Media coaching and media training should be routine activities in any organisation – and this is particularly the case where the key people could be called upon at any time to be interviewed by news journalists.
Even more frequently than blue-chip companies, political parties field media interview requests. A general election produces a perfect storm of media attention – with politicians having to court the media, much of which feels it has a duty to interrogate them aggressively.
Under such challenging conditions, media coaching and media training are the seat belt and safety balloon.
It was astonishing, therefore, to witness Labour’s Diane Abbott, who aspires to become Home Secretary, have a car crash of an interview on LBC radio.When I worked as a journalist at CNN Television, I witnessed some bad interviews by Chairmen and CEOs of large companies where they got flustered, forgot their key messages or spoke too fast. But I have never seen anything as catastrophic as the Diane Abbott interview with presenter Nick Ferrari.
Not only did she muck up her figures, suggesting to former Sun reporter Ferrari that an additional 10,000 police officers would cost £300,000 a year – or £30 each. When Ferrari queried this, Diane corrected herself, making a guess at £8million – or £8,000 an officer per year.
Worse still, she was talking like she was on Magadon, stressing every second word and generally sounding as sharp as a broken pencil. The overall impression was of a politician who was not fleet of mind, nor on top of her brief or able to handle forensic questioning. In other words, not someone the voters could trust in government.
So what went wrong? After so many years in politics Diane Abbott should be a seasoned professional at broadcast interviews, having co-guested with Michael Portillo on Andrew Neil’s BBC TV show This Week.
And this was a down-the-line radio interview, where she was not on camera, and could enjoy the luxury of copious notes in front on her and spin doctors on either side.
First, the Labour Party machinery has let her down. Could you imagine in Alastair Campbell’s time as Labour’s Director of Communications a senior figure going up for interview without being properly briefed? It would not have happened. Diane Abbott would have had the correct figures in front of her.
Second, she would have known them by heart because Alastair Campbell, on whom the terrifying Malcolm Tucker in the classic BBC sitcom The Thick of It was said to be based, would have insisted on it and, for a Shadow Home Secretary, probably done it himself.
Third, she would have been in the right frame of mind, and operating at the right speed, to handle whatever wily Nick Ferrari threw at her.
I don’t think Nick Ferrari’s questioning was in any way unfair or unpredictable.
He gave Diane Abbott the chance to talk about a Labour policy that would potentially be very attractive to a great many LBC listeners. Who does not want more police officers when the majority of crimes go uninvestigated? It sounds more like a Tory policy than a Labour one.
Media Training Failure
But because her media briefing was either poor or non-existent, media coaching and practice did not take place prior to this interview, and she seemed half-asleep and in a daze (through insomnia, overwork, illness, whatever the reason), she blew it. It was a media training failure on a scale rarely seen.
Labour MP Dawn Butler, who not long before had introduced her leader Jeremy Corbyn’s keynote speech, showed just as little media training and media coaching had taken place, in her disastrous BBC Radio 4 PM show interview with mischievous journalist Eddie Mair.
Dawn Butler seemed to be speaking in slow motion, almost slurring her words, mispronouncing some phrases.She appeared to be completely thrown by Eddie Mair reading a Financial Times headline linking Jeremy Corbyn’s approach with Donald Trump’s – something she should have been expecting, considering they are both mavericks who claim to be fighting the system on half of the regular guy.
Butler quickly took offence at Mair’s sharp questioning, demanding “Do you not agree with that?”, as if it was the job of a journalist to agree with arguments put forward by a politician – which of course it is not.
On top of this media naivete, which any decent media trainer would have nipped in the bud, Dawn Butler, like her colleague Diane Abbott, did not know her facts and ended up saying amateurish things like: “I have said Costa Coffee but let that not be definitive.”
This from someone who could be sitting there with typed crib sheet notes in front of her.
From the perspective of voters, the message comes across clearly: if these Labour politicians haven’t bothered to prepare for a radio interview, how can we believe they have prepared for government?
But, perhaps, this general election is not about trying to elect a Labour Government. Almost no one believes that is possible under Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged leadership.
