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Emily Maitlis feature

Emily Maitlis – Airhead: Why all PRs should read it

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

However, reading about it all is great fun.

Emily Maitlis

A Very Personal Account

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

 What PRs Might Learn

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

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

 The ‘While I’ve got you …’ Question

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

Emily Maitlis

My Personal Observations

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

preparing for media interviews Feature

Preparing for media interviews: don’t overlook the obvious question

Preparing for media interviews is essential. You need messages, and you need to think about the tough questions. But we see people tie themselves in knots trying to anticipate all their nightmare or crisis issue questions: developing complicated answers to each and every one. Then in practise, the one question that really trips people up is nothing more complicated than “What does your business do?”

preparing for media interviews

Preparing for media interviews: Can you articulate the basics?

It sounds a simple enough question but failing to find an effective and memorable answer to describe what their business does, is a trap into which many interviewees fall into head-long.

[I have recently presented a webinar on this subject for the IOD. It’s free and you can find the link at the bottom of the page.]

Despite corporate jargon frequently being cited as one of the most annoying business habits, too many people still fall back on phrases such as “end-to-end solutions”, “digital platforms”, “vertical markets” and “leveraging synergies”. The digital and tech sectors, in particular, often over-estimate the understanding of their audience.

Can you ditch the jargon?

I hit this problem head-on recently, when training some otherwise impressive young entrepreneurs. Their descriptions of what they did were peppered with just these sort of phrases and it took numerous attempts of asking; “but what does that actually mean?”, “how does that work on a day-to-day basis?” to get an explanation from them along the lines of “we help our clients to use social media more effectively so they can raise their profile and win more business”.

Of course, it is not just media-novices who fall into the trap of thinking that complicated language or industry jargon makes them look clever. Last year Ocado included the following paragraph in a press release to explain a change in business strategy:

“The centre of gravity at Ocado Group has shifted from our heritage as an iconic and much-loved domestic pure-play online grocer to our future as a technology-driven global software and robotics platform business, providing a unique and proprietary end-to-end solution for online grocery, and an innovation factory, applying our technical expertise to adjacent markets and verticals.”

The howls of derision, particularly among journalists, were loud – just one example from the FT is linked here.

Preparing for media interviews: Not dumbing down is really dumb

Rather than impressing an audience, this sort of language merely alienates people. During training sessions, when we are helping to develop messages, participants sometimes question the use of simple language, as they feel it is dumbing down their work too much. In response I quote Albert Einstein who said:

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

The fact is that if your audience doesn’t understand what you are talking about, they will tend to think worse of you, not of themselves!

Make it real. Relate to something people recognise

preparing for media interviews

Lord Browne
The former CEO of BP, understands the benefit of clear communication using layman’s language

When preparing for media interviews you could do worse than look to the example of Lord Browne, the former CEO of BP and an engineer by profession who, when asked what an engineer does, answered:

“Engineering is about creating practical solutions to humanity’s most pressing challenges – whether it’s building a bridge, finding new treatments for cancer or tackling climate change.”

preparing for media interviews

Warren Buffett
The legendary investor has a legendary way with words

Business guru Warren Buffett is another communicator who revels in the use of simple colourful language. For example:

  • “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
  • “If you aren’t willing to own a stock for ten years, don’t even think about owning it for ten minutes.”
  • “Buy a stock the way you would buy a house. Understand and like it such that you’d be content to own it in the absence of any market.”

More of his best quotes are linked here.

So, when preparing all your messages – whether for media interviews, presentations or simply for a networking meeting – think about the following three things:

  1. Mind your language! Keep it simple and avoid jargon.
  2. Make your answers memorable: use word pictures and metaphors which bring what you are saying to life for your audience and can effectively explain difficult concepts.
  3. Make your answers real: give examples which people can relate to so what you are saying becomes human and tangible.

For more advice on how to use simple and effective language, listen to my recent Webinar for the Institute of Directors ‘Bin the Babble: How to win more business with better communication’.  (You don’t have to be an IoD member – just chose the ‘Not yet’ option when asked if you are a member.)

