Recently, the circus of current UK politics provided a life changing moment, when then-contender for Tory leadership, Andrea Leadsom, lost her bid to become the next prime minister due to a double whammy of poor media training and the poorest crisis management.
Leadsom’s first mistake was to not heed one of the very basic tenets of media preparation: having a clear message rehearsed ahead of time so that you’re not easily derailed by journalists looking to capture a compelling—or controversial—quote.
The failure to stick to her rehearsed messages is perhaps what led her to tell a Times journalist that “Genuinely I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country,” which was interpreted as a dig at her opponent (now Prime Minister in case you had not noticed!) Theresa May, who does not have children. True to form, the headline that accompanied the story containing Leadsom’s remarks was as blunt as can be and put that assertion front and centre: “Being a mother gives me an edge on May.”
In-depth media training should have taught Leadsom that even though she may have delivered that quote in context, and even though she may have repeatedly been asked leading questions about her children, a national newspaper sub-editor won’t care. The person interviewing you is very rarely the person writing the headline or choosing the ‘pull quote’ that will appear in large font on the page and on Twitter to promote the article. Which is why it’s essential to know the roles of various people in the editorial hierarchy. You can’t ever assume you’ll be given the benefit of context—it’s the sub-editor’s job, after all, to sell papers not coddle your ego—which is why it’s absolutely essential to see the ‘punch coming’ so that you avoid making inflammatory remarks.
Though the incendiary quote sparked outrage throughout print, online, and social media, the worst was yet to come. Leadsom responded to the article in precisely the way that any PR crisis manager would have advised her not to. “Truly appalling and the exact opposite of what I said,” she tweeted. “I am disgusted.” She went on: “this is the worst gutter journalism I’ve ever seen. I am so angry – I can’t believe this. How could you?”
The problem with this hostile and immediate response, of course, is that it was easily proven as hollow and an outright lie. The Times promptly released an audio recording of the interview and published a transcript of Leadsom’s comments. If there’s cold, hard proof you said it, you only look like a fool if you publicly deny it and insult a leading journalistic institution in the process.
While proper media training could’ve avoided this entire incident in the first place, a less reactionary and hot-headed response to the crisis might have softened the blow. Instead, Leadsom ruined her chances of becoming Tory leader, for reasons that have little to do with her qualifications and everything to do with her management of the gaffe. As is a common saying in politics: “it’s never the crime but always the cover up.” Leadsom weakly tried to cover her tracks instead of admitting that she had spoken out of turn. She underestimated the power of both old school journalism—nothing beats a tape recorder—and the 24/7 news cycle that amplified her blunder all over the internet.
So, in order to ensure you’re adequately prepared for any media engagement or interview, here are some pointers from my website and upcoming book:
- Know your company message and articulate it clearly: the journalist needs to know exactly what you do, how you do it, and the scale of your business.
- Take some time to think before you answer: You don’t need to answer their question immediately, take your time to find out about their enquiry and their deadline so that you can prepare thoroughly and avoid being rushed.
- Do your research: Knowing who your journalist is and why and what they want to write about you will enable you to control the flow of the conversation. It’s perfectly practical to ask for them to send you a paragraph explaining their angle/approach. If they have written about your company before, be sure to read up on their articles!
- Prepare your key messages: Once you have established the angle and context of the story, ensure you prepare your messages ahead of time so that you can integrate them into your answers to the journalist’s questions.
- Keep it informed, but short: Journalists love a concise and direct response. They need to distil the information you provide into a few quotes. Avoid acronyms and be passionate!
- Don’t deride competitors: No need to comment critically about your competitors in the interview. It’s not good practice – but don’t say you don’t have any, as the absence of competition in a sector can sound unrealistic and/or arrogant.
- Etiquette helps: If you’ve reached out to a journalist for a face-to-face interview, it’s important you pay for their refreshments. If you’re appearing on TV or radio – arrive earlier and dressed for the occasion to match the interviewer. Speak clearly and maintain eye contact with them – but most importantly, be yourself!
Tip X: Proper media training can avoid embarrassing gaffes, but when it comes to crisis management, don’t be hot-headed.
By Bob Dearsley, author of All that PR and Marketing Bollox