Tag Archives: interview

Natalie Bennett’s car crash interview

Sometimes when someone gets something wrong you have some sympathy. Sometimes you may not, and when someone is seriously of the opinion that they should form part of the next Government, you might feel like giving them a little less leeway.

This is the position in which Green Party leader Natalie Bennett found herself yesterday as LBC’s James Ferrari asked her some pretty basic questions on costing her policies. The clip on this BBC reportage pretty much sums up her performance and it’s not good. For once Ferrari wasn’t being unduly tough – so what happened?

Bad day at the office

Bennett’s own explanation is that she had a bad cold, things didn’t come together, her memory blanked and she basically had a bad day at the office. This is pretty much beyond dispute. The question is what she could have done to avoid it – and whether someone who’s going to have such bad days is actually an appropriate leader for a political party.

There are a number of tips I can offer on preparing for an interview of this sort, although I’ve never briefed a politician. The first is simple: you don’t have to do the interview at all. If figures aren’t your thing or if you’re unwell and know you won’t do the subject justice, don’t do it.

The second is prepare, prepare and prepare again. The query about costs was not a surprise but the fact that Bennett didn’t know them was stunning. She probably did know them – but then claimed houses could be built for around £60K, which as Ferrari points out, would get you a small conservatory.

The third thing is that if you fluster, if you realise it’s coming to an end, stop. Take time. Make an excuse, take a sip of water – Bennett had a coughing fit, she could have taken advantage of that, had some water, apologised, all of which would have bought her time to gather her thoughts.

As it is, she made the classic mistake of speaking too quickly and then speeding up, allowing herself even less time to catch up with her thoughts. If you can feel your interview running away with itself, slow down – again, it allows you some time to think. She apologised later but she hasn’t done her party any favours.

As I type, she’s still leader. But at the beginning of the week I could have typed “Malcolm Rifkind is still in post”. Were I a Green Party member I’d be wondering about the person taking us into the General Election and how she’d cope if the questioning got any tougher.

Information on Guy Clapperton’s media training sessions is here.

I don’t work for you

As you’ll see from the pic, I’m working away from home today – once a week I try to work at the IoD, of which I’m a member. I can do this because I’m self-employed. In other words I work for myself, or more realistically for a series of clients; what I don’t do generally is to work for the people I’m interviewing.

This can come as a surprise to some of them. A while ago I explained why I won’t show people my copy in advance (and nor should any journalist); some of the expectation that people should be able to do just that appears to come from the belief that we as journalists are part of an overall marketing machine.

Movies are the worst

There was an incident just recently in which director Quentin Tarantino threw a bit of a wobbly in a Channel 4 News interview because they were asking questions he didn’t like and this was supposed to be, he believed, an advertisement for his movie.

Uh-uh. No it’s not. It’s independent journalism.

It gets worse when a handful – a minority, I suggest – of PR people fail to manage expectations. Someone must have advised Tarantino to expect an advert for his film; it wouldn’t have been a journalist and particularly not one from Channel 4 News. And yet it’s mostly the hack that gets it in the neck when things are perceived to have gone “wrong” in this way. It’s a free country, we’re allowed to ask what we want, and yet we still get people thinking they can prohibit certain areas. Of course you’re free not to answer, that’s as much your right as it’s ours to ask.

It can be useful to learn a few bridging phrases:

“That’s not a point of view I hear from my customers. What they’re saying is…”

“Our experience actually reflects something different…”

Or in Tarantino’s case, “What really matters is what the public thinks of the movie, and so far reception has been good…” would have been pretty unarguable.

Instead, the suggestion that we’re doing something wrong in not acting as an extension of someone’s marketing department gets in the way and people feel we’re being obstructive when actually we’re just doing our job.

I’ll finish with a truly awful example of someone who thinks it’s their interview rather than an independent event in which the journalist can ask what they like. Again, it’s from Channel 4 News; consider what a bridging phrase or reference to the packed premises full of happy customers might have achieved. For information on my media training offering, click here after wincing at the video.

You’re telling me too much

I once media trained a company and started by asking them what the company did (I always do my homework but wanted to see how they’d handle it in their own words). They paused and started with “well, that’s a difficult question…” and took me on a verbal tour of the business’ history.

This is never, ever a good idea. First because anyone who can’t tell me what their business is or does goes down in my book as “well-intentioned but an over-thinker”. Second because the damned question was only my way of clearing my throat before an interview in the first place. If I need to know what your company does I’ll look at the website, you’ve put it there to help me and it’s appreciated.

