Media training: Should you avoid down-the-line interviews?

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Should you avoid down-the-line interviews?

One of the most difficult media interview formats is undoubtedly the dreaded down-the-line interview.

It has tripped up many a high-profile spokesperson in the past and it is the type of interview delegates are most concerned about on our media training  courses.

But one high-profile spokesperson has had enough and has vowed not to do any more of these style interviews from regional BBC offices.

Nicky Morgan, a Conservative MP and former Cabinet Minister, recently revealed that she finds these interviews unflattering and said that she has been insulted by social media trolls as a result.

Speaking at the Women on Air conference at City University, she said: “Women are more self-selecting in that not only do we ask have we got something to add but also am I going to trip myself up and look stupid here because social media is unforgiving - not only about your appearance.

“Sky's a bit better but BBC Millbank - you sit there in a kind of small cupboard with a camera pointing straight at you.

“It is deeply unflattering in how you look, and actually that's why I now don't go and do TV from regional offices because - particularly at Nottingham - they get you to perch on a little chair, bright lights, really unflattering and then I just get a whole load of social abuse afterwards about how ugly I am.”

 

 

 

It is easy to understand why media spokespeople do not like down-the-line interviews.

They typically take place in tiny studios and it can feel very remote. Talking to a camera rather than a person can make many people feel awkward, while the earpiece, needed to hear the journalist’s questions, can feel uncomfortable and spokespeople sometimes worry it may fall out.

Often, spokespeople don’t know where to look in this environment, which results in bad ‘eye contact’ with the audience.

In many cases, the spokesperson will have little more than a technician for company and help them get set up, and during my own career in comms and PR, I occasionally had to put spokespeople forward for interviews from completely unmanned studios.

Add some abhorrent social media trolls into the mix and you can see why Ms Morgan has decided to boycott them.

But, down-the-line interviews are increasingly common as newsroom resources are stretched and there is ever growing demand for journalists to get stories out quickly.

Certainly, if they can spokespeople should try to go to the main studio, but that is often not going to be logistically possible.

Ms Morgan says she insists that broadcasters send a film crew to her if they want to conduct an interview. But while that may work for a high-profile politician, it is an approach which could see many organisations lose the opportunity to get their messages across to a wider audience.

So in our view, media spokespeople need to be prepared to carry out down-the-line interviews and, consequently, they continue to be a key part of our media training courses.

While there is little we can do about the trolls, unfortunately, there are steps spokespeople can take to ensure they emerge from this daunting format successfully.

As weird as it may sound when you are in a small box talking into a camera, eye contact is absolutely crucial. To maintain eye contact in a down-the-line interview, your eye line must be steady and constant with the camera lens.

You need to look directly ‘down-the-barrel’ of the camera. Looking left and right will make you appear nervous, but if you need to momentarily look away, look down as that suggests you are thinking.

As we mentioned earlier, many spokespeople find the earpiece uncomfortable and alien. To try and make this feel as normal as possible, put it in the ear you use to answer the phone. If it falls out, simply pop it back in – don’t hold it to your ear as it will look odd and could distract the audience.

Try to keep your hands out of the shot as much as you can as moving them around too much will distract viewers.

It’s worth remembering that down-the-line interviews are often a much shorter interview format and that sometimes they feature another interviewee – likely to have an opposing view to yours – live in the studio, which can make it harder to get your opinion across.

These points both mean that spokespeople will typically have less time to get their messages across.

It is therefore crucial, spokespeople take control of the interview from the start and use the opening question to get to the point they want to get across.

And finally, always assume that cameras and microphones are on even if your interview hasn’t started or you think it has come to an end – you don’t want to be caught out like singing Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe who treated us all to his interpretation of ‘We’re in the money’ while waiting for an interview on his company’s plans to buy Asda.

 

You can find out more about managing a down-the-line interview in this video with Siân Jones, one of our expert current working journalist tutors.

 

 

 

 

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 journalist-led media training courses.

 

 

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