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Preparing for media interviews – the importance of rehearsals

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

There was a time when I was growing up that I didn’t see much of my sister, Joanne. She’d joined Toddington Amateur Dramatic Society (TADS) and for long periods was busy rehearsing for her next role along with the rest of the cast. Or at least that’s what she told our mum and dad. Now I’m clearly not a very good brother because I don’t remember many of her performances. I think she may have played Liz in Billy Liar (or maybe I’m confusing her with Julie Christie). But what I do remember is neither Jo nor Julie ever missed a line and both had a magnificent stage presence.

Joanne Uridge playing Liz in Billy Liar.

Why? Because actors rehearse, rehearse and rehearse again so that when the curtain opens and they walk on stage they hit their marks and they hit their lines. Doesn’t matter whether they’re walking the boards before a modest audience at the village hall or in front of a sell out crowd in London’s West End.

So why would anybody stand in front of an audience ten, fifty, a hundred, a thousand times larger without rehearsing? An audience so big it wouldn’t fit in the world’s biggest auditorium. But they do. Every day of the week. In media interviews. And it’s hardly surprising that they fluff their lines.

In my media training workshops I explain that interviewees must think of themselves as performers. That although there is no obvious stage or proscenium arch (especially if they’re doing a down-the-line radio interview from home) they are, in effect, walking onto a stage with an audience of potentially millions. That frightens them. More than a bit. But it helps make the point that if actors rehearse for performances in far smaller actual theatres, then so should interviewees for their performances in the far, far larger virtual “theatres” of radio programmes and podcasts, television networks and online video channels such as News24 and YouTube.

When my sister was at home she spent hours pacing up and down muttering words under her breath. Learning lines is, of course, a big chunk of the actor’s craft. But actually learning lines verbatim, committing a script to memory, is one of the worst ways of rehearsing for a media interview. So what’s the best way to prepare for a media interview? Here’s my six step rehearsal guide.

  1. Distil your key messages from the subject matter. Stick to three or four and try to condense them down to bullet points. Underline the functional word (or words) in each bullet point . Divide a blank screen or sheet of paper into three columns and write these functional words (the essence of your key messages) in the left hand column.
  2. Add up to three carefully selected facts and figures per key message to column two. These facts and figures provide the evidence and speak to the rational part of the the audience – their minds, if you will.
  3. But we’re emotional creatures too. So to engage the audience’s hearts as well as their minds, think of a story or two (they don’t need to be very detailed) to help illustrate your key messages and jot these down in column three. At ACM Training we call this a planning matrix which I’ll happily concede is a rather lofty way of describing a piece of paper with a few scribbles on it. But believe me it can work wonders and turn a fuzzy, unfocussed and unstructured interview into a masterpiece.
  4. Open up your smartphone stopwatch app or countdown timer and outloud (yes, really) practice putting the words on the matrix together into coherent sentences and paragraphs of approximately 30 seconds each. Each time you do this choose different components so you don’t, in effect, end up learning a fixed script but you become well versed at what’s called extemporising lots of different versions.
  5. Once you’ve got the hang of this bit anticipate the questions you might be asked. If you’re likely to be put on the back foot during the interview try especially to predict the hardest questions. For example, will you resign? Or, who’s the blame?
  6. Then practice dealing with these questions and moving on to your key messages, facts, figures and stories. As before, try to bring your responses in around 30″ long. It’ll be harder because, short of ignoring the questions entirely (like some politicians), some of that time will inevitably be taken up dealing with the question leaving you less time to move on to what you want to talk about. Have a quick listen to this podcast on why a question and response instead of a question and answer approach is the best way of handling media interviews. When you feel comfortable delivering your key messages – illustrated and evidenced in a variety of ways – irrespective of the question and have got the feel for speaking to length then it’s showtime! Providing you don’t sound slippery or evasive and have struck the right tone. But those are other lessons for other posts.

Actors rehearse. So should interviewees. Remember you’re on a stage of sorts. And while you can’t see their faces the audience is potentially huge. So break a leg as they say in show-business.

Richard Uridge, media trainer

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Prince Andrew and that Newsnight interview.

