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The Royal Television Society recently held its annual awards which included an honour for the ‘interview of the year’.
The interview that took home that prize is actually one you might not have seen, but you should because it is TV gold and offers some key media training reminders.
It saw former Malaysia Prime Minister NajIb Razak face questions from journalist Mary Ann Jolley for Al Jazeera’s 101 East programme.
It is an interview which has subsequently racked up more than a million views on YouTube. And once you have seen it you’ll understand why the judges praised it for its 'sheer unadulterated watchability'.
It will also become clear that it was not the spokesperson's interview skills which secured the prize.
Mr Najib struggled to contain his composure as he faced a number of challenging questions on issues that he did not particularly want to talk about.
Having already tried to move the interview on by asking if he could be asked about the economy and even threatening to walk out, Mr Najib proved true to his word.
He left the interview saying: “That’s it, I’m done. If you want to talk about the economy I will sit down.”
He then complained: “Come on, you are not being fair to me.”
After a little negotiation with what appeared to be a PR advisor, while the cameras were still rolling, he was persuaded to sit down again to answer a question about his legacy.
But the reprieve was to be short-lived, as around a minute later he got up from his chair again.
Bizarrely, to complete a chaotic end to the interview, he then continued to answer questions as his microphone was removed from his lapel and as he left the room.
. @AJ101East is thrilled to announce we’ve been awarded Interview of the Year at the prestigious @RTS_media Awards in London. Watch @jolleyma’s interview with former Malaysia PM @NajibRazak here: https://t.co/rgxur7VJKN pic.twitter.com/7Z9sGcVL1M— 101 East Al Jazeera (@AJ101East) February 28, 2019
Mr Najib subsequently explained in a Facebook post that he walked out of the interview, carried out in October last year, because the reporter persisted in asking questions ‘outside of the agreed scope’ and claimed that his treatment had been unfair.
But there are much better ways of dealing with those issues and frustrations than walking away from an interview.
In fact, it has to be avoided at all costs because it creates dramatic footage, regardless of whether the interview is live or pre-recorded. And it is the failure to retain composure that becomes the focus of the story rather than anything which has been said.
It also typically results in wider media coverage because it is something that does not happen that often and therefore provides the ‘unusual’ element of what journalists look for in a story.
So what could he have done differently to avoid this interview disaster?
It is not easy to maintain your composure when you are faced with tough questions, particularly if you are subjected to the type of forensic examination Mr Najin experienced.
But it is crucial that spokespeople maintain their self-control when pressed on difficult topics.
Showing frustration, getting angry or overly emotional does not work well, often suggests unease and can be seen as the spokesperson having something to hide.
It is even a dangerous approach in print interviews, as angry comments are often reported without any mention of the provocation that triggered the response.
Anticipate wider issues
Mr Najib may have felt that the interview was not focused on the area he thought he would be discussing, but spokespeople need to expect to face questions about wider issues and know how they are going to manage them.
This is particularly true if an organisation or spokesperson has been embroiled in some form of controversy.
And those questions, although often left until the end, could come right at the start of the interview.
Ms Jolley has subsequently said that had Mr Najib answered the questions on the wider issues he would have had time to talk about the issues he wanted to focus on.
She said: “Obviously he wanted to talk about the economy, which was fine, but we couldn't get to that until we answered the other questions."
Media training techniques
On our media training courses, we stress to our delegates the importance of not just answering the question they have been asked.
We tell them that once they have answered the question they need to try to steer the conversation to what they want to talk about.
The bridging technique is crucial here.
Simply answering the question asked and waiting for the next one surrenders all the control of the interview to the journalist.
There are, however, a few situations where it is ok for a spokesperson to walk away from journalists.
The doorstep interview
We’ve outlined before in this media training blog why a doorstep interview is a particularly tough interview scenario for even the most accomplished and experienced media operators and it normally happens when your organisation is in the headlines for the wrong reasons.
The key to success is to deliver a short, pithy statement that buys you some time until you are able to give a fuller interview.
Once you have given a brief update on the situation, it is ok to say something like ‘I’ll update you when I know more’ and walk away, despite journalists continuing to ask questions.
But it is vital that once you have made the decision to go you don’t turn back and make any additional comments.
The press conference
At the end of a press conference a spokesperson is likely to face a barrage of questions from the assembled media.
Comms teams and their spokespeople should agree in advance how many questions will be answered.
At the agreed point during the press conference it should be made clear that there is time for one more question.
Once that has been answered the spokesperson should leave the press conference. A key point here is to ensure they know the easiest (and quickest) way to leave the room. The press conference should be set up so you can leave the way that you came and so that you don’t need to walk past the assembled media.
During multiple interviews
If, for example during a crisis media management situation, you have arranged for multiple one-to-one interviews to be carried out your spokesperson is likely to face a tight schedule.
If one of these is over-running they can bring it to an end by saying something like ‘I’m sure you appreciate this is an ongoing issue and it is only fair that I move on and speak to other journalists’.
Again, the key is to be decisive and to manage expectations at the start of the interview. Don’t say the line above and then continue to answer questions.
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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