The Chancellor did something on the Today programme that politicians almost never do – and as someone who has provided media training for politicians and other prominent people for many years, it warmed my heart to hear him do it. As providers of media coaching courses it immediately grabbed our attention.
This rare moment came when Rishi Sunak conceded a point on the Today programme this morning. He was asked by Martha Kearney about the grant available to companies if they retain staff after the furlough programme ends.
“Isn’t it what economists call a ‘dead weight’?”
she asked, quoting Charlie Mullins, boss of Pimlico Plumbers, in support of her argument.”
Instead of rejecting this point outright or, as is more likely, just ignoring it, Sunak accepted it but then went on to lay out his argument.
“That’s absolutely a fair point and throughout this crisis I’ve had decisions to make about whether to act in a broad way, at scale and at speed or to act in a more targeted and nuanced way,”
“In an ideal world you’re absolutely right you would minimise that dead weight and do everything in an incredibly targeted fashion. The problem is that the severity of what was happening to our economy and the scale of what was happening and indeed the speed that it was happening at demanded a different response.”
This approach of exploring the options and the two extremes, before explaining why you’ve taken the compromise position and come down the middle, is a great way of dealing with difficult questions. After all, most of us regard ourselves as moderate, reasonable, pragmatic types rather than extremists or purists and so it sounds very sensible.
This set the tone for the interview. The Chancellor sounded reasonable and thoughtful rather than the machine politician waiting to deliver a prepared sound bite. Not surprisingly Martha Kearney felt obliged to make a concession at this point too, observing:
“your argument would be that if it’s saving jobs in the long term it doesn’t matter.”
This demonstrates how making a concession during a media interview if you’re being held to account or under attack works to lower the temperature and encourage the other person to reciprocate.
As someone who really believes that the political interview model is broken and needs to be fixed for all of our sakes, I was very encouraged to hear that Sunak really did seem to be answering the questions. It shouldn’t sound like a surprising thing to say but it is where politicians are concerned. Twice he said:
“You’re absolutely right.”
This was a nice concession from a politician which neutralised difficult questions and made it tricky for the interviewer to go on the attack.
I also liked the way that Sunak personalised aspects of his policies. Talking about the hospitality sector, for instance, he said;
“For me that was an imperative to try and protect those two million jobs.”
He sounded like a human being and not just a politician – there’s a lesson here for business leaders. He then went on to introduce two good examples to back up his point – the VAT cut and the Eat out to Help out initiative.
Media coaching courses – being prepared for tricky questions
Sunak was clearly prepared for the question about the comparison with other countries. Journalists will often ask how Britain rates internationally on any issue. Are we better or worse than other countries? The best is good but, to be honest, worst makes more of a story. Either way the Chancellor bridged away from this question and went on to say:
“Research from the IMF and others will show that if you look at everything we’ve done, it’s one of the most comprehensive and generous set of interventions of any major country.”
As we say in our media coaching courses, it’s always good to use a third-party, independent organisation for endorsement. This is particularly useful in crisis situations. Sunak uses it again when asked the difficult question about how we’re going to pay for all of this spending, by referring to a blessing from the OBR for his plans. He also put the bridging technique to good effect when asked about the possible need to raise taxes by moving back to his point about protecting jobs, quoting the example of the Kickstart scheme.
The most hazardous question for the man who’s suddenly being tipped as our next prime minister was about “Brand Rishi,” as Martha Kearney put it. We warn people in our media coaching courses to look out for these questions. Sunak clearly had an answer ready for this. He sounded sincere but just dull enough when he talked about communicating the message and “getting out there rather” more effectively than just using graphics. I say “dull enough” because there are times in media training when you do actually want to sound rather boring.
If you’re answering a difficult question and you don’t want to make the issue the focus of your interview or create headlines with it, then be boring. Again, this is particularly important during crisis interviews. Remember Prince Andrew’s claim that he doesn’t sweat or Dominic Cummings reference to driving to Barnard Castle to test eyesight? It would have been better if they’d said something so dull that you didn’t remember them and the damaging stories that they were associated with.
Sunak’s comment that
“the way we communicate is changing. If people poke some fun at me at in the process then so be it,”
sounded suitably modest and understated.
As a long standing expert in media coaching courses, the one thing that I would have liked to hear from this interview was some more examples, anecdotes and stories. The Chancellor has been out about, as the photo opps, demonstrate, so why not talk about what a factory manager in Sunderland said to him or his conversation with the owners of a nanny agency in Bedford? This would humanise his comments and complement the macro-economic stuff.
Will Sunak enter Number 10 anytime soon? I wouldn’t like to speculate (it’s always dangerous, as we point out during our media training courses) but this interview certainly won’t have harmed his chances.
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