Nelson Mandela’s widow shows how to do a great media interview
June 30, 2020

I was going to write my interview of the week blog about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s appearance on the Today programme on Friday but it was actually the interview that followed his that struck me as the more interesting.  It offers some useful insights from the point of view of media training and how to handle a media interview successfully.

Graça Machel is the former first lady of Mozambique and the widow of Nelson Mandela.  She recently wrote an open letter arguing that the Coronavirus has exposed the inequalities suffered by women and children and provided the world with an opportunity to do something about them.

How do a good media interview

“We the women, who have signed this letter believe that there has to be an opportunity to address those structural issues which we have been aware of but we didn’t have the boldness to address in the short, medium and long term.  This is the opportunity which Covid is offering us.”  She uses this opening to set out the essential message of the letter.  We always advise people when they’re doing a media interview to take the initiative and introduce their key message without waiting to be asked for it.

Ms Machel’s delivery was well paced and energetic.  She demonstrated real passion, placing emphasis on key words and phrases to drive them home to the audience.  People sometimes mention during our media coaching that they have English as a second language, and this can be challenging.  Having done some interviews in French I have huge admiration for the fluent and articulate answers given by our course participants who don’t have English as their mother tongue.

We point out to them that this is in some ways an advantage as it forces them to speak more slowly and to choose their words more carefully than a native English speaker.

Ms Machel was asked by presenter Mishal Husain about the upward trajectory of the coronavirus in Africa.  She addressed this question but clearly didn’t want to get drawn into discussing this negative trend and so she bridged effectively back to her key message about the world post pandemic.

Taking control of a media interview

“When we are trying to combat the impact of Covid now many governments are already looking at the post-Covid situation,” she explained, repeating her key message.  “They are developing plans and strategies. So we believe we have to do both – address the immediate impact but also think carefully and deeply about how we address the issues which were exacerbated by Covid, the structural issues that we are living with.”

This was good but I’d want to see an example or two here.  What are these plans and strategies in practice?  Ms Machel could, perhaps, choose a case study or an initiative being undertaken by a government to illustrate what she means.  If she’s been there and seen it herself that would be even better – personal testament is very powerful and convincing, as we point out during our media training courses.  A radio interview also gives you the opportunity to paint a word picture.

There was, though, a strong call to action here with a clear message on what she wanted to see change.

One of the risks of doing a media interview is being caught out with the left field question, sometimes known as the “While-I’ve-got-you-here,” questions. In this case it was the death of George Floyd and, in particular, the pulling down of statues associated with the slave trade.

Was Graça Machel aware that this was going to be asked?  It’s possible that the BBC researcher or producer mentioned it to her press officer but, as we explain, during our media interview training workshops, there’s no guarantee that you as the interviewee will be warned.  History is littered with examples of people who have been drawn into commenting on something topical but controversial and outside their immediate remit, thereby creating unhelpful headlines.  You might remember Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s flippant answer to a question, also on the Today programme, about “taking the knee.”

Being clear on your message during a media interview

Whatever the situation, she gave an answer that was thoughtful and created further media attention in a way that also gave extra positive publicity.

“It is not an issue of bringing down a statue that will resolve the issues of the past,” she argued.  “What is important is to look at the history that brought us to the situation that we are now in. Of course, we have to look at the architects of this past. I believe it might be much more positive to keep them because you’re going to tell generations to come this is how it started – and this is how it should never continue to be.”

She added: “That should be educating new generations. I know this is controversial.” The last sentence served to emphasise the point – after all journalists love controversy, so any that hadn’t picked up on the significance of her remarks would be more likely to do so.  It also added an element of humility that I thought worked well.  Bridging back to her key message about the issues outlined in her letter would be even more effective.

Her final comments about what Nelson Mandela might think about the current situation given his role in establishing the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, were human and, again, thoughtful.  She laughed.  “You know Mandela was kind of his own,” she said, going to explain that the idea was to build a bridge between the past and present.”  It was a good way to move beyond a possibly controversial issue and to end the interview on a positive, upbeat note.

What was missing in this interview was a few examples, case studies and even simple human anecdotes.  Otherwise, this was a powerful and impressive interview and one that we’ll mention in a positive way during our next media training courses.

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