What's the point of media training?

Posted by Kate Betts on 19th October 2018

People often say – why do you need media training? Well the disastrous interview by the CEO of Persimmon Homes with the BBC is a good indication why.

When asked about his bonus of £75m as part of an interview about something else, Jeff Fairburn refused to answer the question. He told the reporter Spencer Stokes he’d rather not talk about it and said that the issue had been well covered elsewhere and it was ‘really unfortunate’ that the question had been asked.

Off-camera his advisor can be heard encouraging him to walk off, which he did. The interview was recorded, but BBC Look North chose to show that part of the interview. It didn’t look good to the hundreds of thousands watching, or to the masses later seeing it on other media outlets and social media.

The irony is that the programme piece overall was a positive story – about how Persimmon had started manufacturing its own bricks to keep up with demand.

I am sure the clip of Mr Fairburn walking off has been added to every media trainers’ repertoire; it has to mine, and I will be using it for my next session and particularly for the training I do with PR / comms people for the CIPR.

The learning points?

  • Prepare for the obvious tricky questions. They could be about anything that is connected to you or your business and is controversial. The interview might have been planned to be about bricks, but the press have a right to ask about other issues that are topical, particularly when interviewing a senior person. The former boss of Channel 4 also got caught out by this. He agreed to talk live about the licence fee on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme and then got asked about racism on Big Brother. It was the time of the row about racism being shown towards a member of the Big Brother house and it had become a national and international story. The Channel 4 boss’s response was ‘I’ve got no comment I’m afraid'.
  • Have a technique to respond to those questions. You need to acknowledge or answer the question and then bridge back to the key points you want to talk about (in this case bricks).
  • As a PR person don’t think you can control the interview. Reporters have a right to ask topical questions. You can have a discussion beforehand about areas to cover, but you cannot silence debate. Imagine if politicians took that view.
  • Never walk off. The only time it is acceptable to do that is if you have agreed a time limit before (worth doing with recorded interviews to avoid the reporter tying you in knots) or when you are dealing with a developing situation and are needed elsewhere. And even then don’t walk off just because you don’t like the question.
  • The microphone, camera and notebook are always recording. Just ask Gordon Brown.
  • You are not under oath when dealing with a reporter, but anything you do say can be used in evidence against you.
  • Get your senior team media trained.
  • Prepare for every interview – even the seemingly positive ones.

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