It is about trying to ensure that the good, intelligent, articulate Labour MPs are re-elected in their constituencies.
These PR disasters betray a far deeper problem than a failure in media training, media coaching, briefing and rehearsals before media interviews. Doing more far more media training and media coaching would undoubtedly help, but Labour also needs to get the management of its party in order.
There is profound failure here within the Labour Party, whereby even senior figures have no idea what the keynote policies are or how much they are going to cost.
Diane Abbott cannot have been involved in the formation of this police officers number policy, although she is a senior figure in the party and it is part of her brief.
Someone else created it and she couldn’t even be bothered to learn it – even though she was about to talk to the media, and through the media the electorate, her potential voters, about it.
This could well be because almost everybody knows that Labour is not going to form the next government. The competence deficit is too great. No party led by Jeremy Corbyn would be electable. And his lack of competence as a leader percolates down through his shadow cabinet, with the hilarious results we have seen.
It is not hard to see how media coaching could save Labour from more car crash interviews on their policies, but for the vast majority of the Labour candidates, this election is all about trying to distance themselves from their embarrassing leader – to provide a chance of getting themselves elected.
My local MP is typical of this. He is a hardworking and popular man who has done a great job for his constituents.
Sensibly, his election promotional material is all about him, with a headline proclaiming: “Help me continue to be your strong and effective local voice.” This stands above a screen-grabbed image of him speaking in the European Union debate in the Commons, and a list of his achievements – all very local, of course.
The other side of the flyer is all about him fighting cuts to local schools.
Most Labour MPs are presenting themselves to the electorate as supercouncillors in a bid to save their bacon come polling day.
Media Relations ChaosBut for all their efforts to put clear blue water between themselves and their leaders, Jeremy Corbyn is more than an Achilles Heel. He is like a rotting corpse they have drag around from doorstep to doorstep.
In media interviews, local and national, journalists smell blood, and keep bringing the subject back to Jeremy Corbyn and his shambolic leadership.
It is hard for Labour candidates to be honest here and admit they have no belief in Corbyn’s leadership abilities – and Labour winning the election – and are just hoping to buck the trend and take or re-take the seat in which they stand.
Few will risk keeping their integrity by being honest, as the Labour candidate for Barrow and Furness, John Woodcock did.
When asked by a TV interviewer if he wanted Jeremy Corbyn to be Prime Minister, he replied that Labour wasn’t going to win anyway so the question did not arise!
But for most moderate former Labour MPs who are standing again, to avoid further unravelling of their party during the general election campaign, they have to pretend they support him while constantly trying to bring the subject back to attacking Tory politicians or bragging of their own achievements in their constituencies.
In national media interviews, this quickly results in a tussle between the candidate and the journalist over whether Jeremy Corbyn is fit to be Prime Minister – a futile publicly played game designed to amuse the viewer, listener or reader.
Overrated Media Skills
Meanwhile, Theresa May, whose media skills are greatly overrated by pundits, seems to be everywhere, repeating the mantra that it is clear that “this is the most important election in her lifetime” [for her], she is “strong and stable”.
And the Prime Minister needs to be careful that in trying to strengthen her hand at home through this general election, she does not make negotiations nigh-on impossible with the European Union.
Unmitigated PR Disaster
Her dinner with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was an unmitigated PR disaster. And the fact that Juncker was so angry about it, he leaked the details just serves to illustrate the point.
Her reaction – to launch an all-out attack on the European Commission – is not being bloody difficult, it’s being bloody daft.
Theresa May is acting like a poker player who holds all the aces when she has in fact the weaker hand.
All the European Commission needs to do to shaft Britain is not to strike a deal with us. The European Union is big enough to survive without us.
For the sake of feisty election talk, she is gambling with our future – in a move that is far more dangerous to Britain than Diane Abbott’s or Dawn Butler’s media meltdowns.
* This blog posting is purely the view of the author, who is a Brighton-based crisis management and communication communication training course leader and media training specialist working in London and Sussex, and not of any other person or organisation.