Come on Eileen – why we still show this terrible interview on our courses

Observing one of our recent media training courses, I saw an interview I hadn’t seen before.

It was shown towards the end, as the course touched on crisis communication and how to manage interviews when you are in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.

And it is easy to see why our tutor decided to show it because, despite being a few years old, it is simply one of the worst interviews I have seen.

It happened on the BBC Watchdog programme when the Pontins boss Eileen Downey appeared in response to a report where more than 100 customers had complained about bad smells, dirty bathrooms, holes in walls and blood-stained bedding during their stays.

If you’ve seen Watchdog before, you’ll know that most spokespeople who find themselves in this situation are apologetic.

Ms Downey, from the Britannia Hotel Group, which owns Pontins, took a different approach when faced by questions from Anne Robinson.

Looking stern from the start she decided that attack was the best form of defence.

She said: “Well, let me tell you Anne, we’ve owned these parks for 26 weeks. This programme is rather premature.

“When your camera crew was on that park, they were asked to have a look at the improved apartments. We wrote to you and we asked you again to go and look at another park.

“These parks are townships. They are 3,500 apartments. We brought them out of receivership and Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

When Ms Robinson tried to interrupt, Ms Downey said: “No, you listen.”

Asked about those who hadn’t benefited from refurbished apartments and had endured bleak holiday, Ms Downey said: “I’m happy that the refurbishments are going as planned. It was in receivership. The company went bust.”

When she was asked why they didn’t close the accommodation that wasn’t suitable, Ms Downey responded: “Do you think that is sensible in the current economic climate.”

The interview was cut short when Ms Downey was pressed again about those who had complained about their holidays and said: “When our refurbishment is complete everyone will have good value.”

She then added: “I’m not prepared to comment on individual cases on here.”

So, why do we use this as an example of ‘how not to do it’ on our media training courses?

Well, the main reason is that it completely lacked contrition, a crucial component of a crisis interview. We needed to see sympathy, not aggression.

Ms Downey needed to begin her interview by apologising to those whose holiday had been ruined by poor conditions at the parks.

She could have said something like: “It is always horrible to hear that someone has had a bad experience during a holiday at one of our parks and I want to apologise to those who have complained to your programme.”

Once she had apologised, she then could have discussed the refurbishment programme in more detail because it shows action is being taken to prevent this type of situation from happening again.

And then the line that she seemed so keen to get across – that 99 per cent of customers hadn’t complained - about their holiday could have followed as a way of providing some reassurance to those who had holidays booked at the parks.

On our crisis communication training courses, we used the acronym CARE to describe this approach – Compassion, Action, Reassurance and then Examples of those three elements.

Another important thing to note about this interview was that the body language was all wrong. Ms Downey appeared defensive before she even spoke and with her head tilted backwards, looked like she was talking down at the journalists and in turn the audience.

And finally, it’s worth noting the personal question Ms Robinson asked at the beginning of this interview. “Where did you go for your holiday?” may seem like a harmless beginning.

But by simply answering that question and not trying to steer the conversation at all, Ms Downey set herself up for the follow-up question which suggested she hadn’t had to endure the conditions some of her customers experienced.

Come on Eileen – this was no way to handle an interview during a crisis.

But by showing it on our courses and by highlighting it in this blog, hopefully, we can prevent others from making similar errors.

Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Click here to find out more about our practical crisis communication and media training.


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