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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.
Facebook logo provided Pixaby under a CC0 Creative Commons Licence

 

Oxfam Crisis Goldring

Oxfam Crisis notes

Oxfam is in crisis. There must be a whole book of ‘lessons’ from the implosion of this once great British organisation. An implosion caused by a seven-year-old scandal exposed by The Times newspaper last Friday. It is ghastly to watch and a text book example of a ‘crisis’ where new damaging elements of the negative story continue to emerge every day.

Oxfam will be lucky to survive

I feel compelled to declare my personal opinion about this Oxfam crisis. As many know I have worked a lot with charities and agencies in the developing world. I am a huge fan of ‘development work’ in all its guises. If more people knew the great work that is done, the more they would support it.

But it seems all too common for individual incidents of bad behaviour or bad management to be blown out of all proportion in order to discredit all or any development work. There are swathes of society who, with little knowledge of the reality on the ground in developing countries, believe money should not be ‘wasted’ helping people ‘over there’. They are quick to take any example of mismanagement or misappropriation of funds to prove their preconception. The Daily Mail in particular plays to this agenda in ways that many find hugely distasteful. My sympathy is all with Oxfam although of course not with those accused of wrong doing.

Oxfam crisis analysis

That said let’s look at the lessons of this Oxfam crisis.

Public outrage gets ahead of the law. The press likes to bay for blood as soon as any act that would offend a Victorian prude, comes to light. (Always remember this is fake outrage. Few journalists are paragons of virtue in their private lives). The Oxfam country director in Haiti, 7 years ago, admitted to paying for sex. Just to help the headline writers, the party where this happened has been dubbed a ‘Caligula like orgy’ – by ‘sources’ that spoke to The Times. He agreed to step down but his employer, Oxfam, chose not to sack him and not to prevent him working in his profession in the future.

Bad media crises have a habit of having many chapters. If the thing journalists have got their teeth into initially in a crisis is not actually illegal they will often switch the focus to ‘transparency’. Transparency is really difficult when dealing with personnel, commercial and many other issues.

The take-way is that as soon as a crisis starts, someone in the affected organisation needs to be reminding decision-makers that at any moment the whole focus could switch to ‘transparency’. Organisations need to be prepared to be totally transparent or find rock-solid reasons why they cannot be. Transparency can be brutal. Here is an article in CEO Magazine about transparency in a crisis.

Oxfam crisis: what could be done

Anyway, the only way to stop a crisis like this once it gets going is:

  • Sack a whole load of people or have them resign. Be careful if you sack, they may sue as Sharon Shoesmith, the social worker in the Baby P case did. And she won. Story here. 
  • Make an abject public apology. Here is Oxfam’s from CEO Mark Goldring. 
  • Make vast amounts of detail available to journalists who will quickly get bored.
  • Have spokespeople trained and ready to handle the sort of aggressive questioning that we have seen on every serious news programme.
  • Hire someone like Alistair Campbell or a specialist crisis firm (or us) to do your messaging and reactive lines. These need to be much more than wishy-washy statements of good intent. You will need substance and a forensic like approach to possible questions.
Oxfam Crisis Mark Goldring

Mark Goldring CBE, Oxfam’s CEO, made a clear and complete apology.

If you are an organisation full of decent honest people who expect the rest of the world to be measured, decent and honest you have a huge handicap. You will not realise the potential for the crisis to get out of hand and you will not expect the media to go for the jugular. One problem is that sometimes the media does and sometimes it doesn’t. Any doomsayer might be wrong and might damage his or her career by saying ‘this could go ballistic’ when it then doesn’t.

For students of media training lets look at two of the many interviews on this subject.

In this Newsnight interview with Dame Barbara Stocking, the CEO of Oxfam at the time of the Haiti operation, the scandalous bits are all the ‘outraged’ questions from Emily Maitlis. The measured responses from Dame Barbara are barely newsworthy. It was a difficult interview but overall she did well. Personally, I would have liked her to offer a solid apology and be a bit more robust in defense of the decisions Oxfam took. But she was credible and had solid answers. Note this interview was a pre-record. Not a good idea. Dame Barbara should have done it live.

