It has been a year like no other.
But it is not going to stop us from taking our annual look back at the spokespeople who got it wrong over the past 12 months and the media training lessons that can be learnt from their performances.
As ever, there have been plenty of interviews to choose from. But we’ve made our list and we’ve checked it twice.
And we’ve narrowed it down to seven interviews that stuck in our minds.
Let’s start by looking at a few interviews we haven’t previously featured in our media training blog, including one that wasn’t even an interview.
One thing we have all become used to in 2020 is regular covid updates from our politicians and health experts.
But you would be hard-pressed to find one as memorable, or that caused as much controversy and ridicule, as the one provided by the Oregon Health Authority.
Decked out in multi-coloured hair, clown make-up, a polka dot shirt, red tie and bright yellow trousers, Dr Claire Poché delivered a virus update for the state in late October on Facebook Live, including three more deaths.
“As of today, there have been 38,160 cases of COVID-19 in Oregon, with 390 new cases being reported today,” she said without explaining her costume.
“Sadly, we are also reporting three deaths today, bringing the state-wide total for COVID-19-related deaths to 608.”
This is not a photoshop. Oregon's public health authority announced COVID deaths in clown makeup. pic.twitter.com/Ta4StZHvrW— Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) October 28, 2020
Oregon's public health official decided that it was best to dress up like a clown to announce new COVID deaths.— Alice (@themodalice) October 28, 2020
Yes, this is realpic.twitter.com/DgEevgsZ0y
The outfit seemed to be part of a Halloween theme and as the video continued, Dr Poché was joined by Shimi Sharief, another senior adviser, who appeared in an animal onesie to discuss how Halloween could still be fun despite pandemic restrictions.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that the clothing choice backfired, with negative headlines and ridiculing social media posts across the world.
Oregon health official dresses as clown to announce COVID-19 death toll New York Post
Oregon health official dressed as clown while announcing coronavirus deaths Independent
Oregon health official, announces COVID-19 death toll in clown costume Washington Times
Outrage over health official dressing up as clown to announce COVID-19 death toll Indian Express
Another spokesperson who suffered something of a wardrobe malfunction was politician Desmond Swayne.
We’re not sure what he said when he appeared on Sky News to give his thoughts on the start of the second lockdown in England – no-one is.
Why? Well, because he opted to appear on the channel with what seemed to be a lampshade on his head.
Desmond Swayne modelling a real rascal of a hat on Sky news 😂 pic.twitter.com/pgoipdgnL9— 🄼🄰🅃🅃 (@matt_brinks) November 5, 2020
Desmond Swayne MP on sky right now. Seriously. pic.twitter.com/ie73ecroAq— Tiernan Coyle ☘️ (@JeSuisTC) November 5, 2020
It’s quite brazen of Desmond Swayne to go on television to tell us we’re all crazy for going into lockdown whilst wearing this hat pic.twitter.com/XQqajKHx0U— John Cadigan (@johncadigan) November 5, 2020
Somehow presenter Adam Boulton avoided addressing the distracting headgear until right at the end of the interview when he said: “I thought you had had a hair transplant for a minute, but then I realised you were wearing a splendid hat.”
The word ‘splendid’ had never been asked to work so hard.
Media training tip:
- Always make sure your clothing is appropriate for your interview and that you don’t wear anything that may distract viewers from what you want to say.
The battle for the last word
You might think that if we were going to feature an interview from the US in a round-up of the worst interviews of the year, it would probably feature one with Donald Trump.
After all, there was his humiliating interview on HBO where the President’s blustering responses were met by memorable facial expressions of dismay from reporter Jonathan Swan that became internet memes. Then there was his walkout during a 60 Minute interview just before the election. And, of course, there was the press conference held at a landscaping company situated between an adult book shop and a crematorium.
But that just felt a little predictable.
So, instead, we are going to focus on an interview that descended into an argument and a remarkable scramble to have the last word.
The fiery interview saw CNN host Wolf Blitzer push Nancy Pelosi on why she was holding up a $1.8 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.
And it quickly descended into an argument, with Pelosi at one point telling the presenter “with all due respect you really don't know what you're talking about.”
But it was the ending that proved particularly memorable and farcical.
Having just been accused of “defending the administration all the time”, Mr Blitzer said: “Madam Speaker, these are incredibly difficult times right now and we'll leave on that note.”
“No, we'll leave it on the note that you're not right on this, Wolf, and I hate to say that to you,” Pelosi responded. “But I feel confident about it and I feel confident about my colleagues and I feel confident in my [committee] chairs.”
The presenter and interviewee then spoke over each other for some time, before as Mr Blitzer made another attempt to end the interview, Ms Pelosi sarcastically said: “Thank you for your sensitivity to our constituent’s needs.”
And that sparked another short exchange before the channel could eventually cut to a commercial break.
Blitzer: “I am sensitive to them because I see them every day on the streets begging for food, begging for money.”
Pelosi: “Have you fed them? We feed them, we feed them.”
Blitzer: “We will continue this conversation down the road, for sure.”
Media training tip:
- If you complain about a reporter and react angrily to questions, you have lost the argument and your interview will be remembered for the wrong reasons.
