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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.

Informality - Johnson

The rise and rise of informality

Informality is taking over the world or at least that is my perception. If I Google this I find very few articles which makes me a little nervous about my own judgement but I have been mulling this for several months. Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and other successful political figures (love them or hate them), connect with their audience in part because they are seen as ‘one of us’.

Speakers connect to audiences by appearing to be ‘one of us’

All speakers want to connect with their audience and there are many ways to do this. But increasingly younger generations – and voters – are disrespectful of anyone who seems to set themselves apart. And they connect with people who are informal.

What do I mean by informal? Well here is a very short clip from Boris Johnson this week (3rd September). He is standing on the steps of Number 10 and looking fairly prime ministerial. But in this 40 seconds we get the phrases – ‘pointless delay’, ‘no if’s, no but’s and ‘we will not accept any attempt to…scrub that referendum’. Shortly before this clip starts he also said ‘I promised we would not hang about’.

In this case, it is the words that are informal but in other cases, it is the style of delivery.

It’s not just the words that can be informal

In this recent clip, we have a ‘fireside chat’ with our PM in the middle of a party!


Despite the fact that Boris occasionally includes obtuse references to the Classics (as mentioned in this blog) – he doesn’t behave as Theresa May, Gordon Brown, David Cameron or other Prime Ministers have done. And I think there are lessons to be learnt from this.

What is the place for informality business leadership?

In both presentation and media training, I am often urging people to be less formal. Some are formal in their choice of language – many of you will have heard me urge people to ‘come down the language ladder’. By this I mean use everyday language, not business language. But there is good reason to do more than strip out the jargon.

Part of the current distrust and disrespect of power translates into distrust of people who sound like they have power. So my advice to clients is to err on the side of informality. Generally to be a little more informal than they think they should be. That’s if you want to connect to your audience, and if you want to lead your audience. The younger the audience the more informal the approach we recommend.

But a quick warning: this is not the same thing as trying to be hip! Authenticity is important and suddenly quoting a rapper (unless you are a genuine fan) or sporting a T-shirt with an anarchic saying, is not likely to win many plaudits.

If you would like help planning for a media interview or a presentation call us to discuss what we can offer, tel: +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

metaphors

A Minute With The Media Coach: Metaphors

As we continue our summer specials, instead of bringing you our usual blog this week we bring you number five in our series ‘A Minute With The Media Coach’.  This week fellow trainer, Eric Dixon and I discuss the benefit of finding a good metaphor when talking to the media.

message building

A Minute With The Media Coach: Message Building

As we continue our summer holiday mode, instead of bringing you our usual blog this week we bring you number four in our series ‘A Minute With The Media Coach’, where fellow trainer, Eric Dixon and I discuss message building. This is the one to show those senior executives suspicious about ‘being told what to say’.

 

presentation training

A Minute With The Media Coach: Presentation Training

We are continuing our summer holiday mode and instead of our usual blog offer a short video, number three in our series ‘A Minute With The Media Coach’. This week fellow trainer, Eric Dixon and I discuss some of the common mistakes we see during presentation training sessions and how to avoid them.

presentation training

A Minute With The Media Coach: Avoiding Jargon

This week, instead of our usual blog post, we have decided to continue our theme of ‘A Minute With The Media Coach’.

Today we bring you the second in our series, where fellow trainer, Eric Dixon and I discuss the problem of jargon and business-speak.

presentation training

Public Speaking: Getting The Tone Right

It’s summer, so I am taking a break from blogging. But if you haven’t seen this Minute with The Media Coach, where fellow trainer Eric Dixon and I discuss how to get the tone right – in either a media interview or a presentation – here it is.

 

media training basics

Media Training Basics: On-Air Presence

Media training basics include how to behave on-air so that your audience trusts you.

Whether you are a candidate to lead a party, a new prime minister or a business leader launching a product or vision, we think this requires three key things:

  • Warmth – because it is a good idea if the audience likes you
  • Authority – because it is an even better idea that it sounds as if you know what you are talking about.
  • Animation – because the studio and the microphone will ‘shrink’ you.
    Most people have to be themselves plus 10% to come across well on-air. In this short video, previously shared on LinkedIn, fellow trainer Eric Dixon and I explain our thinking but disagree about how to explain this.

 

 

But if you don’t have these great attributes how do you acquire on-air presence?

Media Training Basics: Animation

Animation is perhaps the easiest attribute to acquire. The people who are naturally good on television are those that are larger than life and often rather hard work at dinner. This is not always true but people who seem quite normal on TV are often really big characters. An occasional interviewee doesn’t need to cultivate a whole new persona but just use a little more energy when speaking. Hand movement and head movement can be good so long as they not so noticeable that they are distracting.

Media Training Basics: Authority

Authority is more intangible. We know it when we see it but trying to cultivate it can be challenging. There are, though, some basics.

  • Don’t speak too fast. This is probably the most common way that people undermine their own authority.
  • On television make sure you are looking in the right place. This can be straight at the camera or at the interviewer depending on the set-up. But hold a steady gaze and don’t let your eyes flick up, down or sideways if you can help it.
  • Don’t use highfalutin language. We mention this every other week so do not need to labour the point here, but jargon and professional language does not make you sound clever; it makes you sound arrogant and out of touch. Be colloquial.
  • Consider a personal anecdote. People trust the opinions of those that have relevant personal experience. These need to be planned, rehearsed and above all short but they can really work.

