Pity Alistair Phillips-Davies. He was clearly never a boy scout. His PR team won him a coveted spot on the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning. What is more he was to talk about a survey that throws a positive light on his company. But the outcome was a three-minute car crash which left Phillips-Davies, CEO of energy firm SSE looking as if he a) was complicit in some meaningless PR stunt and b) didn’t know what was going on in his own company. The reason it was a car crash was the CEO was not prepared.
He was there because SSE has paid for some research to show why the new Fair Tax Mark, a government-backed endorsement of a company’s tax policies from an influential NGO, is needed to counter public cynicism about big business. SSE was the first FTSE100 company to get this kitemark, surely a great PR opportunity.
But it all went painfully wrong.
Phillips-Davies was first led into accepting that the public promise to pay tax meant his company was morally superior, really setting himself up for the next two questions. He then got hit with evidence of previous company wrongdoing.
Interviewer James Naughtie mentioned two incidents both outlined in a Guardian piece in March this year: A £100,00 fine for overcharging the National Grid for wholesale power and an earlier fine by Ofgem for failing to meet obligations to provide free insulation to low-income households. I mention the Guardian piece because that is likely to be where Naughtie’s information came from. When researching questions for an interview, the journalists will do a Google search on the company and see what has been written previously. It is not rocket science.
It wasn’t a particularly aggressive interview, in fact Naughtie seemed to pull his punches. It would have been a lot more embarrassing for SSE had it been John Humphrys asking the questions.
From where we as media trainers sit, the negative questions were so obvious: cynical journalists will always throw the odd curve ball if someone is suggesting they are better than the rest.
Also as a ‘professional listener’ it was clear that Phillips-Davies only had one message, and he was rather hesitant on the delivery of this. It certainly did not have enough substance to sustain the interview. He never seemed to talk about the actual survey, or indeed the ‘big picture’ mission to rebuild trust in big business.
So just to be clear – if you are going to get any but the simplest argument across in three minutes, under potentially hostile questioning, you need to have rehearsed it a few times. You also need to anticipate the tough questions and work out what you are going to say.
By the way, our rates are very reasonable.
Today Programme 54:06