Sunday, 24 July 2011

Cadel Evans.

On my shelf is a copy of Laurent Fignons Autobiography. Last Christmas my father and I exchanged copies of it. It is a semi-regular occurrence; we buy each other the same book, last year it was inevitable. I haven't read it. I haven't even opened it. I can't. Laurent Fignon, who died last year, stands for everything that was right with The Tour De France, he was my boyhood hero and I get a lump in my throat every time I try to read it. I'm not sure why I am upset. It could be because I vividly remember hearing the Radio 4 news announce that he had lost the 1989 tour by 8 seconds; I was building a balsawood plane in my bedroom (I was 14 and had a secret uncool hobby) and my disappointment was all encompassing. I don't know if I am now upset for the loss of my hero or for the loss of that 14 year old.

This is at the heart of my emotional connection with the Tour De France. I grew up with it and its' stars. Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, Laurent Fignon, Stephen Roche, Pedro Delgado, Big Mig, and when I moved on to University I lost track of it like an old school friend that you don't keep in touch with until you realise how much you miss them. I dipped in and out during the dope filled 90's and 00's but the racers never captured me emotionally the way that Fignon did.

Recently I have found my passion for it again. The characters are back, the racing seems as good as it always was, and the crashes would make Djamolidine Abdoujaparov proud.

However, I don't like Cadel Evans.

Sorry I had to say it. Cadel Evans will be the first Australian to win The Tour and well done to him. The time trial was a blistering example of how to win back time, and it was one of the best rides ever nearly eclipsing Sean Yates' Washquehal stage for drama.

I just don't like him.

This is why.

Since working in the media and understanding the pressures of journalists trying to get the story and knowing how the press and the TV are the things that sell the concept of a sporting event I think that Cadel Evans gives bad interview. Yes I know that he is a sportsman that got into professional cycling because he loves it and is very good at it, but without the media there would be no professional sport. The media shows the event to a worldwide audience, allows the sponsors to get the advertising which in turn puts money into the sport. Without the media the Tour De France would be a jolly little event for amateurs who could afford to get there. Don't forget that the race was started as a publicity stunt by a News Paper.

To give you an extreme example of Cadel Evans giving bad interview have a look at this...

OK, he had crashed the previous day and was a bit sore, but it still doesn't show him in the best light. There was also the occasion of him riding into his hotel the moment he got to the top of Alp D'Huez this year. The interviewers were chasing him down a corridor and he was giving 1 word answers. I know that he had just ridden up a mountain but everyone else had the ability and the humility to talk to the cameras. It was like he was the most important person in the world and the vast audience watching was irrelevant. (Andy Schleck gave a very nice interview thank you very much.)

As a media commentator I have to look at these things with a jaded eye. As a cycling fan who misses his hero Laurent Fignon I watch it with my heart not my head. Cadel Evans is a great cyclist and I will never take that away from him, but he's no Fignon. Like the title of Fignons autobiography that still sits on my shelf I can't help feeling that yes "We Were Young And Carefree" and now we're not.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Don't Mention The Pie.

Yesterday anyone who was available in the afternoon was watching the slightly odd entertainment of the Commons Media Select Committee. It was without any doubt the highest viewing figures for any select committee proceedings because of the Murdochs. James and Rupert Murdoch were answering questions about the involvement of News International in the use of phone hacking by News Of The World Journalists. I’m not going to comment on whether I think their testimony was of any interest. I’ll leave that up to the blogs that deal with that subject. I don’t. I want to look at their performance as interviewees. What can they teach us for next time we face a hostile interviewer?

It was a game of two techniques and that is possibly the most impressive thing about their performance. It started a little shakily with a refusal to let them read a prepared statement, and then Murdoch Senior managed to interrupt proceedings to tell us all how humble he was. Humble people don’t interrupt to tell us how humble they are. From that clanging beginning however it turned into a tour de force of contrition manipulation and obfuscation.

James Murdoch has been very well taught in the methods used to diffuse a difficult interview. He was a picture of regret and sorrow when it came to the shortcomings of News International. His tone of voice didn’t really change from a low monotone of submission and his face rarely dropped the expression of a Public School Head Boy caught smoking in the quad. One of his key techniques, however, was the long and detailed answer. When faced with an interview that you know has a time limit make your answers detailed, relevant and long; throw in lots of context, sub-clauses and the occasional bit of technical data (think of the ramblings of Grandpa Simpson). There were a number of replies that seemed to take us back to his childhood and were so involved that even as a keen observer I’d lost track of what the question was.