More Info

Here are links to some other posts on messaging and language that may be of interest:

Developing Messages: Are you guilty of navel-gazing

Great media quotes

Using pictures to make your ideas memorable

 

Photo Credits:
Word Cloud – CC Gavin Llewellyn, Flickr
Lord Browne – CC Suzanne Plunkett, Flickr
Warren Buffett – CC Wikimedia

 

 

Prince Andrew

Prince Andrew rolls the dice

Prince Andrew’s grilling by Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis is definitely the interview of the year.

The widespread criticism and hullabaloo would have anyone believe it was a ‘car crash’ and Prince Andrew should never have done it. I am not sure I agree.

Prince Andrew – car crash interview?

To me labelling this as a ‘car crash interview’ is simply journalists quoting some self-publicists who know how to grab the headlines.

First, if Prince Andrew hadn’t eventually done an interview, the very same media now saying it was a car crash – would have been saying it was time he broke with tradition and gave his side of the story. In this day and age, the public, encouraged by journalists, believe they have a right to a full explanation. There is no such thing as privacy for the Royal Family or many others.

Prince Andrew knows this.

And everyone knows it is infuriating to be accused of something (for 8 years so far) without being able to tell your side of the story.

He sounded like a man who wanted to set the record straight

I believe Prince Andrew weighed it up and on balance decided he wanted to have his chance to set the record straight. In the past, the Royal Family has not done this. They have stuck to the ‘never apologise, never explain’ rule. Of course, there have been exceptions: Princess Diana’s Panorama interview in 1995 and more recently Prince Harry and Megan’s ITV interview on the difficulties of dealing with non-stop press intrusion. 

I watched the Prince Andrew interview very carefully, paying particular attention to the body language and also looking for a level of coaching. This sort of long-form interview is very different from three minutes to get your point across. We all know the public will decide whether someone is lying or not based not on what they say, but on the impression they give. Any side-stepping or ‘bridging’ will give the impression of guilt. (This assumes the watcher was open-minded at the start of the interview).

Prince Andrew come across as completely credible

What I saw was completely credible and I totally fail to see how the interview itself was a ‘car crash’. His Royal Highness blowing his top, or demanding the questions were inappropriate would have been a car crash. If he had contradicted himself it would have been a car crash. If he had stumbled and look shifty and defensive it might have been described as a car crash. He did none of these things.

One of the things I look for above all else is the coherence of the argument. Were there any bits that didn’t add up? I could not hear any.

Interview criticism

Most of the people claiming it was a car crash are not specific about why they believe that. But there are three strands of criticism of the interview itself.

  1. The Prince should have shown more compassion, sympathy, concern, etc. for women who were trafficked for sex.
  2. He should have apologised or shown regret for his friendship with Epstein.
  3. His choice of words in categorising Epstein’s behaviour as ‘unbecoming’ was inappropriate (but quickly corrected).

From where I sit these would have been minor improvements to a very well handled interview. I fail to understand why so many people should be so vitriolic about someone cautiously regretting a friendship! Since when was being friends with the wrong sort of person a crime. Especially if they were not a close friend and especially if you did not know what they were up to. As for concern for the women (or indeed any victims of paedophilia), he was not asked about this and if he had artificially inserted this into the conversation all the Twitter trolls who are convinced he is guilty would have just howled that it wasn’t real.

Body language was mostly well controlled

Some have criticised his body language. Given that very few of the allegations were new to him it is a bit difficult to get much from the body language. You are not seeing the first reaction to new information. There were some accusations (staying at a beach house four times a year) that clearly did hit the mark. They were new to him and he was outraged because he believed they were untrue. We briefly saw the outrage because (it seemed) he had not heard this accusation before. That we could read in the body language but it did not harm his credibility.

I have friends who did not believe a word Prince Andrew said. Their reaction was: We know what men like him are up to. Who is he kidding? They are all at it.

