madeley whether he regretted his ‘Trump-like’ choice of words when, back in March – in the aftermath of the nerve agent attack on the Skripals – he said ‘Russia should go away, it should shut up’.

Had Williamson anticipated this question he could have had a prepared phrase (or what we call a reactive line) such as:

“With hindsight, the choice of words was perhaps injudicious but people will have understood my frustration and anger at the attack on British soil…”

Or he might have chosen:

“No, I don’t regret the choice of words. There are times when straight talking is the right thing to do. But I don’t think the exact choice of words is the important issue here…”

Either way it is difficult to see what the long-term damage would have been and in fact, it would have been less of a news story than the actual refusal.

When we run message building sessions it is the preparation of arguments that takes the time. Preparing short responses to possible tough questions is usually fairly quick and straightforward. The trick is to try not to be quotable in your response. That can be hard if you are a high-profile politician (either of my suggested responses from Williamson could have made a news story but with little long-term impact) but much easier for everyone else.

The important thing is not to just ignore a question. A frustrated journalist who thinks he has the audience on his side is a dangerous thing.

Live Broadcast Interviews

Live broadcast interviews: Keep calm and stay sharp

Live broadcast interviews can be nerve-wracking at the best of times and can also be a minefield if not taken seriously.

At the other end of the scale, there are the hidden traps that regular media commentators can fall in to – mainly, familiarity breeding contempt. As Sainsbury’s CEO, Mike Coupe, illustrated recently, if you have several interviews lined up one after the other, the problem can be not so much nerves as tedium:

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But he’s not alone in falling into the trap of thinking you can let your guard down near a camera or microphone, even if you think the interview hasn’t started yet or has finished. From John Major’s infamous “bastards” comment 25 years ago, to former England Rugby Captain, Will Carling, colourfully describing the game’s ruling body “57 old farts” – and being sacked shortly afterwards – the lesson to remember is that the camera is always on, the microphone is always ‘hot’.

Live broadcast interviews – beware the sound check

Even the obligatory sound check can also be a potential disaster if you don’t act professionally, as Ronald Reagan discovered when he decided to joke that “We begin bombing Russia in five minutes” and it was later leaked to the media. (Bonus tip – humour and sarcasm hardly ever work in interviews so play it straight at all times. It is so easy to misspeak, particularly in live broadcast interviews, as we have written about before.)

So here are three other tips for live interviews:

1. Preparation, preparation, preparation

At The Media Coach, our training sessions hammer home the importance of preparing thoroughly with three carefully crafted messages and ‘sizzle’ (media-friendly soundbites, metaphors or alliteration to make them stand out). And for a live interview, preparation AND rehearsal are absolutely vital when you may have at most a couple of minutes to make your points. A live interview is no time for original thought! Nor do you want to waste those valuable seconds waffling while you get to the point.

2. Interviews need substance AND style

While a broadcasting studio can feel quite intimate don’t forget you need to deliver your messages with a bit of ‘oomph’: passion, energy and animation. But try not to nod during a question – it’s a natural body language which signals understanding and a willingness to engage. However, unfortunately, if the question is hostile or negative, it can look to the audience like you agree with it, even if you then go on to disagree. On TV, don’t forget you may still be visible to the audience when the presenter is speaking so don’t react physically during a question, for example grimacing, shifting in your chair or rolling your eyes. And remember, you may still be in shot after your last answer so don’t rip off the microphone, leap out of your chair, turn and walk off or joke about how awful that was until you are sure you are off air or are directed to do so.

3. Keep calm and carry on

While this may not want to hear this, you need to bear in mind that live broadcasting is often controlled chaos – and sometimes not even that controlled! Things can and do go wrong so keep your wits about you. And this goes for TV professionals too as BBC Sports presenter Mike Bushell demonstrated when he took an unexpected swim during a recent live interview:

So, if you have done your preparation, act professionally at all times and expect the unexpected, live broadcast interviews should hold no fears!

How to sit and stand on TV Bill Gates

How to sit and stand on TV

How to sit and stand on TV is one of those things that we cover as standard in any broadcast media training. The rules are very simple and widely understood, so I was immediately struck when I saw this interview with Bill Gates on Friday. I happened to have the Sky News Channel on mute in my kitchen and my first thought was ‘goodness that chap looks a mess’ and my second thought was ‘Oh! That is Bill Gates’.

How to sit on TV: Bill Gates could do better

Now it has to be said that Bill Gates is – well – Bill Gates. He has nothing to prove to anybody and the fact that he is looking all crumpled in this interview is unlikely to make anyone think the less of him. However, for the rest of us whose reputation is not solid gold, perhaps it is worth remembering the rules.