Rupert Murdoch had a different technique. Most of the informed viewers were waiting for the questioning of Tom Watson MP, the back bencher who had been at the heart of the story of Murdoch’s power over Parliament; he was dogged, he was clear and he was forthright. Tom Watson hadn’t allowed for Rupert Murdoch’s reaction to the questioning. A bald slumped eighty year old man, looking confused beleaguered and harangued, he cut a pitiable figure as he paused before each vague answer and seemed to know little of what his company had been up to. As the questioning went on Murdoch looked more like a care home resident who was regretting giving his son power of attorney. However, later in proceedings he appeared to have facts at his finger tips; the steel trap of a mind was still well oiled and catching people out. Had he just used the great defence of being too old and feeble to stand trial? As for that nasty Tom Watson, he’d just beaten up an octogenarian on live television.

Emotional connection is the Murdoch’s biggest triumph. After appearing in front of the Select Committee they have become human, they are no longer faceless monsters who have the morals of a tabloid journalist, they are human and they are very sorry*. Genius.

*no, I haven’t addressed any of the content of what they said. They wriggled and shimmied and seemed to say very little of use. The defence of hampering criminal proceedings was trotted out regularly.  The Tom Watson questioning about corporate governance was very interesting but will be remembered for Rupert Murdoch’s reaction, not the substance.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Be Helpful

A number of years ago the Walker Brothers  sang ‘Make it Easy On Yourself’* and it’s still something that you need to keep in mind when taking part in any interview. Because sometimes you will come across a presenter, a journalist, an interviewer who doesn’t know what they are doing.

Like in any other job people have found themselves in a position that is beyond their capabilities; un fortunately that position means that they are talking to you… with no real idea how to.

To get the best out of the situation you need to guide what is happening.

Firstly ignore the closed question. Journalism 101 states that you should not ask a closed question. (one where the answer is just yes or no or a single word) If I were to ask you ‘did you enjoy the film’ the nerves of sitting in an interview situation may make you answer ‘yes’ instead of ‘yes I did enjoy the film, it had plot, excitement and things blowing up. What was there not to like?’. You need to be descriptive and let the interviewer of the hook. If you can answer in a full sentence then even better for getting a news clip (see entry on Soundbites).

Secondly stack up the sub-clauses and answer the most interesting or advantageous one. I have to admit that on occasions I have asked a poor innocent interviewee a question with more subclauses than Rebekah Brooks severance package. Their little eyes used to fill with terror as they tried to untangle the big question from the satellite smaller ones. Don’t just answer the last thing that came out of their mouths it often isn’t the most important question.

Thirdly, don’t get cross. The temptation to become cold or difficult when you come up against a bad interviewer is there. Don’t. No one will come out of it with their dignity intact. Take this example of an out of depth interviewer and an annoyed interviewee

Les Ross is one of the most respected commercial radio presenters in the west midlands. He has a huge heritage following from his many years at BRMB. Les started his career with the BBC and then after many years returned to an organisation who’s expectations had changed. It had become a job for a journalist and not a ‘jock’. This interview with Hardeep Singh Kohli is difficult to listen to; Les gets the research wrong, but Hardeep doesn’t keep cool. He could have asked to start again with the correct facts and continued from there in an allocated interview slot of 10 minutes (industry standard at the time) he had 6 minutes left. No one comes out of this sounding good.

Like any other job, it’s not always the cream that floats to the top. Like any other job, sometimes there is the right person in the wrong job. Just remember to help them help you.
*no, I'n not sure why I mentioned the Walker Brothers either.

Monday, 11 July 2011


If you’ve been reading this over the last 2 months then you’ll know that this is a blog for anyone who may/is about to/needs to/wants to be interviewed. It doesn’t really cover media stories in general. The problem is that for the last few days there has been nothing happening in the media apart from The News Of The World.

So with that in mind, what can we learn from this great big dogs’ dinner?

1.    Don’t break the law.

It’s a simple thing to do; you just have to stop breaking the law. It makes life easier.

2.    Plausible deniability.

In this case it's the plausibility of the idea that a newspaper editor didn’t know that his/her employees were breaking the law. The plausibility of the denial rapidly reduces with questions like ‘how did you miss that someone was being paid £100k?’ or ‘seriously, you didn’t know?’ if you’re going to use plausible deniability when your organisation is in crisis make sure someone from within questions you hard about it. It needs to be water tight and erm… plausible.

3.    Confess quickly.

The News Of The World did not confess quickly enough. Sorry, News International did not confess quickly enough. There is something baffling about a quick confession. If you have weighed up the pros and cons and found that your reputation will be less damaged by getting the confession in quickly, DO IT. School children across the globe know that to confess to a minor misdemeanour confuses teachers; and it really throws interviewers.

