Arron Banks had the opportunity, on mainstream television last week, to explain why supporting the unofficial Brexit leave campaign Leave.EU with £8 million of his own money was legitimate and the right thing to do. He appeared on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday. The show attracts an audience of 1.5 – 1.7 million which is pretty good for a politics show and well ahead of Peston on Sunday and Sophy Ridge on Sunday. Details of these Sunday political shows and relative audiences are in this article.
Given that this was to be such a crucial interview for Banks, I assumed he would have done extensive preparation: taken a lot of advice to ensure a convincing argument which would move the story on.
Bluster and Punch
Having watched the interview, I am pretty sure he did not take much advice. Instead, he went for a modern style of interview which has been honed by the US President but copied by others, which I am naming ‘bluster and punch’. This is the Trump school of arguing: don’t bother trying to convince those that do not agree with you, simply instead arouse those that do agree with you to a heightened sense of injustice and betrayal. Click here for the BBC’s write up of the event.
To me, it looked like a shameless attempt to obfuscate and defend by attacking others. However, I have to say that although I disapprove of the style, it has proved to be effective, at least at winning public votes. I am not so sure it worked for Banks.
Andrew Marr, not the most aggressive of interviewers was clearly flustered by the lack of rationality in the performance. In fact, he seemed somewhat flustered before the interview started.
I have no knowledge of where the 8 million donated to Leave.EU came from, not much in the way of suspicion and am not clear on electoral law.
But I can tell you that the Aaron Banks’ argument was not prepared for the interview by a professional spin doctor or PR advisor.
While Banks started off well by saying the `Money came from Rock Services’ and that categorically there was ‘no Russian money’ it all went downhill from there.
If you want to make a clear argument for the media (or the public) you need to build it step by step with proof points for each step.
Confusing and Distracting Use of Numbers
Banks chose not to share such evidence. He didn’t say what sort of insurance customers he served – business or individuals or both. He said it was half a million, the size of Manchester. This was a confusing comparison as only central Manchester has a population of half a million, what most of us think of as Manchester is almost 3 million.
Worse the numbers led to more questions. I spent a lot of the interview thinking if you have half a million customers and you gave away 8 million pounds then those customers on average donated £16 to Leave.EU. Which does beg the question how much profit is he making per customer in the highly competitive, usually low margin insurance sector? I am sure I wasn’t the only person thinking like this, which means the planned evidence provided here was hugely distracting.
If you are building an argument for a media interview the numbers want to be clear and easily understood, not raise more questions.
Make the Argument Clear
Similarly, in explaining the structure of his companies, Banks did not choose to make it clear. The implication is that Rock Services is a parent company or as Andrew Marr kept calling it a ‘shell company’ and that there are a number of brands that feed profits into that shell company but he seemed unprepared to share details, leaving the clear impressions that he was choosing to hide that information.
If he had said:
“Rock Services is the parent company to a number of brands, including A, B and C.”
…we would have all instantly stopped thinking it sounded dodgy.
As an advisor, I would also have suggested it was a good idea to explain why the donation was made. Surely, it would have been helpful to have a sentence that said ‘I donated this considerable sum from my own wholly owned business interests’ because I sincerely believe it would be better for the UK if we left the stifling, rules-bound, undemocratic, single market’. Without this helicopter view, the whole interview sounded defensive.
As the interview went on Banks’ argument seemed to me to get less and less credible. But he seemed more and more bullish.
Lambasting Others Undermines Credibility
Criticising others, blaming corruption, malice, bias and the BBC can all be done in moderation but to simply state everyone who disagrees with you is without credibility, is to undermine your own credibility. It is like the old soldier on parade who said ‘they are all out of step except me!’.
Given the controversial run-up to this interview, Banks and his advisors (if he had any) could be sure that Marr’s researchers would gather and read everything that was ‘out there’ in the public domain and relentlessly go through the cuttings to hone the tough questions. Apparently, they even sent someone to Companies House.
Planning for Hostile Interview
From a PRs perspective, the more confrontational the interview is likely to be, the more predictable the questions. And that makes the planning much easier.
As a preparation exercise you identify all the likely questions, then you need to craft succinct, credible answers. There may be some questions for which your spokesperson chooses to say ‘I am not making that public because it is commercially confidential’ or ‘I am not going to comment on that’. Clearly, you cannot do that for every question. I referred to this Close Down technique in my blog last week.
Generally, only if you land a credible answer can you then take the opportunity to broaden the conversation to make a wider point such as accusations of bias, corruption etc.
I suspect Banks thinks the interview went well because he is clearly thick-skinned and he believes he is right and everyone else is misguided. If his intention was to deliberately muddy the waters – but take the opportunity to reiterate allegations that there is an insidious but widespread Remain Campaign still on the march, he probably fulfilled his brief.
However, if his intention was to sway an undecided public that his campaign contribution was above board and put to rest any fears that he might have done something wrong, he failed.