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Top Tips for Surviving Aggressive Interviews

10 Tips for Handling Aggressive Interviews

Aggressive interviews are relatively rare and mostly reserved for politicians. But because we all witness them on television from time to time, spokespeople are always aware that there is a chance things can turn nasty.

In practice, the tricks journalists use in aggressive interviews are small in number and well known.  And the most aggressive interviewers all have their own, well documented style.  Here is my list of this country’s most aggressive interviewers. I would be delighted to hear if you have others you’d like to add.

Top Tips for Surviving Aggressive Interviews

If you think you or your spokesperson could be facing aggressive interviews, here is a checklist of things to do or think about.

1. Rehearse your messages
As with all interviews, there is a need for rehearsed, thought through messages. Always ensure there is something credible to say.

2. Tough questions
Once you have your messages, work out what the tough questions are likely to be. Politicians and CEOs are in a much more difficult position than most because they can often be legitimately asked about a very wide range of subjects. For most others, the scope is more limited and anything outside the scope can be ‘closed down’ by simply explaining you are not the right person to answer the question.

3. Work out the answers!
Now you have worked out the tough questions, work out the answers but keep them as short as possible. These are called ‘reactive lines’ and are different to your messages. You don’t offer a reactive line unless asked the question.

4. Don’t lie
The hardest ‘reactive lines’ to sort out are the ones where you can’t tell the truth and you can’t lie. In my experience, there is always a way but it can take a few minutes to work it out, which is why you don’t want to be doing it in the interview.  However tempting it is, never ever lie.

5. Beware the ‘rabbit-punch’
Beware the ‘rabbit punch’ question: a tough destabilising first question, often unexpectedly personal. It’s a technique that was often used by the now retired UK journalist, Jeremy Paxman. A couple of his classics: to politician and former cabinet minister Ann Widdecombe ‘Were you a little in love with Michael Howard?’ To the Iranian ambassador ‘Sir, your country is lying to us isn’t it’. To deal with this you need to respond briefly and, if appropriate, with wit and then move on to saying something credible and relevant.

Top Tips for Surviving Aggressive Interviews

Now retired, Jeremy Paxman perfected the ‘rabbit-punch’ question

6. Slow down
If the questions get tough, slow down your answers, it will give you more thinking time.

7. Avoid jargon
Do not start using jargon and technical language; you will immediately lose the sympathy of the audience.

8. Be reasonable
Stay reasonable, even if the journalist isn’t, and be humble.

9. Say sorry
If you have made a mistake admit it and say sorry.

10. Don’t say ‘you’re wrong’
Don’t fight with the journalist. It’s better not to say ‘you’ at all i.e. don’t say, ‘you are wrong’, ‘I don’t know where you got that number from’, ‘you guys are all the same’, etc. If you make it personal, the journalist is likely to increase their aggression. Your job is to stay reasonable and professional. In this Sky News interview from June 2015, Kay Burley is very aggressive and also resorts to that classic question, ‘if nothing was wrong before, why are you fixing it’. Note that Nick Varney, the CEO of Merlin Entertainment, the owners of Alton Towers, never loses his cool despite a lot of provocation.

[This Alton Towers interview definitely falls into the category of a ‘crisis interview’ and my colleague Catherine Cross has written more about handling these in a previous blog.]

A final thought … nowadays it is not just the journalists who get to be aggressive. If you haven’t seen President Trump’s handling of questions from CNN’s Jim Acosta last week you really should!

A version of this post was published in July 2015

Arron Banks

Arron Banks, Bluster and Punch – A La Trump

Arron Banks had the opportunity, on mainstream television last week, to explain why supporting the unofficial Brexit leave campaign Leave.EU with £8 million of his own money was legitimate and the right thing to do. He appeared on the  Andrew Marr show on Sunday. The show attracts an audience of 1.5 – 1.7 million which is pretty good for a politics show and well ahead of Peston on Sunday and Sophy Ridge on Sunday. Details of these Sunday political shows and relative audiences are in this article.

Given that this was to be such a crucial interview for Banks, I assumed he would have done extensive preparation: taken a lot of advice to ensure a convincing argument which would move the story on.

Bluster and Punch

Having watched the interview, I am pretty sure he did not take much advice. Instead, he went for a modern style of interview which has been honed by the US President but copied by others, which I am naming ‘bluster and punch’. This is the Trump school of arguing: don’t bother trying to convince those that do not agree with you, simply instead arouse those that do agree with you to a heightened sense of injustice and betrayal. Click here for the BBC’s write up of the event.

