There was some video footage from a radio interview this week which showed a spokesperson surrounded by pages of briefing notes.
The whole desk was covered in paper and some large sections had been clearly marked with a highlighter pen.
If anything, it looked more like a script than notes.
It came when politician Priti Patel appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme to defend Boris Johnson following recent reports about his private life.
Boris Johnson is being subjected to "politically motivated" personal attacks says his supporter and ex-Cabinet minister Priti Patel. "Boris has a right to a private life. It is his choice whether he chooses to discuss it publicly" #r4today https://t.co/fxfypVA7aY pic.twitter.com/v9tHuXLyrv— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) June 24, 2019
Clearly, she was expecting a pretty tough time and had prepared for a challenging line of questioning, but is it really helpful for a spokesperson to go into an interview with extensive notes and ‘lines to take’ like this?
Well, first of all, it is obviously important to prepare well for interviews and that preparation needs to be particularly thorough when you are expecting a challenging time.
Many spokespeople and comms professionals will be able to relate to these substantial notes.
Certainly, in previous roles, I have been asked to prepare extensive briefing notes for spokespeople and I can still remember one of my senior leaders doing a radio interview via telephone from his office with his desk full of crib sheets and prepared answers to likely difficult questions.
So, is this level of briefing helpful?
Well, it actually poses its own risks.
On our media training courses, we stress that spokespeople can be over-prepared. And that can make them sound scripted, rehearsed and even robotic when they should be aiming to create a natural sounding conversation.
The more natural a message sounds, the more likely the audience is to believe what is being said.
Most revealing video showing Priti Patel reading out aloud from her lines-to-take script. Eyes fixed on pages of notes not eyes fixed on interviewer. https://t.co/7PTuIygkWB— Paul Convery (@Paul_Convery) June 24, 2019
Note the scripted responses, with highlighted sections. Priti Patel seems unable to think for herself. Could well be in a Johnson cabinet. That's how bad things have got. #ToryLeadershipContest https://t.co/MNH2U9pPTX— David Head (@DavidHeadViews) June 24, 2019
Ideally, spokespeople should feel empowered to put messages into their own words (within corporate guidelines). Not only does this approach help bring messages to life and give them authenticity but it will also increase the spokesperson’s confidence and make them more comfortable with what they are saying.
If they are doing a television interview, how much of a detailed briefing are they really going to remember when the cameras start rolling and the pressure increases?
And if they take them into a radio interview there is a clear danger of falling into the trap of simply reading these notes out loud – something Ms Patel seemed to be doing in the footage I have seen. If they are going to do that there is really little difference between putting someone forward for interview and responding by statement.
Additionally, present a spokesperson with a huge briefing document and it could simply add to any nerves or feelings of dread they may have.
The other key thing to consider is that many radio stations also make videos of their interviews – as was the case here – and that content is used on social media channels and sometimes, in the case of the BBC, on television news.
If that footage appears to show a spokesperson reading notes and make little or no eye contact with the journalist, it can have a big impact on how that interview is perceived. It can certainly raise questions about whether the spokesperson really believes what they are saying and whether they are authentic.
If Priti Patel is as fully committed to Johnson’s agenda as she makes out then why would she need a table full of marked up crib sheets to express her support? I don’t expect her to memorise loads of facts and figures so having some notes of these are fine but it was a script!— Eddie McKinnon (@EddieMcKinnon4) June 25, 2019
As we said earlier in this media training blog, interview preparation is crucial. Spokespeople need to be clear on who they are talking to, the message they want to get across and the examples they will use to support it. They also need to identify the likely tough or challenging questions and the wider issues that could be brought into the interview.
But that preparation, notwithstanding any rehearsals, should take around 20 minutes.
And while it is crucial spokespeople read their brief, that reading should not take place in the interview.
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.