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

Let me start by declaring an interest: I believe the monarchy should be abolished and that the UK won’t become a mature democracy unless and until it gets rid of the royals, although I appreciate the enormous sacrifice the queen has made in service of her country and would only make this long overdue constitutional change at the end of her reign.

So the republican part of me was pleased that prince Andrew made such a hash of his Newsnight interview with Emily Maitlis. But the media trainer in me was appalled that someone should perform so badly. Or as one royal watcher put it:

“I was expecting a train crash. That was a plane crashing into an oil tanker, causing a tsunami, triggering a nuclear explosion level bad.”

Charlie Proctor, Royal Central website editor.

The purpose of this post then is to help you avoid a similar nuclear explosion level bad interview should you find yourself in a bunker like the prince.

People with controversies swirling around them do interviews in an attempt to put the record straight and, in doing so, rescue their reputations. But if, as a result, records ends up wonkier and reputations more tattered, then saying nothing is probably the better option – the least said soonest mended approach as it were. It’s a tough call though, not least because you have to factor in not only what you say in response to the questions asked – the content – but how you say it – the tone. And you’ve got to get both right. Plenty of innocent interviewees have been found guilty in the court of public opinion not on factual but on tonal grounds. I should add at this point that although Andrew is being judged on both counts I’m going to limit my comments here to matters of tone because none of us (him and his alleged victim aside) has any way of telling his absolute guilt or innocence.

Being tonally correct means saying you’re sorry even though you may think you have nothing to apologise for. Being tonally correct means conceding some ground. And it means showing compassion.

Show some compassion

It might not have got him off the rap entirely, but imagine how much better it would’ve been had Andrew felt able to acknowledge right at the start of the interview that he appreciated his discomfort was nothing compared to the pain and suffering felt by the victims of sexual abuse. That he couldn’t begin to imagine how awful that would be. That by speaking he wasn’t in any way, shape or form trying to belittle or undermine those who’d experienced it.

And being truly compassionate extends beyond victims to perpetrators. So Andrew should next have nodded to the anguish that led his friend, Jeffrey Epstein, to take his own life and to the grief felt by the financier’s close friends and family.

Concede some ground

When you’re under attack defending every inch of ground seems instinctively like the right thing to do. It rarely is. In military metaphors and media interviews if the ground you’re on is dodgy then pull back to safer ground. To a position that is easier to defend. And concede it voluntarily. Don’t be forced to retreat. Because otherwise there’ll be casualties. A bloodied reputation. What Andrew should have said more plainly than he did, is something like this:

“I was a poor judge of character. With hindsight I was wrong to count on him as a friend. Again with hindsight, I was wrong to see him (as we often see our friends however badly chosen) through rose-tinted spectacles. And out of misguided loyalty I was wrong not to have ended that friendship much sooner.”

Note the number of wrongs in the preceding paragraph. I accept, of course, that three wrongs don’t make a proverbial right. But repeating a point at least that many times reinforces it and prepares the ground tonally for the next step…

Say sorry

Now because you’ve conceded you were wrong, wrong, wrong you can say you’re sorry, sorry, sorry reinforcing that point in a similar fashion. You’re sorry that while you personally saw nothing untoward, the hugely disturbing fact remains Epstein abused girls and young women. You’re sorry that you were such a poor judge of character (whilst adding that abusers go to great lengths to hide their behaviour from those around them). You’re sorry that you didn’t end the friendship sooner. Sorry that by association the royal family has been tarnished. Sorry, especially, that your own daughters have been affected. Sorry that you haven’t on this occasion upheld the extremely high standards demanded of royals.

Incidentally, you should never ask for pity – certainly not explicitly. Show pity for others and others, if they think you deserve it, will show pity for you. Pity has to be earned. And while we’re on the subject of pity, in crisis communications (and this certainly qualifies as that) pity is one of the three Ps. The other two are praise and promise. So Andrew might also have added his praise for the hard work and diligence of those investigating Epstein’s crimes and promised to do all he can to assist those inquiries. Which begs a follow up question (and did from Emily Maitlis): so you’d be happy to travel to the US and speak to the FBI if necessary? To which there is but one short response: “Yes, of course. I want to help and I have nothing to hide.”

