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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

 

misspeak Michael Gove

So easy to misspeak: case study from Michael Gove

It is so easy to misspeak in public, especially if you are trying to be funny.

Last weekend, it was Michael Gove who caused widespread offence by joking about the allegations against Harvey Weinstein.

misspeak Michael Gove

Michael Gove MP has apologised for his gaffe

 

Wrong time to trivialise allegations against Weinstein

In a BBC Radio 4 Today programme interview, he likened being interviewed by John Humphrys as going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom – “you just hope you emerge with your dignity intact”.

First I have to say I am not offended by Michael Gove’s joke. It was meant as a joke and tells you nothing about his attitude to women. I could easily join the #MeToo campaign. Others’ experience of this may be in the film or music business, mine was in the grubby hotel kitchens in Great Yarmouth. My experience is that chefs are just as bad as movie moguls.

But while I am not offended, I do recognise it was a daft thing to say and absolutely bound to cause an uproar.

Off-the-cuff remarks can be bad news

When it comes to off-the-cuff remarks in public, it is very easy to get it wrong. Being a little bit risqué will often get a laugh but can also easily offend. And when others are trying to move the dial on what is acceptable behaviour they are going to be quick to condemn those who can be criticised for not getting with the programme.

Back in August, I wrote about three subjects to avoid if you want to stay out of the headlines and any overtly sexist views was one of them. Gove was using Weinstein as an analogy rather than in any way endorsing his right to any sort of behaviour and the line “leave with your dignity intact” is elegant and funny. The problem is that Gove appears to be trivializing what Weinstein and perhaps others have done. If he had thought about it, crafted it, rehearsed it he would definitely have dropped the line. But it was almost certainly an off-the-cuff comment.

In this case, Michael Gove will undoubtedly bounce back. He was quick to apologise and there is an element of fake outrage about this.

But it does beautifully illustrate why spokespeople need training and they also need to rehearse. My Mum has often been heard to say, “I don’t understand why these clever, important people need you to advise them what to say”. And the truth is my one of my key roles is to ensure that my clients ‘risk assess’ the thoughts, arguments and comments they are likely to deploy in the public arena – thereby avoiding embarrassment or damage to the share price.

So many clever people initially find it extraordinary that PR people want to know what they are going to say, how they are going to say it and want to check how the argument is going to land. The smarter ones realise very quickly that an hour or two of preparation, scrutiny and rehearsal can allow everyone to breathe more easily.

If you would like our help in preparing for some external communication – whether it is in the media or somewhere else, please do give us a call to discuss. Join the group of senior leaders who would never be without us.

Photo used under Wikimedia Commons licence

Paxman

Top Tips for Surviving Aggressive Interviews

The tricks journalists use in an aggressive interview are small in number and well known; and in reality, really aggressive interviews are rare. But if you think your spokesperson or you could be facing aggression here is a checklist of things to do or think about.

1. Rehearse your messages 
As with all interviews there is a need for rehearsed, thought through messages. Always ensure there is something credible to say.

2. Tough questions 
Once you have your messages, work out what the tough questions are likely to be. Politicians and even senior bosses are in a much more difficult position than most because they can often be legitimately asked about a very wide range of subjects. For most others the scope is more limited and anything outside the scope can be ‘closed down’ by simply explaining you are not the right person to answer the question.Top tips for aggressive interviews

3. Work out the answers!
Now you have worked out the tough questions, work out the answers but keep them as short as possible. These are called ‘reactive lines’ and are different to your messages. You don’t offer a reactive line unless asked the question.

4. Don’t lie
The hardest ‘reactive lines’ are the ones where you can’t tell the truth and you can’t lie. In my experience there is always a way but it can take a few minutes to work it out. However tempting it is, never ever lie.

