If you’re looking for “a unique opportunity to work at the centre of government and communicate with the nation on behalf of the Prime Minister,” then you’ve got less than two weeks to apply to become Boris Johnson’s spokesperson.
The job, as advertised on the Conservative Party LinkedIn page, mentions “essential skills” include “excellent risk management and crisis communication skills”. That probably goes without saying but the lucky candidate will also need the kind of media communications ability and expertise that only the best media training courses can offer.
I was head of broadcasting at Conservative Central Office some years ago and I’ve worked on a number of political campaigns. At Communicate Media we provide media coaching for politicians and the leaders of campaigns, as well as crisis management communications courses.
So what kind of person will be best placed to handle this demanding role? And what does this teach us about the qualities that other spokespeople need?
1. Any spokesperson needs authority
Whether you’re speaking on behalf of a company, a charity, a politician or any other prominent person, the media has to believe that you know what you’re talking about and that you have the full confidence of your boss. Certainly, the prime minister’s spokesperson should tick this box.
But alongside this authority they’ll also need human warmth. As we explain in our media training workshops, audiences want to know that you’re an expert and you know what you’re talking about, but they also need to like you. “Warm authority” is a great combination for any spokesperson. You get it by knowing your stuff (obviously) but also by using natural, conversational language, giving human examples and looking relaxed and engaging. Boris Johnson’s new spokesperson might be able to give a line or explain a policy, but will they be able to put it into a human context?
2. They mustn’t become the story themselves
This is the cardinal sin of any aide. We saw how Dominic Cummings did this with his explanation of his trip to Durham. In the US, where the White House spokesman is an obvious comparison, Donald Trump’s first mouthpiece, Sean Spicer, became nearly as famous as his political master.
How do you avoid this? You can have authority without making yourself famous. It’s a difficult balance but you have to put across the message in a human way while still appearing dignified and just boring enough not to eclipse your boss.
3. They’ll have to know when to answer the question and when to defer
People are often surprised during our media training sessions when we explain that you don’t always have to answer the journalist’s questions. We say “always” because it obviously depends on the question. If it’s an issue that directly concerns you and is, perhaps, your responsibility, then you certainly have to answer it. But journalists have no boundaries – we’ll ask anyone anything. Usually we don’t expect people to answer these left field questions but once in a while they do – and then we’ve got a story. It’s just not great for the spokesperson or interviewee.
We work a lot to help lawyers with media interviews and the idea of not answering a question is an anathema to them. However, we point out that journalists are not clients and we’re not regulators. Tell us why you can’t or don’t want to answer a question and then move onto something that is still relevant to the audience.
The Prime Minister’s new spokesperson will be asked all kinds of questions that are irrelevant or risky. The trick is to be honest and to be confident. They simply have to tell the journalist that they’re not going to discuss this particular issue. The most important point, as we say, is not to try and dodge the question. As well as being so obviously shifty, it insults the audience, since they’re the ones that the journalist is asking the question for.
Boris Johnson’s man or woman may well be asked by the assembled hacks for facts and figures that they don’t have to hand. It’s the same with any spokesperson. “Let me find out and I’ll come back to you,” gets you out of a sticky situation – and it has the merit of honesty. If it’s during a live broadcast interview, rather than leaving it here, you can then talk about something that you do have information about. You haven’t dodged the question you’ve just been honest. You should never wing it, of course.
4. Using plain language
Every industry has its own jargon. And there’s nothing wrong with using it – provided that it’s relevant to the audience. Unlike previous Number 10 spokespeople, this person will be communicating directly with ordinary people, especially during the afternoon briefing which will be on camera. According to the job advertisement: “You will speak directly to the public on the issues they care most about, explaining the government’s position, reassuring people that we are taking action on their priorities and driving positive changes.”
“Driving positive changes”? Well, there’s one example of a phrase that should be dumped very quickly.
5. An air of calm
This is probably one of the most stressful, high profile jobs imaginable. One slip, one badly chosen phrase, one slip of the tongue and the roof will cave in on our spokesperson. History is littered with small mistakes by spokespeople that have had major consequences. Even Sir Bernard Ingham, the redoubtable press secretary to Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister, once sent the pound plunging on the foreign exchanges with a badly phrased answer.
The best way to minimise risk here is not just to ensure that you’ve got your messages in front of you but to have a rehearsal. As we say to people on our media training courses, when it comes to preparing for an interview, it’s one thing to see your points set out in bullet form. But it’s quite another to say them yourself and to feel comfortable with the words and phrases.
The adrenalin will be flowing – and it should be. Giving people the tools to develop confidence is a key part of our media training courses , our crisis communications courses and our presentation courses.
Confidence techniques aside, the new spokesperson for the prime minister could probably benefit from all three of these courses.
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