To me, it looked like a shameless attempt to obfuscate and defend by attacking others. However, I have to say that although I disapprove of the style, it has proved to be effective, at least at winning public votes. I am not so sure it worked for Banks.

Andrew Marr, not the most aggressive of interviewers was clearly flustered by the lack of rationality in the performance. In fact, he seemed somewhat flustered before the interview started.

I have no knowledge of where the 8 million donated to Leave.EU came from, not much in the way of suspicion and am not clear on electoral law.

But I can tell you that the Aaron Banks’ argument was not prepared for the interview by a professional spin doctor or PR advisor.

While Banks started off well by saying the `Money came from Rock Services’ and that categorically there was ‘no Russian money’ it all went downhill from there.

If you want to make a clear argument for the media (or the public) you need to build it step by step with proof points for each step.

Arron Banks

Confusing and Distracting Use of Numbers

Banks chose not to share such evidence. He didn’t say what sort of insurance customers he served – business or individuals or both. He said it was half a million, the size of Manchester. This was a confusing comparison as only central Manchester has a population of half a million, what most of us think of as Manchester is almost 3 million.

Worse the numbers led to more questions. I spent a lot of the interview thinking if you have half a million customers and you gave away 8 million pounds then those customers on average donated £16 to Leave.EU. Which does beg the question how much profit is he making per customer in the highly competitive, usually low margin insurance sector?  I am sure I wasn’t the only person thinking like this, which means the planned evidence provided here was hugely distracting.

If you are building an argument for a media interview the numbers want to be clear and easily understood, not raise more questions.

Make the Argument Clear

Similarly, in explaining the structure of his companies, Banks did not choose to make it clear. The implication is that Rock Services is a parent company or as Andrew Marr kept calling it a ‘shell company’ and that there are a number of brands that feed profits into that shell company but he seemed unprepared to share details, leaving the clear impressions that he was choosing to hide that information.

If he had said:

Rock Services is the parent company to a number of brands, including A, B and C.”

 …we would have all instantly stopped thinking it sounded dodgy.

As an advisor, I would also have suggested it was a good idea to explain why the donation was made. Surely, it would have been helpful to have a sentence that said ‘I donated this considerable sum from my own wholly owned business interests’ because I sincerely believe it would be better for the UK if we left the stifling, rules-bound, undemocratic, single market’. Without this helicopter view, the whole interview sounded defensive.

As the interview went on Banks’ argument seemed to me to get less and less credible. But he seemed more and more bullish.

Lambasting Others Undermines Credibility

Criticising others, blaming corruption, malice, bias and the BBC can all be done in moderation but to simply state everyone who disagrees with you is without credibility, is to undermine your own credibility. It is like the old soldier on parade who said ‘they are all out of step except me!’.

Given the controversial run-up to this interview, Banks and his advisors (if he had any) could be sure that Marr’s researchers would gather and read everything that was ‘out there’ in the public domain and relentlessly go through the cuttings to hone the tough questions. Apparently, they even sent someone to Companies House.

Planning for Hostile Interview

From a PRs perspective, the more confrontational the interview is likely to be, the more predictable the questions. And that makes the planning much easier.

As a preparation exercise you identify all the likely questions, then you need to craft succinct, credible answers. There may be some questions for which your spokesperson chooses to say ‘I am not making that public because it is commercially confidential’ or ‘I am not going to comment on that’. Clearly, you cannot do that for every question. I referred to this Close Down technique in my blog last week. 

Generally, only if you land a credible answer can you then take the opportunity to broaden the conversation to make a wider point such as accusations of bias, corruption etc.

I suspect Banks thinks the interview went well because he is clearly thick-skinned and he believes he is right and everyone else is misguided. If his intention was to deliberately muddy the waters – but take the opportunity to reiterate allegations that there is an insidious but widespread Remain Campaign still on the march, he probably fulfilled his brief.

However, if his intention was to sway an undecided public that his campaign contribution was above board and put to rest any fears that he might have done something wrong, he failed.

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!

elevator pitch

Why we all need an elevator pitch

I have come to the conclusion that each of us who represent our business to the outside world, however that is defined, needs to have a honed and perfected elevator pitch.

elevator pitch

Can you describe your company in the time it takes to move between floors in an elevator?

What is an elevator pitch?

It is a succinct, thought-through and rehearsed explanation of what the business does.

