Lessons from a vintage year of car-crash interviews

sarah olney2016 turned out to be a momentous year politically, and a vintage year for media interview fails – perhaps the two are not unconnected.  PR Week has pulled together what it reckons were the seven worst exchanges, varying from the US Presidential nominee who didn’t appear to know what Aleppo was, to Andrea Leadsom effectively ending her Conservative Party leadership hopes in an interview with The Times.  The MP suggested that being a mother made her a better choice for Prime Minister than the childless Theresa May, because she had “a very real stake” in the future of Britain.  Leadsom then made things considerably worse by blaming the newspaper for misrepresenting her, until the release of a recording of the interview blew a fatal hole in her story.   Even though these were political interviews – and politicians always get a tough time from journalists and broadcasters, as they are in public life and as such ‘professional interviewees’ – they still reinforce the fact that if you don’t have the right media training you are much more likely to come a cropper.  Any media interview can contain bear traps, and as such they need to be prepared for properly.

One of the most interesting was an interview with Sarah Olney (above), the newly-elected LibDem MP for Richmond Park.  Doubtless sleep-deprived on the morning after her famous by-election victory against Zac Goldsmith, she faced up to TalkRadio rottweiler Julia Hartley-Brewer, who threw her off-balance with an opening salvo asking when she would be calling a second by-election.  This was a thinly-veiled reference to the LibDems’ call for a second referendum to confirm the terms of any Brexit deal.  After a couple of minutes of awkward conversation, Ms Olney went deathly silent and a press officer came on the line to say she had to go off to another appointment.  It was a moment straight out of the BBC’s political spin doctor satire The Thick Of It – Malcolm Tucker minus the swearing and foul temper.

There are three lessons here.  The first two are obvious; be better prepared for the types of questions to expect, and don’t let your spin doctor anywhere near the airwaves.  However the third lesson is less obvious, and it applies to anyone being interviewed on radio or TV, on any topic, anywhere.  The new MP made things much more difficult for herself by giving very short answers to the questions.  After an initial clarification, her first answer was six seconds long, the second seven seconds, the third nine seconds.  This made her sound highly defensive.  Instead, she could have dealt with the questions then broadened out the conversation to some of the other relevant points about the implications of the result (for example how significant it might be by reducing the Conservatives’ wafer-thin majority, how other Brexit-supporting Tory MP’s in Remain-voting constituencies could now be threatened) – and so on.  This would have enabled her to get her message across effectively and made her sound more in control of what she was saying.  Our media training courses explain some of the techniques in detail.  Make sure that if you’re interviewed in 2017 you don’t fall into any of the same traps – good luck!