5. Beware the rabbit-punch
Beware the ‘rabbit punch’ question: a tough destabilising first question, often unexpectedly personal. It’s a technique that was often used by the now retired UK journalist, Jeremy Paxman. A couple of his classics: to politician and former cabinet minister Ann Widdecombe ‘Were you a little in love with Michael Howard?’ To the Iranian ambassador ‘Sir, your country is lying to us isn’t it’. To deal with this you need to respond briefly and if appropriate with wit and then move on to saying something credible and relevant.

Newsnights Jeremy Paxman perfected the 'rabbit-punch' question

Now retired, Jeremy Paxman perfected the ‘rabbit-punch’ question

6. Slow down
If the questions get tough, slow down your answers, it will give you more thinking time.

7. Avoid jargon 
Do not start using jargon and technical language; you will immediately loose the sympathy of the audience.

8. Be reasonable
Stay reasonable, even if the journalist isn’t, and be humble.

9. Say sorry 
If you have made a mistake admit it and say sorry.

10. Don’t say ”you’re wrong”
Don’t fight with the journalist. It’s better not to say ‘you’ at all i.e. don’t say, ‘you are wrong’, ‘I don’t know where you got that number from’, ‘you guys are all the same’, etc. If you make it personal the journalist is likely to increase their aggression. Your job is to stay reasonable and professional. In this recent Sky News interview Kay Burley uses that classic question, ‘if nothing was wrong before, why are you fixing it’. Note that Nick Varney, the CEO of Merlin Entertainment, the owners of Alton Towers, never loses his cool.

alistairphillipsdavies

The moral is: Be Prepared

Pity Alistair Phillips-Davies. He was clearly never a boy scout. His PR team won him a coveted spot on the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning. What is more he was to talk about a survey that throws a positive light on his company. But the outcome was a three-minute car crash which left  Phillips-Davies, CEO of energy firm SSE looking as if he a) was complicit in some meaningless PR stunt and b) didn’t know what was going on in his own company. The reason it was a car crash was the CEO was not prepared.

alistairphillipsdavies

Alistair Phillips-Davies

He was there because SSE has paid for some research to show why the new Fair Tax Mark, a government-backed endorsement of a company’s tax policies from an influential NGO, is needed to counter public cynicism about big business. SSE was the first FTSE100 company to get this kitemark, surely a great PR opportunity.

But it all went painfully wrong.

Phillips-Davies was first led into accepting that the public promise to pay tax meant his company was morally superior, really setting himself up for the next two questions. He then got hit with evidence of previous company wrongdoing.

Fair Tax mark

SSE was first FTSE100 company to win the Fair Tax mark

 

Interviewer James Naughtie mentioned two incidents both outlined in a Guardian piece in March this year: A £100,00 fine for overcharging the National Grid for wholesale power and an earlier fine by Ofgem for failing to meet obligations to provide free insulation to low-income households. I mention the Guardian piece because that is likely to be where Naughtie’s information came from. When researching questions for an interview, the journalists will do a Google search on the company and see what has been written previously. It is not rocket science.

 

It wasn’t a particularly aggressive interview, in fact Naughtie seemed to pull his punches. It would have been a lot more embarrassing for SSE had it been John Humphrys asking the questions.

James Naughtie BBC Radio 4 presenter

James Naughtie BBC Radio 4 presenter asked the questions

From where we as media trainers sit, the negative questions were so obvious: cynical journalists will always throw the odd curve ball if someone is suggesting they are better than the rest.

Also as a ‘professional listener’ it was clear that Phillips-Davies only had one message, and he was rather hesitant on the delivery of this. It certainly did not have enough substance to sustain the interview. He never seemed to talk about the actual survey, or indeed the ‘big picture’ mission to rebuild trust in big business.

So just to be clear – if you are going to get any but the simplest argument across in three minutes, under potentially hostile questioning, you need to have rehearsed it a few times. You also need to anticipate the tough questions and work out what you are going to say.

By the way, our rates are very reasonable.

Today Programme 54:06