The smirking CEO
The covid pandemic had a huge impact on the media landscape, with remote interviews replacing the traditional studio format almost overnight.
As we have mentioned in this media training blog before, remote interviews present spokespeople with some unique challenges.
And not all interviewees have mastered them.
One example that stood out for us of online interviews that went wrong featured Rolls-Royce boss Warren East, who appeared on the BBC News shortly after the aerospace giant’s job cuts announcement.
The CEO produced a distracted performance which seemed to show him smirk when presenter Victoria Derbyshire asked about the job losses.
He also seemed to be more interested in what someone in the same room as him was saying, repeatedly looking away from the camera.
It wasn’t a great look when delivering such bad news and it didn’t take long for the damaging headlines and social media posts to kick in.
@RollsRoyce CEO Warren East, what an absolutely obnoxious, horrible man. Where is his compassion? Job losses may be necessary but that mans lack of humility is disgusting. People will lose their homes and livliehoods. Shame on you.— Rachael (@rachaelashley92) May 20, 2020
Mr East subsequently took the unusual approach of issuing an apology for his interview performance.
He told a regional newspaper: “During a BBC interview, I was actually caught a little off guard by the figures that were being used and looked to a colleague off-camera to see if I’d properly understood the question.
"I appreciate that didn’t come across at all well on a video call, for which I apologise.”
Media training tips:
- Body language is crucial in media interviews and can often trump the words you use. You must avoid smiling or laughing when delivering bad news.
- Make sure that you do not have any distractions in the room where you are giving your online interview. This includes PR advisers and press officers. Having someone else in the room makes it much more likely that you will break that crucial eye contact with the webcam – you’ll naturally be looking to see how your colleague is reacting to what you are saying.
Hancock comes unstuck
We look at a lot of interviews in our media training blogs. The ones we particularly enjoy are those you ask us to analyse.
And there was one interview this year that many of you asked us to focus on. It was an interview that saw Matt Hancock appear on Sky News to talk to Kay Burley back in September.
After discussing coronavirus, the interview, as is often the way, began to move on other topical issues.
And Ms Burley asked the politician for his thoughts about the possible appointment, as it was then, of Tony Abbott as a UK trade envoy and whether he was suitable for the role given some of his views.
After a couple of questions, Mr Hancock produced an answer that has been shared widely on social media.
Here is the key exchange, which came after the health secretary had praised the former Australian Prime Minister's experience for the role.
Burley: Even if he is a homophobic misogynist?
Hancock: Well, I don’t think that’s true…
Burley: I’ve just told you what he has said. I’m sure you don’t support some of his comments. He is a homophobe and a misogynist.
Hancock: Well, he is also an expert in trade.
Burley: So, one plays off against the other. Is that really what you are saying Health Secretary?
Hancock: What I am saying is we need experts in different areas and someone who is the former Prime Minister of Australia is obviously an enormous expert in the field of trade. It doesn’t change my views.
Burley: So, we can forgive his comments about women, about letting the elderly die of COVID-19, about his views on the gay community? We can forgive all of that because he is good at trade?
Hancock: Well, I’m doing everything in my power to prevent a second wave and protect people from coronavirus.
Burley: Health Secretary, that’s not my question.
And it went on.
It was all a bit of a mess, but the stand out part – and the one that led to some social media humiliation and painful headlines - was the “well, he is also an expert in trade” response, which suggested concerns people had about the appointment should be overlooked because of his expertise.
'Is Tony Abbott the right person to represent us - even if he's a homophobic misogynist?' - @KayBurley— Sky News (@SkyNews) September 3, 2020
Health Secretary @MattHancock says the former Australian PM is "also an expert in trade" and denies the claims.
Follow #KayBurley live: https://t.co/Qj88d3ncEp pic.twitter.com/ELhm8PzXAo
The attempt to move the conversation on to safer ground was also crude.
But perhaps the biggest failing here – and most important media training lesson – is that the Abbott issue should not have been an unexpected one.
Just a few days earlier, one of Mr Hancock’s Cabinet colleagues Liz Truss had similarly floundered when faced with questions about the Australian’s views.
You would have thought that a government adviser, or even Mr Hancock himself, must have seen her interview and thought ‘we can’t let that happen again’ and begun to prepare a better way of responding to the Abbott question.
Media training tips:
- Anticipate the difficult questions that are likely to be asked in your media interview and plan how you would respond to them.
- Don’t evade difficult questions. Briefly answer or acknowledge the questions and then use the bridging technique to move the subject on to safer ground.
The interview the journalist labelled a ‘car crash’
Social media users regularly label many media interviews as 'car crashes'. It is a view that is often coloured by allegiance to a particular political party, belief or sporting team.
But when a journalist uses it to describe an interview they have just carried out, the description has more value.
And that is what happened after Channel 4 journalist Alex Thomson went to Scotland to report on a group of Scottish villagers in Dumfries and Galloway that was hoping to raise more than £6m to turn the UK’s most famous grouse moor into a new 10,000-acre nature reserve.