Why do we need one?

Because the world is complicated and we all assume too often that others completely understand where we are coming from and what we do. Most people interviewed at the start of media training make assumptions about the knowledge of the trainer-journalist. Once this is pointed out, it is obvious.  But it is not just relevant for journalists.   I am always using my elevator pitch when introduced to new people. I lengthen or shorten it depending on the circumstances.

What are the elements?

I think the elements are first an overview or helicopter view. ‘We sell software that helps people cut their use of paper and save money’ or ‘we provide a wide range of personal and business insurance for the UK market’ etc. Second a bit of detail e.g. size of the business, number of employees, range of contracts, key clients etc. and finally an example of a good piece of work you have done.

Do I need to include the history of the business?

I believe the history of the organisation is only relevant if it is memorable and interesting. If it was started in a cow shed in 1901 or was the brainchild of an astronaut, use it, otherwise, don’t bother.

Why is the overview so important?

Because detail makes no sense to people if you don’t provide a frame for it. Once you have the frame you can hang different things on it, but you need the frame.

Why so much emphasis on numbers?

Numbers allow people to understand scale, whether that’s scale of an operation, scale of the growth, scale of the potential market. Without scale, people are left wondering or guessing.

Do you really need examples?

Never miss the examples, they are always the things people will remember after they forget the overview and the numbers.

Warning! Do not try to be all things to all people!

Sounds daft but this is such a common mistake. A story I often tell from the early 2000’s when I was media training a start-up in the dot-com boom.

Me: ‘What is your website for?’
CEO: (aged 22): ‘It’s for all sorts of things, all sorts.’
Me: ‘Okay, what sort of people do you envisage visiting your website?’
CEO: ‘All sorts of people’
Me: ‘So, what might prompt them to visit the site?’
CEO: ‘Oh, all sorts of things!’

I left after three hours none the wiser what this company planned to do (of course, it is possible they didn’t know either which is a different problem.) Much better to give an idea and then layer in further information later if you get the chance.

Warning! Avoid positive bland!

This is another major problem. People think it is impressive to say ‘we provide a great service for our customers’, ‘we help clients become more efficient’, ‘we help make staff more productive’. No detail and only positives mean it is unconvincing propaganda. You might as well not bother.

Warning! Do not use the org chart

People are tempted to explain how many division and subdivisions there are in the company. This really will bore the pants off anybody. (For CNBC’s advice on putting together an elevator pitch click here).

We ran a competition at a conference (ECS 2015) asking people to do their elevator pitch to camera. We called it Message in a Minute challenge. Even PR professionals found it remarkably difficult to do it well.

Do you need an elevator and a message house?

In my view, typically an elevator pitch stands outside a set of messages or a message house that has been prepared for a product launch, a particular issue or set of results. Sometimes organisations ask us to help with an ‘organisational’ message house. This is most likely to be a new company or a hitherto unknown company reaching into a new market. In this case, the elevator is a shortened version of the longer and more detailed organisational messages or ‘house’. In the end, it doesn’t matter what form you use to communicate your message. What does matter is that the message is thought through, crystal clear and rehearsed.

A version of this blog first ran in March 2016

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.

Oxfam Crisis Goldring

Oxfam Crisis notes

Oxfam is in crisis. There must be a whole book of ‘lessons’ from the implosion of this once great British organisation. An implosion caused by a seven-year-old scandal exposed by The Times newspaper last Friday. It is ghastly to watch and a text book example of a ‘crisis’ where new damaging elements of the negative story continue to emerge every day.

Oxfam will be lucky to survive

I feel compelled to declare my personal opinion about this Oxfam crisis. As many know I have worked a lot with charities and agencies in the developing world. I am a huge fan of ‘development work’ in all its guises. If more people knew the great work that is done, the more they would support it.

But it seems all too common for individual incidents of bad behaviour or bad management to be blown out of all proportion in order to discredit all or any development work. There are swathes of society who, with little knowledge of the reality on the ground in developing countries, believe money should not be ‘wasted’ helping people ‘over there’. They are quick to take any example of mismanagement or misappropriation of funds to prove their preconception. The Daily Mail in particular plays to this agenda in ways that many find hugely distasteful. My sympathy is all with Oxfam although of course not with those accused of wrong doing.

Oxfam crisis analysis

That said let’s look at the lessons of this Oxfam crisis.

