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Nine media interviews in one morning is by anyone’s standards a tough challenge.
But that was the task ahead of Lynne Owens, director of the National Crime Agency, yesterday (14 May) as she appeared on the media circuit after her organisation produced its latest threat assessment.
There were appearances on BBC Breakfast, Good Morning Britain, Sky News and the Today programme among others, all before 9am.
So how did she get on and what media training lessons can we learn from her interviews?
An early start as we launch our National Strategic Assessment of serious & organised crime. A chronic & corrosive threat that impacts more UK citizens than any other national security threat. 9 media interviews between now & 0900 to explain more!— Lynne Owens (@NCA_LynneOwens) May 14, 2019
During her interview with Good Morning Britain, Ms Owens faced a particularly tricky question from Piers Morgan about cuts to policing number and she fell into the trap of deciding to try and avoid it altogether.
The presenter asked whether it was ‘useful and helpful’ that Theresa May had taken 20,000 police officers from the streets when she was Home Secretary.
When Ms Owens completely ignored that question with a ‘what we are doing today’ response, Mr Morgan was quick to highlight her evasiveness.
He said: “I’m sorry, that wasn’t my question. Obviously you didn’t hear me. Theresa May when she was Home Secretary took 20,000 police officers off our streets. Given that there has been a surging escalation in this kind of crime since, was that a good idea or should we now put those 20,000 officers back on the streets.”
Ms Owens replied: “Piers, I heard your question. You are trying to get me to look backwards and I am trying to look forwards based on the threat as we see it today…”
Mr Morgan then interrupted by saying: “I’m trying to get you to answer a straight question – do we need more or less police officers on the streets. Was it a good thing for the Prime Minister to take 20,000 police officers off the streets of this country given the surging numbers you are talking about?”
There are twice as many organised crime members than there are soldiers in the British army.— Good Morning Britain (@GMB) May 14, 2019
The National Crime Agency has called for £2.7bn in extra funding to tackle a threat that's 'changing in scale and speed'. pic.twitter.com/vJLYUYGMUC
The frustration here is that when Ms Owens did decide to answer the question – at the third time of asking – she provided the type of answer she should have given right at the start.
She said: “Of course, we always need a visible policing presence in our communities. I was a police officer and they are important and valued, but we will not fix this problem by the beat officer alone.”
There is no doubt that this was a challenging question aimed at encouraging Ms Owens to criticise the Prime Minister. But that sort of question should have been anticipated and prepared for, particularly when you know you are facing Mr Morgan.
Journalists are increasingly willing to highlight spokespeople who they feel are trying to evade their questions. And it ultimately results in the same question being repeated.
Just watching @GMB and the interview with Lynne Owens, head of the @NCA_UK I’m at a loss. It’s just like watching a politician dodging questions and refusing to acknowledge there aren’t enough police officers on the streets.— Sgt Andy Napper (@Sgt1756) May 14, 2019
A bruising interview for @NCA_LynneOwens: the full @piersmorgan treatment after she repeatedly refused to answer questions on need for more police officers. I'm told if the £2.7 billion 3-year funding bid succeeds it would lead to 3,000 more NCA/police across UK. https://t.co/XQGVV2ZpLT— Danny Shaw (@DannyShawBBC) May 14, 2019
A better example of how to deal with those questions you may not want to answer came during Ms Owens’ interview on Radio 4’s Today programme.
Here she was asked how Brexit could impact the Organised Crime Group picture.
And what she did well here was to briefly answer that question and then looked to move the conversation away, through the bridging media training technique, to a less contentious topic.
She said: “Of course we are planning for the changes in Brexit, but we are planning for changes in technology, we are planning for changes in movement of people and we are planning for changes that come about as a result of encryption. We look at the whole of the changing spectre of serious and organised crime and we see that it is changing in scale and complexity and such investment is now needed.”
Whether it was another example of evasiveness, or just a lack of clarity, it seemed that Ms Owens struggled to answer the question as to why her organisation needed its budget to double.
This was again an entirely predictable question and one that should have had a clear, confident and prepared response.
But that didn’t materialise. Instead listeners of the Today programme heard presenter Mishal Hussain say after several questions: “I’m still not sure why things have changed so much you need your budget to double.”
Like a number of media spokespeople, Ms Owens appears to have got into the habit of beginning responses with ‘so’.
I counted three instances of this in the Today programme interview and another couple during her appearance on BBC Breakfast. It is a filler word which has become the new ‘ummm’, as spokespeople plan their response to a question.
But as with other alternatives, such as ‘look’ and ‘like’, it is annoying, distracting, and should be avoided.
Spokespeople should instead just get straight to what they want to say, or just stick with the occasional ‘ummm’.
It is not easy to face a big personality presenter like Piers Morgan.
It’s also daunting to face Mishal Hussain, a journalist recently identified as the BBC’s ‘interrupter-in-chief’, who cuts into a spokesperson’s response every 46 seconds on average.
So while there were a few indications of nerves, particularly on a slightly stuttering response to a question on the Today programme about why her budget needed to double when she was £32m under budget last year, she was generally composed and assured.
There was a moment in that Today programme interview where both she and the reporter forget the second part to a question, but she didn’t appear fazed and actually went back to addressing it when it came back to her.
She also appeared particularly fluent on BBC Breakfast and it is worth remembering that this was a down-the-line interview, a format many spokespeople find particularly challenging.
Having multiple media interviews in the same morning is undoubtedly challenging. On our media training courses we stress the value of factoring in a little time after each one for a quick review. This could prevent the spokesperson from making the same mistake all the way through or with a few simple tweaks help them find a way of adding real emphasis to the key message.
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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