The media strategy adopted by the Prime Minister in response to the Grenfell Tower fire is a classic example of how not to do it.
There were flaws in both the way in which she responded and in how she initially replied to questions from Emily Maitlis in Friday night’s Newsnight on BBC2.
Firstly, in terms of how she came across in the media in the immediate aftermath of the fire, it was a mistake not to have spoken to survivors, the bereaved and relatives of the missing when she first visited the site. This was rather akin to her refusing to take part in the televised debates during the general election.
On the other hand, Theresa May might have felt it was inappropriate to be surrounded by hordes of journalists and camera crews as she spoke to those who were either grieving or deeply shocked by what they had witnessed. That’s a perfectly reasonable position to take.
In which case, a more sensible approach would have been for the Prime Minister to have spoken to members of the local community privately, without the cameras present. That way she would have avoided the charges of being “uncaring” that have been levelled at her.
If she had then been challenged as to why the meeting was held “in secret”, she or one of her spokespeople should have come out boldly and said something like, “The Prime Minister is concerned to hear from those involved exactly what happened and how they can be helped, rather than taking part in a PR stunt”.
When it comes to getting her messages across, this Prime Minister, or those who think up the messaging for her, are far too timid and come up with language that doesn’t resonate with the general public – one reason why she didn’t notch up the landslide victory she was hoping for in the election.
Then there’s the Newsnight interview.
This was a glaring illustration of how the media advice given to politicians often turns them into robots, resulting in a complete lack of communication with the public. Too frequently they sound as though they’ve been told by their media advisers, “You stick to your key messages, regardless of what questions are put to you. Indeed, ignore the questions completely.”
Certainly, anyone being interviewed will have core points they want to get across in an interview whatever the topic might be. However, an interviewee should not focus on these to the exclusion of answering the questions.
Furthermore, not dealing with the question first can backfire on the interviewee big-time, especially if the interviewer’s question contains damaging or negative language that the interviewee lets pass unchecked.
The first question that Emily Maitlis put to the Prime Minister was why she had chosen to come to a BBC studio to do the interview rather than agreeing to be interviewed at the scene of the fire.
Mrs. May’s reply began with the words, “What I want to talk about today is…” i.e. ignoring the question completely.
Subsequently, the Prime Minister was asked whether she had “misread the public mood.” She let the interviewer get away with that assertion without correcting her. Apparently she had no answer to this question. As a result, Emily Maitlis repeated the question later in the interview. Consequently, the viewer heard Emily’s damaging (for the PM) words twice over. If, as seems probable, the Prime Minister would not agree with the question, then she should have come back strongly with words like, “That’s absolutely wrong” and then go on to explain why it’s wrong.
If, on the other hand, the Prime Minister in her heart of hearts feels that she did get it wrong by not meeting the local community on her first visit to the site, she would have been better admitting this.
It’s amazing how politicians so often fail to understand how being upfront and open is the best road to go down when something’s gone wrong.
That’s one reason why the words “upfront” and “politics” so rarely appear in the same sentence these days.