Media training sessions quickly flush out the questions that senior executives are most nervous about hearing from journalists. And ‘how do you justify your bonus?’ is up there in the top three.
This recent example of the Persimmon CEO, Jeff Fairburn failing to handle such a classic and predictable tough question is both funny and shocking. (Many thanks to those of you that drew my attention to this. I love that you all think of me when you see a bad interview!)
Sympathy for PR
I have more sympathy. Her boss was failing to handle the ‘can you justify your bonus?‘ question from Spencer Stokes the Business and Transport Correspondent for BBC Look North.
Those of us who work in PR know full well that if something goes wrong in an interview, senior people love to blame the PR person. There is a certain type of business leader who believes if they pay enough for PR they can control the media. Fortunately, this is not the case.
But, I fear that had our hapless PR person not jumped in, she might well have lost her job. As it is, it was probably a very bad day for her and I, for one, am not going to blame someone for looking to demonstrate support (or attempt to control) in such circumstances. She may well have known that on many measures it was an inappropriate thing to do – but for her personally, it was perhaps better than the alternatives.
The fault here lies in the lack of preparation. Anyone in the public eye, with a large salary or bonus, can expect this question. It feels both uncomfortable and intrusive to be asked about remuneration but given that the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to generate headlines, these questions are not going to stop anytime soon.
What he should have said?
The trick is to practise a non-committal answer. I would suggest something like this:
‘The bonus is a matter of public record, it is set by the remuneration committee and agreed by shareholders. I am not going to comment on it.’
The speaker can then move on to something they want to say or simply leave it at that, understanding full well that the question will return. When it does, the answer should be the same but still delivered politely.
People who are infuriated by those in power not answering the question will hate this solution but there really is no alternative. If the speaker tries to justify any level of bonus by, for example, talking about ‘market rate for the job’, ‘the global marketplace’ or ‘the value I have delivered to shareholders’ he or she is going to open up a whole debate with the journalist that will likely include a bunch of quotes that make the speaker sound arrogant, unsympathetic to the poor or out of touch. The story will immediately grow ‘legs’ as we say in the business and be picked up and picked over by a whole bunch of other news outlets and commentators.
The answer should be as unremarkable and dull as possible
The best that can happen if someone senior is asked about a bonus or pay, is that the answer is unremarkable and unnewsworthy. That is why the way to deal with this question is to politely close it down with something that sounds as credible but dull as possible.
The lesson is clear: business leaders facing the media must do the preparation and get some media training so they can roleplay these things. They need time to discuss and understand the options and the wording so if that dreaded question comes they know what to say.
Above all don’t wait for, or expect your PR person to rescue you (at least not on TV or radio). And don’t get snarky with the journalist afterwards. It makes you look bad.