Car crash performance tonight from Duke of Buccleuch’s man (and Nicola Sturgeon’s advisor) Benny Higgins. Makes false claims that people don’t give land away and either can’t or won’t explain why the Duke won’t be interviewed. pic.twitter.com/Xy60fHX0EL— alex thomson (@alextomo) July 20, 2020
The land belonged to the Duke of Buccleuch - the second-largest private landowner in Britain – and he wanted £6.5m for it.
What was fascinating about that report was how little time Buccleuch was given to get its side of the story across.
All we saw was Benny Higgins, the chairman of Buccleuch, defend why he was giving the interview rather than the duke, and eventually face questions about whether it was right that if the residents raised the money – with some of it coming from a grant – the estate would benefit from taxpayer’s money.
Why was this? Well, the first reason is that the reporter seemed determined to speak to the duke himself. He was seen driving to various properties to track him down.
And when he did manage to get hold of him on a phone, the duke claimed there was something wrong with it and that he couldn’t hear anything. That phone subsequently went through to voicemail.
This created a narrative that the duke was running away from scrutiny - and that theme dominated the initial questions put to Mr Higgins, who ultimately agreed to speak on his behalf.
Here is the key exchange:
Thomson: “The duke as I understand it won’t talk to us, why is that?
Higgins: “The duke has stepped back from the business and I became executive chairman last year. So, it is me who is running the business and I am the right person to speak to.”
Thomson: “Could we interview him?”
Higgins: “You’d need to ask him.”
Thomson: “I’m asking you. You can get a message to him.”
Higgins: “I’m telling you I’m running the business. There are no answers to questions you have asked he is better placed to answer at the moment.”
Thomson: “Is he afraid?”
Higgins: “I am the executive chairman of Buccleuch and any question you have got can be answered by me. “
When the interview did move on, it didn’t get much better.
Asked whether it was right the duke would benefit from taxpayer’s money – the community has secured a grant towards some of the cost - when the country is trying to recover from COVID-19, Mr Higgins said: “We are running a business and we have put the land up for sale. The communities are interested in that land. If they don’t buy it, we will sell it to someone else.”
When the journalist asked whether the estate should give the land away, Mr Higgins replied: “Businesses don’t give assets away and we are not giving it away.”
When the journalist suggested other landowners were able to do it, he said: “That’s for other landowners, we are running a business.”
If they don’t buy it, we will sell it to someone else.”
All very defensive and evasive and viewers were left with an impression the estate and Mr Higgins didn’t feel they needed to answer the questions posed by the journalist.
Media training tip:
- Make sure you have a plan for any media interview you do. What message do you want to get across and what do you want those watching to do and feel? Survival or simply avoiding saying the wrong thing is not a plan.
- In a pre-recorded interview, you need to constantly bring the conversation back to your message. The right question for your message may not come along, and even if it does, there is no guarantee it will make the edit.
The print interview disaster
Bad interviews don’t just take happen in broadcast media. Despite some spokespeople believing print interviews are an easier format, when they go wrong they can be hugely damaging – as our final example shows.
Irish politician Catherine Noone’s print interview disaster takes some believing.
Firstly, she made an unguarded and crass remark about the then Taoiseach Leo Varadaker being “autistic” to a reporter who followed her as she went canvassing.
She said: “He’s autistic like, he’s on the spectrum, there’s no doubt about it. He’s uncomfortable socially and he doesn’t always get the in-between bits.
“If I do say so, I am much more natural than he would be. I’ve been in rooms with him and he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He’s naturally shy. But he’s actually a very good politician.”
When The Times asked her for clarification about her comments, Ms Noone initially denied using the word ‘autistic’, only to be informed that there was a recording.
She then claimed she had not meant it literally.
“I didn’t mean it in the sense of the actual illness or anything. I just mean he can be a bit wooden and lacking in empathy,” she said. “I shouldn’t have even said it in that way.”
According to The Times, she then gave examples of offensive words that could be used out of context, including “special” and “n***er”, before clarifying that she wouldn’t use the 'N-word'.
And then to show how her comment had been taken out of context, she said: “Sometimes I say, ‘Oh God, I’m a bit special’, but I don’t mean it to be derogatory.”
Reader, you won’t be surprised to hear all this ended in an apology. She said: “I unequivocally apologise and withdraw all of my remarks, as reported by theTimes.ie (SIC), which were completely unacceptable. My choice of language was inexcusable and wrong. I am truly sorry.”
To make a bad story worse, around a week later, Ms Noone blamed the comment on “tiredness”, breathing new life into the story.
Media training tips:
- Avoid saying anything to a journalist that you wouldn’t he happy seeing in print or online. This is particularly important if the interview takes place in a relaxed setting where you might drop your guard.
- If you do say something you later come to regret, avoid the ‘out of context’ explanation. No one believes it and it is just viewed as an excuse. Instead, be brave and use social media to break your own bad news and try to take control of the story. It is an approach that shows openness and transparency and is better than waiting for the story to be published to show remorse.
- Remember that print interviews are not easier.
And that’s it for our look back over the worst interviews of 2020.
To avoid making similar mistakes to those we’ve highlighted here, you can begin by downloading your copy of our free media interview preparation eBook or find out more about our media training courses.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 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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