Public outrage gets ahead of the law. The press likes to bay for blood as soon as any act that would offend a Victorian prude, comes to light. (Always remember this is fake outrage. Few journalists are paragons of virtue in their private lives). The Oxfam country director in Haiti, 7 years ago, admitted to paying for sex. Just to help the headline writers, the party where this happened has been dubbed a ‘Caligula like orgy’ – by ‘sources’ that spoke to The Times. He agreed to step down but his employer, Oxfam, chose not to sack him and not to prevent him working in his profession in the future.

Bad media crises have a habit of having many chapters. If the thing journalists have got their teeth into initially in a crisis is not actually illegal they will often switch the focus to ‘transparency’. Transparency is really difficult when dealing with personnel, commercial and many other issues.

The take-way is that as soon as a crisis starts, someone in the affected organisation needs to be reminding decision-makers that at any moment the whole focus could switch to ‘transparency’. Organisations need to be prepared to be totally transparent or find rock-solid reasons why they cannot be. Transparency can be brutal. Here is an article in CEO Magazine about transparency in a crisis.

Oxfam crisis: what could be done

Anyway, the only way to stop a crisis like this once it gets going is:

  • Sack a whole load of people or have them resign. Be careful if you sack, they may sue as Sharon Shoesmith, the social worker in the Baby P case did. And she won. Story here. 
  • Make an abject public apology. Here is Oxfam’s from CEO Mark Goldring. 
  • Make vast amounts of detail available to journalists who will quickly get bored.
  • Have spokespeople trained and ready to handle the sort of aggressive questioning that we have seen on every serious news programme.
  • Hire someone like Alistair Campbell or a specialist crisis firm (or us) to do your messaging and reactive lines. These need to be much more than wishy-washy statements of good intent. You will need substance and a forensic like approach to possible questions.
Oxfam Crisis Mark Goldring

Mark Goldring CBE, Oxfam’s CEO, made a clear and complete apology.

If you are an organisation full of decent honest people who expect the rest of the world to be measured, decent and honest you have a huge handicap. You will not realise the potential for the crisis to get out of hand and you will not expect the media to go for the jugular. One problem is that sometimes the media does and sometimes it doesn’t. Any doomsayer might be wrong and might damage his or her career by saying ‘this could go ballistic’ when it then doesn’t.

For students of media training lets look at two of the many interviews on this subject.

In this Newsnight interview with Dame Barbara Stocking, the CEO of Oxfam at the time of the Haiti operation, the scandalous bits are all the ‘outraged’ questions from Emily Maitlis. The measured responses from Dame Barbara are barely newsworthy. It was a difficult interview but overall she did well. Personally, I would have liked her to offer a solid apology and be a bit more robust in defense of the decisions Oxfam took. But she was credible and had solid answers. Note this interview was a pre-record. Not a good idea. Dame Barbara should have done it live.

Our second example is a BBC Radio 4 Today programme interview on 12th February – one hour ten minutes in, that is 7.10am. (Remember this disappears after one month.) In this unimpresive interview with Michelle Russell, Head of Investigations at the Charity Commission, it is clear that she had only one simple message and not enough detail to sustain the interview. She appears to be taken aback that Matthew Price, the interviewer, is questioning the competence of the Charity Commissioners themselves. She struggles to cope with what for her was apparently unexpected aggression.

It is the season of sex scandals

It is the season of sex scandals. Post Harvey Weinstein, many things that might in the past have not seemed to be a scandal – potentially are now. I doubt any organisation has no skeletons in the cupboard and I expect most have no idea how they would cope if the spotlight turned on them.

The Orville imagines the rule of law administered by twitter

I cannot finish without recommending a recent episode of The Orville – a brilliant skit on Star Trek running on Fox. In Season 1 Episode 7 Majority Rule, the team visit a parallel planet to Earth, Sargus 4, where the law is administered by popular vote on a planet-wide twitter-like feed. Whilst it is hilarious it is also a bit too close to Earth 2018 for comfort. This is not unrelated to the Oxfam scandal.

 

media interview traps

Media interview traps – how to avoid two of them

Media interview traps are relatively easy for journalists to set and for interviewees to fall headlong in to. At The Media Coach, we try to keep you safe by identifying the most common ones and giving you tips and techniques to avoid them. So it’s useful to look at two examples of interview traps which happened in recent days: being indiscreet near a microphone – even when you think you are not being recorded – and the journalist trying to get you to go ‘off message’ to create juicy headlines. The first trap resulted in days of embarrassing, negative publicity while the second was neatly avoided.

media interview traps

There are some well known media traps but people, even professionals, regularly get caught by them.

