View from the Street: A year in media interviews: Highs, whys and PR sighs

@TomGillingham

View from the Street: A year in media interviews: Highs, whys and PR sighs

As we’re getting into the season of goodwill and generosity, it feels like the perfect time to look back at some of the most toe-curling media encounters of 2018. For educational purposes, of course.  

The last 12 months saw plenty of media moments that were memorable for all the wrong reasons. Those braving the cameras and poised pens of the nation’s media must now also face trial by Twitter, instantly shared GIFs and – worst of all – end of year round-up pieces like this.  

In a year of high drama, political media mishaps could probably justify an Encyclopaedia Britannica length write up. Given that we’re already up to our elbows in long, complex documents, I will focus on corporate communications cock-ups for the next few hundred words instead.  

The three examples picked out below are notable in different ways. To be clear, these are not the worst media interviews of 2018, but they all have useful lessons for anyone wanting to navigate an encounter with the media in 2019. 

  1. Elon Musk’s $3bn joint – It turns out that even the trendiest shareholders have limited appetite for eccentricity. This example also shows how informal interview surroundings can lull even the savviest operators into a false sense of security.   

  2. This impromptu musical interlude from the Sainsbury’s Chief Executive – Proof that the old maxim about never really being off the record is truer than ever, and a mortifying reminder of the hazards that lurk around back-to-back interviews.  

  3. Gemma Collins vs Now Magazine – Not strictly corporate communications, but the former TOWIE cast member deserves an honourable mention for pulling off the lesser-spotted print version of the car crash interview. The resulting copy is a wonderfully cringe-inducing lesson in ensuring that all parties are clear on the purpose of an interview.  

Despite the perceived risks of engaging with the media, 2018 has also offered several salutary lessons in why trying to avoid the hot-seat isn’t an option either. Mark Zuckerberg being ‘empty chaired’ by MPs has increased scrutiny on Facebook, and the (now former) Chief Executive of Persimmon getting short shrift after stonewalling a question about his pay are just two examples of the avoid-the-media-at-all-costs strategy simply not working out.  

So, when it comes to media interviews, has this year proved once and for all that it’s a case of you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t?  

Despite technological evolution, the fundamental principles of what makes a good media interview are unchanged. Preparation really is everything, especially when it comes to planning for the ‘unexpected’ questions which, more often than not, can be predicted a mile off. It can also prevent the sort of fatigue that ends up with a chief executive airing their West End musical credentials on national television.  

That preparation extends to the visual surroundings of any interview. Political aides used to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid their principal being pictured under an ‘exit’ sign, and this sort of awareness becomes even more valuable when it comes to avoiding unflattering memes or ill-advised recreational substances.  

Treating journalists as the enemy is also counterproductive. Most genuinely aren’t trying to stitch people up, but they are under pressure to present an interesting story. If you haven’t come armed with something decent to say… well, that’s where you might end up looking like Michael Howard after Jeremy Paxman asked him the same question a dozen times.  

Looking back is far easier than making predictions, but I can say with certainty that 2019 will see some painful media encounters. More often than not, they are completely avoidable.  

So, if you’re stuck for a gift for the concerned media spokesperson in your life this Christmas, you could do a lot worse than speaking to our media training team: http://www.charlottestpartners.co.uk/services/media-relations-media-training/media-services/media-skills-media-training/  
 

Tom Gillingham is an associate partner at Charlotte Street Partners