Ask yourself: what would you find more daunting – appearing live on Sky News or being interviewed in your office by someone from your local newspaper?
If you fear the TV one the most, you might want to reconsider.
You’d not be the first to do so. Until last week Sally Bercow, wife of John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, would probably have feared appearing on live TV more too.
At least until she was interviewed by her local ’paper…The Evening Standard in her case, or to be more precise, its colour ES Magazine.
But she learnt very quickly what Napoleon meant when he talked about how newspapers are “more to be feared than a thousand bayonets” when her “local” story swiftly become a global story.
What was all the fuss about? Well, Mrs B, pictured in the magazine wearing nothing more than a sheet and a smile in a hotel room with the Palace of Westminster in the background, apparently revealed, “I never realised how sexy I would find living under Big Ben with the bells chiming.”
She’d instantly ticked two boxes on a national journalist’s “key ingredients” checklist: sex and politics. This ensured the story would pique the interest of readers well beyond Evening Standard customers on the 6.05 to Purley.
As news of the story reverberated around the social networks, so Mrs Bercow responded in kind with some tweets too, apparently revealing her shock at the widespread coverage: “It was meant to be a Valentine thing/bit of fun for ES Magazine. Part of a bigger feature.”
This is a classic print interviewee mistake. Interviewees should always expect the unexpected. Journalists don’t necessarily set out to take an interview in a new direction, but when they start asking questions, the interviewee can very often unwittingly offer the reporter a better story than the one they expected to hear. And print interview questions in particular are frequently unpredictable and seemingly disconnected. They can be deliberately random – after all, the reporter can “join up” the material later into a coherent piece.
But back to Mrs B. The following day, clearly not too scarred from a brush with a tabloid, she decided to attempt to explain herself and took her chances with the media again, this time in an interview with Victoria Derbyshire on Radio 5 Live.
She declared, “I didn’t know I was going to be photographed in a sheet until I got there.” This may be true, but another rule of any interview is don’t agree to anything you’re not happy with – so for example, if you’re trying to convey your company’s eco credentials, make sure the cameraman hasn’t cunningly got you to stand in front of a belching chimney.
Then Mrs B blurted, “It’s nonsense. There’s no story there.”
The final error. In tabloid terms, not only is there a story, there’s a huge story. The column inches and airtime subsequently given to Bercow baring almost all proves this.
But actually, although every print interviewee can learn some very useful lessons here, there’s possibly a bigger story.
I don’t think for a minute Mrs Bercow was “done up like a kipper” as she put it. I suspect she knew exactly the reaction it would create and has even managed to help keep the story running.
For a start, she repeated to Ms Derbyshire what seemed like a classic soundbite: “It’s a storm in a bedsheet.” But above all, her most revealing phrase, in my view, was: “I’m a personality, I’ve got ambitions of my own.”
Indeed. I don’t expect Mrs Bercow to disappear from the media spotlight. In fact I suspect the producers of “I’m A Celebrity…” and “Strictly Come Dancing” will soon be in touch.
Sometimes, just sometimes, an interviewee likes nothing better than a local story becoming a global story. But not often.