I also have friends who think it was a credible and impressive interview and he came across as a guy who wanted to put his side of the story over.

It does seem worth saying that while the angry, the disbelievers, the haters of privilege, etc. are all over Twitter, there will also be a group of cooler heads who judge things differently but who are not choosing to share on Twitter.

Was it right to do the interview?

For me, Prince Andrew handled the interview extremely well. He answered each question directly, did not try to control the interview, gave detail and whilst not being overly emotional, he certainly showed his vulnerability.

I recommend Emily Maitlis’s own account of the interview in the Times (behind a paywall) and will quote her here:

‘Our news world is so often full of bland figures trying wilfully to be more bland. Say nothing. Avoid scrutiny. Dodge and deviate from every question asked. And whatever comes of this, I must admit to respecting an interviewee who is prepared to approach head-on every single thing that he is asked.’

The more you say, the more everyone else says

However, it is not clear whether doing the interview was wise. It was certainly a high-risk strategy. And the problem is that the more you say, the more everyone else says. He took this issue from a low-level grumbling story to front page across the world for three days. He opened the gates to a feeding frenzy of people who were never going to believe a word he says because he is a man with money, power and privilege.

I suspect this is why the Prince’s new PR advisor, Jason Stein, resigned ahead of the interview.  He would have been blamed for the feeding frenzy and it would have blighted his career.

Although the coverage of the last few days has been bloody and fuelled by huge amounts of ‘fake outrage’ on Twitter, not to mention a lot of PR people wheeled out to say it was a mistake, the key question is what happens in the next three months? After all this venting, will more come out? Will the story continue to be as toxic for the Royal Family or will everyone move on, having had their say? That is the real gamble.

If one believed in honest journalism in the modern world, you would hope that there are some investigations going on into the other side of the story.  After all, fuelling the fire in the way this interview did, also makes the protagonists a subject of more interest.

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.

tough and aggressive media interviews

Dealing with tough and aggressive media interviews

Tough and aggressive media interviews are in evidence most days in the British media. The Brexit frustration, chaos and confusion is making most of us exasperated and the journalists are reflecting that with challenging interviews.

As a student of managing media interviews, this throws up lots of examples of people handling difficult questions.

And this is front of mind for me personally as I had a client last week (no names, no pack drill, of course) who wanted to practise really aggressive interviews – interviews which in my view he is very unlikely ever to face outside a training room.

I always say the most difficult questions are those where you can’t tell the truth but you definitely can’t lie. Many people, when faced with aggression and persistence will give in and tell the truth even if they know they shouldn’t, which of course is why barristers and journalists have perfected the art of being aggressive and persistent.

[Just to be clear there are lots of occasions when it is ethically the correct thing to do – not to tell the whole truth. For example: when publicly asked about personnel matters such as salaries or sackings, ahead of mergers or take-overs when it is illegal to reveal to one set of shareholders something that is not revealed to all, ahead of legal proceedings and of course during negotiations.]

Most people who talk to the media will never face really aggressive questioning, but it is instructive to analyse how others do it. The most aggressive interviews that I am aware of these days are probably not on the BBC but are perhaps on LBC. Nick Ferrari and Eddie Mair are both capable of making anyone feel very uncomfortable.  Here is an example from a couple of weeks ago which not only shows Mair’s quietly aggressive style, but also that Jacob Rees-Mogg goes into the studio prepared to give as good as he gets. This ‘have a go back at the journalist’ technique is not one that we recommend but it does stop you as the interviewee being the victim. The question, of course, is does it damage or support the authority of the government’s message.

On Sunday we saw the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, interviewed on Andrew Marr. Javid appeared to blatantly make two mutually contradictory statements: One was that the government will abide by the law of the land and the second is that it will leave on October 31st even though a law was being passed to prevent leaving without a deal. What is interesting about the interview is the confidence and clarity with which Javid holds the line on this apparent impossibility, despite Marr’s best efforts.

