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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.
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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.

 

 

Don’t just answer the question

Media Training Basics: Don’t just answer the question

Imagine this ridiculous scene: You go to a doctor with some slightly worrying set of symptoms in the hope that he or she can reassure you or at least throw some light on what ails you. However, on this particular day your doctor refuses to do anything but answer questions. She (let’s say) has a huge wealth of medical knowledge that would be very useful to you but she refuses to share it unless you ask the right question. Ridiculous I hear you say. No one would behave like that!

Don’t just answer the question

But actually, this is exactly what most novice interviewees do in a media interview. They just answer the question.

Don’t just answer the question: know what you are there to say

In our book, media interviews should never be about just answering questions. You should arrive at the microphone or in front of the journalist knowing what you are there to say. This is absolutely not to say you should ignore the journalists’ questions. That is really annoying for both the journalist and any audience.

Of course, it is clear to all PR professionals that working out what the interviewee is there to say is not so straight forward.

Don’t just answer the question

Why knowing what to say is not so simple

Firstly, if the identified senior business executive spends most of his life talking to colleagues or fellow professionals, he will likely assume knowledge that a general audience doesn’t have and use jargon and technical language that is inappropriate.

Second, he will almost always forget to fill in the context. It is another version of assuming knowledge. One of my training colleagues likes to say ‘don’t forget to state the blooming obvious’.

Thirdly, in business, if you talk to a general audience about making money you are not going to get a good hearing. In the UK making money, whilst necessary, is thought to be a rather grubby activity.

And actually, it is probably not the important point. In fact, most business people spend most of their time worrying about doing a good job for their customers, they only think about costs and margins when talking to the boss. The problem is, if they treat the journalist as they would a grilling from the boss they will come across as hard-hearted and grasping rather than on the side of the angels. (There is an exception to this for financial and investment media who think making money is good. As we all know you have to tailor the message.)

Be credible

So, any spokesperson has to be helped to build a narrative that tells the story that needs to be told. That story needs to be rehearsed so they show up at an interview knowing what they are there to say. If they don’t they will just answer the questions.

And then they must be able to take the opportunity opened by a journalists question to land a message – but do this in a credible way. Credibility and likeability are the holy grail here.

Don’t just answer the question

Who does not have this ability?

• Theresa May. She ignores questions and lands her message without credibility.
• Donald Trump. He usually has no message and makes up a new one in response to the question. Alternatively, he trots out some tired platitude such as ‘Making America great again’ which works for him it seems but is not a strategy we endorse.
• Most Friday Boss participants on Radio 4’s Today programme. They rarely get beyond answering the question.

Who does have this ability?

• David Davis. Generally brilliant at answering the question but then moving to what he wants to say.
•  John McDonnell. Also brilliant these days in the toughest of interviews.
• Nigel Farage. You don’t have to agree with anything he says to know he is an excellent political communicator.
•  Nick Clegg. Continues to impress despite the tide of history turning against him.
• From the business community, Sir Martin Sorrell is always a prepared and credible interviewee.

We think most media trainers – our competitors – just prove how difficult media interviews can be. We constantly work with our clients to help them identify the messages and then codify them in a way that can be easily remembered in the interview.

If you watch or hear examples of bad (or brilliant) interviews do let us know. We are always looking for examples to use in our training.