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.


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




Lindsay Williams

About Lindsay Williams

Prior to founding her communications training agency, The Media Coach, Lindsay Williams worked as a journalist from 1983. She specialised in financial and business journalism since 1991. After thirteen years in the BBC with local radio, regional television, Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live, she moved to Reuters Financial Television as Deputy Programme Editor. Working freelance from 1998, she was contracted in a variety of roles including as an executive producer for Bloomberg television delivering half hour profiles of Chief Executives, as a producer with Sky Business Unit and at CNBC. She has had articles published in Sunday Business, The Business, The Times and in specialist magazines such as Companies & Finance and Impact. For the majority of her journalism career she specialised in reporting business and finance. Lindsay Williams hosts a range of bespoke communication skills courses for The Media Coach which include Media Training, Presentation Training, Crisis Media Training and Message Building.

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0 replies
  1. Nigel Brindley says:

    Sure APD had been inadequately prepared so it was even more important to stick to message …and never claim moral superiority. Real school boy errors that show that SSE is more keen on window dressing than culture change. Resistance to DECC pressure to reduce retail prices in line with wholesale is all the evidence you need to show that this leopard doesn’t change its spots!


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