Unless you do. In which case you’ve got to be a great liar. Hope there’s no smoking gun. Or exercise your right to remain silent. Which brings us right back to where we started and the decision to do the interview in the first place. We’re led to believe Andrew’s spin doctor resigned after just a few weeks in the role because his advice to the prince was to take the fifth as the Americans might say.

So what would my advice have been? If I thought the prince could manage the interview process as I’ve outlined above and proved he could do it during some realistic rehearsals (with me playing the role of Maitlas) then I’d have told him to ask mum. If he couldn’t, then I’d have told him to keep mum. As it is, he didn’t seek my help and, like I said, I’m a republican so there’ll be two heads on pikes outside Buckingham Palace: mine and his. My Aunty Dee always said I looked a bit like him and we’re about the same age. So if you’re passing I’ll be the one mouthing Two Princes by the Spin Doctors.

I ain’t got no future or a family tree
But I know what a prince and lover ought to be

The Spin Doctors – Two Princes

Richard Uridge facilitates ACM Training’s media and communications workshops.

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What #Boris should’ve said

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

When even the usually pro-Johnson Daily Mail joins the now deafening calls for our wannabe Prime Minister to say something about that row, the MP and his advisors will know that saying nothing is no longer an option. Not that it ever was in my view. Questions, however intrusive, have to be dealt with. Because until they’re dealt with it’s nigh on impossible to move on.

But there’s a world of difference between dealing with questions and answering them. And it’s in this gap that if I was coaching the MP I’d seek to find some wriggle room to do six things:

  1. Say sorry.
  2. Say thank you.
  3. Offer some context.
  4. Concede some ground.
  5. Make a promise.
  6. Sound contrite (but without completely losing the BoJo mojo – whatever that is).

So here’s what Boris should’ve said:

“First of all thank you to our publicly-spirited neighbours for being concerned about our welfare and doing the right thing when they couldn’t raise us by ringing the doorbell. And secondly thank you to the police for responding so swiftly. Better safe than sorry is, very sensibly, their guiding principle. 

What Boris Johnson should’ve said but didn’t

“The police were quickly assured that this was nothing more than a full and frank but otherwise run-of-the-mill exchange of views between two colourful adults. 

And I would like to reassure you in turn that our only sin was to fail to realise that we were discussing matters – yes animatedly and at the end of a stressful week – a little louder than we’d realised and a little louder than is sensible with thin walls and open windows. 

Now I don’t mean to make light of matters but this was nothing more than one of those ding dongs that many, many couples have when they let off steam. To read anything more into this whole affair, to impugn my character and, more importantly, to impugn Carrie’s character is plain wrong. So too is questioning the motives of our neighbours. They did what is right and I commend them for it. To condemn them  is again plain wrong. 

I apologise for having drawn them and you all into this. In most circumstances this kind of lovers tiff would be forgotten with the kiss and make up. But I accept that running for PM is not most circumstances and you have a right – up to a point – to inquire into my private life. That’s why I’ve said what I’ve said today. I shall be saying no more on the matter if for no other reason than to give poor Carrie a break. She and I both agree that there are very many more important matters which we should be discussing and it would be a crying shame if those issues weren’t properly aired because the two of us had aired our difference of opinion so vocally. 

So forgive me if I move on.

I call this my deal with and move on approach. Compare this to the one he tried which might loosely be called the ignore and move on technique. It rarely works except where the questions you’re ignoring are trivial and the audience agrees they’re trivial and sides with you instead of the journalists asking such trivia.


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How #tweetyourthesis can help academics prepare for media interviews

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

The #tweetyourthesis hashtag has been doing the social media rounds in higher education since it was coined by Susan Greenberg, a lecturer at Roehampton in 2012. Or that’s what my own very cursory and possibly unreliable Google-based research tells me. Whatever the hashtag’s origin, it quickly caught on as a way of letting off a bit of steam between postgrads to relieve the pain of knocking out (😭) a 50,000 word research paper. But after spending an enjoyable and productive afternoon media training scientists at the University of Birmingham (including a PhD student about to start writing up her thesis), it struck me that this harmless bit of fun is a brilliant way of helping prepare all academics for media interviews whether they’re talking about their actual theses or some other research.