Our second example is a BBC Radio 4 Today programme interview on 12th February – one hour ten minutes in, that is 7.10am. (Remember this disappears after one month.) In this unimpresive interview with Michelle Russell, Head of Investigations at the Charity Commission, it is clear that she had only one simple message and not enough detail to sustain the interview. She appears to be taken aback that Matthew Price, the interviewer, is questioning the competence of the Charity Commissioners themselves. She struggles to cope with what for her was apparently unexpected aggression.

It is the season of sex scandals

It is the season of sex scandals. Post Harvey Weinstein, many things that might in the past have not seemed to be a scandal – potentially are now. I doubt any organisation has no skeletons in the cupboard and I expect most have no idea how they would cope if the spotlight turned on them.

The Orville imagines the rule of law administered by twitter

I cannot finish without recommending a recent episode of The Orville – a brilliant skit on Star Trek running on Fox. In Season 1 Episode 7 Majority Rule, the team visit a parallel planet to Earth, Sargus 4, where the law is administered by popular vote on a planet-wide twitter-like feed. Whilst it is hilarious it is also a bit too close to Earth 2018 for comfort. This is not unrelated to the Oxfam scandal.

 

Andrea Leadsom you need media training

Andrea Leadsom: you need media training

Andrea Leadsom is a classic example of a smart, sensible, ambitious person who thought that the world does not need ‘spin’.

andrea leadsom you need media training

Andrea Leadsom needs media training.

Like so many before her she apparently felt she should speak to the press in an open, straightforward way; honestly answering questions as they are put. It sounds perfectly reasonable. The problem is it doesn’t work. I have already pointed out in last week’s blog post that Leadsom was naive in her interview with Andrew Marr, who bounced her into a commitment to release her tax returns.

Andrea Leadsom: evidence of naivety

That she has now quit the race after a row over her interview with Rachel Sylvester of The Times is more evidence of her naivety.

Here is a transcript of the relevant bit of what she said, as published by The Times and republished on the Conservatives own website.

Andrea Leadsom: In terms of the country I think I absolutely understand how the economy works and can really focus on turning it around. In terms of personal qualities I see myself as one an optimist and two a huge member of a huge family and that’s important, my kids are a huge part of my life, my sisters my two brothers who are half brothers my mum and step dad’s sons who are very close, huge part of a family so very grounded and normal, enormously optimistic. 

Sylvester: Does your family inform your politics? 

Leadsom: Oh, totally.

Sylvester: During the euro debates, you said several times ‘as a mum’ . Do you feel like a mum in politics? 

Leadsom: Yes.

Sylvester: Why and how? 

Leadsom: So, really carefully, because I am sure, I don’t really know Theresa very well but I am sure she will be really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’, because I think that would be really horrible but, genuinely, I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake. She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people. But I have children who are going to have children who will directly be a part of what happens next. So it really keeps you focussed on what are you really saying, because what it means is you don’t want a downturn but never mind, ten years hence it will all be fine, my children will be starting their lives in that next ten years so I have a real stake in the next year, the next two.”

Here is how Sylvester wrote it up:

andrea leadsom times article motherhood

 

Leadsom says she was disgusted by this write-up. Here is her statement on the report.

Andrea Leadsom: her complaints

Leadsom complained about two things.

  • She says she told Rachel Sylvester repeatedly, that she did not want to make her family an issue in the campaign and yet the journalist did.

The Media Coach’s view: It’s no good telling a journalist you do not want to focus on something, speak about something or make something an issue if you then go on to talk about it! The quotes are still quotes.

  • She is ‘disgusted’ that Sylvester, or the sub-editor, made the motherhood comments the headline of the story. Yet everyone knows the interviewee has no control over which bit of an interview is given the most prominence and which the least.

The Media Coach’s view: If you don’t want it as a headline don’t say it. If you don’t want it quoted, don’t say it. In an interview you are not briefing an advertising agency, you are talking to an independent journalist.

For the record, we should note that Leadsom apologised to Theresa May for the comments.

I recently had a heated conversation with a friend who explained she hated Tony Blair because every time he spoke you could tell he was really thinking about his words, which ‘proved’ he wasn’t genuine. Personally, I would prefer a Prime Minister who thought carefully about what they were saying before speaking in public, or in private for that matter. This does not mean they are not genuine, it just means they do not trust that their ‘stream of consciousness’ will give them the wisest choice of words.

The Media Coach verdict on Andrea Leadsom: this level of naivety means she was not ready to be Prime Minister, a conclusion she seemed to have reached for herself.

(A version of this article was published as a LinkedIn post.)