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Jess Phillips on Andrew Marr – the media training lessons for corporate spokespeople
January 6, 2020

And they’re off! A clutch of Labour politicians have thrown their hats into the ring to succeed Jeremy Corbyn and yesterday on Andrew Marr, outsider Jess Phillips made her first major pitch for the job.

We always make the point in our media training courses that most interviewees and spokespeople for organisations will not be judged nearly as harshly as politicians are. However, those who are interested in improving their media interview techniques can still learn from MPs.

Phillips might not be the front runner but she has name recognition and her willingness to speak her mind on a variety of issues has won her an army of fans. Appearing on Marr she avoided politicians’ jargon (there were no faux-Churchillian references to the “British people” for instance) and she didn’t blatantly avoid answering any questions.

Don’t wear black for TV interviews

The dark jacket and pale blouse matched with simple jewellery was clearly intended to add the authority that, as a 38-year-old backbencher, many might say she lacks. However, we wouldn’t advise wearing black on TV as it can be draining. Navy blue or dark grey would have worked better here. The discreet gold chain looked business like but Phillips should just have ensured that her collar was neatly arranged. A trim of her fringe would also be good. This might sound trivial but TV is, of course, a very visual medium.

For most of the interview, although she is a warm and energetic performer, Phillips was slightly slumped over to one side. Sitting upright and adopting confident body language helps to make you look engaged and present as well as developing your own self-assurance. Looking away from Andrew Marr before answering questions in some cases made her appear to be lacking in confidence and conviction. She should maintain eye contact and be ready to dive straight into her answer.

Marr came in with a challenging point – polls show that only 12 per cent of Labour Party members would back her. As we say during our media coaching sessions, journalists will usually ask provocative questions not to be offensive but simply because this is probably what their audience is thinking and because these questions often prompt the interviewee to bounce back with passion and energy.

Phillips clearly warmed up as the interview went on. The message here for anybody doing a media interview – especially for TV or radio – is to have a rehearsal with your team beforehand so that you hit the ground running. You might have words and phrases written down in your notes but how do you feel saying them out loud? As is the case with presentations, first impressions count – a strong start will give you confidence and signal to the audience that you mean business.

Broadcast interviews – practice your first answer

Phillips handled this difficult question well by going directly to her key message about the importance of listening for the Labour party. There was a good line about “making our movement more representative of people.” She went on to repeat this key message using slightly different language in order to avoid sounding too repetitive – a useful technique to gain control of an interview.

The second tricky question for the Birmingham Yardley MP was about her perceived lack of loyalty to the Labour leadership during the last election. “Why should anyone be loyal to Jess Phillips when Jess Phillips can’t be loyal to Jeremy Corbyn?” asked Andrew Marr. This must have been a question that she and her team had anticipated but she looked slightly wrong footed initially.

However, she did well to bridge across to her key message about the importance for the Labour party of listening and engaging. “I did tell the truth as I saw it,” might not answer the point about loyalty but it certainly sounds very reasonable. She then did well to say, “I was in Bury yesterday and a woman said to me: ‘I don’t believe anything politicians say to me’.” Anecdotes, case studies and simple stories work very well in all communication although politicians often struggle to use them convincingly.

In our media training sessions, we advise participants to use personal experience and Testament. As always this needs to be carefully considered and tested with the comms team but it can be powerful and it adds to the authenticity of the speaker. “I’m a Labour Party activist and have been almost all of my life,” said Phillips and she went on to expand on “Labour values” by talking about “kids living in B&B accommodation” and people sleeping on the streets.

Use personal experience during media interviews

Phillips had clearly given some thought to the issue of the execution of Qasem Soleimani and her line about action being “legal and proportionate,” and the need for a moral case sounded reasonable and statesperson like. “I would take action to protect British lives,” also worked well and she was right to repeat this key message.

There were other vivid personal examples in her answers such as her mother-in-law being one of the WASPI women and “homeless people literally sleeping outside my office both in London and Birmingham,” as well as her own son’s experience of not attending school five days a week.

Whether Jess Phillips succeeds Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader remains to be seen but judging from her performance yesterday on Andrew Marr she has made a good start in her campaign. As providers of media training courses for lawyers, professional services firms, architects, restaurants and luxury brands, as well as politicians, we would give her a seven out of 10.

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