Why? Because turning your thesis into a Tweet (even if you don’t publish it) can help you synthesise what your research is about from a layperson’s perspective and become a better communicator to external audiences as a result. After all, #sciencecommunication is vitally important but that’s another hashtag! Back to #tweetyourthesis …

It’s a highly reductive process. Turning 50,000 words or more into 280 characters or fewer is a challenge. But doing media is a challenge. Not least because it too is a highly reductive process with that 20 minute interview (at 3 words per second approximately 3,600 words) being edited down to a 20 second soundbite (of about 60 words). So better get used to it before the interview and, if you actually #tweetyourthesis , crowdsource advice from others who’ve been there, done that, got the Today programme tee shirt (it has a picture of John Humphries on the front and a Rottweiler on the back).

Here at ACM Training I use a planning matrix to help academics (and others for that matter) prepare for interviews. It sounds rather lofty and students of a certain age are often disappointed when I don’t conjure Keanu Reeves from my training tool box. But when all is said and done it’s simply a piece of paper or screen divided into three columns. Column one is where you jot down the three most important features of your research – let’s call them key messages. These shouldn’t necessarily be what’s most interesting to you but what’s most interesting from the audience’s perspective. Column two is where you choose up to three facts or figures to evidence those messages. And column three is for the narrative or stories that provide illustration. Think of column one aiding brevity, column two understanding or rationality, column three the emotionally engaging stuff and all three together the clarity and relevance. I then ask my trainees to practice extemporising a series of 20-30″ soundbites from their matrices using the stopwatch or countdown timer on their smartphones to keep them honest.

I like playing #tweetyourthesis too, although, of course, I wouldn’t dream of actually Tweeting your thesis (and I haven’t started mine yet). So here’s my effort at taking the editor’s proverbial red pen to the academics I met earlier this week. You know who you are. And, if I’ve done a half decent job, your colleagues should recognise you from what I’ve written. Feel free to copy, paste and Tweet what follows from your own social media accounts – using the #tweetyourthesis hashtag, naturally. Or, better still, come up with your own version and Tweet that instead.

A quantum clock so accurate if you set it to midnight at Big Bang it’d only be a second out nearly 14 billion years later. (That’s today). One that potentially could make navigation systems more accurate especially in remote areas hidden from the gaze of satellites. [266 characters]

Birmingham University quantum physicist

A contact lens-size sticking plaster with tiny grooves on its surface that encourages collagen (think human scaffolding) to heal without scarring, could save the sight of million and reduce the physiological and psychological impact of other scars. [248 characters]

Birmingham University biochemical engineer

Atoms harnessed to measure tiny changes in gravity to help us “see” below the surface. Like Newton’s apple but smaller and colder. Research that could be applied to roadworks and save us hours sitting in avoidable traffic jams and £ millions in lost productivity. [263 characters]

Birmingham University metrologist

It’s worth noting the #tweetyourthesis hashtag started when Tweets were limited to 140 characters. Now you’ve got 280. Easy innit?

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The #Gatwick #drone part 2 – what the policeman should have said

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. And yes, it’s easy to be wise after the event. But in my previous post on the Gatwick drone incident I promised I’d suggest an alternative – and hopefully better – response to the one that prompted lurid headlines and landed Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley in hot water with his Chief Constable and the Government.

The BBC News presenter asked him, you may remember, what turned out to be a trick question: “Are you even considering the possibility that there may not have been genuine drone sightings in the first place?”

By answering it the way he did – conceding the point – Det Ch Supt Tingley set a proverbial hare running which proved hard to stop. Denying the journalist’s contention outright wouldn’t have been advisable either because (mixing metaphors hopelessly) he’d have boxed himself into a corner if it turned out there wasn’t, in fact, a drone. My version doesn’t ignore the question but lets the facts speak for themselves and, in turn, allows the audience to draw its own conclusions.

