Media training: Should these interview requests have been turned down?

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Should these interview requests have been turned down?

There were two absolutely disastrous interviews on the radio yesterday (11/9).

They both took place on breakfast shows and they involved the same spokesperson.

And they resulted in his performances being widely derided on social media.

But this outcome struck me as very predictable and I found myself questioning whether he should have agreed to the interviews in the first place.

The interviews in question saw South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings appear on LBC and Talk Radio after his force had come under fire for advising people to report ‘non hate crimes’ which have ‘insulted’ them.

The advice, which had come in the form of a tweet, had already been the target of social media and mainstream media ridicule ahead of the interview.

 

 

The Sun ran the headline ‘Police force mercilessly mocked after asking the community to report ‘insulting comments’ and The Telegraph reported ‘Police urge public to report insults that hurt feelings, but aren’t crimes’.

And things didn’t get any better on air.

 

 

LBC’s Nick Ferrari tore into the idea, suggesting that the police were wasting resources in incidents that aren’t even crimes.

Dr Billings was unable to respond to his aggressive interview approach and get his messages across.

And as the interview moved to crime figures in his force area, he was unable to provide detail.  Here is an exchange:

 

Ferrari: Commissioner, do you not feel it is important in your position to have a rough idea of the percentage of shoplifting cases that were solved? Does it not appear to be important?

Billings: I think it is important in my post that I can get hold of any of those figures at any time.

Ferrari: But you don’t know what it is. It is less than half, so I will help you.

 

And when he tried to bring in an example to try to support one of his points, Mr Ferrari had to remind him to not make comments about an incident which was the subject of court reporting restrictions.

It was a similar tale of woe on Talk Radio, where Mr Billings was interviewed by Julia Hartley-Brewer. Ms Hartley Brewer dubbed the initiative the ‘hurty feelings helpline’ and added that if an incident is not a crime then it ‘is none of your bloody business’.

 

 

Dr Billings told her that the policy intended to build trust between the community and the police force, but Ms Hartley-Brewer used the Hillsborough and Rotherham grooming scandals as examples as to how police had lost trust.

And, like the LBC interview, she brought crime figures into the interview.

Hartley-Brewer: “Do you not think there’ll be a lot of people in the South Yorkshire area, the communities you speak so much about, who might prefer it if the police spent their time investigating gang rape of teenage girls rather than people whose feelings are hurt on Twitter?”

Billings: “If it’s a case of either or, then of course.”

Hartley-Brewer (interrupting) “It is a case of either or, you don’t investigate all the crimes that are committed. Don’t you think once you’ve sorted out all the actual crimes, then you might have time to deal with the non crimes?”


Now, there’s certainly an argument that Dr Billings could have been better prepared for these interviews.

As someone who has briefed and prepared countless police officers of all ranks for media interviews in a previous role, I’m staggered that he didn’t have the latest crime figure to hand or at least know some key statistics.

That just seems bizarre, especially when you are about to be interviewed by Mr Ferrari who is known to be a real stickler for statistics – you may recall he was the journalist behind Diane Abbott’s infamous police numbers blunder interview last year.

And I do feel some sympathy for Dr Billings in the way that he was constantly talked over by both presenters.

But this was all quite predictable.

Both Mr Ferrari and Ms Hartley-Brewer are big personalities with strong opinions and it would be difficult for even a highly experienced and skilled media spokesperson to impose themselves on an interview with them.

Dr Billings, unfortunately, struck me as being neither of those things.

Now, as someone who works for a media training company, I’m not advocating that spokespeople hide away from challenging interviews. But it was pretty obvious to me that he was on a hiding to nothing in deciding to do these particular ones.

Ms Hartley’s Twitter account shows that she had already made her mind up about this initiative way ahead of the interview while it was highly unlikely Mr Ferrari would have taken a sympathetic stance.

 

 

This was not a crisis media management incident. The commissioner was really just looking at a couple of negative headlines. But by accepting the interview bids he opened himself and the scheme up to far wider ridicule.

I also wonder whether these were the right channels for Dr Billings in the first place. LBC, in particular, is a London focused station and it would be fascinating to know how many people in South Yorkshire – presumably Dr Billings’ target audience - actually listen to either of those radio stations.

As I’ve said, turning down a media interview request goes against our natural instincts as media trainers, but it seemed that in this situation it was inevitable Dr Billings would end up being the one with ‘hurt feelings’.

 

 

There are a few other instances where media interviews should be turned down:

Bad association: If someone in your sector is in the news for the wrong reasons you could be asked to give your views. For example the boss of a rival airline could have been asked to give their views on the recent BA date breach. But would it really be a good idea for you to go on television or radio to talk about this? You could inadvertently be linked to the negative incident in the public's eyes.

 

Bad experience: If your organisation has had bad experiences with a particular reporter, such as spokespeople being repeatedly misquoted, it could be a good option to decline the request. 

 

When you don’t have a media trained spokesperson available: Saying the wrong thing during a media interview has the potential to cause huge reputational damage. And in the digital age, it is no longer the case that what people say in an interview will be tomorrow‘s fish and chips wrapper – bad interviews now live forever online. It is crucial organisations have a number of experienced spokespeople with recent media training available to talk to journalists, but if you really can’t get one ahead of the reporter’s deadline, the request should be turned down. Interviews cannot be winged and a spokesperson without media training would be horribly exposed.

 

Exclusive interviews: If you have already given an exclusive interview to one particular organisation you cannot set up one with a rival media outlet. The key here though is to ensure the journalist does not completely lose interest in your organisation. Is there a different story you can offer them? Could you offer them an opportunity at a later date, perhaps a feature interview if it is a print journalist?

 

When the subject isn’t relevant: In the world of rolling 24 hour news channels sometimes journalists just need a spokesperson to talk about an issue, and the link can occasionally be a bit tenuous. If the topic is not relevant to your organisation, there is nothing really to be gained from doing the interview. And your spokesperson could find themselves in a position where they are discussing something they have no real expertise on or becoming embroiled in speculation, both of which could be very damaging.

 

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.

 

Click here to find out more about our bespoke journalist-led media training courses. Or book a place on our next media training open course

 

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