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getting media interview basics right

Remember to get the basics right

You’d think that being the chairman of a high-profile group campaigning for Britain to stay in Europe would at least require you to remember the name of the organisation concerned.

You’d think.

But as Lord Rose, chairman of the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ group discovered in an interview with Sky News, even such obvious details can slip from the mind in the heat of the moment.

“I’m Stuart Rose and I’m the chairman of Ocado,” he started telling political editor Faisal Islam before realising that whilst true, that role was not relevant to the interview that was about to follow.

“Sorry – chairman Stay in Britain… Better in Britain campaign,” he stuttered, before trying to clear the decks with “Right, start again!”

Sadly, the next two versions were no better.

“I’m Stuart Rose and I’m the chairman of the Better in Britain campaign…er… Better Stay in Britain campaign.”

Four attempts, none of them correct. Not only embarrassing, but also a mistake which went onto overshadow his key message – the claim that the EU brings in an additional £670,000 a year for the average British business importing or exporting goods within the union. Very few of the media reports which followed that interview made mention of his key statistic, and chose to highlight his opening errors instead.

A mistake like that matters. If the chairman of an organisation can’t remember what it’s called, why should anybody else? And with a plethora of different pressure groups campaigning variously to stay in or leave the European Union, yours needs to stand out.

So how can you make sure you don’t forget something so fundamental?

The key is good old-fashioned practice. As well as going through possible interview scenarios in advance, something called ‘tongue-memory’ comes into play, making it easier to remember those words and phrases which have actually been uttered out loud beforehand.

You should also seize any useful mnemonics available out there. The more unusual, the better – and as far as Lord Rose was concerned, he had already been offered a helping hand by his rivals.

Eurosceptic campaigners positively enjoy referring to the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ group as ‘BSE’ for short – the unfortunate acronym also standing for Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, which led to the EU banning British beef in the 1990s.

All he had to do was take their acronym on board, and use it to spell out the correct order of the letters beginning the words in his group’s name.

Simple, dramatic and effective – and even more powerful because it uses an intended insult from the very people opposing you, to help you on your way.

Don’t let a name check make you sound like a robot

Don’t let a name check make you sound like a robot

Is it ever ok for organisations to talk about themselves in the third person?

Any media trainer will almost certainly say no, adding that nothing de-humanises a spokesperson faster than those who say ‘Organisation X’ rather than ‘we’ when speaking on behalf of their company, institution or NGO.

From Churchill to Martin Luther King to Boris Johnson, effective public speakers have always known and understood the importance of ‘we’ for building empathy.  And, more recently, as Lindsay blogged in December, part of the spine-tingling power of UK Shadow Foreign Secretary Hillary Benn’s ‘Syria’ speech was in its appeal to ‘our children’ and ‘our values’.

Don't let brand placement make you sound like a robot image

Don’t let brand placement make you sound like a robot

Clearly, these are examples of rhetoric designed to quickly persuade and carry an audience with the speaker.  But if you need convincing at a more mundane level, consider these two statements. Which one builds trust and makes you think the spokesperson is comfortable and open in the way they represent their organisation at a day to day level?

‘Company X does not believe the Warsaw Agreement reflects a true evaluation of the available data on alternatives to Substance B. Company X worked for more than 20 years, with input from regulators, to introduce alternatives.‘

OR

‘We do not believe that the Warsaw Agreement reflects a true evaluation of the available data on alternatives to Substance B.  We have been working for more than 20 years, with input from regulators, to introduce alternatives’.

Clearly, (unless you are a robot), you are going to pick answer B.  It seems an incredibly basic thing for companies and public institutions to get right.  And yet, many do still overlook the all-important ‘we’, with its overtones of collective responsibility and inclusiveness.

Why? How could they?

Part of this is almost certainly down to branding. In our sardine-tin of a digital landscape, many organisations probably believe the best way to stand out is to name-check themselves as often and as loudly as possible.  There are also those who think using the third person adds gravitas, objectivity and even distance to sensitive or weighty issues.  And while all of these arguments are understandable, they shouldn’t automatically be favoured over ‘we’ or ‘us’.

And finally, in certain (ahem) policy towns, the persistent over-use of the third rather than the first person may well be a hangover from the adaptation of written materials to oral ones i.e. where lines/messages are prepared on paper by subject matter experts working in their second or third language and without forethought about how the words will sound coming out of an actual human being’s mouth.

Which is why it’s even more essential for spokespeople to rehearse (or, at the very least, read) their work aloud before doing a press conference or green-lighting a press release.  Otherwise, they run the risk of sounding like automatons who aren’t actually connected to the organisation they represent. And if they don’t sound like they care about their organisation, then how can the rest of us be expected to?

Zaha Hadid picture

The P Word

Dame Zaha Hadid is a giant in the world of architecture; the most famous woman in a male-dominated profession, she is one of its three-four best-known names.  Her ambitious, tradition-shattering designs are famous – or infamous, depending on taste – around the world.  She has won every top accolade in the profession, capped now with the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Gold Medal.

Zaha Hadid Image

Zaha Hadid

As a result, last week, she was invited onto BBC’s “Today” ( to listen click to 2hrs 35 minutes into the show, but it’s only available until 23rd October). The programme is a major agenda-setter for news junkies, and the interview was in honour of her Gold Medal. For someone so feted, and experienced, you would think she would be prepared for the occasion. Apparently not.

