The media interviews that have stood out so far during the coronavirus crisis

You won’t be surprised to learn that as a media training company, we watch a lot of interviews.

There’s always something others can learn from them.

One of the benefits of working from home during the lockdown is that I’ve seen a lot more interviews recently and have been able to take a close look at how spokespeople have adapted to the brave new world where they are carried out remotely.

Some interviews have been excellent. Others have left quite a bit to be desired. All of them offer lessons for other spokespeople.

Here are the interviews that have stood out for me so far during the coronavirus crisis:

 

Complex information

“Professors do give you very clear answers sometimes.”

That was Andrew Marr’s verdict of an interview with Professor Sarah Gilbert, a vaccinologist at Oxford University, on his Marr programme.

The professor, who is leading the research in the UK to find an effective vaccine for the coronavirus, produced an excellent performance.

One of the issues we often find on our media training courses is that spokespeople tend to struggle to get complex information across in interviews without confusing or losing the audience.

But here, a complicated subject area was explained with great clarity – not just the vaccine, but also wider questions about the virus, including why older men are more susceptible.

Take for example the way she described the likely side-effects of the vaccine - “you may have a slightly sore arm, a slight fever for a day or two,” she said.

What stood out for me was that all of Professor Gilbert’s answers were developed. There were no short answers. Instead, she filled her responses with examples to show what action was being taken to progress the vaccine.

But what was also impressive was her handling of the trickier questions. First-up she faced the sort of ‘guarantee’ question that has tripped up many a spokesperson in the past. Could she guarantee the vaccine would be ready by September? “No-one can be sure, but I think the prospects are good,” was a measured response.

Later on, she faced potentially tricky questions about who would own the vaccine and whether money would be made from it.

Here, the professor acknowledged the questions and then bridged away to safer ground, saying “for the moment, what we are concentrating on is having a vaccine available for public health.”

There was even a great sign-off to the interview. “Right, I’ll get back to work”, she said.

An impressive performance and one that other spokespeople should study.

 

Smirk

Poor Helen Whately endured some bruising encounters with Piers Morgan in recent weeks.

And while those interviews have led to significant numbers of complaints to Ofcom about the host’s approach, there are also lessons that can be learnt from the politician’s performance.

In her first encounter on Good Morning Britain, the care minister made headlines after appearing to laugh when asked about a report that 4,000 had died in care homes from coronavirus.

It led to quite an exchange where Mr Morgan said everyone had seen her laugh and Ms Whately denied it.

Mr Morgan: “Why are you laughing? What do you find funny about this?”

Ms Whately: “I don't think it's funny in the slightest.”

Mr Morgan: “Well why do you keep laughing then?”

Ms Whately: “I'm not laughing at all.”

Mr Morgan: “I literally just asked you is it true that 4,000 elderly people have died in hospital and all you can do is laugh what's the matter with you?”

The politician said her laughter was a reaction to the host showing her the front page of the newspaper, when she was unable to see him due to not having a screen visible showing the GMB host.

However, the exchange, and the subsequent fallout, is an important reminder of the importance of not laughing or smiling when discussing bad news.

After the reaction to that reaction, the politician would have probably been forgiven for shying away from the opportunity to face Mr Morgan again a week or so later.

But she didn’t take that easy option.

Her second interview, however, still resulted in similar ‘car crash interview’ headlines.

This was partly caused by attempts to dodge difficult questions around low testing numbers, which resulted in Mr Morgan saying “you keep answering different questions.”

The politician was also criticised for not knowing the number of people who had died in care homes. Although there is a strong argument that she should have known those figures, at least she didn’t get drawn into speculation or commenting on reports she had not seen.

 

Messaging

Organisations must get the tone of their messages right during a crisis which has not only led to so many deaths, but also caused huge economic uncertainty and changed, at least temporarily, the way many of us have led our lives.

Advice Australian businessman Gerry Harvey could have done with hearing ahead of his interview with Channel 9.

The co-founder of the Harvey-Norman department store franchise told viewers that business was booming as the virus had led to an increased demand for freezers and air purifiers.

He said: "We've got enough salespeople, enough customers and we're doing really good business,” said the billionaire entrepreneur. 

“This is a nice big shop, we don’t have to get really close to each other, we don’t have to touch – you can come into the shop and you are 100 per cent OK.

He also dismissed fears about the virus saying: “It’s not the Spanish Flu that killed 15 million people after the First World War. Why are we so scared about getting this virus? There’s nothing to be scared of.”

A stinging public backlash led the entrepreneur to admit he was worried Australians “now think I'm a heartless, greedy old bastard"

He said that he had wanted to get across a hopeful message and tell people not to panic.

Instead, his comment put him at the centre of a social media storm with calls for a boycott.

 

Evasive

Regular readers of this media training blog will know that we have often stressed that spokespeople cannot dodge difficult questions, or ones they don’t want to answer.

It is an approach that makes interviewees sound evasive and causes the journalist to ask the question.

A memorable example of this came when Nick Smith, Royal Ascot’s director of racing and public affairs appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme to discuss the possibility of holding the prestigious race meeting behind closed doors.

Mr Smith admitted there would be an ‘element of risk’ for jockeys and staff even with social distancing measures and then attempted to completely sidestep a question about how he would feel if anyone died after contracting coronavirus from Royal Ascot.

Here is the key part of the conversation:

Reporter Garry Richardson: “If one person contracted coronavirus from going to Ascot and then passed it on, what would you think of your decision then?”

Mr Smith: “I think we have to look at everything in the round. The government, all sport together.”

Mr Richardson: “But can I ask you to specifically answer my question, what would you think if someone contracted coronavirus?

Mr Smith: “I think we have to take the whole resumption of sport in the round and racing will play its part in that.”

No-one likes facing difficult questions. But you need to answer, or at least acknowledge them, before using media training techniques to steer the conversation to safer areas.

 

Background

It is not just spokespeople who have been struggling with broadcasting from their homes.

Melinda Meza, a reporter for the Californian TV channel KCRA3, managed to broadcast the figure of a naked man in her shower during a report about cutting your hair at home during the lockdown.

The key tip here, and one that we’ve mentioned before in our blogs about online training, is always check and double-check your background.

 

Attire

Finally, we’ve been stressing the importance of spokespeople getting out of those tracksuits and pyjamas and into something a bit more professional before interviews from home.

That is unless you are a popular actor.

Martin Clunes appeared to have fully embraced working from home attire when he appeared on Good Morning Britain in this PJs.

When he was questioned about his choice of clothing, Mr Clunes said: “Well… I’ve got no access to the make-up I so desperately need, or a tie or anything, so this is how you find me.”

His decision seemed to go down well with social media users, but it is definitely not something we can recommend for a corporate spokesperson.

Our bespoke training by videoconference can help you make the most of online technology, whatever your experience level, ensuring you get your personal branding right and that you continue to communicate with confidence and clarity – wherever you are.

 

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Find out more about how we can help you with your internal and external communications challenges.

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. 

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