Media interview trap 1: Cameras are always on and microphones are always ‘hot’

During every media training session we drill into people the need to be very careful around microphones and cameras before and after an interview; in fact, whenever you are in a TV or radio studio. But familiarity can breed contempt and this week we saw even one of the UK’s most experienced journalists, BBC presenter John Humphrys, get caught out when he made controversial comments in a studio without realising he was being recorded.

He wasn’t on air at the time and was just chatting with a colleague before recording an interview when he made what he has since insisted were “jokey” comments about one of the biggest media stories in the previous week; Carrie Gracie’s resignation from the post of the BBC’s China editor because men in other editor posts were paid considerably more than she was.

The story about the lack of equal pay at the BBC had been running for several days and probably would have been winding down, but with the leaking of the recording, it is now right back up the news agenda.

One of John Humphry’s BBC colleagues, Jane Garvey, summed up the incident nicely when she tweeted:

media interview traps

Media interview trap 2: going off message/just reacting to the journalist’s questions

Also in recent days, experienced media performer, Stanley Johnson, (father of Foreign Secretary, Boris) deftly demonstrated how to avoid another common media interview trap, which I call the “while I’ve got you here, can I just ask you about…” question.

Mr Johnson was appearing on a phone in on Radio 5live’s Emma Barnett show after the UK Government announced proposals to curb plastic waste in the environment. After giving his view on the proposals, and mentioning Boris, Emma Barnett, seized the opportunity to go slightly off-topic with Stanley Johnson in search of a potentially juicy headline by revisiting the very public falling out between his son and the now Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, during the last Conservative leadership contest. ( You can click here for the full interview which starts at 1 hour 24 minutes and 55 seconds and will be available for the next three weeks.)

media interview traps

Stanley Johnson refused to be drawn when asked about the relationship between Michael Gove and his son Boris Johnson.

When asked to respond to the comments from his daughter Rachel that Mr Gove had stabbed her brother Boris “in the front and the back”, Stanley Johnson neatly spotted the potential for negative headlines which could overshadow his environmental agenda. He simply took the sting out of the topic by refusing to get drawn in and saying “I don’t think it’s a good idea to distract from talking about the environment” before going back to his key messages on his intended topic.

This is an effective example of the bridging technique which we teach during Media Coach training sessions to ensure interviewees can avoid being drawn off-topic and ending up with headlines they never intended.

Finally, to avoid both traps, the two cases illustrate the need to take media encounters seriously, focus and remain disciplined at all times.

Photo 1: Pixabay
Photo 2: Creative Commons

 

 

media interviews

Media interviews: is fear of failure leading to missed opportunities?

Media interviews still evoke horror in many people because the stereotype persists that a journalist’s main aim in life is to humiliate hapless interviewees. And while I can’t guarantee that you won’t come across the occasional Jeremy Paxman-wannabee – the vast majority just want interesting guests who can fill a few minutes airtime or column inches with lively and informative conversation!

media interviews

Media Interviews: Journalists need interesting speakers

From big set-piece events like The Budget to follow-up stories on topics like Brexit or the future of Zimbabwe, the media is constantly crying out for good interviewees to add information and insight.  And with average daily audience figures for a programme like BBC Breakfast of 1.5-million, not to mention the tens of thousands of viewers or listeners to regional and local media, turning down interview requests represents a huge missed opportunity to raise your professional profile or that of your business.

Yet I’ve had several conversations recently when people said they’d turned down interview opportunities through fear: “What if I say “the wrong thing”?” “What if they trick me into revealing something I shouldn’t?” “What if they ask me something I don’t know? I don’t want to look stupid!”

So how can you combat that fear of the unknown and turn a media interview into something less like a visit to the dentist and more of a win-win situation for you and your business?

Media interviews: Preparation is the key

There are three quotes that tell you everything you need to know about handling media interviews:

“It takes me two weeks to prepare an off-the-cuff speech.” (Richard Nixon)

“Who has got the questions to my answers?” (Henry Kissinger)

“There’s no such thing as a wrong question, only a wrong answer.” (US Broadcaster Ed Murrow)

What these quotes illustrate is that there is no shortcut to preparation if you want to shine in the media spotlight. Just because you are an expert in your field, do not assume you can just ‘wing it’ in interviews.