If I’m talking to you in an interview then I’m mostly looking for quotes. And those quotes will need to be relatively brief.

Background

I’m a journalist, I get a lot of people approaching me. Let’s guess that I receive around 60 press releases a day and that more than a few of them are well-targeted.

So even before I speak to you or your client I’m sifting in my head, working out what’s relevant and helpful, what may be useful in passing and what’s frankly ridiculous (if the people who send me a daily press release on marital infidelity are reading, I’ll leave you to guess which category is yours). Logically I’m going to need simplicity from you because my brain is only going to cope with so much.

So, before you talk to me or any of my colleagues you really need a couple of things straight, and “what you do for a living” is among them. You could even pretend I have a narrow attention span (journalists tend to) so you need to avoid dwelling on the dull stuff I can find out elsewhere and move to the bits that only you can give me, pronto.

Complexity

The biggest problems of this nature happen when someone works in a large, complex organisation. The temptation is to try to tell me that you do a bit of IT outsourcing, you operate a telecoms division and also supply domestic Internet and phone but you’re there to speak about cloud technology on that particular day.

True though all this is, I’d rather hear the cloud bit first and then offer to put me in touch with other people if I want the full corporate picture. This has two beneficial effects other than the simple “getting to the point is better” effect. First, I’m less likely to make a mistake and attribute the wrong bit of your company to you (it happens on tight deadlines).

Second, even more fatally, it means I won’t find another part of your organisation more interesting than yours and start asking about that instead. On a couple of occasions I’ve had someone accidentally tell me a much more interesting story than the one about which they were hoping I’d write and they’re very disappointed when I won’t go back to the dull one.

Of course I won’t. I’m accountable to my editor and serving my readers. So keep it simple – even if it’s complex, just tell me the bits I need whilst making it clear there’s a bigger picture in the background – keep it clear and keep on topic.

Details of Guy Clapperton’s media training courses are available by clicking here.

How did Miliband repeat himself like this?

Have a look at the video above. It’s only a couple of minutes long. It’s Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, repeating himself and making the same point over and over again.

I show this to media training candidates and ask them what’s going on. Sometimes they respond: Miliband is an idiot.

So let’s leave party politics at the door for a moment. Let’s just assume the likelihood is that after May we will have one of two possible people as Prime Minister, and one of them is in the clip above. Even if he loses, becoming the second-likeliest Prime Minister after May isn’t something you achieve by being thick.

So what really happened? I wasn’t there but I can guess.

Find out about the interview

One excellent piece of advice I’ve heard a number of times is that people should find out about how a broadcast interview they give will be used. Ask the journalist: will you be using just my best quote or will you be putting everything out there, the full three minutes?

If it’s “just the best” then the standard advice is, no matter what the question, get your key messages out there.

This, I suspect, is what Miliband and his advisors were told before the above interview took place. So he’s dutifully brought every answer around to his central point; the strikes are wrong when talks are ongoing but the Government has behaved irresponsibly (disagree if you wish, but he’s expressing his view well).

The problem – and the refinement I’d add – is that someone, somewhere, will have a copy of all the repetitious responses and has the power to make you look (technical term coming up) a muppet. This is what someone’s done to Miliband above; according to some of the labels on YouTube it appeared in this form on Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe, a comedy/satire programme. They’ve just shown the unedited version with all of the identikit answers, and it looks absurd.

So what can you do to avoid this? In the context of a comedy programme Miliband still looks a fool; decontextualised he looks even more so. I’ve seen this circulated on social media without any reference to the comedy programme by people who genuinely get the impression that Miliband doesn’t realise he’s repeating himself. Don’t let this happen to you.

My suggestion to my media training candidates is that they answer the question. Prepare more than one message you need to get into an interview and push different ones. Respond to the questions rather than use them as cues for your spiel. They’ll naturally be different. You can still make your point.

You should end up with your message getting out there just as you’d hoped, but if someone gets hold of the unedited version then hopefully you won’t look quite as absurd as Mr. Miliband does in the clip.

It’s not his fault. He’s been manipulated for comic effect. However, by varying your responses, you can ensure the same thing doesn’t happen to you.

Details of Guy Clapperton’s media training course can be found by clicking here.

No I won’t go off the record

If there’s one thing I could change about so, so many of the interviewees I’ve met over the years as a journalist then it’s the jack-the-lad thing of telling me something off the record.

