Hopefully, you will have already seen our compilation of the worst interviews of 2019.
But what about those spokespeople who delivered strong media performance in the past year?
There are many spokespeople who performed well while facing challenging interviews in media crises situations and others who showed how to make the most of opportunities to tell positive stories.
Here are the interviews that stood out for us in 2019.
Spokesperson shows how to handle a tough TV interview
There have been plenty of examples in 2019 of spokespeople struggling to hide their frustrations at difficult questions and regular interruptions in media interviews.
So how about an example of a spokesperson displaying great composure when faced with a series of hostile questions during a television interview?
Richard Parry, chief executive of the Canal and River Trust, found himself in the firing line when he appeared on Newsnight to face questions about a dam at Toddbrook Reservoir, in Derbyshire, being on the verge of collapse.
He faced questions from presenter Emma Barnett as residents from the neighbouring town of Whaley Bridge were evacuated.
And he started strongly with an early, sincere-sounding apology for the disruption – a great beginning to an interview during a crisis.
He said: “We are clearly very sorry for the disruption this is causing to people. It must be awful to have to move out of your home overnight in this sudden way, but it is vital we keep everybody safe and put people’s safety first before we can draw down the reservoir.”
And, importantly, he didn’t get drawn into speculating about how long people may be out of their homes.
“It is very hard to estimate because of all the factors involved,” he said. “There are the pumps we have to get into the reservoir to draw the water down and the rate at which they can work; there is still water flowing into the reservoir from upstream and there is also the unknown factor of the weather – if there is more rain that will change things.”
He adopted the same approach to questions encouraging speculation on the cause of the incident.
Asked what he thought the cause might be, he said: “Well, until our engineers have a chance to inspect it, it would be foolish to speculate.”
After a fairly predictable start to the interview, the pressure quickly ramped up and Mr Parry was asked increasingly challenging questions.
These started with probes on whether the dam’s age was a factor and whether the trust has been adapting to climate change.
And interruptions became a regular feature of the interview, with Mr Parry frequently being asked a question before he had finished his answer to the previous one.
Many spokespeople struggle with interruption, but Mr Parry retained his composure and stuck to his message.
It was Ms Barnett who sounded frustrated as he avoided the traps of speculation and blaming the Government for a lack of funding.
“We aren’t short of money to spend on reservoirs... we’re urgently anxious to understand what has happened in this case...“— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) August 1, 2019
- Richard Parry, chief executive of the Canal & River Trust – which runs the collapsed dam in Whaley Bridge#newsnight | @CanalRiverTrust | @EmmaBarnett pic.twitter.com/iPp1Id0dAL
At one point she said: “So, you’ve got enough money, but you’ve not said you’ve done anything differently and you don’t understand why this dam has broken in this way and it might still burst – it does sound like there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
Mr Parry replied by saying: “Well inevitably at this stage there are…”, before he was again interrupted.
We often tell delegates on our media training courses that if they remain composed under pressure, they are more likely to retain the sympathy of the audience and that was the case here with viewers taking to social media to criticise the journalist.
Mr Parry’s performance wasn’t perfect. He had a tendency to start his responses with ‘well’, which adds nothing to the answer and can be a little distracting.
And he sometimes drifted away from the simple language spokespeople should strive for in a media interview.
At one point he started a response by saying: “We have a very rigorous oversight of all our assets and apply a very well-developed asset management regime based on inspecting our assets and prioritising our spend to ensure we keep public safety paramount and make sure the whole canal network operates and is available for people to use.”
The follow-up question to this asked him to answer ‘in English’.
But, I’m not sure we have ever seen a ‘perfect’ media interview. The key in this situation, and any interview during a crisis, is to remain calm, apologise early, avoid speculation and show what action is being taken.
And Mr Parry did that expertly.
You can read the full blog here.
Head teacher scores top marks for radio interview
On our media training courses, we stress to our delegates the importance of painting pictures with words and taking the audience on a journey.
It plays a crucial role in bringing messages to life and helping those watching and listening to visualise the problem or solution that is being discussed.
One of the most powerful ways of doing this is through personal examples. Not only do they connect with the audience, but they help to create a human side to an organisation and help spokespeople sound more natural.
Siobhan Lowe, head teacher of Tolworth Girls School, gave a perfect illustration of how to do this during an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme about education funding.
The interview followed the news that 7,000 head teachers in England had written to 3.5 million parents saying that schools are facing a ‘funding crisis’.
And Ms Lowe’s personal examples, which she included in her first response, painted a clear picture of the hardships schools are facing.
She said: “I have reduced the number of teaching groups. I have reduced the number of options the students have. I’ve increased class sizes. I’ve cut critical services such as student support workers that work with our most vulnerable. I’ve got increased numbers of students who have statements or educational health plans, but I’ve got a reduced number of teaching assistants.
