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EU Doorstep

EU doorstep interviews: 4 expert tips

EU doorstep interviews should be seen as an opportunity not a threat. Prime Ministers and Heads of State recognise the PR value of a good EU doorstep – a mini interview or statement done on the way in or out of Summits. Small countries that hold the EU’s rotating presidency, ambassadors and other officials often miss this opportunity to raise their profile and punch above their weight with an agenda setting doorstep quote. Often all it takes is a little preparation. 

EU doorstep: recognise the PR opportunity

Even for smaller meetings where ministers or ambassadors need to broker an agreement, there will almost certainly be one or two news agencies covering it as well as the Council’s host broadcaster, which will then publish footage. So advisers and spokespeople should always prepare for Council meetings in expectation that there will be some form of press waiting for them when they arrive.

EU doorstep interviews should be viewed as an opportunity.

EU doorstep interviews should be viewed as an opportunity.

EU doorstep: prepare

The EU Presidency may hold the role of agreement broker but that does not mean spokespeople should do a read out of the shopping list of tasks and processes that need to be managed (or were managed) at the meeting they will or have hosted (see the example of the Lithuanian Ambassador to the EU below). This is tedious and journalists will struggle to find something interesting they can use. Advisers and spokespeople should focus on one main message with a clear soundbite and then prepare a couple more in case they are happy to take follow-up questions.

Angela Merkel is a good model to follow. She gets out of her car, goes straight to the German cameras, does a well prepared 40-second statement and then walks straight into the meeting. EU Commission Vice President, Frans Timmermans is also a good example of this kind of discipline. There is no reason why ambassadors and ministers shouldn’t do the same.

EU doorstep: rehearse

Usually, spokespeople do an EU Council doorstep in English and one in their mother tongue. All spokespeople should rehearse, particularly if they are not completely confident in English. One way to manage this could be for PR advisers or aides to do a quick run through of the main messages/reactives in the car on the journey to Council (or just before if the PRs aren’t going as well). Switching to English at the beginning of the journey would be even better because the ambassador or minister will be ‘warmed up’ by the time they get to Council and won’t have to consciously change languages when they get out of the car and see the waiting media.

EU doorstep: behave confidently

Confidence is key to a good doorstep. A lot of the time inexperienced spokespeople are caught off guard and look slightly surprised and suspicious when they see TV cameras and press waiting for them at the back of the Council.  This is then picked up on camera and doesn’t do anything to give the impression of authority. Advisers should give spokespeople a steer on what to expect and between them, the spokesperson and aides should decide if they plan to take follow up questions.

The spokesperson should then get out of the car (or leaving the building) in a decisive manner, stand with firm body language and focus their eye contact on one particular journalist. This will look far more authoritative than a shifting gaze. If they have planned to take a couple of follow up questions they should take them before ending the exchange gracefully but firmly and moving inside.

There is a technique to this. David Cameron was roundly mocked for stalking off the minute he had finished speaking and not even saying ‘Thank you’ or ‘That’s all for now’. He probably thought it looked powerful and decisive but most journalists and PR consultants I speak to think he came across as afraid to be challenged.

So there is a lot that spokespeople and advisers can do to deliver a good doorstep. And done well, the journalists will be grateful because they’ve got something interesting and colourful and PR advisers will be happy because their spokesperson has been quotable and in control.

Here in Brussels I train officials and politicians to handle doorsteps and other media opportunities. If you think you or your spokespeople are missing out why not get in touch and discuss how I can help.

EU Doorstep: advice from elsewhere

Politicians and officials are not alone in facing doorstep or ambush interviews. Here are some tips from elsewhere that apply more widely.

This one from a PR company  gives tops for dealing with aggressive and persistent ambush interviewers.

Here is some advice to would be journalists on how to do an ambush interview. Its included here as it is good to understand what happens in the mind of the doorstepped. In the same theme here is the BBC’s guidelines to staff on the rules of doorstepping.

Here is a very old article from PR week on the subject. I guess not much has changed except the removal from public life of Max Clifford!

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?