So, who are your key customers, I ask. Well, we’re about to sign someone big, comes the reply. I can tell you off the record.

I find this peculiar. I’ve identified myself as a journalist, why would you want to tell me something I can’t repeat? To ingratiate yourself perhaps – although why anyone thinks I’m going to be shouting “whoopee, a story I can’t sell or use” is beyond me.

Here are some unpleasant truths about “off the record”. They are why I always advise my media training candidates against even thinking about it.

Nobody understands it correctly. Oh all right, that’s an exaggeration, but some people don’t. Many years ago I worked on a computer trade magazine. Someone once told me, when I asked them a question, whether they could go off the record. I agreed, assuming I could write the story with “sources close to the company said…” and was stunned when the bloke who’d told me every fact I’d printed called up and demanded to know the source. I told him I’d never disclose a source but since it was he who’d told me everything I’d make an exception. He was livid; to him, “off the record” meant (correctly I now believe) “don’t use it at all”. I’d assumed it meant “unattributable”, an arrangement with which other sources had always seemed comfortable.

The counter-example from years ago was when John Lennon told a journalist off the record that he was leaving the Beatles. The journalist didn’t report it and Lennon was livid when Paul McCartney came to the same decision and it was all over the press – Lennon phoned the journalist and asked why on earth he hadn’t reported? “It was off the record”, came the slightly weak response.

So, what do you understand by “off the record” – and are you positive the journalist understands the same thing?

I may not be trustworthy. You might think I’m a nice man. I probably am. But I’m a journalist and am hungry for stories so if you tell me something very important that’s off the record, I have a decision to make and it may not end up in your favour. Or there’s the other reason not to trust me; I might make an honest mistake and forget a particular comment or fact was off the record. Why would you assume otherwise?

I don’t work for you. This is the killer, for me anyway. I don’t actually work for you, so why would I want to help manage the timing of your news announcements? This isn’t supposed to sound aggressive (although it probably does) – but seriously, why am I expected effectively to manage your press schedule?

Those are only a handful of the reasons why, if I’m interviewing you and you say “well, off the record…” I’ll stop you and ask for something I can use instead. If we both know we were on the record the whole time, neither of us has to do any mental juggling – it might sound a bit strict but honestly, it’s a load easier in the end.

I always advise my media training candidates that “off the record” doesn’t exist. That way it won’t catch them out later.

Information on my media training service is here. My thanks to Kate Warwick of PR Savvy for reminding me to have a rant about this subject!

“No comment” and other things you thought were a good idea

In media training yesterday I went through the usual things – with a strong candidate who had no experience talking with the press. He absorbed the lot, processing it by having to know the reason for everything, and the day was an absolute pleasure as a result.

One of the many things he queried then accepted was the idea of never saying “no comment”. He’d heard this and seen it and thought it should be acceptable.

I could see why, but have another think. If a journalist asks someone “do you beat your partner” and they respond “no comment”, does that look like a denial or a dodge? Loads of people will assume violence is indeed happening.

There are a number of techniques to get away from awkward or impossible areas, but “no comment” isn’t one of them. It always sounds defensive, and gives us (the journalists) an option to say you declined to comment on (fill in the sensitive issue of your choice here). Far better to bridge into something else if you can. “That’s an important issue but what’s really bothering our customers is…” or “There are always different views, but our focus is…” and then carry on with the point you needed to make.

Other misconceptions

Popular media has ironically given rise to a number of other bad ideas about the “rules” governing the press. Here are a few, and I’ll put more on future blog entries as they occur to me:

  • Saying “allegedly” means you can say anything. No you can’t, the libel laws apply to allegations – that’s the whole point. “Have I Got News For You” has used “allegedly” for comic effect – tell me I’m a thief, allegedly, and I can still sue.
  • You can instruct a journalist not to use a quote after you’ve said it. No, in the UK at least it’s our job to report what was said and to be accurate. We’re not your PR department so you don’t get to vet your quotes afterwards and amend them to reflect what you wish you’d said instead.
  • If you’re a blogger you can speak without the constraints of libel laws. Actually you’re covered by the same restraints that protect everybody else; your subject may decide you probably have insufficient funds to make it worth suing you, but that’s their decision and not something based on any extra rights you might have.

I’d welcome any other examples as comments.

Information on my media training sessions is here – get in touch any time if you have any questions.