5 rules for how to sit on TV

  1. Sit up straight and avoid leaning over to one side or another. It may feel comfortable but it looks distracting.
  2. Bottom in Back of Chair (remember this with the acronym BBC), and lean slightly forward. This makes you look engaged and as if you care.
  3. If you are a man, pull your jacket down at the back and together at the front but don’t button it up. Check your tie is straight.
  4. Keep your legs together, splayed is not a good look.
  5. Look at the person asking the questions. (Bill Gates gets this right).

Hand movement

Animation is good and hand movement is an important part of the communication process. It also helps the speaker’s brain! Tell someone who uses a lot of hand movement to sit on their hands and their brain seems to slow down. But, while we never stop people talking with their hands, we do suggest the movement stays well below the shoulder line. Hands popping in and out of shot at shoulder level is distracting. Judge this for yourself on the video. I think Gates’ hand movements (if it were anyone else) would shout ‘eccentric’.

5 rules for how to stand on TV

For completeness let’s cover off the rules for interviews conducted standing up.

  1. Put your feet hip-width apart to give you stability.
  2. Keep the bottom half of your body still. No swaying, no bouncing on your toes (a very common issue) and don’t dance – you will step out of the shot. This may all sound obvious but when people are nervous that nervous energy often finds strange escape routes.
  3. Stand straight.
  4. If you are a man, check your tie is straight, at the top of the collar and if wearing a jacket do it up (assuming it fits you).
  5. Use your hands to talk in a natural way but if you are worried about where to put your hands pick a neutral position, clasped in front or behind perhaps, and put them back there if you suddenly find yourself distracted by your own hand movement.

There is a lot to remember in a broadcast interview and while these tips will help you look authoritative they are not nearly as important as what you say. Having a clear rehearsed message is the single most important factor.

If you want tips for what to wear on TV look at our blogs here and here.

If you need help with your on-air performance you could always book another session with us at The Media Coach call +44 (020) 7099 2012.

 

Journalists are not clients or customers

Journalists are not clients or customers – handle with care   

Journalists are not clients or customers and this seems to confuse those planning to speak with them for the first time.

One of the great advantages of being a consultant of any sort but a media trainer, in particular, is you get a huge variety of experience. We get to see and experience the cultures that have grown up inside the dozens if not hundreds of businesses and organisations we work with.

And from this privileged position I can see, with great clarity, how different people have very different programmes – let’s call it emotional programmes – running when they’re faced with a journalist (or trainer) for the first time.

Journalists are not clients or customers

People vary enormously in how they approach a media interview before they have been trained.

Journalists – how should you treat them?

These range from being much too risk-averse, convinced every and any syllable might be twisted and used against the interviewee or the company – all the way across the spectrum to people who are simply too keen to please. Where a person is on this spectrum seems to bear little relation to how senior they are, or indeed how real the media risks are.

Anyone trained by The Media Coach team will know we think you should approach journalists in a disciplined way, it is never just a chat.

Defensive interviews serve no one

However, those too aware of the risks, and without the information on how to handle the risks, will give a very defensive interview: short answers, usually unhelpful and very determined to be dull at all costs. There are lots of problems with this approach.

  • Short answers mean you give up control of the interview every 10-15 seconds and wait for another question.
  • The journalist is bound to get frustrated and feel they have wasted their precious time. They will have a problem because the interview will be difficult to write up and they may have to do more work elsewhere.
  • The journalist will find it difficult to quote the interviewee and therefore be much more determined to try and put words into his or her mouth.
  • At the very least, they will probably not want to talk to the person again.
  • But it could be worse; the journalist may conclude the interviewee is hiding something and start digging around either in the interview or separately, to try and find the dirt.

There is nothing wrong with being professionally friendly, in fact, we would advocate this as the right approach.

Journalists are not clients or customers

Waiting for a trap to spring is no way to manage an interview.

People-pleasers are more likely to say something stupid

At the other end of the spectrum, the people-pleasers run the risk of being exploited by journalists.

These people, in an interview, will focus only on answering questions in an expansive and helpful way. The problem with this is that journalists rarely know the right questions to ask – to some extent all interviews are a fishing expedition. In a worse case scenario, our helpful interviewee can be bounced around, asked and answering all sorts of questions on subjects that are not core to the organisations interests.

Journalists are not clients or customers

If an interviewee is too anxious to please, they run the risk of being exploited.