“I personally have cleaned the school and washed the toilets. My girls are looking at me and feeling so sorry for me that they are picking up the hoover and doing it with me.
“I’ve cleaned doors, I’ve served in the school canteen.”
The part about cleaning loos, in particular, stands out. It’s attention-grabbing because it feels unusual and suddenly the listener begins to picture just how bad the situation must be.
It takes the story beyond the ‘funding crisis’ headlines and enables the audience to see the daily impact on schools. And because they have been taken on that journey and can picture the issue, they are more likely to care about the outcome.
Wow fantastic Head speaking on @BBCr4today on the impact of lack of funding for schools #headteachers Siobhan Lowe #educationcuts to teachers, TAs, books, printing, support staff and building works. This government is failing to invest in our young people.— Siobhan McCauley 🌹#voteLabour (@SibbyMcC) March 8, 2019
But that’s not the only part of this interview that we liked.
There was a good use of figures. Rather than talking about the size of her budget, Ms Lowe broke it down into much smaller, more relatable numbers. She told presenter Justin Webb that the school has just £10 to spend on providing basic equipment for each pupil per year. For science subjects, it is £1.50 per student per year.
There was also some emotion, a powerful tool in a media interview, as she spoke about her ‘embarrassment’ of not having enough money.
She said: “As a head teacher you are almost embarrassed to admit that you can’t support the students in your school. It is a terribly embarrassing thing to admit that you don’t have the money because you need to provide an education for the students.”
One of the really interesting things about the interview was that the journalist asked few questions. That’s because Ms Lowe’s content was strong and the reporter knew it would engage the audience. In short, she had control.
When she did face a tough, possibly unexpected, question about the link between school exclusions and knife crime, she didn’t sound phased. Nor did she stick to the ‘true or false’ framing of the question.
It’s not just us who felt Ms Lowe did an excellent job in this interview. As well as the praise on social media channels, it is worth noting that some of her live interview was used again as a sound bite clip on the same programme an hour later.
Creating a repeatable sound bite from a live interview and generating content for other channels are signs of an interview done well. Top marks.
You can read the full blog here.
What your spokesperson can learn from the ‘oyster love hotel’
One of the challenges media spokespeople face is producing memorable content.
If it’s a print interview, they need to come up with the messages that are going to make strong quotes.
In a broadcast interview, they should aim to come up with sound bites that are going to trigger a reaction from the audience and stick in their minds.
One spokesperson appearing on Radio 4’s Today programme in February came up with a memorable phrase that stuck in my mind.
Dr Joanne Preston, a marine biologist from the University of Portsmouth, appeared on the programme to discuss regenerating oyster populations through sea bed cages.
Now, with a complex subject like this, there is plenty of potential to overwhelm, confuse and ultimately lose the audience altogether.
But Dr Preston kept it simple from the start explaining that oyster grounds have been destroyed through over-fishing. “85 per cent of all oyster ecosystems globally are now extinct,” she said.
And then she succinctly explained why this matters: “One of these critters could filter 200 litres of sea water a day. They eat the algae, the green stuff floating around the water that we don’t like to have too much of, and they can clean the water. But more than that, they create a whole ecosystem.”
Good stuff, but the best part was still to come. Asked what the university was doing to reintroduce them, part of her response included the line “we are hanging oysters in cages, like love hotels”.
‘Oyster love hotels’ 💕 Fantastic academic on @BBCr4today from @portsmouthuni demonstrating how to use memorable phrases in her interview about regenerating oyster populations in sea bed cages - which she describes as“oyster love hotels”. #mediatraining #MadeAtUni— Rob Flett (@robflett) February 7, 2019
So what’s so good about ‘oyster love hotels’?
Firstly, it’s unusual – who has heard of an ‘oyster love hotel’ before? Because of that unusual element, it made me – and I’m sure many others - sit up and listen that bit more intently.
It’s completely free of jargon and complex language – you could imagine Dr Preston using the same language if she was talking to a friend in a coffee shop. It’s conversational English.
Additionally, it helps to paint a picture of what the university is doing.
It’s also a funny expression that lightens the tone – it even made the reporter laugh.
And finally, it’s short and snappy – if this had been a print interview, you could easily see ‘oyster love hotel’ forming part of the headline.
You can read the full blog here.
CEO shows how to survive a negative interview
It was always likely to be a challenging interview.
The Iceland supermarket chain had already received some negative media coverage after it emerged it had removed its labelling from some of its own-brand goods rather than remove palm oil from its entire range.
The chain had been accused of ‘wriggling’ out of its commitment to remove the ingredient from all its own-label products by the end of the last year.