The viewer’s reaction to this performance will depend on whether he or she supports or despises the current government. But again it shows politicians refusing to be bowed or manipulated by the interview process. I would conclude that the government spin doctors do not care what Andrew Marr and the Remainers think, they want the team out there talking directly to their own supporters. Javid is getting a message out to those that matter at this moment.

On the same programme, we heard Amber Rudd explain why she quit the government and the Conservative Party. It was absolutely obvious that this was a very well-prepared media event, well messaged and each line clearly articulated. For example, she had what sounded like evidence of not enough effort going into making a deal: ‘I asked and I was sent a one-page summary’. She also said ‘21 of my colleagues, who are good moderate conservatives’. Not a phrase she thought up during the interview. Personally, I think she came across extremely well in this interview and wonder if she is positioning herself as a possible next prime minister.

This is not a very aggressive interview but I have included it because asked by Marr if the issue that led to her resignation was a question of lack of trust, she said ‘I am not going to use those words…’

This is a very standard line that we often suggest in Media Training. People are usually surprised that we recommend they are so direct – but it is important to understand that every journalist is looking for a quote, a headline or a soundbite and they are often keen to write this themselves – and ask you to agree. Had Rudd said ‘yes’ to that particular question the headlines would have quoted her as saying she left the government because she couldn’t trust Boris. Stating bluntly that she will pick her own words allowed her to control both the interview in the moment and also the way it was reported during the day.

We have written about managing tough interviews many times before. Here are a selection of previous blogs.

10 Tips for surviving aggressive interviewers 

Media Interviews you just can’t win

Your TV interviewer may be annoying but storming out isn’t great either

If you think you need support preparing for a media event or a media interview give us a call to discuss how we can help tel:+44 0(20) 7099 2212.

trade press interviews

10 Top Tips for Trade Press Interviews

Trade press interviews are important for many businesses, they are a surefire way to reach a targeted market. While many publications have moved online, each has its own clearly defined audience and particular characteristics. Some of the journalists are seasoned experts in their sectors but many are less than a few months out of university with eyes on a more prestigious job. Either way, the pressure is on those journalists to capture and entertain their audience. They can be mischievous and gossipy just like colleagues in more mainstream jobs.

trade press interviews

My Top Tips for Trade Press Interviews

1. Before you start, be clear who you are talking to and who the audience is. Your trade press interview may be for a publication targeting your own industry or perhaps for your customers’ trade press. As a media trainer there is little benefit for me appearing in a media training magazine, were one to exist, but every benefit to appearing in a publication aimed, for example, at the pharmaceutical industry who are big spenders on media training. Either is fine but it is important to know before you start.

2. Be clear what the ‘peg’ for the interview is. It may be a press release or something that has happened in the industry, or perhaps a new product or a reaction to something someone else has said. Once you know who the end readers are and the starting point for the interview, you can plan what you want to say.

Trade Press Interviews: Don’t Speak in Jargon

3. Don’t speak in jargon. You may think your trade press journalists are experts but they are unlikely to be as expert as you and their readers may be even less so. Speak in layman’s language.

4. Be quotable. Plan a couple of metaphoric or graphic phrases that will give the journalist an easy quote. Quotes will often make the headline but even if they don’t if you are quotable in an interview you will get more than one name-check.

Trade Press Interviews: Plan Proof Points

5. Plan proof points. Good interviewees always have facts and numbers to provide evidence for any argument. They do not have to be confidential or propriety numbers – they can be numbers already in the public domain, for example, the sectors gender pay gap numbers or the latest Gartner research on technology trends. Of course, if you do have original research or client insight that you can use, you should make the most of it. Journalists will be particularly interested if the data has never been published elsewhere. It may be appropriate to provide a journalist with a fact sheet or list of key numbers. If you have a snazzy graphic so much the better.

6. Use examples and stories or anecdotes. I have written extensively about this before and will again, but good stories will not only win you coverage but be remembered by your audience. However, they need to be planned to ensure they are clear, not too long and don’t breach any confidentiality.

