Although Diane Abbott’s “car crash” interview on LBC was hugely significant and damaging, what’s more interesting from a media training point of view, is that it was one of three Labour performances this week that contained responses we would always advise clients to avoid.
How politicians perform in an election campaign can have such an impact on the ballot box – just ask Donald Trump – so these own-goal performances should be a real concern for Labour.
If nothing else though, they provide some crucial lessons for anyone about to be interviewed by a journalist.
So here are our top six take-outs from Abbott being interviewed by Nick Ferrari; shadow chancellor John McDonnell being challenged by Radio 4’s Justin Webb; and shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth being tackled by Piers Morgan:
- Prepare, prepare, prepare. Diane Abbott insisted she really did know her figures about policing numbers, despite getting them wrong. The trouble is, politicians – or company bosses – have so much information sloshing around their brains, they can end up trying to sieve statistical soup when put on the spot. The key is to distil the key information into two or three points or stats BEFORE the interview.
- Have notes of key facts and figures. Abbott’s interview was a down-the-line, i.e. she was not in the studio, and that meant, as with a print interview, she could have some notes in front of her. She clearly did, but it’s never great when listeners can hear them being shuffled, as you search for the correct numbers when challenged. Instead, just put key statistics etc.. on a piece of card.
- Don’t tell the interviewer how to do their job. On yesterday’s Today programme John McDonnell told Justin Webb, “I’m shocked the BBC has just taken a Conservative press release and has repeated it all morning,” to which Webb rightly responded, “No, we’re just saying what they’re saying and now we’re allowing you to have a say…that’s how these things work!”. Nothing angers a reporter more than criticism of their technique. By “shooting the messenger” you may instead simply “shoot yourself in the foot”. Expect tougher questions to follow.
- Be consistent. If you have a series of interviews to do – perhaps to make a major announcement – you need to be as fresh in the last one as you are in the first. But it’s not always easy to sound on top of your game, especially if you need to repeat the same phrases and messages. Abbott blamed her errors, rather than her tone, on doing multiple interviews and insisted she got her figures right in the other interviews and “misspoke” in the last one. But this seemed a curious defence….if you’d said them so often already, wouldn’t you be even more likely to get them right in the last interview?
- Perception is everything. Often, especially in a crisis, it’s not just the event that matters, it’s how you’re seen to be handling it that becomes the measure by which your organisation is judged. So if you’re bidding to run the country, it’s not just your policy on policing that matters, it’s how you present it that will help the electorate decide whether you should be trusted to implement that policy. We saw this with United Airlines recently – what really damaged their reputation was not just how a passenger was treated, but how the CEO responded.
- Don’t take forever to answer a straight question. Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth didn’t seem keen to say on ITV’s Good Morning Britain whether Labour, if in government, would fire back, if a nuclear weapon were heading our way. He argued it was a hypothetical question. It is, but it’s an important one when people are trying to decide who governs them. Piers Morgan relentlessly turned up the heat until Ashworth finally confirmed, “Of course we would!”. If he’d said that at the start, he would have spared himself an excruciating minute and a half — an eternity in broadcasting — and also saved breakfast viewers a lot of valuable time…and probably indigestion.
We know a media interview can be a fantastic way to communicate with millions of people and explain what you do well, whether you’re a politician or a company spokesperson. But probably the one thing these three Labour interviews showed us is how not to do one.
Labour need to up their game if they want to win that cup of voter confidence.