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It was always likely to be a challenging interview.
The Iceland supermarket chain had already received some negative media coverage after it emerged it had removed its labelling from some of its own-brand goods rather than remove palm oil from its entire range.
The chain had been accused of ‘wriggling’ out of its own commitment to remove the ingredient from all its own label products by the end of the last year.
So when managing director Richard Walker appeared on BBC Breakfast on Saturday to discuss the story he would surely have expected some tough questions.
So how did he do?
Well, actually he appeared calm and composed and there are clear lessons that other spokespeople who might find themselves in a hostile or negative interview can learn from.
The Iceland boss started strongly by admitting there was some ‘old stock’ that still contained palm oil. He told viewers that he wouldn’t ‘chuck it in the bin’ and that he couldn’t give it away to food banks because it is frozen.
He said: “The right thing to do is to sell it through and it will be out within a matter of weeks. I took Iceland off the labelling of these products as a short term measure for a couple of months until April when we will move them back in.”
You sensed from the beginning that he was being open – an important trait for keeping the audience on side.
On our media training courses, we tell delegates that if you are faced with difficult questions you need to do more than answer what has been asked – you need to try to move the conversation to safer, more positive ground.
There were examples of Mr Walker doing this throughout the interview. Early on he asked presenter Naga Munchetty: “Instead of focusing on the 3 per cent, the 17 products, why not focus on the 97%, the 450 products, where we have removed palm oil?
Later on he introduced his company’s ‘Rang-Tan’ advert into the conversation and talked about the impact it had in tackling deforestation.
He said: “The 17m who watched Rang-Tan the advert created a mass global movement and it helped force companies to commit to zero deforestation. I think what my staff and my suppliers have achieved is nothing short of incredible.”
Audiences love spokespeople who bring passion to their interviews.
We tell the delegates on our media training courses that this passion needs to come through in the way they discuss the subject, not because they tell us they are passionate.
In this interview Mr Walker didn’t say ‘I’m passionate about removing palm oil’, the passion came through naturally in his responses.
He said: “I don’t understand why this non-story is blowing up. What we need to focus on is that we are sleep walking into an environmental disaster and corporations are doing nowhere near enough.
“But is it any wonder? Rather than celebrating this incredible effort that my 25,000 staff have achieved – I am damn proud of what they have done – we are being tripped up by journalists who are trying to focus on 17 lines which are temporary and are going to go back into own label.”
Often when interviews become a little hostile or challenging, spokespeople resort to providing short answers.
Not only does this make them sound defensive, but it also invites the reporter to ask more questions, cover more ground and ultimately crank up the pressure.
This was not a trap Mr Walker fell into. He provided very detailed answers. Not so long that they became hard to follow, but certainly long enough to reduce the number of detailed questions he faced.
During some of these responses he also ignored several attempted interruptions from the reporter and made sure he completed the point he was making.
The only negative in Mr Walker’s performance was his criticisms of the angle being taken with the story.
You’ll notice in one of the quotes I highlighted earlier that he called it a ’non-story’ and complained about being ‘tripped up’ by journalists. He also said he would have to be ‘overly transparent in future’.
On our media training courses we tell delegates it is crucial to avoid showing any frustration at the questions being asked or the angle being taken.
Criticising questions or journalists – or even getting involved in an argument – will not help you fight your corner.
Overall though this was a strong performance from the Iceland boss. It certainly seemed to win him a lot of support on social media.
@BBCBreakfast Never shopped in Iceland. Might start now. Hugely impressed with Richard Walker, came across really well. The commitment to end palm oil use is to be applauded.— Julie Wells (@juliealphawells) January 26, 2019
@IcelandFoods Well done Richard Walker, strong performance on BBC. Definitely a non-story. Congratulations on your achievements so far in protecting the rainforests and the natural habitat of endangered species.— J Gaines (@Jarrod_Gaines) January 26, 2019
Great to see Richard Walker of @IcelandFoods on tv talking about removal of palm oil from products. Genuine honesty and an example to others.— paul stacey (@kustardkid) January 26, 2019
Impressive innings by Richard Walker from @IcelandFoods, standing his ground on TV this morning!— Laurence Blume (@freelancecopywr) January 26, 2019
@IcelandFoods well done for your achievement with palm oil. Richard Walker.. damn good interview on BBC Breakfast— Sara Diana Williams (@serimalbpickles) January 26, 2019
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