Police officer:  “We’re investigating more than a hundred sightings – not just from members of the public but from police officers and airport staff too. Some of those sightings may, of course, be duplicates (several different people reporting the same thing). Some may be genuine mistakes (people seeing what they think is a drone but which turns out to have been something else – a bird of prey for example). Some could be made up for malicious reasons. But all that said we have to act on the information given.

“Aviation is, quite rightly, a risk-averse industry. A collision between an aircraft and a drone could be calamitous. So we have a duty to do all we can to keep people safe. We exercise what we call the precautionary principle – better safe than sorry in other words. Now I understand that the impact of all this is huge and I’d like to add my apologies to those of the airport and airlines for the disruption caused. I’d also like to thank the public for their continued patience and understanding. I’d like to pay tribute to my police colleagues, airport and airline staff, the Civil Aviation Authority and now the Army for their hard work in getting Gatwick back to normal as soon as it’s safe to do so. And I’d like to reiterate my determination to bring those responsible to justice. Let me be absolutely clear. We are investigating a crime.”

Compare this to what Det Ch Supt Tingley actually said.

Now I fully accept I had several hours to carefully consider my response compared to the detective who almost certainly only had several minutes and was also shouldering heavy responsibilities as the SIO (senior investigating officer). That said the purpose of media and crisis communications training it to have the benefit of foresight. Foresight, of course, is not as good and never as accurate as hindsight but it’s certainly better than being blind-sided. Plan for the worst, hope for the best and be flexible.

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Schrödinger’s drone – three crisis comms lessons from the Gatwick closure

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley probably didn’t have the best of breaks. He’s the Sussex police officer who admitted in an interview just before Christmas that there may not have been a drone at all – despite the numerous reported sightings that brought Gatwick Airport to a standstill over two days, disrupted 1,000 flights and affected 140,000 passengers.

Following a hastily arranged conference call with Government ministers, Tingley’s remark was explained away as “poor communications.” His press office issued a clarification. And then his boss, Sussex Chief Constable Giles York, appeared to contradict him, stating on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I am absolutely certain a drone was flying throughout the period the airport was closed.”

Giles went on to say that his officer “was trying to describe an investigative approach, that asks ‘how can we prove the presence of the drone in the first place?’” But he conceded Tingley’s remark had “amplified the chaos” surrounding the incident.

So what can be learned from the curious incident of the drone which, not unlike Schrödinger’s Cat, appears simultaneously to have been both present and not present? Here’s my analysis of the original exchange on BBC News and three lessons for all of us involved in media, PR and communications. Once you’ve had a look a what I have to say please subscribe to our blog and the ACM Training YouTube channel (if you haven’t already).

So what should the Detective Chief Super have said? I’ll be making a suggestion or two in the next post.


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#O2down – 11 crisis comms lessons from the mobile company’s data outage

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

I was one of the estimated 32 million customers affected by O2’s data outage. And like many of those customers I took to Twitter under the hash tag #O2down. But in my case not to criticise the company. No, I wanted to thank O2 for providing me with a crisis communications case study. There’s a lot, I believe, other organisations  can learn from its approach – whatever sector they’re in: high tech, low tech; for profit, not-for-profit.

