(image credit: PA)
The last of the political party conferences starts this week as the Conservatives gather in Manchester and, as is traditional, the party leader, in this case Boris Johnson, was interviewed on Sunday morning by Andrew Marr.
The stakes are high for any senior politician doing an interview at a time when they hope to use their party conference as a shop window, especially now, with a general election imminent. So how did Boris Johnson do – and what lessons are there from this interview for those working in public relations and corporate communications?
In a heated debate Marr skewered Johnson on his language. Was he right to use the word “humbug” when replying to MP Paula Sherriff who asked about murdered MP Jo Cox, the Prime Minister was asked? He clearly struggled to justify himself. He might have had a convincing defence to his critics but frankly it was difficult to understand what it was. We work with PR consultancies and communications teams to simplify their messages and to get them across.
When we’re developing and testing clients’ messages in our business writing courses, making them simple and helping spokespeople to convey something that can be summarised in a headline or a soundbite is essential. Dumbing down? Absolutely not, honing a message, ensuring that it’s relevant to the target audience and expressing it clearly and simply takes a lot of work. The Prime Minister should have done this before his appearance.
Not surprisingly he was keen to move Andrew Marr away from what was, for him a negative issue, and to get on to his positive key messages about new hospitals and improved rail links.
“Look at what we are doing as a government,” said the Prime Minister to which Andrew Marr replied: “I’m going to come on to all of those things.”
We would say – don’t keep telling us that you want to change the subject, just do it.
Empowering media training course participants to gain and maintain control of the agenda is an essential part of what we teach. We provide a number of tools and techniques to enable interviewees to answer the question (something that politicians so rarely do!) but then to move back on to their key messages in a way that is seamless and credible.
Like most politicians, the Prime Minister focused on the big issues, talking about investment in public services and the importance of the NHS. However, what we didn’t hear were any human stories or anecdotes. Politicians are often ridiculed for talking about ordinary people. However, the criticism should not be because they’re doing it but rather the fact that they’re not doing it very well. Some, such as Barack Obama, manage to show and tell human stories very effectively. Is that because generally people trust them? Or do people trust them because they can tell these stories convincingly? We’d say that it’s mainly the latter. Our organisational story telling courses, developed by corporate communication specialists look in detail at identifying how to tell your stories in a way which will capture and embolden your audience.
We’ve all seen pictures of the PM visiting hospitals recently. So, why not mention a conversation that he’s had with a nurse or doctor? There’s no need to be indiscreet about a private exchange – just change a few details. Similarly, we teach the spokespeople and industry leaders to think about the human angle, about anecdotes and stories that involve people. Why? Because the media love them? Why do the media love them? Because their readers, listeners and viewers love them. People relate to people, not policies and processes.
On the subject of the northern rail link that he’s promising to fund Johnson talked about services from “this City,” referring to Manchester. Well done, we’d say, for anchoring your comments in the here and now, but paint us more pictures and the practical benefits this new project will offer to you audiences.
We worked with the CEO of a large financial institution recently who reeled off a figure about the number of home buyers that the company had helped. “Sorry, say that again,” we told them during a media coaching course. Following our advice, during their later role play interviews they were telling us in vivid, human terms about how the joy of turning the key in the lock and entering your own home for the first time. They introduced their personal experience of buying their first flat and told us why they wanted to help others to do this. This is so much more memorable, engaging and human than a statistic.
Two final, small points. Keep looking at the interviewer is a key piece of advice that we give to everyone who does our media training courses. We might look away from the person we’re talking to in normal conversation but during a TV interview it can look shifty and distracting. Obviously discomforted by some of the questioning the PM keeps looking away from Andrew Marr. He should just hold that eye-line.
Second, Johnson used the phrase “the British people” on a number of occasions. It’s standard politicians’ language – but does it resonate with the public? We’d suggest that this kind of faux Churchillian terminology actually distances politicians from the audience. After all, very few of us would use this in normal conversation. It’s the same with phrases such as “clients” or “the community.” Putting people in these categories can make it difficult for the audience to see them.
We provide media training for law firms and we always advise participants to say “Clients tell us…” as this emphasises that the fact that they’re working at the coal face of a particular issue here. But we then suggest that participants talk about “people,” or, even better, “you.” As we say in our media training courses, the second person sounds so much more natural, direct and engaging than the third person.
As a politician Boris Johnson faced a tougher ride than most interviewees but his performance offers some valuable insights into how to do a media interview well.
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