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If you have been on one of our media training courses you will know we talk about the power of the example.
They bring answers to life, capture the audience’s attention and help make messages memorable.
The most powerful examples are those which are personal to the spokesperson and that connect with the audience and take them on a journey.
Personal stories and anecdotes can help make the brand relevant, provide a human side to the organisation and help spokespeople grow in confidence.
But just occasionally examples can go wrong and completely distract from what the spokesperson intended to get across in the interview.
Take the recent case of Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg and his podcast interview with technology news website Recode, which focuses on the businesses of Silicon Valley.
He has found himself staring at negative headlines and social media posts after completely misjudging an example he used in the interview.
Here are some of the headlines his comments created:
Mark Zuckerberg’s remarks on Holocaust denial ‘irresponsible’ The Guardian
Facebook boss Zuckerberg faces Holocaust denial row Herald Scotland
Zuckerberg at centre of Holocaust denial controversy The Express Tribune
Mark Zuckerberg seems to think good-faith Holocaust denial is a thing Los Angeles Times
And he managed to get ‘Holocaust’ trending on Twitter:
imagine being as online as zuckerberg and thinking holocaust denial is just some well-meaning people who still need to be heard— mustard (@nice_mustard) July 19, 2018
Mark Zuckerberg appears to be engaging in "bothsidesing" when talking about Holocaust-deniers...— Pé Resists (@4everNeverTrump) July 18, 2018
Still not over the fact that Mark Zuckerberg finds women's nipples more offensive than Holocaust denial.— Lux 🤷🏻♀️ Alptraum (@LuxAlptraum) July 20, 2018
My hospitalized Mom suddenly began speaking in French. Reliving her family’s 17-month ordeal in #France to escape the Nazis, she said “the Germans are coming” & “we must find some bread.” Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg was speaking in gibberish about #Holocaust deniers on #Facebook.— David Harris (@DavidHarrisAJC) July 22, 2018
The interesting thing about this interview is that it was not about the Holocaust. Nor was Mr Zuckerberg asked a question about the Holocaust. He wasn’t even asked a tricky question.
No, he decided to use Holocaust deniers as an example while making a point about how his social network deals with fake news.
Here is how it happened:
Journalist: Okay. “Sandy Hook didn’t happen” is not a debate. It is false. You can’t just take that down?
Zuckerberg: I agree that it is false.
Zuckerberg: I also think that going to someone who is a victim of Sandy Hook and telling them, “Hey, no, you’re a liar” — that is harassment, and we actually will take that down. But overall, let’s take this whole closer to home...
Zuckerberg: I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened.
Journalist: Yes, there’s a lot.
Zuckerberg: I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong, but I think…
We have spoken in the past in this media training blog about the trick questions which could trip up a spokesperson and potentially turn into what social media users tend to term a ‘car crash interview’.
One of these trick questions which we sometimes talk about on our media training courses is the ‘while you are here’ question.
This comes right at the end of an interview and typically introduces something completely different to the interview often in the hope of finding the conflict angle reporters often look for in a story.
For example, a spokesperson might be talking about the opening of a new factory and they suddenly face a question about Brexit.
If they say too much in response to this question, the focus of the interview is likely to be on that small part rather than the subject they intended to discuss.
In this podcast interview, Zuckerberg set his own trap and took the interview to controversial territory without any help from the journalist. And the conflict he introduced overshadowed everything else he said.
It really is a shame Zuck faceplanted with the completely asinine and unprompted Holocaust analogy, because the rest of the pod was surprisingly candid and thoughtful on a number of hot button issues e.g. data privacy https://t.co/NW3axaUhMg— Shahab Asghar (@theshasghar) July 19, 2018
Mark Zuckerberg bringing up the Holocaust unprompted should make the Unforced Errors Hall of Fame on the first ballot...— Jeremy Barr (@jeremymbarr) July 19, 2018
So in the same way spokespeople need to think about how they can respond to trick or curveball questions without damaging their message, they also need to consider whether their examples could unwittingly provide a distraction.
Are they relevant to the message you want to get across? Do they drive home the points you want to make? Are they controversial?
If you are in any doubt, run them past a colleague or role-play the interview before doing it for real.
For a man who was so well-prepared, briefed and rehearsed for his grilling by US senators earlier this year, you have to wonder whether this PR gaffe was created by him not taking the interview particularly seriously.
Complacency is a dangerous trait for a spokesperson. Whether you are being interviewed on a national TV news programme or carrying out a podcast interview for a tech website with a considerably lower profile and audience, it is important to prepare just as thoroughly.
As Mr Zuckerberg has just found out, an interview with a trade publication can still generate negative headlines around the world if it goes wrong.
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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