7. Consider whether you have any high-resolution pictures or video to offer the journalist but be mindful of copyright issues.

8. Make it your intention to deliver value to the journalist. You are not there to say how brilliant everyone or everything is (that is advertising). But if you give journalists what they need they will come back another time, winning you more publicity.

trade press interviews

Trade Press Interviews: Stick to Your Brief

9. Don’t comment on things you are not an expert in – politely suggest that there are more qualified people to answer the question. And also don’t get persuaded into gossiping about budgets, personnel changes or lost contracts. It is safest to assume everything is on the record and can be used. It is easy to say ‘you wouldn’t expect me to comment on that’. Always beware the ‘while I have got you can I just ask …’ type question at the end of the interview.

10. Whilst in the mainstream media it is often inappropriate to ask to see the copy before it is published, in the trade press, this happens often. Each publication or website will have its own rules but there is no harm in offering to read copy to check the details are correct. Be clear that you won’t have full editorial control but in practice, you can often get anything seriously concerning at least modified if not dropped.

Many companies have a policy of media training anyone allowed to talk to the trade press. One four hour session is usually enough to innoculate against naivete or bravado causing embarrassing headlines.

Photos: used under Creative Commons licence. Journalist caricature from Pixaby.

Controlling the quote Robert Hannigan

Controlling the Quote in Media Interviews

Controlling the quote is not something that can be guaranteed in a media interview. Anyone who speaks to a press or web journalist for 20 minutes is likely to say somewhere between 3,000 – 5,000 words based on three to five words per second. Even if it is a three-minute radio interview the interviewee is likely to have said around 500 words by the time it ends. The journalist will have a wide range of options for the few words they put in quotation marks, choose for the soundbite or make the headline.

What matters to most people is that they don’t say (or agree) something by accident that ends up getting all the attention. Last week saw a clear case of this.

Controlling the quote

Facebook Threat to Democracy

On Friday, it was widely reported that the former head of GCHQ had stated Facebook was ‘a threat to democracy’. [GCHQ is part of Britain’s intelligence and security organisation that listens in on communications across the world.]

Just to illustrate how widely this was reported here is a selection of headlines.

Controlling the quote

Did he mean to say it?

Controlling the quote

Robert Hannigan agreed the quote but didn’t actually say it.

However, on closer inspection, it looks doubtful that the former head of GCHQ actually meant to say ‘Facebook is a threat to democracy’. If you read the story closely you can see this was not a phrase that he originated but in fact came from a response to a BBC journalist’s question.

This is how The Times reported it:

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether Facebook was a threat to democracy Mr Hannigan replied: “Potentially yes, I think it is, if it isn’t controlled and regulated.”

The thing to note here is that the one phrase that made all the headlines was not actually spoken by Hannigan. He just agreed it.

In fact, The Times quoted the Radio 4 interview even though they had spoken to Robert Hannigan themselves. Annoyingly I imagine, for Lucy Fisher, The Times reporter, Hannigan did not give (or agree) the standout quote of the day to her. She had to report something he said to another journalist in a different interview.

What I conclude from this is:

1) Hannigan does think Facebook is ‘potentially’ a threat to democracy but
2) He did not choose to couch it in these terms.

The clever journalist presented him with a rather dramatic, high-level version of his opinion and Hannigan agreed it.

If you don’t agree it, they can’t use it

We do not know if Hannigan was dismayed or delighted with the headlines he got all over the world. But we can be pretty sure it was not a phrase he had planned to use.

The takeaway message, that those of you trained by us have heard all Media Coach trainers repeat many times: don’t say ‘yes’ when a journalist rephrases your argument and asks you to agree it. If you don’t agree it they can’t use it.

And to be clear, we suggest interviewees never say ‘yes’ when a journalist does this. What can seem sensible, innocuous and often caveated (as with this example) in the conversation, can sound or look extreme and aggressive if transformed into a headline.

It is safer if interviewees pick their own words. It is safer still if they plan their key phrases before any interview.