Here are some other tips about being more authoritative in general. And here are some tips written especially for women in an article in Forbes, although most apply to men as well.

media training basics

Having a coach to help you improve can make a big difference

Media Training Basics: Warmth

Warmth is perhaps the most elusive. Some people have it by the bucket-load even if they are not the most polished interviewee. It is worth a lot. If you don’t have it naturally on-air you can try the following things.

  • Try smiling more, particularly at the beginning or end of an interview. Even on radio, you can hear a smile.
  • Try to be less formal. Often people lack warmth because they think they are required to be very, very serious and correct.
  • A trick I have often used is to ask the interviewee to pretend they really like the interviewer. Of course, in reality, they probably hate the presenter and the process but if they can pretend or act ‘attraction’ or ‘affection’ it will come across. Clearly, this could be taken too far and it will be acting. When coaching people we find that once they hit the right tone – and then watch it back on video playback – they can usually find it again. With coaching, it will become their default on-air tone at which point it is ‘job done’.
media training basics

Think about the tone as well as the words when preparing for an interview

Getting the tone right is half the battle and will compensate for other missteps in an interview. In the end ‘people buy people’ as the saying goes: so developing a good on-air presence is something worth working on.

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.

things every press officer should have to hand

8 Things Every Press Officer Should Have To Hand

At the start of 2015, I wrote about the 7 things I thought every press officer should have to hand.  This is a slightly revised version of that blog post.

Our team work with many large multi-faceted press offices which have systems, templates and procedures galore. But we also often come across the odd poor marketing person who has had PR added to their job description without ceremony, briefing or training. And there are plenty of one-man-band press officers who have never worked in the large organisations and whilst they do a good job they feel they don’t really know what else they should be doing. If you recognise yourself here, this article is for you. Since I first wrote it social media has continued to increase in importance and complexity. Now no PR person can afford to not be across their companies social media presence, whatever that entails so I have added an eighth point to acknowledge this.

New to PR? here’s where to start

things every press officer should have to hand

Many people have PR responsibilities dumped on them without training or support

1. Media List
Sounds basic but is often missing. As a proactive PR, you will need an up-to-date list of all your relevant journalists. You might want to add other useful information such as how they like to be contacted: phone, email, twitter or (heaven help us) fax machine. You might want to add their publication or deadline dates or times as it is well worth avoiding these if you want to get their attention.

2. Spokesperson List
You will also need a list of your company spokespeople and their out-of-hours contact numbers. Notes on anything relevant, such as what they can’t or don’t want to talk about and what their family responsibilities are, will all save time if you need someone in a hurry. You might also want to make a note of when they were last media trained!

things every press officer should have to hand

Economist Style Guide is the gold standard

3. Style Guide
Some organisations will have a style guide. If yours doesn’t you may want to create one to ensure all external written communications are standardised. The style guide will lay out such things as which terms need to be capitalised, whether you use British English or American English spellings and how you use names e.g. first and the second name on first outing but just surname on second.  If you don’t know where to start you could do worse than browse the Economist Style Guide which is the gold standard. If you are starting from scratch don’t assume it has to be complicated: start with the obvious and add to it over time.

4. Jargon Buster
We think every organisation needs this and we have drawn them up ourselves for one or two clients. Jargon is the bane of a journalist’s life and if you can do the work to translate your internal jargon you will win better coverage. It is very hard for spokespeople to come up with alternative colloquial phrases during an interview. Much easier, if the PR person suggests some considered options as part of the interview preparation.

5. Events Calendar
We all have diaries and calendars of course but you might want to create one specifically for internal and relevant external events. Launch dates, executive board meetings, trade shows, etc. are all relevant to the timing of press releases and other PR events. So are the introduction of new regulations or the launch of a rival company. It is much easier to plan if you have these all laid out on one at-a-glance calendar.

6. Prepared Reactive Lines
Most organisations have negative questions that spokespeople dread coming up in an interview.  Often they will relate to issues that go back years. It is essential for the press office to know what the line is on all these issues and useful to capture these reactive lines in a document. Updates will be necessary at frequent intervals but it is much quicker to update than to start from scratch.

things every press officer should have to hand

Consider drawing up a Crisis Comms Plan

7. Crisis Comms Plan
Crisis Communications Plans come in all shapes and sizes. You can hire the big PR agencies to provide a ‘risk audit’ of your organisation and then, at some expense, provide detailed plans for each eventuality. This is probably way over the top for most organisations. But a couple of hours spent identifying the awful or disruptive things that could happen and then working out the PR strategy could be useful. If you put it in writing and get senior management sign-off this will save you time if something does happen; rather than waiting for decisions you will be able to swing into action.

8. Social Media Strategy

This may or may not be the responsibility of the press office but either way, anyone dealing with external affairs should at least know what the Social Media strategy is and whose job it is to both monitor and post. The strategy should identify the objectives and the action plan. It should identify who posts, what the guidelines are, and in particular how to separate personal and professional social media. It should identify the active channels and perhaps the less active ones. For example, The Media Coach has a token presence on Facebook but to date, we have concentrated our efforts on LinkedIn with slightly more than a token presence on Twitter. For us YouTube is important but so far Instagram is not. You need someone in your organisation who can read the data. This will tell you what works and what doesn’t the information that has to then be shared with those curating the content.

At The Media Coach, we have huge respect for PR people and see first hand how hard most of them work. Many are ignored when things go right and blamed when things go wrong. We believe the profession should do its own PR – internally and externally – and make it clear to the senior management team that there is structure, judgement and real knowledge behind each decision. Don’t let anyone get away with believing it is all fluff!