  1. Acknowledge there’s a problem as soon as it’s evident there is a problem. These days there’s nowhere to hide – especially for data companies like O2 whose very business model is information exchange.
  2. Monitor social media. For bigger organisations at least, keeping an eye on social is a great way of staying as close to the proverbial curve as possible (despite what others may tell you keeping ahead of it is nigh on impossible in crisis comms).  In our always-on world (or nearly  always on in O2’s case) the initial indication of trouble often comes from customers rather than from colleagues.
  3. Apologise. Saying sorry costs nothing. Not saying sorry costs a whole heap more in the long run. Saying sorry isn’t an admission of guilt. It’s a strength, not a weakness. And, contrary to popular belief, it won’t make a scrap of difference if or when it comes to litigation. In fact, damages are likely to be lower as a consequence of an early apology. 
  4. Don’t blame. Nobody likes a snitch so blaming somebody else for your travails will only exacerbate the problem. In O2’s case it looks as if the problem was with expired software licences at one of its suppliers, Ericsson. So it might have been tempting for the company to say, in effect, “not our fault guv.” But I heard nobody from O2 say anything of the sort. That said O2 didn’t hide the fact that Ericsson was involved which leads on to my  next point…
  5. Be open and honest. Don’t dissemble. Keep your “customers” (or other stakeholders) in the loop. Let them know what you know as you know it. And also let them know what you don’t know. I know this sounds suspiciously Rumsfeldian but there’s no shame in the  early stages of a crisis not to have the complete picture. It’s the inevitable fog of war. There is shame, however, in holding back important information like the loss of sensitive customer data. You don’t want them to feel as if critical information has been dragged from you. 
  6. Actions speak louder than words. Words are all very well but they can sound rather hollow if they’re not backed up with action. O2 apologised almost immediately (see point 3) but very quickly followed that up with an offer of compensation. Now that doesn’t just sound like sorry if feels like sorry too.
  7. Be generous. Most of O2’s customers lost only a day’s data. But they were offered two days worth of credit as a gesture of goodwill. That’s likely cost the company millions of pounds more than if it only made up for the actual loss. Now, it may yet recover the cost from Ericsson so you could argue it’s being generous with somebody else’s money. But nonetheless this goodwill will almost certainly be worth every penny. And while we’re on the subject, offer compensation (it doesn’t have to be financial) before it’s demanded. 
  8. Get the tone right. It’s not just what you say but how you say it. Saying sorry through gritted teeth grates. So does telling people you’re being open an honest with them but with your arms folded firmly across your chest. Your verbal, para-verbal and non-verbal communication are pulling in different directions.  Have some humility. Don’t be overly apologetic (it can sound insincere). But don’t be flippant either. O2 made sure its communication – digital and analogue – struck the right tone, walking the fine line between light  (on social especially) and heavy. The outage was inconvenient for most, serious for some. But ultimately nobody died and the tone conveyed that.
  9. Don’t overpromise. It’d be crazy for O2 to tell us it won’t happen again. But the company made it clear it had learned from the situation conveying the more realistic and credible message that it’s less likely to happen again.
  10. Don’t under do the thanks. Thank your customers for their patience and understanding. Thank your staff for working hard to resolve the problem. Even thank your suppliers – even if they were to blame (see point 4)!
  11. Turn a negative into a PR positive. The episode will end up costing O2 and Ericsson millions. Giffgaff (one of the smaller providers affected) has made it easy for it’s customers to donate their compensation directly to charity. It won’t change the Giffgaff bill – its financial capital will decrease. But its social capital will increase. Smart move. Cost neutral. PR positive.

This post is also available as a podcast in ACM Training’s Five Minute Masterclass series. You can listen to the original there or below.


If you’d like to join Richard at his next open, public, crisis communications workshop in either London or Manchester he’d love to see you. And as a follower of the ACM Training blog you can book your place for just £99 between now and December 31st – a Christmas saving of £80.

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Adversarial or conversational – why media training should cover both styles of interview (and everything in between)

Approx. reading time: 2 minutesFor years now the aspiration for most media trainees from the very top levels of industry, commerce and, especially, politics has been to be prepared for a haranguing by Humphrys (John, long-standing rottweiler-in-chief of BBC Radio Four’s flagship Today programme). And for years media trainers have dutifully helped them meet that aspiration. It’s been the default position on both sides of the training room. But with Humphrys’ kennel mate Paxman no longer baring his teeth on Newsnight, a new, less adversarial kind of journalism has been taking its place. This more conversational approach might, on the face of it, be less challenging for interviewees. Yet it presents them with different kinds of challenges. Ones which require less obvious and softer presentational skills than before. So media trainers must adapt their approach too.

I was reminded of this when given the brief to train the chief executive and senior management team at a non-departmental government body. The media manager told me that, like many people at their level, they’d been media trained earlier in their careers. But not recently and certainly not in a way that prepared them for the kinds of interviews they were increasingly being asked to give. Interviews where the expectation from the media was that the interviewees would be more reflective, less inclined to simply deliver their key messages irrespective of the questions (slippery style as I call it) and more entertaining (whatever that means) to boot. They’d clearly failed to meet this expectation, the media manager went on, because a recent interview hadn’t been used. Spiked, as us journalists with a print background like to say. All of which, he concluded, was a pity because they had some really important points to make.