So, when managing director Richard Walker appeared on BBC Breakfast to discuss the story he would have expected some tough questions.
And he produced a composed performance with clear lessons for other spokespeople who might find themselves in a hostile or negative interview.
He started strongly, admitting there was some ‘old stock’ that still contained palm oil. He told viewers that he wouldn’t ‘chuck it in the bin’ and that he couldn’t give it away to food banks because it is frozen.
He said: “The right thing to do is to sell it through and it will be out within a matter of weeks. I took Iceland off the labelling of these products as a short-term measure for a couple of months until April when we will move them back in.”
You sensed from the beginning that he was being open – an important trait for keeping the audience on side.
On our media training courses, we tell delegates that if you are faced with difficult questions you need to do more than answer what has been asked – you need to try to move the conversation to safer, more positive ground.
There were examples of Mr Walker doing this throughout the interview. Early on he asked presenter Naga Munchetty: “Instead of focusing on the 3 per cent, the 17 products, why not focus on the 97%, the 450 products, where we have removed palm oil?
Later on, he introduced his company’s ‘Rang-Tan’ advert into the conversation and talked about the impact it had in tackling deforestation.
He said: “The 17m who watched Rang-Tan the advert created a mass global movement and it helped force companies to commit to zero deforestation. I think what my staff and my suppliers have achieved is nothing short of incredible.”
Audiences love spokespeople who bring passion to their interviews.
We tell the delegates on our media training courses that this passion needs to come through in the way they discuss the subject, not because they tell us they are passionate.
In this interview, Mr Walker didn’t say ‘I’m passionate about removing palm oil’, the passion came through naturally in his responses.
He said: “I don’t understand why this non-story is blowing up. What we need to focus on is that we are sleepwalking into an environmental disaster and corporations are doing nowhere near enough.
“But is it any wonder? Rather than celebrating this incredible effort that my 25,000 staff have achieved – I am damn proud of what they have done – we are being tripped up by journalists who are trying to focus on 17 lines which are temporary and are going to go back into own label.”
Of course, it wasn’t a perfect performance. Spokespeople should avoid criticising journalists and their questions or chosen angle of a story - Mr Walker called this a ‘non-story’ and complained about being tripped up’.
Overall though this was a strong performance from the Iceland boss. It certainly seemed to win him a lot of support.
You can read the full blog here.
The bizarre interview which became an internet hit
It may have been one of the stranger interviews of the year, but it took the internet by storm and did offer media training lessons for other spokespeople.
We are, of course, talk about rugby player Joe Marler and a pre-match interview he gave on the training ground.
It started in fairly routine fashion as Marler discussed a recent heavy defeat, saying “I wasn’t hurting as much as the lads who were out there, but I definitely felt it and I know how hard the boys have taken that. They will be disappointed with the account that we put out, but we have got another week to get back on the horse.”
But then things went more than a little bizarre as Marler expanded his metaphor.
He said: “And take that horse to the water, and you can ask that horse, you can say, ‘Hey, horsey, do you want to have a drink or do you want to swim.
“It’s up to that horse to then realise what he wants to do in his life. That horse, at the moment, wants to go out on Saturday, he wants to clippity-clop all the way to The Stoop and he wants to say hello to those fans.”
Then, imitating the horse, he added: “And he goes, ‘I’m sorry about the result last week, but I’m going to give a better performance here at home against Bath’. He’s a slightly Irish horse. So, we are looking forward, like I say, to getting back on that horse.”
Asked if he was personally looking forward to getting back on the horse, Marler said: “I don’t like horses. I can’t ride.”
🐴 Our @bathrugby preview with @JoeMarler took an unexpected turn...— Harlequins 🃏 (@Harlequins) November 20, 2019
🏆 Join us for @ChampionsCup rugby at The Stoop on Saturday - tickets and hospitality: https://t.co/KJc7HQb4Yx #COYQ pic.twitter.com/k2B7qAtw72
Amusing stuff. But is there a media training lesson here?
Well, Marler’s interview certainly provided the ‘unusual’ element which we tell delegates on our media training courses is so crucial for capturing attention.
Consequently, a routine pre-match interview was viewed by a much wider audience, creating headlines across the world, including in the US where rugby is not one of the main sports.
Of course, the unusual, 'horsing about', part of this particular example is a little extreme, but finding that unexpected or surprising angle can be the difference between having something which is important to your organisation and something which is newsworthy and picked up by a wider audience.
Perhaps the story your spokesperson is trying to tell is the first, the biggest, or even smallest. Encourage your spokespeople, and other people in the organisation, to think about what would surprise an audience and make them sit-up and take note.
To stick with the animal theme of this blog, and to use an old journalism aphorism, dog bites man is not a story, but man bites dog is news.
You can read the full blog here.
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