  • Helpful people asked a question that they don’t know the answer to,  may end up waffling around trying to be vaguely positive but also stay out of trouble. The longer they are talking the more likely they are to say something ill-advised. So for example, if asked about some controversial aspect of the work of a regulator for your industry, we would probably advise that you close down this line of questioning very quickly.  Say something like ‘this is not my area of expertise’ or ‘that is a question for them’ or ‘we work closely with the regulator but I am not going to comment in detail’. However, if you waffle around trying to be positive you are likely to end up saying something like ‘it’s a very difficult area’,  ‘I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes’,  ‘I know our xyz department really struggles with this’ or even ‘they’ve clearly got this one wrong’. All of these phrases can be used to build a story that suggests your business has chosen to publicly criticise the regulator.
  • Even if you don’t say anything inappropriate you will still have spent a lot of the interview talking about something you would rather not see in print.
  • Helpful people are also easy to manipulate into giving quotes they wouldn’t have chosen to give. They are more likely to pick up language from the question e.g. a journalist might say ‘I understand this is a nightmare for you’ and the people-pleasing interviewee might respond ’well it is a bit of a nightmare yes’ – enough to give a screaming headline.
  • Being overly obsequious may lose you credibility with your tough, streetwise journalist.

So we suggest you are professionally friendly, expansive (up to a point) and use prepared messages whilst closing down or moving away from questions that are not in your interest to answer. Easy really.

Media Interviews? We can help

If you would like help or training in how to handle a media interview positively and safely, we would be delighted to work with you.

crisis

Crisis management: that’s the way to do it!

In my last blog for The Media Coach, I wrote about the importance of facing the media during times of crisis.
In that article, I credited former UKIP leader Henry Bolton for agreeing to take part in interviews with journalists after the revelation of racist texts made by his new girlfriend but criticised his lack of messaging skills.

crisis

Chief Constable Jon Boutcher made the difficult decision to let the filming continue as one of his own team was arrested.

Crisis management: superb example

One month later – and I note in passing that Henry Bolton is no longer the leader of UKIP –  a superb example of how to engage with the media in a crisis has come to light.

It follows filming for 24 Hours in Police Custody – Channel 4’s fly-on-the-wall documentary series set inside Luton police station. During a recent blackmail investigation, it emerged that the blackmailer himself was not only one of the police officers working on the case, but part of the team monitoring a local lay-by where the £1,000 hush money demanded had been left for collection. Newspaper coverage of the case can be found here and the subsequent video of Detective Gareth Suffling’s arrest can be seen here.

Warts and all: how we deal with people

So why did the Chief Constable not pull the cameras and refuse to let the footage of the arrest be shown? In Jon Boutcher’s own words during a BBC TV interview the morning after the programme was transmitted: “What this programme shows, warts and all, is how we deal with people with care and respect – whether they are a member of our own or a member of the public, when they commit offences. And how can we get our public to trust us and to have confidence in us if they can’t see who we are as people? I think the programme demonstrated last night just how we deal with people who sadly on occasions let us down in the police service.

“This is a human tragedy in my view – the story of a young guy, a Detective Constable with an incredible future – who, for whatever reasons, and I don’t think we’ve ever really fully understood why he did what he did… And that concerns me. It concerns me with regard to how that could have occurred… If people are in trouble, if people are struggling in any way – whether it’s financial or otherwise – they should reach out for a helping hand.

Crisis management: transparency is key

“I accept that this programme and full editorial control sits with Garden Productions who make the programme – not with me. It would be against the values as to why we do this programme, if suddenly when we don’t like something, we shut it down… But what is more transparent, for our communities to see who we are? Normal people, from their communities, as public servants, policing those communities in the very best way we can.” His full reasoning can be found in this YouTube video.

It was a brave and controversial decision. Indeed, Jon Boutcher admits that he’s had criticism from colleagues, including other Chief Constables, with regards to the previous series. But in agreeing to show the footage, he demonstrates a level of police accountability, transparency and fairness which immediately goes some way to repair the damage caused by the initial arrest. And how much worse would it have been for Bedfordshire Police to have been seen to be trying to hide the film, once news of the arrest came out, if they had prevented it from being shown?

What’s more, Jon Boutcher talks about the case in conversational language (“warts and all”, “human tragedy”, “helping hand”), far removed from the ‘police-speak’ we are so often subjected to; a memorable message, said powerfully.

As an extra benefit, he adds: “the interest we’ve had from people now seeking to join the police service because of this programme, is really encouraging.”

 

Picture is a screen grab from YouTube.

Crisis media interview

Crisis Media Interviews: Face the music – but sing from the right song sheet

Crisis media interviews are understandably terrifying, and most people chose to avoid them and stick to that familiar phrase ‘no comment’. Here at The Media Coach, we spend a lot of time encouraging those who suddenly find themselves in a difficult situation with the media, to be bold and accept requests for interviews.

The PR best practice handbook, were it to exist, would explain that the ‘vacuum’ which would be caused by the absence of timely comments can quickly be filled by something even more damaging. If you don’t talk it is likely your enemies or detractors will.

However, it’s absolutely critical on such occasions the spokesperson has his or her messaging sorted with pin-sharp accuracy, as well as preparing and rehearsing answers to the tirade of negative enquiries.