The interview was something of a car crash, ending with the celebrated architect declaring “Let’s stop this conversation right now, I don’t want to carry on” and terminating the conversation.

Dame Zaha had failed to prepare. Here are some of the preparations she failed to make.

Key Message

This interview is a stunning opportunity to address a highly influential audience. Dame Zaha is a fascinating person and may have had a really interesting idea or campaign to share. We will never know because she was entirely reactive. The first question, on discrimination against women in architecture, should have been easy to exploit. But she had no strong message, wavering between saying that things had got much better and that prejudice was still a problem. On this latter angle, she declared: “I don’t have any examples”, squashing the subject flat on the spot.

Hard Questions

British journalists are renowned for giving tough interviews – it’s part of the “macho” culture of the media here. Dame Zaha has had plenty of brushes with controversy in her distinguished career so even here, on an occasion for celebration and congratulation, she might have expected a hostile question or two.  When it duly came – deaths of workers in Qatar – she was clearly unprepared.

Dealing with Death

Dame Zaha has a strong argument – the deaths occurred before the start of construction of the stadium designed by her practice. But instead of stating this clearly and calmly, she angrily denied any connection between her project and the deaths, pointing out that allegations on these lines had been withdrawn after she threatened to sue.  While expressions of sympathy would have been ideal the lawyers are always advising against such things, but Dame Zaha could at least have prepared some phrases about how seriously her company took the welfare of workers in Qatar.

Zaha tweets

Twitter reaction to the interview was mixed

Media-friendly Style

“Today” has a relatively leisurely pace by the standards of current affairs programmes, but it still operates at a level of intensity far above normal conversation. Interviewees have to say what they want to say in two-three sentences, even when the matter is complex. Dame Zaha was asked about the failure of her bid for an Olympic stadium in Tokyo and was still listing the members of the jury after 30 seconds. Inevitably she was cut off.  She had not prepared a short and media-friendly version of events.

Keeping Cool

Finally she lost her temper. She argued with the interviewer, complained about being cut short, and in the end declared the interview over. To do Dame Zaha justice, the interviewer did not seem in total command of the facts and the emphasis on controversies of the past may have seemed to some excessive. In fact the BBC has since apologised for factual errors in their questions.

The resulting headlines were all about Dame Zaha Hadid “storming out” of a BBC interview and not about celebrating one of the great creative figures of our time, or about any other theme – discrimination in architecture, planning restrictions, the direction of modern architecture, etc ­ – she could have chosen to highlight.

This commentary is not to criticise Dame Zaha Hadid, the architect. She is a genuine star and behaved in a natural way that everyone can sympathise with.

But her failure to prepare properly for this interview turned it into a disaster.  Any competent media trainer would have had her delivering strong Key Messages in a concise and media-friendly format, calm and measured responses to hostile questions, and the patience to deal with badly-briefed interviewers.

Leading figures in public life, not just business and politics, need to take note.

important of traditional media interviews

4 reasons traditional media interviews should still be part of your PR strategy

In the digital age, should PRs still bother putting their spokespeople up for interviews with journalists from the traditional media?

As Lindsay has blogged previously, you don’t have to look too far to find statistics that confirm how the proliferation of new media is eroding the business model and audience share of more traditional rivals. And, it’s also not hard to see why many organisations use social media to bypass journalists, particularly if an issue is contentious or they simply want to put a message out directly to the public.

That said, here are four reasons why talking to traditional journalists on the record should still have a place in your communications strategy.

1. Third party credibility

With trust in corporations and politicians (and to be fair, some of the media) very low, the fact that a spokesperson is prepared to put themselves up for a two-way grilling shows a willingness (or appearance of willingness) to take questions publicly. This is enormously valuable for credibility, as it shows the exchange is not self generated corporate or sponsored puff masquerading as objective news.  There’s a reason it’s called earned media..

2. Catharsis

Likewise, in a crisis, companies who put their CEO’s up for a mea culpa interview often do a much better job limiting damage to their brand, provided the CEO plays by the rules i.e. appears to be genuinely empathetic, follows the crisis messaging formula and doesn’t say anything stupid that will wreck the share price.

3. Audiences – bigger and more specialist

There may be more information outlets out there but many traditional journalists and news organisations also have big social media followings, meaning that if they tweet quotes or clips of their interview with your spokesperson, there’s an increased chance of it being shared and seen more widely. This is very helpful, not least because many organisations don’t have big or active enough digital communities to multiply a message effectively through their own social media channels. We also shouldn’t forget that we’re in a transition phase – many people, particularly older consumers or elite audiences still get their news and information predominantly through more traditional or niche outlets.

RCJ - YouTube

4. Profile building

An interesting recent analysis by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism showed that the relationship between social and traditional media is complex and symbiotic. Stories frequently begin life on social media or sharing sites such as Reddit but it often takes the pick up and ‘coronation’ by traditional journalists for a story to really make it into the mainstream. Likewise, social media pundits with big digital followings get a huge visibility boost once they get noticed by what is often still perceived as the Premier League of traditional media. And of course, the great thing about the social media/media interplay is that it’s measurable in terms of click-throughs and numbers of impressions related to an article.

My guess is that traditional media relations (particularly radio and TV) will continue to play a substantial, if not quite as important role in most PR’s communications strategies for a while yet.

What’s your strategy as a PR? Is the traditional media still important for you or are you focusing more on digital?