What skills should the Prime Minister be looking for in his new spokesperson?

Boris Johnson is on the lookout for a spokesperson to front live press briefings that will be televised to the country.

The White House-style events aim to build on the interest shown in the daily briefings we saw during the first few months of the lockdown, which attracted big audiences.  

An advert placed on the Conservative Party’s LinkedIn page says that the role will represent the Prime Minister and the government to “an audience of millions on a daily basis, across the main broadcast channels and social media.”

It adds that the successful candidate will “have the chance to influence and shape public opinion.”

Those interested have been asked to send a “statement of suitability” for the role.

But what would make a good spokesperson?

Clearly, they are going to need plenty of media and crisis communication experience, advanced media training and crisis media management training with working journalists, plenty of confidence, a willingness to become a major public figure and a pretty thick skin.  

What else would they need?

Well, if we were leading the hunt, these are the additional requirements we would be looking for:

 

Someone who doesn’t dodge questions

We’ve covered quite a few interviews with politicians in this media training blog.

And one of the most common failures has been those attempts to avoid difficult questions, often by trying to answering something completely different.

Dodging the challenging questions is never a good approach, regardless of whether or not the spokesperson is involved in politics, and can result in questions being asked repeatedly by the reporter, which then becomes the focus of the interview.

Recently there have been plenty of examples of journalists calling out interviewees for attempting to evade questions.  

A good spokesperson will use media training techniques like bridging to briefly answer, or at least acknowledge the question, before steering the conversation to areas they are more comfortable discussing.

 

Bravery

Some journalists and media organisations have a reputation for asking harder questions and giving interviewees a tougher time than others.

Downing Street’s current way of handling this seems to be to boycott those reporters and channels, with Channel 4 News, Good Morning Britain and Newsnight finding it particularly hard lately to interview members of the cabinet.

But that approach does not help create the impression of transparency all organisations should strive for.

A good spokesperson for this role would be someone who is willing to face up to the challenges of facing those hard-hitting reporters and answering those questions.

 

Someone who avoids the clichés

How many times have you heard a politician say ‘let me be clear’ or ‘let me be crystal clear’?

Apart from raising questions about why they haven’t been clear in their earlier responses, and the fact it is usually the prelude to an answer that is anything but clear, it is also an example of the clichéd phrases used in interviews.

Other regular offenders include ‘deep concern’, ‘the fact of the matter is’, ‘let me just make this point’, and ‘that’s a good question’.

Politicians also often seem to use the same phrases to introduce examples, such as ‘I was speaking to one of my constituents just the other day’ and ‘as a father/mother myself’.  

That first phrase is designed to make their point inarguable and the second to make them relatable, but using the same phrases all the time reduces the impact and it becomes distracting, sounds unnatural and can affect credibility.

Our recommendation is that whoever becomes Mr Johnson’s spokesperson avoids this jargon and finds their own phrases for adding emphasis, bridging and buying a few seconds of thinking time before they answer.

 

Someone prepared to use their own words

The more natural a message sounds, the more likely the audience is to feel the spokesperson genuinely believes what they are saying.

To achieve this, it is crucial that - while spokespeople should still prepare thoroughly - they don’t memorise their briefing and messages so that they sound like they are regurgitating a press release, or statement, or parroting the same message verbatim.

Remember how often Theresa May said “strong and stable” and how it led to widespread ridicule.

If we were appointing the Prime Minister’s spokesperson, we would be looking for someone who feels empowered to put messages into their own words.

And it is something all spokespeople should strive for because not only does this approach help bring messages to life and give them authenticity, but it also increases confidence and makes spokespeople more comfortable with what they are saying.

 

Calmness under pressure

If you have read this media training blog before, or been on one of our courses, you’ll know we often stress the importance of spokespeople remaining calm under pressure.

While the heated interview is certainly not reserved for the pollical world, it has provided us with plenty of examples of interviewees struggling to maintain their composure.

Some have attacked the questions. Others have stormed out.

One of the most memorable examples came from Spain where Foreign Minister Josep Borrell accused journalist Tim Sebastian of being “biased” and “continually lying”. He also walked out of the interview only to be talked into returning.

Closer to home, you may recall MP Daniel Kawczynski hanging up on a radio interview when he took a dislike to the nature of the questions.

Whoever takes on this new role is going to come under intense pressure in interviews and press conferences.  

It is crucial they do not let criticism get to them, become frustrated at a negative line of questioning or display annoyance when they are interrupted.

We tell delegates on our media training courses that when an interview does become heated or hostile, the audience will be much more likely to remain sympathetic if the spokesperson remains calm.

 

Someone who doesn’t become the story

We mentioned earlier that this appointment is part of a move towards something similar to the White House briefings.

One part of that Mr Johnson and his colleagues will surely be keen to avoid importing is the spokesperson becoming the story.

If you can recall Sean Spicer, then you will remember he often seemed to be the story, causing embarrassment to the administration.

One example that stood out was when he was talking about Syria and claimed Adolf Hitler ‘never stooped’ to using chemical weapons on his own people.

The comment caused an outcry with the Anne Frank Centre for Mutual Respect labelling Mr Spicer the ‘most offensive press secretary ever’ and calling for his resignation.

Mr Spicer later apologised for his ‘inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust’.

Other examples include him reportedly hiding in bushes near the White House to avoid reporters covering the decision to fire FBI chief James Comey and the infamous press conference where he struggled to hide his anger.

Another spokesperson, Anthony Scaramucci, lasted just 10 days in the role after he gave a disastrous interview where he suggested that the former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was a ‘paranoid schizophrenic’ and that chief strategist Steve Barron was, well, let’s just say extremely dexterous – only in far more vulgar terms.

He later said: “Most of what I said was humorous and joking. Legally, it may have been on-the-record, but the spirit of it was off.”

The UK government will be looking to avoid similar attention-grabbing problems.

 

Of course, these are just our thoughts for this role and you can find lots more advice and tips on who would make a good spokesperson for your organisation in some of our wider blogs.

Only time will tell whether the government has similar requirements for this position.

The job reportedly comes with an enticing £100,000 + salary.

But some will surely be put off by the intense scrutiny which will come with the role.

One thing for certain is that we will keep a close eye on the progress of the successful applicant in future editions of this media training blog.

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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