Henry Bolton had clearly not been given such advice. The UKIP leader (at the time of writing, anyway) had left his wife and children for glamour model Jo Marney who subsequently was discovered to have sent racist texts, some of which were about the most recent addition to the royal family, Meghan Markle. Bolton appeared on national TV and radio the morning after he and his girlfriend had decided to part company.

 

Whilst credit goes to him for facing the media in a series of interviews (BBC 1 Breakfast, BBC Radio 4, ITV’s Good Morning Britain, LBC, Talk Radio and the rest), what emerged was a confused, chaotic, hesitant, and humiliating performance which was almost as destructive as deciding not to do the interviews in the first place.

For the benefit of others who might find themselves facing a series of crisis media interviews, here are three main reasons why every single interview went so badly:

1) Misplaced concern

Unbelievably, during all of his media interviews, Bolton seemed more interested in talking about how “absolutely distraught” his former girlfriend was with the fallout from her racist messages than the offensive nature of the texts themselves. He also suggested that he wanted to “help her re-build her life” and “support her family” (these are the relatives of someone he had been dating for just four days), rather than talking about the support he might provide for his wife of seven years and their two young children back at home.

2) Arguing over minor details

If Bolton had prepared his key messages, he would have been able to focus on getting them across. Without them, he wasted time and effort trying to contradict the interviewers on minor, irrelevant points. So he tried to claim that Jo Marney’s messages had “been taken out of context” – although failed to reveal what sort of context would make such messages acceptable. He also talked about the fact that the original messages were meant to be private (as if that suddenly made them OK). Similarly, when it was put it to him that the content of the messages were “still her views”, he tried to argue “Well, no they’re not, actually” – but failed to explain why anyone would expound views which they didn’t believe.

3) Ambiguity about the future

When events in the recent past have been as chaotic as those experienced by Henry Bolton, the future should have presented a chance to make statements which are simple, clear and unambiguous. But that opportunity was missed, with the curious suggestion that “the romantic side of our relationship is over”, whilst adding that they were “not breaking contact”, then arguing that he hadn’t “dumped” her and that he would be “standing by her”. Both journalist and audience could be forgiven for being left uncertain about what the nature of their future relationship might be.

So whilst it’s almost always better for interviewees to face the media, they should do so only when they’ve got their messaging and reactive lines sorted out. To his cost, Henry Bolton is an example of a man who had neither.

If you would like further reading on this, my colleague Catherine Cross wrote a blog some weeks ago with her top tips for handling a crisis including crisis media interviews. 

senior leaders

Senior leaders – get media trained before you need it

Senior leaders are often booked into media training by PR professionals who are tearing their hair out. So often, successful, super-professional ‘talent’ has somehow missed out on a few of the basics of good external communication and are suddenly required to front a product launch or a PR campaign.

Senior leaders need communications skills

It is so common, so stressful for all concerned and so preventable, I think it is worth a blog post.

Senior leaders

Take the case of Theresa May – for many years an ambitious career politician now struggling with a hugely difficult job. Most of us in the PR business believe a few basic lessons in presentation, delivery and handling media interviews might have totally changed her fortunes. The problem, as I see it, is that she didn’t get the training on the way up and now, with the top job and a different crisis every day, there is no time to do it.

And we see exactly this in the corporate world. Senior leaders are incredibly busy. Diary management is a headache and a full-time job – outsourced to PAs, and EAs  for many of those we train. Trying to persuade these hard-pressed staff that a media trainer needs four hours in someone’s diary is likely to get the response – ‘sorry but can you do it in 45 minutes and by the way, he (or she) will probably be running late.’

A few hours is a good investment

But actually, four or even eight hours training over the career of a senior leader is a very small commitment. It is difficult to predict how many media interviews someone is likely to do in the future but we know for sure they will be doing countless presentations. And while some presentation training is provided, a lot of people slip through the net and still do it very badly.

My belief is that communications training – covering external versus internal comms, understanding the media, social media, messaging and interview control should be core subjects in management training programmes. And these should also include some coaching on delivery style. Being able to ‘perform’ whether in front of an audience or a journalist is also an essential skill. (I have written previously about how poor presentations are endemic in business.)

Incredibly useful professionally

I have lost count of the number of times people finish a media training session saying ‘even if I never speak to the media this is has been incredibly useful professionally’.

senior leaders

The ideal is to do it early, do it well and then top up the training as and when it is needed for specific events. That will avoid the sort of query I receive at least once a week: “can you cover press, radio and TV and give us some help with the messaging for three people in three hours?” It can be done but just not as well as I would like to do it.

So, if you are a learning development officer or an HR professional and some of this rings true – I would suggest asking your PR team about the problems they run into when looking for capable spokespeople. Then if you find I am right, start planning media and presentation training for your emerging leaders. If you think you are yourself an ‘emerging leader’ take my advice and wangle your way onto a media training course before you find you need it. You won’t regret it.