In essence, the problem here is one of perception. One person’s shiny key messages are another person’s ditchwater. A safe pair of hands from an organisational perspective can be terminally dull from a media perspective.

Let me put it this way: if, by comparison to other contributors, your key messages are the least interesting (to readers, viewers and listeners) then in order to survive the edit and, in future, be asked back, your contribution has to be the most engaging.

Now, of course, I’d be the first to admit this is a gross oversimplification. And I’m not suggesting that if what you’ve got to say is dull then you’d best deliver it from a unicycle while dressed as a clown and juggling three chainsaws. What I am saying, however, is that you have to work even harder to frame your key messages in the most appealing way possible and deliver them with all the presentational charm you can muster. It’s a tall order. But one that at ACM Training we can help you with!


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Crisis communications planning – is it a waste of time?

Approx. reading time: 3 minutesHeard of a chap called Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke the Elder? No, nor had I! But odds are you have heard of one of his quotes…

No plan survives contact with the enemy.

Actually that’s not quite what the Prussian Chief of Staff said (more of which later) but for now I want to ask if the same can be said of communications plans? Are they any more likely to survive contact with a crisis than battle plans with foes? If my recent experience working with a second tier responder to the Grenfell Tower disaster is anything to go by, the short answer is no.

Reviewing their response to the tragedy, I was astounded to be told that they hadn’t, in fact, activated their emergency plan. They’d simply been too busy in the immediate fallout of the fire to even think of it. And by the time they did, several days later, it hardly seemed worth bothering. To this day I’m not sure they’ve looked at the plan.

In effect there was no contact with the enemy, so who knows if it would have survived? Which is a pity because the plan may have worked – at least in part – and led to a better response* than the actual one. And even in failure it might have been instructive by making comms plans for future crises more robust.

What, then, can we learn from this peculiar affair?

Well the first lesson, surely, is that unless crisis comms plans are regularly reviewed and rehearsed, they’ll be forgotten or ignored at the very moment they were designed to help. Risk-averse industries like aviation and nuclear power are required, by law, to practice for emergencies so that if, or when, an actual emergency unfolds everybody is well versed in how to respond – both at an operational level and at a media, PR and communications level. At ACM Training we help a number of clients such as the nuclear decommissioning company, Magnox, achieve the realism necessary to make the rehearsals effective and the learning long lasting. For example, we provide what we call pseudo media news crews to act exactly as the media would in reality, asking awkward questions, sticking cameras and microphones where they’re really not welcome or expected. And now, with social media playing such a significant role in crisis comms, we have the ability to test an organisation’s online response to an event through our socialmediatestbed.com tool.

For the second learning point we need to go back to von Moltke and examine what he actually said:

The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle. In this sense one should understand Napoleon’s saying: ‘I have never had a plan of operations.’ Therefore no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.

If we swap the word battle for crisis and think of victory and defeat in terms of positive and negative outcomes, what von Moltke is saying, in effect, is that no communications plan can extend with any certainty beyond the first contact with a major crisis. And I’m inclined to agree. In my experience no anticipated, planned and rehearsed version of events has ever been close to the actual version. In most cases the imagined event is a lot worse than the actual event (perhaps that’s because emergency planners have overwrought imaginations or are just plain pessimists). Rarely is the reality worse, although it was undoubtedly so with Grenfell. In all cases the reality is different. But does this mean that crisis communications planning is a waste of time?

Again, let’s turn to von Moltke for some beyond-the-grave advice. Despite what he said he wasn’t an advocate of going into battle without any plan at all. He was an advocate, however, of flexibility. And so it should be in crisis comms. Have a plan. But be prepared to adapt it as circumstances change.

Please don’t leave it in the cupboard.

* In fairness perhaps I should have said an even better response, because unlike, say, the council, my client’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire is considered to have been good including by those directly affected by the disaster.


