At some point every political party does it. Every company too. They send someone to talk to a journalist who may say something that gets contested. There's a lesson here about media training.
By Anna Caig
In case you haven't been following the furore, Andrea Leadsom has been interviewed by Rachel Sylvester of The Times.
Who knows how long the interview lasted in total, but in one section Sylvester asked Leadsom about how being a mother affects her. Leadsom answered by bringing up the fact that her rival for the leadership of the Conservative party, Theresa May, doesn't have any children and said that having children gives her (Leadsom) a "real stake in the future of our country."
The Times focused on this aspect of the interview for its front page story, and Leadsom has responded with fury on twitter. She has accused Sylvester of 'gutter journalism', said the story is the 'exact opposite' of what she said, and demanded they produce the transcript.
Produce the transcript, and audio, they have. And turns out that Leadsom did say the the things Sylvester says she says. Only apparently she asked them not write the story with that emphasis, and then expected them not to.
Aside from an overwhelming feeling of "Ugh, must a competition between two women be reduced to this?" I am interested in what Leadsom's response to The Times front page tells us about the importance of good media training.
This is a lady either painfully naive about the way the media works, or pretending to be. I don't know which would be worse.
Leadsom is not the first , and she won't be the last. This is not about politics. People at all points on the political spectrum have come a cropper. This is about the importance of understanding the rules of engagement when you sit down and have a conversation with a journalist.
Yes, the media can hone in on ten seconds of a much longer interview and use quotes, sometimes out of context, that may paint their subject in a poor light. Part of a journalist's job is to maximise controversy, and by extension clicks and sales. This is the world we are living in. News is not just news; it is also entertainment. I am not saying this is right or fair. But it certainly should not be a surprise to someone who wants to be our next Prime Minister.
Leadsom was in an interview situation with a journalist, being recorded and very much on the record. Sylvester is not her friend. She is a journalist doing her job.
I have worked in media relations for more years than I care to remember, and part of my job is to media train spokespeople, both in terms of general skills and for specific interviews.
Media training seems to have got itself something of a bad reputation in recent years. On both sides of the fence. Spokespeople sometimes think that they don't need it and will give better interviews if they go in 'natural'. And journalists have been known to bemoan too much of it as producing identikit, personality-free spokespeople who never give them a decent quote.
You'll notice I say I'm interested in the importance of 'good' media training though. All media training is not created equal. When we deliver it to our spokespeople in Sheffield, we stress that this is definitely not all about everyone pointing with their thumb, saying "Let me be clear", and never answering a question properly. It is about giving people the confidence to relax in an interview situation. And perhaps more importantly, to even the playing field so that both the interviewer and the interviewee understand the rules of the game they're playing.
Because a game with rules it is. The response from a small number of journalists on twitter to this story has been along the lines of "I understand the rules and have understood them for a long time, so this person who doesn't is an idiot". We all know our own profession well, but the trouble with media interviews is that most people who give them aren't media professionals. And if you don't spend a bit of time learning from someone who is, you're at a disadvantage. I can think of plenty of occasions when an un-media trained spokesperson I've worked with has been shocked or angry about the way their interview was reported. "But I was so thrilling and on-message about economic policy for half an hour. I didn't think they'd use the ten seconds when I said Jeff is a wanker."
Listening to the audio, it sounds like Sylvester is giving an encouraging "Mm-hmm mm-hmm," as Leadsom talks about May's lack of children. If you don't know the rules, it sounds like a "Do go on Andrea, what fascinating and cogent points you're making." It doesn't sound like a "Bingo! Got my headline that will roast you there, you massive duffer."
Media training should be about finding your strengths as a spokesperson, and letting your personality and even your passion shine through. It should equip you with the skills and understanding of how an interview situation works, that enable you to come across as well-informed, natural and personable, but not, as seems to have happened in Leadsom's case, letting your guard down and saying things that you don't want to see reported.
And in ninety percent of cases, a well media-trained spokesperson will give a better interview from the perspective of the journalist too. If your interviewee is not flustered, and they've rehearsed their subject matter, they're much more likely to be coherent and give you something you can use.
Media relations is a profession full of nuance, judgment calls and rules, both spoken and unspoken. We learn these rules and understand these nuances over years of doing it, and through media training we pass that knowledge onto our spokespeople.
And if Leadsom is just pretending to be painfully naive, and this was really about profiling May's childlessness whilst not being seen to want to profile May's childlessness, at least if we made good media training compulsory no-one could use this excuse again.
Anna Caig is external affairs manager at Sheffield City Council, which includes managing Sheffield City Council's media relations.
Picture credit: National Library of Ireland / Flickr.