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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.

start with the end in mind

Plan Your Communications: Start with the End in Mind

Starting with the end in mind is such a useful way of thinking. I am aware it does not only apply to media interviews or presentations but is widely useful in everything from preparing a roast dinner to writing a business plan. So crucial is this idea that it is one of the seven habits of highly successful people identified by author Stephen Covey. 

start with the end in mind

Planning your communications: start with the end in mind

However, as a media and presentation trainer, I can tell you that most people do not apply this simple way of being more effective when it comes to planning their communications. In fact, most people don’t plan their communications, period.  The reasons they give are many and varied:

  • Too busy.
  • Talking or communicating is already a professional skill (so detailed prep for an interview or for a presentation is not necessary).
  • It is boring.
  • It’s not about me, it’s about the subject.
  • I am not clear what if anything I want the audience to think or do.

I could go on.

5 minutes strategic thought saves hours of preparation

start with the end in mind

Of course, the reality is 5 minutes serious thought will save hours of preparation and will deliver a better result.

So, if preparing for a media interview it is worth asking yourself these questions:

  • Who is the audience?
  • Which bit of that audience matters to me? If you are doing national media it is clear that most people watching, or reading will have only a passing interest in the subject but the audience will include a few hundred key influencers, potential clients, important regulators etc. Knowing broadly who these people are and what you want to say to them is helpful.
  • Is there anything I want people to do as a result of this interview: click a link, pick up the phone or make a purchase for example?
  • So crucially – what headline or main idea do I want to see in the finished piece – or if television or radio, what do I want the audience to remember?

Once you have this clear in your mind the preparation of ‘messages’ or if you prefer your argument will be much quicker.

For a presentation, it is a similar process:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What do I want them to remember from the presentation?
  • Is there anything I want them to do as a result of the presentation?

Advice to a younger me

If I could meet my younger self I would have a number of pearls of wisdom to pass on – top of the list would be to stop wearing heels to walk in. (Apparently crushed toes 20 years ago mean I now have misplaced toes so my feet find it difficult to keep me upright.)

But also high on the list would be to ‘start with the end in mind’ for all significant conversations. Even more usefully, I would advocate the practice of not only preparing for important conversations but preparing for unimportant ones. Once they have taken place I would suggest that my former self got into the habit of reviewing her ability to continue the conversation with the end in mind. Preparation can easily go out of the window in the intensity of the moment unless you have trained yourself. Training is easy to do because every conversation with the butcher, a neighbour or your stroppy teenager provides good opportunities for practise.

The guy that made me take this simple mantra – start with the end in mind – from a vague idea to a solid practice, was a UN negotiator I met in Kampala. I have forgotten his name, but I vividly remember his stories of negotiating with rebel leaders who had committed atrocities, in various parts of the continent. He had trained himself out of having any emotional reaction to the history of those he was dealing with and instead stayed completely focussed on his strategic aim, knowing the lives of innocent people (sometimes hostages, sometimes children) depended on it.

Few of my clients have such critical communication challenges, but we could all learn from his ability to keep his target in mind.

Here are other blogs we have written on related subjects

Preparing for a Media Interview: 5 key steps

5 Ways to improve that presentation

Developing Messages: Are you guilty of navel gazing?

The Media Coach is a group of working and ex-journalists who provide media and presentation training and message building for a wide variety of organisations. If you think we can help your team give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Photos used under creative commons licence.

 

Crisis media interview

Crisis Media Interviews: Face the music – but sing from the right song sheet

Crisis media interviews are understandably terrifying, and most people chose to avoid them and stick to that familiar phrase ‘no comment’. Here at The Media Coach, we spend a lot of time encouraging those who suddenly find themselves in a difficult situation with the media, to be bold and accept requests for interviews.

The PR best practice handbook, were it to exist, would explain that the ‘vacuum’ which would be caused by the absence of timely comments can quickly be filled by something even more damaging. If you don’t talk it is likely your enemies or detractors will.

However, it’s absolutely critical on such occasions the spokesperson has his or her messaging sorted with pin-sharp accuracy, as well as preparing and rehearsing answers to the tirade of negative enquiries.

Henry Bolton had clearly not been given such advice. The UKIP leader (at the time of writing, anyway) had left his wife and children for glamour model Jo Marney who subsequently was discovered to have sent racist texts, some of which were about the most recent addition to the royal family, Meghan Markle. Bolton appeared on national TV and radio the morning after he and his girlfriend had decided to part company.

 

Whilst credit goes to him for facing the media in a series of interviews (BBC 1 Breakfast, BBC Radio 4, ITV’s Good Morning Britain, LBC, Talk Radio and the rest), what emerged was a confused, chaotic, hesitant, and humiliating performance which was almost as destructive as deciding not to do the interviews in the first place.

For the benefit of others who might find themselves facing a series of crisis media interviews, here are three main reasons why every single interview went so badly:

1) Misplaced concern

Unbelievably, during all of his media interviews, Bolton seemed more interested in talking about how “absolutely distraught” his former girlfriend was with the fallout from her racist messages than the offensive nature of the texts themselves. He also suggested that he wanted to “help her re-build her life” and “support her family” (these are the relatives of someone he had been dating for just four days), rather than talking about the support he might provide for his wife of seven years and their two young children back at home.

2) Arguing over minor details

If Bolton had prepared his key messages, he would have been able to focus on getting them across. Without them, he wasted time and effort trying to contradict the interviewers on minor, irrelevant points. So he tried to claim that Jo Marney’s messages had “been taken out of context” – although failed to reveal what sort of context would make such messages acceptable. He also talked about the fact that the original messages were meant to be private (as if that suddenly made them OK). Similarly, when it was put it to him that the content of the messages were “still her views”, he tried to argue “Well, no they’re not, actually” – but failed to explain why anyone would expound views which they didn’t believe.

3) Ambiguity about the future

When events in the recent past have been as chaotic as those experienced by Henry Bolton, the future should have presented a chance to make statements which are simple, clear and unambiguous. But that opportunity was missed, with the curious suggestion that “the romantic side of our relationship is over”, whilst adding that they were “not breaking contact”, then arguing that he hadn’t “dumped” her and that he would be “standing by her”. Both journalist and audience could be forgiven for being left uncertain about what the nature of their future relationship might be.

So whilst it’s almost always better for interviewees to face the media, they should do so only when they’ve got their messaging and reactive lines sorted out. To his cost, Henry Bolton is an example of a man who had neither.

If you would like further reading on this, my colleague Catherine Cross wrote a blog some weeks ago with her top tips for handling a crisis including crisis media interviews.