4.    Understand the emotion.

Why do people choose to consume a particular non-essential product? There is a huge amount of research in this area and a vast number of professionals working in the marketing industry who will give you a very detailed answer to that question. The most compelling reason to me is that they have an emotional connection with it; it fulfils one of their emotional needs. In this case The NOTW was like an edgy friend, one that you liked hearing from but at the same time knew that they were a little wayward. When a friend does something appalling it’s far worse than a stranger. They have betrayed your trust even though you knew what they were like. If you fail to understand the emotional reaction to your crisis you’re failing to address the reason people will stay away; remember what The Sun did on Merseyside.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Cat Violence

A couple of years ago I made a terrible mistake.

I made one of those mistakes that you blunder blindly into, like congratulating a colleague on their pregnancy when they're not pregnant or deciding to buy a non-brand name condiment; Honze Ketchup really isn't the same.

I was presenting a programme that was the market leader at the time and one of the key elements was the muse. You know the sort of thing, have you ever wondered why toast lands butter side down? Have you ever noticed that policemen are looking younger these days? By the way I don't like Cats…

Yes. I said it, I don't like cats…

It was more along the lines that I don’t like cats leaving 'gifts' in the garden. I have a toddler who may find them and it's not nice. It was something that I'd tried out in the office. It was something that could be a talking point. It was something that I lived to regret.

Now there are certain things that you can't say in Britain, these are; Is Alan Bennet over rated? Have you noticed that Prince William is going bald? Wasn't Cheryl Cole found guilty of assault? And I don't like (insert name of animal here). I'd forgotten about this last bit. We are a nation of animal lovers and to go against this, even if you have supporting arguments, is just, well, blasphemy.

After being accused of inciting violence towards cats I was called a monster and told that I shouldn't be allowed on the radio ever again under any circumstance. After being abused by text and harangued over the phone I promised NEVER to mention cats again and my boss decided that I had been punished enough.

I felt like Gerald Ratner after his moment in the Albert hall. I'd just killed all the good feeling that I'd built up over the previous 5 years or so. It was not my finest hour.

After a fitful nights sleep, half expecting the local paper to be running with BBC Man In Cat Hate Shock, I went into the office. The atmosphere was subdued. I could see my cat owning colleagues looking at me with a sort of cold detachment that I hadn't seen before. They then decided that just before going on they would have their say about the cat incident… Bless 'em for that.

Bruised, friendless and depressed I went on air and let the audience know that after my conversation about cats I wouldn't be repeating it. I had chosen my words badly and I apologised… and then a call came… now, I always think that if you're going to ask for reaction then you should deal with it good or bad and that if someone has bothered to call then they should be given the chance to air those views. I had done that the previous day when I was the Pol Pot of the cat world… so when this call came through I read out the comment. It was something along the lines of 'I agree with you, and I hate cats in my garden.' I felt a little better about life and I moved on to the talking point for that day.

I don't remember what the talking point was because I then spent the next 3 hours being congratulated by everyone that wasn't listening the previous day, how I was finally going against the angry cat loving minority, how the scourge of cat poo was worse than world poverty and the threat to the ice caps.

After the programme we had a debrief. I reiterated that my apology was in no way a plea for people to agree with me.

The thing is, when you're going to be controversial, or even just a bit honest, you need to be prepared for everything to go wrong, you need to be prepared for shutting it down apologising and moving on, because on the day you decide to say that you don't like cats it may be that everyone who agrees with you is on holiday.

Friday, 1 July 2011

We're Going On A Weasel Hunt.

Let's play the great Weasel Word Game!

See how many phrases in the next few paragraphs that you should never use in an interview situation… Go on, print it out and see if you can find them all.

A growing body of evidence has shown that the vast majority of people have come to see that media training is of value. People say that up to 80% of what they learn can be used in practise. Now, critics claim that this isn't the case, but clearly it stands to reason that 4 out of 5 people would agree that they are wrong.

It has been mentioned that more people are using training as a way to improve their working lives and nothing will give the results that training can. Even though popular wisdom comes down on the side of more training as often as possible, common sense has it that just an increase of 50% can benefit businesses; experience shows us this.

It stands to reason that you will be better off after changing the way that you work. By replacing existing personnel with more flexible working practices then you're able to streamline the whole process, whilst reducing ill feeling by nearly three quarters.

In the past, mistakes were made, and those mistakes are being studied. We are aware that there has been a lot of research in this area. It was noted, however, that almost 30 of the people who responded were satisfied by the action taken. Studies show that number is more than enough people to be officially recognised.

So there you have it. How many weasel words did you spot?*

If your answers, press releases, posts or tweets contain any of those phrases without then going into specifics then you need to have a re-write. If you inadvertently rely on these phrases in an interview be prepared to back them up, any journalist worth their salt loves to go weasel hunting.

*29... probably.

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