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Tory Leadership Race – The Media Training Lessons Sunak v Truss
August 31, 2022

With the Tory leadership race fast approaching the finish line, we thought it might be interesting to look at the interview and communications style of the two candidates. So, in media training terms, what lessons can we learn from them?

We work with several politicians from both right and left – in the sensible middle ground, that is.

We help people run campaigns and support leaders and organisations going through times of change, so we have some insights here.

Liz Truss Interviews

Let’s take Liz Truss first.

There’s no doubt that her interview and speaking style has improved since the campaign started. Her first performances were wooden and slightly odd. She’s since appeared more relaxed and conversational, although we’d recommend that she dials down the cliches about “delivering for Britain” and “getting the growth we need.”

We recommend to everyone that we provide media training courses for, whatever their business, that they include stories, examples, and case studies. This is because this essential element of human communication (research by the University of Liverpool suggests that up to 65 per cent of all human interactions are storytelling) proves your point and illustrates what you’re saying. Truss should use stories and case studies from some of the factories, schools, hospitals, and offices she’s visited and the people she’s met on the campaign trail to illustrate her message.

Her narrative is unclear. She criticised the school she went to and the neighbourhood where she lived as a child in what looks like an attempt to engage in some inverted snobbery and contrast herself with her (apparently) privileged opponent. However, it was pointed out that the school had a good OFSTED report and that Roundhay in Leeds is a leafy suburb rather than an inner city ghetto.

Nick Robinson Interview with Liz Truss

Was Truss right to duck out of the interview with Nick Robinson? Possibly, but frankly, as seasoned campaigners, we would say, if you’re in the lead, why take the risk?

On the plus side, she clearly has a better speech writer than the one responsible for the bizarre and misjudged lecture that she delivered to the Tory party conference in 2014 when she declared to bemused loyalists: “We import two-thirds of our cheese. That. Is. A. Disgrace,” before grinning manically as she told them that she’d be “opening up pork markets” in Beijing shortly. Woohoo! We provide speech writing and presentation delivery training for a wide variety of organisations, and we sometimes use a clip of this speech as an example of how to misjudge your audience and get your delivery style wrong. We then go on to teach participants on our presentation training course what they should say and how they should say it.

However, in communications terms, to give Truss her due, it must be said that she’s been ruthlessly focussed on her audience – that 160,000 or so Tory party members. She’s certainly done a better job here than Sunak has.

Whatever you think of her ideas, she knows her audience, and she’s given them exactly what they want to hear – something that, as communications trainers, we always recommend.

Finally, the optics are so important in these situations. Having been ridiculed for presenting herself as the heir to Margaret Thatcher – at least where floppy-bowed blouses and tank riding is concerned Truss has managed to avoid any visual gaffs.

Rishi Sunak in the Media

Rishi Sunak, on the other hand, was ridiculed for wearing expensive Prada loafers to a building site. He then went to the other extreme by appearing in a knackered old pair of shoes with a hole in them at an event. In some ways, this indicates a more significant problem that Sunak has faced – his campaign seems directionless as he changes tack and appears to respond to the latest news report of criticism of his position by going in the other direction and changing tack.

In fact, U-turns are of more interest to the media and opposition politicians than they are to voters, but you can’t change your message too often. You certainly can’t suddenly appear to support something that goes against a key campaign message, as Sunak has done many times. We advise our media training and campaign clients never to change their message halfway through the campaign. This is especially true in crises – once you’ve decided on your message, your version of events, your interpretation of the situation, or your narrative, stick to it!

Political Narratives

Narrative is another tricky issue for the former chancellor. Many politicians face one difficult fundamental accusation or awkward question they must address. It was the privileged, posh boy thing with David Cameron, while his would-be successor, Ed Miliband, had to deal with the accusation that he stabbed his brother in the back to win the Labour party leadership. In our issue management and message development sessions, when we work closely with PRs, we advise organisations and individuals to address these questions head-on and quickly. However, more importantly, we recommend doing so in terms of the narrative.

The most challenging question facing Rishi Sunak is why he didn’t resign from his post as chancellor earlier.

He’s referenced this, but he should have addressed it and put it into his personal narrative.

It might be something along the lines of: “This was a very tough question and one that I spent many sleepless nights thinking about. But I came to the conclusion that difficult though it was for me to support a government and a leader that I had serious doubts about; my first duty was to the country, and I had a responsibility to manage the economy during these difficult times. Getting on with the job, making tough decisions and thinking practically is what I do.”

Overall, Sunak’s message about being the grown-up in the room sounds reasonable and sensible. We like how he owned the “bean counter” charge against him and wove it into his early life narrative about counting out the tablets in his mum’s pharmacy. But he should also give his audience a bit of optimism, the big picture, something to dream about. As well as establishing their seriousness and competence, we advise the business leaders and politicians that we work with to offer a vision and to explain why and how things will be better in the future under their leadership.

Media Training in London

On the plus side, during media interviews, Sunak has almost always come across as upbeat, competent and warm – a great combination, as we say in our media training courses. It seems unlikely that this will be enough to deliver him victory on Monday, but as communications experts, we’ll watch with interest.

Avoid Media Fails

The Communicate Media training courses are designed to ensure you avoid any potential storytelling, presentation or interview disasters.

Get in touch today by calling 07958 239892 or emailing gareth@communicatemedia.co.uk.

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