Type ‘car crash interview’ into Twitter and you’ll see the term attributed to a long list of recent interviews.
You could be forgiven for thinking there has been something of a recent epidemic and virtually all of them are interviews given by politicians.
Closer scrutiny suggests that in some cases it is little more than political point scoring and that there is little obviously wrong with the interview other than it is given by a party they don’t like.
But increasingly often they do seem to be genuinely poor performances.
And the coverage is not just restricted to social media. Here are some headlines from recent examples:
Business secretary suffers ‘car crash’ R4 interview as he’s accused of Labour policy pinch Daily Express
Another shadow cabinet car crash interview: Richard Burgon hits out at being ‘put on trial’ after being asked about Labour manifesto Daily Telegraph
Tory Philip Hammond skewered in BBC interview as he gets his figures in a major muddle Daily Mirror
So why are so many politicians coming unstuck during television and radio interviews and what can other spokespeople learn from their mistakes?
On our media training courses we always stress the importance of preparation before any media interview. Many of the interviews which have not gone well simply seem to come down to a basic lack of preparation. While it is important to ensure you know the message you want to get across – which in fairness most politicians do - and have examples to support it, it is also imperative to consider the negative questions you could face and the wider issues that could be brought into the interview.
In many of the interviews I have seen the spokesperson does not appear to have done their homework on the journalist who will be asking the question. If we look back to the now infamous Diane Abbott interview on LBC she seemed surprised by the level of detail presenter Nick Ferrari wanted to go into. Yet in the last general election he took apart the then Green Party leader Nathalie Bennett in a very similar way by focusing on details and the figures behind promises.
Similarly, when Sarah Olney was interviewed on Talk Radio shortly after winning the Richmond Park by-election on a pro-Europe ticket, she seemed surprised by the approach taken by Brexit supporting journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer. Yet even a quick glance of her Twitter profile would have shown she was very vocal on the subject.
Refusing to admit they don’t know an answer
It is not ideal, but sometimes in a media interview you just have to admit you don’t know the answer to a particular question, particularly on figures. It is less damaging than getting those figures wrong or just guessing as the Chancellor Philip Hammond, somewhat embarrassingly for a person supposed to be good with numbers, found out to his cost this week when he gave the cost of HS2 as £32 billion rather than £52 billion on Radio 4 this week. Tell the reporter you don’t have that information to hand right now and promise to come back to them later with the answer.
Dodging the question
You might not like the question you have been asked, but losing your temper with the reporter and telling them what the interview should cover is not an approach which is likely to end well. Sadly, it was one adopted by Shadow Business Secretary Richard Burgon on Newsnight this week.
Another shadow cabinet car crash interview: Richard Burgon hits out https://t.co/4bklEP5ASO— Anthony Reeve (@reeve_anthony) May 18, 2017
Asked about figures within his party’s manifesto, Mr Burgon claimed the line of questioning was ‘tedious’, suggested the party was being ‘put on trial’ and said the interview instead should cover the ‘big picture’. And this was all right at the start of the interview. Media training techniques, such as bridging and signposting, are a much more effective way of steering the interview to the areas you want to talk about.
Not answering the question
When I tell friends I work for a media training company, you can pretty much guarantee at least someone will say ‘Oh, so you help businesses handle interviews like politicians. No, no, no. While politicians are very good at knowing their message and forcing it down the audience’s throat – if I hear ‘strong and stable’ one more time I won’t be responsible for my actions – they are generally not so good at appearing transparent, honest and empathetic. You need to answer, or at the very least acknowledge a journalist’s question before trying to steer the interview on to your message. This is known as the bridging technique and when it is done well it is barely noticeable and the journalist and audience will not mind if your content is of interest. Sadly, at the moment, most politicians appear to be deploying it will all the subtlety of a brick.
Not learning from mistakes
Perhaps one of the bigger concerns is some politicians seem to keep making the same interview mistakes. If we stick with Mr Burgon from the earlier example, you don’t have to search too hard to find another disastrous interview he gave. It happened just after he was appointed shadow city minister in 2015 when he was interviewed on Channel 4. There he again seemed to struggle with relatively straight forward factual questions and tried to dodge questions by claiming he was new to the role. On our media training courses we talk to delegates about the importance of reviewing media interviews with comms colleagues and analysing what went well and areas for improvement. But this would appear not to be happening often enough in the political world.
The rise of social media means it has become increasingly difficult for politicians to get away with interview mistakes. Of course, particularly bad interviews, such as the infamous Jeremy Paxman /Michael Howard one always received widespread coverage, but now even small mistakes are magnified on social media and circulated widely. And if you’ve still managed to miss one, chances are you will be able to find it at a later date on YouTube without too much trouble. But this scrutiny should not deter other spokespeople. As harsh as it may sound, the audience will be much more forgiving to media spokespeople not involved in politics and will not expect a perfect performance – so if you have an interview coming up, rest assured you are highly unlikely to suffer Twitter ‘car crash interview’ infamy.
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