It is all part of the discipline needed to do a media interview, assuming, of course, you are in a professional role.

The Media Coach has been providing media training in several languages for business and professional people for more than a decade. If you have a spokesperson who needs training why not give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Hannigan Photo distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.
Facebook logo provided Pixaby under a CC0 Creative Commons Licence

 

remember the numbers

Remember the numbers! Media Training basics

Remember the numbers! This needs to be a new mantra for anyone planning high profile media interviews. Sadly the media are deeply unforgiving of someone who doesn’t know a number.

Nicola Sturgeon forgets the cost of Scottish Independence

Nicola Sturgeon was last Friday, the latest in a long line of politicians to forget a key number and be chased for it, in this case during a Channel 4 News interview.

Eventually, she admitted she had forgotten what number a leading academic had put on the cost of setting up Scotland as an independent nation. (The answer, by the way, was £450 million.)

Interestingly to me, this was a pre-recorded interview which was edited and packaged up. You can watch it here, the key exchange starts at 1.58 in. Even though the journalist, Ciaran Jenkins, could easily have left out the embarrassing moments showing Sturgeon forgetting the number, he, of course, chose to include it.

Chasing the number has become ‘fair sport’

Politicians do have it tough and are juggling a huge amount of information that they can be pigeonholed about at any time. In recent years it has become ‘fair sport’ to embarrass political figures with repeated questioning about a number.

It happened most excruciatingly to Diane Abbott here in an LBC interview about the cost of extra police.

It was said afterwards that Abbott was unwell; she has Type 2 Diabetes and was struggling to control her blood sugar levels and, it was claimed, was therefore confused during this interview. Shortly afterwards she stood down temporarily due to ill health, just before the June 2017 election.

Not knowing the number suggests a careless attitude

Jeremy Corbyn also forgot a key number in this BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour interview where he couldn’t remember the cost of a policy to provide free childcare to all pre-school children, a key policy in the Labour manifesto.

I do have sympathy but there is no doubt that not knowing how many millions of pounds you are planning to spend on a new policy is hugely damaging. It makes it look as if you have a careless attitude to public money.

Pay is another area where not knowing the numbers can get you negative headlines. And it’s not just journalists that are unforgiving.

Do you know how much you earn?

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee were extremely irritated when in February 2016, Google’s European CEO failed five times to answer a question about how much he earnt. In the end, he said ‘I don’t have a figure’. Given that he was trying to explain why Google was paying so little tax into the UK coffers, the performance led to bruising headlines. You can read the Daily Mail’s coverage of that event in February 2016 here.

And more recently Marion Sears, the remuneration committee chairwoman at Persimmon, admitted to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee that she did not know the average pay of workers at her company, and appeared to forget that Persimmon had given the CEO Jeff Fairburn a £45m bonus the year before. None of which went down well with MPs or the media. Here is the Independent’s coverage.

The lesson: If you are doing a high-profile interview or a select committee – sort out the numbers and rehearse and learn the argument. In Messaging or Media Training sessions, we build facts and numbers into our message houses and then strongly advise interviewees to rehearse these aloud – to build what we call ‘tongue memory’.

If you want help with either message building or interview rehearsal The Media Coach team can role-play realistic interviews with you and provide coaching before the event.

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

The hardest questions

Media Interviews: The Hardest Questions

The hardest questions from journalists are often the ones where you can’t tell the truth and you can’t lie.

If you are not used to corporate life you will be quick to judge this post as more evidence of spin doctors’ corrosive effect on society. But I have learnt that there are plenty of occasions – totally ethical circumstances – when it is not possible or sensible to tell the truth. And I for one am not sure UK Prime Minister Theresa May was telling the truth when she let it be known she plans to lead the Tories into the next election.

The hardest questions

But let’s start at the beginning. When working out prepared reactive lines to tough questions, those where you can’t tell the truth and you can’t lie are in a category all of their own.