You must be proactive and ask the journalist questions before agreeing to take part. This will ensure that when you come to do your preparation you are crystal clear in your head:

  • What’s led them to do the story – what do they want from you?
  • What do you want to talk about?

Much of the fear of interviews can be avoided if you understand why they are interviewing you i.e. will you be a ‘player’ or a ‘pundit’? Are you there because you or your company/organisation are ‘the story’ (player) or are you there to comment on and add incite to a story or topic in the news (pundit)?

In many cases, people from professions such as lawyers, bankers, economists and the business world, will be interviewed in the latter role, which is the easier of the two because journalists are merely looking for you to have something interesting, informative and insightful to say about events, rather than putting the boot in!

Media interviews

Avoid being defensive or bland

Because so many interviewees are terrified of saying the ‘wrong thing’ they can become defensive and bland, and say nothing of interest at all – which is a cardinal sin if you are there as a pundit. (Here is a blog one of our team wrote a while ago about the problem of trade associations being just too bland.) To avoid this, once you clearly understand the circumstances of the interview, your preparation needs to cover two areas:

  • Set yourself an interview objective or headline: What one thing do you want the audience to take away from your interview?
  • Develop a MAXIMUM of 3 key messages/issues to back up your headline.

Language:

  • Remember you are not speaking to your colleagues, so avoid your industry’s jargon and speak in layman’s terms.
  • As a pundit, you are not there to plug your company. However, you should still think about relevant examples, anecdotes and proof points from your work that you can use to illustrate your points and make them more credible and robust (and show your/your company’s expertise).

Top tip for ‘pundits’

  • Remember the pub analogy: Imagine you are in a pub with a friend who knows nothing about your profession or business. Explain your answer to the journalist in the same way you would to your friend in a casual setting.

If you follow these tips, you could see yourself becoming a regular contributor which is priceless advertising without costing you a penny.

media interviews

If you want to learn more about how to take advantage of media opportunities The Media Coach can run bespoke training session for you or your team. As trainers, we’ve helped launch many media pundits and enjoy hearing our one-time trainees pop up time and time again.

For further reading, this is a good blog for scientists and pharmaceutical industry people on how to do a good interview.

Picture credits: Image 2 Steve Debenport

PR and the role of the enemy

Theresa May stood up at the Lord Mayor’s banquet at London’s Guildhall on Monday evening and accused Russia of seeking to weaponise information: using fake stories and photo-shopped images to sow discord in the west. She added meddling in elections and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defence, the Bundestag and others to the list of inappropriate international activities. The full speech is here.

PR and the role of the enemy: case study

 

PR and the role of the enemy

Theresa May pictured with Vladimir Putin in 2016. Now she accuses him of trying to destabilise western democracies.

Now, I have been going on, in private, about Russia’s likely meddling in both the Brexit referendum and the last UK general election for a considerable period of time. I am not close to power so I have no proof but there is enough evidence out there to make me deeply suspicious. But no one was talking about it: until now.

I was extremely thrilled last week when I saw the cover of that excellent round up of the week’s news The Week.

PR and the role of the enemy

And I am pleased that the Prime Minister of the day is now raising the alarm about the likely, sinister action of Russia; using social media (and particularly social media bots), fake news and other tactics to destabilise western democracies.

But I am deeply suspicious about the timing of Mrs. May’s sudden apparent interest in this.

PM criticises Russia, but why now?

The information about suspected Russian meddling has been around for months if not more. It is true the press were writing more about it this month but there was no major new information. It seems Edward Lucas of the Times brought it into the mainstream (sadly this article is behind The Times paywall). I wonder if it just popped into his head or whether someone in Whitehall sowed the seed.

The question is, why is Mrs May speaking about this now?

Well as a cynic, I would answer that it is because the government needs an enemy to unite us. One that is not anything to do with our negotiating partners in the Brexit talks. And here we have it: President Putin and the threat to the international order. As a political or PR tactic it is as old as the hills. Here is an article in Psychology Today that explores this very issue.

Headlines about Russia’s meddling are ‘manna from heaven’ for an embattled Prime Minister who has on her hands rumbling sex scandals, the Paradise Papers, stalled Brexit talks and forced cabinet reshuffles due to amateur empire building by the former Minister for the Department of International Development. And that is before we get to the Boris and Gove double act. My guess is that the Russia section of the speech was suggested or developed by Robbie Gibb ( who I blogged about back in July) to give Mrs. May a few benign headlines. And it certainly worked.