Our analysis of the prime minister’s first interview since the election

It was his first in-depth interview since winning the general election.

So how did Boris Johnson get on when he sat down with BBC Breakfast inside Downing Street yesterday (14/1) for a live interview with Dan Walker?

Well, as you would probably expect, it was a bumbling, sometimes chaotic performance, packed with plenty of optimism, but often lacking detail.

Here’s what we made of it, together with some media training lessons.

 

Be open

In the early exchanges about the Iran situation, Mr Johnson seemed keen to avoid saying that he was on holiday when General Soleimani was killed.

Although it was already well known the Prime Minister was in Mustique at the time, he seemed reluctant to confirm it in this interview.

Asked where he was at the time he said: “I was not in this country, but I worked very hard, as you can imagine, to ensure there was a European response.”

When the journalist asked whether he was on holiday, Mr Johnson ignored the question. When it was asked again Mr Johnson said: “I was. It’s no secret and we got a good European response to the crisis.”

A better approach would have been to be upfront about being on holiday and not wait until the journalist had to force it out of him.

 

Wider issues

This was a wide-ranging interview and it wasn’t long before the story that has been dominating the headlines recently – Harry and Meghan – was brought into the conversation.

This is something we tell delegates on our media training courses they should be prepared for.

And it appeared that the Prime Minister had anticipated this line of questioning, although he was reluctant to offer a personal view on the story.

He said: “My view is that I am a massive fan of the Queen and the Royal Family as a fantastic asset for our country, I am absolutely confident that they are going to sort this out, and I think they are going to sort this out easier without a commentary of me.”

At the end of the exchange, Mr Walker said: “Thank you for sort of answering the questions”

 

Detail

This interview covered a lot of ground, with subjects moving quickly from Iran to the Royal family, Huawei, the extradition of Anne Sacoolas and even veganism.

That’s certainly more than most corporate spokespeople can expect to face in a media interview.

And it would be hard to anticipate all of the issues raised.

It was when social care was discussed that Mr Johnson struggled the most. He appeared to backtrack on his pre-election claim to have a plan, saying that he would be “bringing forward a proposal later this year" and again sounded evasive.

Walker: Where is the plan?

Johnson: We are bringing forward a proposal…

Walker: But you said there was a plan. There doesn’t seem to be a plan.

Johnson: If you just give us some time. This has been shirked by governments for about 30 years. Now we have the majority we need we will get on and deal with this so that people get the care they need in their old age but don’t have to sell their home to pay for their care.

Walker: What about a date Prime Minister?

Johnson: We will certainly do it in this Parliament.  

Walker: But that is potentially five years away. Last year you said there was a plan and we would do it. Now you are saying within the term of this parliament. That’s not the sort of urgency you intimated when you took over.

Johnson: We will be bringing forward a plan this year and will get it done within this parliament.”

 

Agreeing with what the journalist says

Another thing we tell delegates on our media training courses is to be careful agreeing with or repeating the language used by the reporter.

You’ll often see spokespeople, for example, try to rebut an accusation by repeating it, along the lines “I wouldn’t say it was disappointing".

Although it happened during a light-hearted exchange, there was an example of this here, when the conversation moved on to Veganuary where Mr Johnson agreed with the journalist’s suggestion that a vegan diet was a “crime against cheese lovers.”

It was a humorous remark, but it still grabbed the headlines:

Boris Johnson says veganism is a ‘crime against cheers-lovers’ CNN

Boris Johnson calls veganism a “crime against cheese-lovers’ Independent

 

Humour

Spokespeople need to tread carefully with humour in media interviews.

When it is used well it can help make a spokesperson sound human and reveal a bit of their personality.

But it can also go horribly wrong.

There was some subtle humour in this interview with the Prime Minister appearing to poke fun at Donald Trump’s boastfulness.

Insisting that the Iran nuclear deal should be replaced with a new deal negotiated by the US President, Mr Johnson said: “President Trump is a great deal maker, by his own account, and many others.”

Time and Mr Trump’s Twitter account will show whether that was a good move.

 

Distractions

Appearance matters in media interviews and it can be distracting when spokespeople get it wrong.

Mr Johnson’s hair often appears to have a mind of its own, but here it was particularly distracting with tufts sticking out at the back that appeared to be still wet from the shower.

On our media training courses, we tell delegates that if the audience is focused on what you are wearing or how you look, then they are not listening to what you are saying.

 

Pick and choose

One of the big topics on social media was whether this was an example of Mr Johnson avoiding being interviewed by heavy-weight political reporters.

Having dodged Andrew Neil during the general election campaign, some felt he was given an easy ride by the BBC Breakfast presenter and that the Prime Minister would have been given a tougher time by John Pienaar who was reporting from outside Downing Street.

I thought Mr Walker asked plenty of good questions, but it was perhaps the scrutiny and ability to go deeper into an issue, which we are used to seeing from Mr Neil, that was missing here.

Other spokespeople won’t be afforded the luxury of picking and choosing who interviews them. A better approach is to make sure they research the journalist in as much detail as possible so they know what to expect during an interview.

 

 

It is worth stating that while most media spokespeople aren’t subjected to interviews of this length, or viewed as harshly by the watching public, there are always lessons they can learn from these high-profile interviews.

 

 

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 journalist-led media training courses.

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