 

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What that Gavin Williamson vs Richard Madeley interview tells us about media training

Richard Madeley interviews Gavin Williamson on GMBApprox. reading time: 3 minutes

I could almost hear Jeremy Paxman and Michael Howard breathing a huge sigh of collective relief. For years their Newsnight clash – the one where Paxo asked the former Home Secretary n times (where n is a large number) if he’d intervened in the day-to-day running of the prison service – had, for media trainers, been the go-to example of road crash interviews. But now we’ve got a new worst case scenario – the recent, well-publicised spat between the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, and the stand-in Good Morning Britain presenter, Richard Madeley. If you haven’t seen it yet I’d thoroughly recommend a watch.

It’s certainly entertaining. In a lemon-chewingly embarrassing way. But don’t worry if you haven’t got time because, in essence, Madeley called the interview to an unexpectedly early end when Williamson used the politicians’ trick of ignoring the questions and saying what the heck he wanted to say. Which is a pity because the Secretary of State was supposed to be talking about deploying British troops to help protect wildlife against poachers in Malawi – a good news story if ever there was one – but didn’t get beyond the preamble. Heck, he’d even gone to the trouble of doing the interview by satellite from West Midlands Safari Park.

So does this mean that media trainers like me will have to change our approach? Not at all! At ACM Training we teach interviewees to deal with the question and move on. But we always impress upon them the importance of striking the right balance between the two. Move on too fast or fail to deal with the question altogether and you risk what happened to Williamson happening to you.

“Let it be a warning! Us journalists used to say you’d been Paxo’d but I guess now we’ll have to learn to say you’ve been Madeley’d!”

No time to read this post and prefer to listen – with the added bonus of audio clips from the excruciating interview?

For a Defence Secretary, I thought Williamson was surprisingly tactically un-astute. Adversarial media interviews are (in very limited respects) analogous with battles. In both, if you try to defend disputed territory you can get bogged down, when it might be better to concede some ground and pull back to a line you can hold.

So first let’s explore what went wrong in MoD vs GMB. Madeley’s attack was to accuse Williamson of using Trump-like language. Williamson’s defence was to simply ignore this line of questioning and try to move on to how terrible the attempted murders of the Skripals had been and how wonderfully the emergency services in Salisbury had responded. But the Defence Secretary wasn’t able to move on to these, nonetheless valid, points because Madeley wasn’t satisfied he’d dealt with the question – repeatedly asked – well enough.

Now let’s examine the alternative. If I was Gavin Williamson’s media advisor I’d have prepared him on the basis that the Trump question was (a) wholly predictable and (b) entirely legitimate for a journalist to ask on the public’s behalf. I’d have told him that legitimate questions can’t simply be ignored because to do so risks antagonising the journalist and her/his audience. And, as a consequence, I’d have suggested he spend a little more time dealing with the question and a little less time moving on. If he asked what all that meant practically speaking I’d have come up with a few concede lines.

Williamson: “It’s certainly not the kind of language you usually hear from ministers I’ll give you that. But sometimes you have to be plain and forthright to make sure your message gets through to the intended target.”

Madeley: “So you’re admitting it was Trump-like language?!”

Williamson: “I’m saying that it’s important to be absolutely clear that attacking members of the public on British soil is unacceptable and making that point in a plain and forthright way is occasionally better than couching these things in the usual diplomatic terms.”

Madeley: “Sounds like you’re admitting to being undiplomatic.”

Williamson: “I’m admitting to being plain and forthright and, yes, angry too, because two innocent members of the public had been attacked in a cruel and unusual way and countless others – those who went to their rescue – put at risk.”

Now, of course, I’ll concede there’s no guarantee that this approach would have worked but I’m convinced it would have given the Defence Secretary a better chance of moving onto Malawi. As it was he had no chance at all because the interview was called to a premature and unceremonious end.

Remember this: you can only move on if you deal adequately with the question asked. To deal adequately with doesn’t have to mean to answer (although it can). Think of interviews as question and response session,s rather than question and answer sessions. Tailor your response not only according to your own needs but also to those of the interviewer and audience. Williamson was never going to admit to using Trump-like language (and nor, given Trump’s track record, should he have). But without conceding a little he gave away a lot.


This is a partial transcript of Richard’s five minute masterclass on the lessons of Williamson v Madeley. Click here if you want to hear the whole recording and listen to our other five minute masterclasses.