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The ’empty chair’ experience
December 17, 2019

image credit: sutherland echo

 

It’s not just politicians who can find themselves subjected to the “Empty chair” experience….

In media management terms one issue that this general election will be known for is the “empty chair” experience.  Andrew Neil provoked great controversy when his frustration at not being able to interview Boris Johnson prompted him to make a statement direct to camera.

 

“We have been asking him for weeks now to give us a date, a time, a venue. As of now, none has been forthcoming,” the BBC’s most forensic interviewer told viewers.  “No broadcaster can compel a politician to be interviewed. But leaders’ interviews have been a key part of the BBC’s prime time election coverage for decades. We do them on your behalf to scrutinise and hold to account those who would govern us. That is democracy.”

 

Just a few weeks earlier Neil’s opposite number on Sky, Kay Burley, interviewed an empty chair, where she claimed, the Conservative Party chair James Cleverly should have been sitting.   Ms Burley said: ‘I know that the spin doctors at Number 10 Downing Street had absolutely reassured me via text that when politicians were doing rounds in the morning, they would be doing this programme. ‘And yet, we have an empty chair. Where on earth is, he?’  Not on your show, obviously.

 

An empty chair is the interviewer’s last resort.  It demonstrates their frustration at being snubbed, as they see it.  Sharing that frustration with their audience or talking to an empty chair allows them to vent their spleen and enables them to show what they would have asked had the guest turned up. It can also make for good television.

 

Clearly being a “no-show” didn’t do Boris Johnson and the Conservatives much damage at the ballot box.  The PM’s media team took the view that their man making a gaff when being grilled by Andrew Neil was more of a risk than any negative media coverage based on the decision not to do it.

 

Having worked on political campaigns, in press offices and on media training courses over many years I’ve seen a number of examples where the empty chair approach has worked for an organisation – but many more where it’s failed, giving the media a free run to make criticisms and allegations without proper rebuttal.

 

Another, less dramatic version of the empty chair, is the phrase “Refused to comment.”  A quick Google search for these words includes reports on Boris Johnson’s relationship with “model” and entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri.  “Boris Johnson has refused to comment on allegations that he granted thousands of pounds in public funding to a ‘close friend’ during his time as London mayor,” according to a report in the Metro.

 

More recently the Aberdeen Press and Journal has a story about “a disgraced councillor,” who “has refused to comment on whether he will resign from his post after being found guilty of sexual assault.”

 

And, of course, it’s not just politicians that can be subject to these responses from the media.  90min.in has a football story with a “no comment” element: “Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane has refused to comment on the speculation surrounding Kylian Mbappé. The French youngster has been linked with a move to the Galácticos and his recent actions with Paris Saint-Germain have only fuelled those talks.”

 

So, when should those working in media relations or corporate communications opt for the “empty chair” or “no comment”?  Generally, in our media training courses and the growing number of crisis communications courses that we’re running, we advise people to answer the question, even if the story is bad, in fact, especially if it is.

 

“No comment” looks defensive and uncaring.  The empty chair even more so.  There’s almost always something you can say rather than simply pulling up the drawbridge.  If you’ve been accused of something unacceptable, for instance, it’s almost always possible to express concern or sympathy for anyone who has suffered as a result of the situation.  We’ve written about Prince Andrew’s disastrous Newsnight interview.  All he had to do here was to express concern for the women who had suffered at the hands of Jeffrey Epstein.  Lawyers sometimes object here but it’s still possible to express sympathy without accepting liability.

 

You can also explain that you’re carrying out an investigation into the situation and the allegations made against you.  This shows that you’re doing something as an organisation, and it provides a get-out-of-jail-free card for any speculative questions.  Include collaboration with any third parties or regulators and it makes your inquiry even more substantial, thorough and legitimate.  You can talk, too, about the other action that you’re taking to remedy the situation.  If the public is affected tell them where they can get information and help from.

 

You can make these comments in a written statement.  Keep it short and punchy, using simple, conversational language so that you sound human and not like a corporation.  A brief statement means that the media is more likely to use the whole thing rather than clipping sections that work for them but not, necessarily, for you.

 

Ideally a statement delivered by a person is a better option than something published by email or on a website as it sounds more human and engaging.  We work with comms teams and our crisis communications training clients to choose the best spokesperson, not just in terms of seniority and area of responsibility but also their appeal as a human being to the audience.

 

We also show press offices and PR companies how they can manage the logistics involved in corralling news crews and enabling their spokespeople to appear calm, sympathetic and competent.  Oh, and we suggest that they don’t grab a journalist’s mobile phone and shove it in their pocket, by the way.

 

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