There are some of the more straight forward ones. They were some of the hardest questions but over the years others have found the right phrase and now everyone uses it. In the trade we call all of these phrases a ‘close down’.

Sorry that is commercially confidential

Companies often have numbers that they do not want to release for perfectly valid commercial reasons. This might be as simple as ‘what is your margin on this?’ or ‘how many deals are in the pipeline?’ or more specifically ‘I heard your margins are being squeezed and are now down below 12%. Can you confirm that?” In these cases it is easiest to be straight with a journalist and say ‘sorry that is commercially confidential’.

We never comment on market rumours

If your listed company is in the process of doing due diligence ahead of a takeover bid you are legally obliged not to disclose this to one set of shareholders ahead of another. It has to be announced to the whole market at the same time. You have no choice but to keep it under wraps before the announcement. So if a journalist asks directly ‘are you about to buy xyz company? ’ you will have to fall back on the well understood stock answer ‘we never comment on market rumours’.

The market sets the share price

Similarly, a senior executive should not share an opinion on his own company share price. It would be ill advised to say ‘my shares are undervalued’ to one journalist because again if there is something to be shared on this you must tell all investors at the same time. The stock answer here is ‘we just run the business and let the market set the price’.

However, that still leaves plenty of common but trickier questions that need a bit more thought.

Difficult questions can, for example, arise if a member of staff has been ‘let go’ for some major issue; it may have been incompetence or something illegal that never went to court. You can’t say publicly what you believe to be true because you could be sued for slandering the individual. A standard answer would be ‘I am not going to comment on personnel issues’ although this is harder to sustain the more senior the person in the spotlight.

How long do you plan to be in the job? When will you retire? Or any version of this is another question a senior leader is ill advised to answer. It is well known that as soon as a decision to go is announced, power starts to drain away from that person and the troops line up behind one or other of the potential successors. In business life we normally advise a dismissive ‘when there is any announcement to be made on that I will let you know’. But the more senior you are, the more your shareholders and customers will demand to know.

Theresa May’s dilemma

This is exactly the dilemma Theresa May faced last week.

Having experienced life as a ‘lame duck leader’ after the general election, and having perhaps recovered somewhat from that, I am guessing she would be reluctant to do anything to undermine her own power again. But the problem she faced, from the moment the election result was confirmed, was people speculating on her future.

This was pushed to the top of the news agenda with a flurry of reports about her plans to leave the job. I think timing is also an issue here because she had a number of lobby correspondents on the plane with her to Japan. That sort of event always involves some cosy briefings between the PM and the press. The ‘will you stay?’ question was guaranteed to come up. It is one of the hardest questions any leader can face. Given the circumstances, she decided to quash the story and to go with a definite ‘I am staying’, ‘I am not quitter’ and ‘yes, I intend to fight the next election’.

Here is the Guardian’s report of her dilemma and here is Sky’s Jason Farrell on his shock at getting a straight answer from Theresa May when he asked if she was going to fight the next election.

[Personally, I am not convinced by the ‘I am here to stay’ statements. If I was in her shoes and – just imagine – I was keen to go after the Brexit negotiations, I certainly wouldn’t confirm this. And in her particular circumstances there is no dismissive phrase that would not have the same effect as saying ‘yes, I plan to go’. It seems to me she has to pretend to be staying. I am not saying she is definitely being misleading, just that she might be.

On the other hand, I have been more cautious than most about writing Mrs. May off as there have been many amazing political comebacks in my time. Plus, while May is at the moment rather poor on television and on the campaign trail, she may be a rather good Prime Minister in other ways. And as we see in training sessions time and again, people can learn if they put the effort in.]

Anyway, back to the hardest questions. I thought I would end with a warning: from my constant consumption of UK media I would say that Eddie Mair on the BBC Radio 4 PM programme is the best (or worst) journalist for asking impossible questions. This year he asked the BBC’s Director of Radio James Purnell ‘Why do on-air people get paid more if they have a penis?’. I still haven’t worked out what, given the circumstances of that interview, the answer should have been.