We often ask participants in our media training courses about media interviews that they’ve seen recently. Which worked and which didn’t? we’ll ask. More importantly we’ll look at why some were successful, and some weren’t.
“How was the party? I wasn’t invited,”
Ellen DeGeneres said to Dakota Johnson in the notorious interview last year. The Suspiria actor was firm with her reply:
“Actually, no, that’s not the truth, Ellen. You were invited,’
“I did invite you and you didn’t come.”
Now that DeGeneres has suffered such bad publicity with allegations of bullying and unpleasantness this awkward little confrontation from November has grabbed the headlines once more. Proof, say DeGeneres’ detractors, that the TV show host isn’t as nice as she claims to be. A shouted conversation with an aide revealed that DeGeneres had been invited by Johnson but social media was quick to point out that at the time of the party she was in Texas to watch a football game with former president George W Bush.
As specialist providers of media training we were interested in what lessons the PR people and Corporate Comms professionals that we work with so extensively could learn from the Johnson/DeGeneres spat. We also work extensively with celebrities, business leaders, campaigners and high-profile individuals who are managing difficult or hostile media coverage. Ms DeGeneres is not a client; in case you were wondering.
If she were, we would have advised her to be absolutely sure of her facts before she made the statement about the party invitation. We also advise people during our media training workshops to ensure that they’ve tested with their PR advisors everything they’re going to say during a media interview beforehand. In a way, you need to do your thinking in advance of the interview and not once it’s started. People come a cropper during media interviews when they suddenly introduce new arguments or points or a new phrase or example that’s just popped into their heads.
The classic example is Tony Hayward. Asked about an oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history, he offered the sympathetic message that he’d clearly been advised to give but then added, off the cuff,
“I just want my life back.”
Quite understandable, you might think, but it jarred horribly with public opinion and added to the crisis, providing the media with a new stick with which to beat him and BP.
In contrast to DeGeneres’ basic error, Johnson remains calm and pleasant. She’s clearly done her preparation and knows that her interviewer was invited to the party. Even better she knows the exact person that DeGeneres should be talking to about it.
“Ask your producer, Jonathan,”
More generally, Johnson does well not to rise to the bait. In difficult situations or interviews about controversial subjects, journalists will attempt to rile interviewees. It’s a useful way of getting a really striking quote. Someone might deliver the line that they’ve been given by their PR people, but a flash of anger can produce a word or phrase that undoes all the good work. It’s actually even easier in a print interview because the audience doesn’t see the question being asked. They only read the answer. Here’s another media interview lesson – stay calm and stick to your script.
It was shortly after this encounter that less than flattering stories of DeGeneres’ behaviour began to surface on social media. During our media coaching courses we look at what makes a story for journalists and how conventional and social media cross-fertilise.
Obviously bad news sells, and this sorry tale has bags of it. There’s also a strong human element too – another key feature of a media story. The fact that we thought that DeGeneres was a pussy cat whereas in fact, she’s apparently a polecat, which ticks the unusual box of the newsworthiness agenda. In particular there’s a strain of hypocrisy in the chat show host’s actions – and the media love hypocrisy.
Finally, there’s a strong trend here – once we get a group of stories about bullying and bad behaviour, every other example, however small and apparently insignificant, suddenly becomes newsworthy. The news, whether it’s in the business, the sport, the foreign affairs, the political or the features slots, is all about human stories. Journalists also love examples, anecdotes and case studies.
Therefore, an avalanche of human anecdotes, case studies and examples apparently demonstrating DeGeneres’s less than pleasant working practices and manner behind the scenes kept the story going.
With our participants and their PR consultants or in house comms team, we work to identify how clients can grab the media’s attention and engage with journalists by looking at how their announcements, products, services or campaigns might press some of the buttons. By looking at news values and what drives the media we also help them to handle difficult issues and to neutralise stories.
What should Ellen DeGeneres do now?
Well, it’s difficult. An all-out apology for being horrible to her team and others almost certainly won’t cut it.
“I’m sorry…because I got caught out,”
is the classic politicians’ non-apology. At the very least DeGeneres must explain why she’s behaved the way she has (no excuses, please, just an explanation) before going on to demonstrate what she’s doing to improve her behaviour. Again, she’ll have to provide examples and proof points.
We help businesses and individuals to identify, develop and relate these essential narratives as they look to manage difficult situations. Good luck with your narrative, Ellen, you’ll need it.