If Donald Trump is winning primaries, we know that media training needs a radical rethink


What worked then


Clients often ask for help getting ready for interviews or press conferences. They are right to worry. Every consultant has a reel full of disasters: unprepared interviewees made to look foolish or dishonest by a journalist who claims to be on a fearless quest for truth. Sometimes, these harsh interview techniques do uncover wrongdoing or lies; more often they are designed to make entertaining TV or to give a chance for a sensational headline. You will have seen examples: “I don’t know if Prime Minister is lying says President.” Read on into the story and you will find out that it was a trick question and a hurried answer that no normal human would understand that way.


Journalists often feel honour-bound to stop the interviewee saying what he or she set out to say. They know that the CEO has come to explain the new corporate strategy but, in the odd code of modern news reporting, it might look soft to let her actually do that. Instead, the journalists will have a long list of issues from child labour to tax avoidance on which to cross examine the interviewee. If the three minutes pass without ever mentioning the new strategy, count that a win for the fearless interrogator.


The old training technique for dealing with this problem was simple. We used to teach the interviewee to go into every media interaction with three or four key messages. Whatever the question, these messages were the answer. I actually used to train people by practising extreme versions of this


“Did you have a good flight?”

“Yes, it was a great flight but as I looked out of the window and saw the jet engines at full blast, it was a chance for me to talk to my neighbour about the importance of a twenty year programme to convert to more clean energy production. Do you know, we have a three pronged approach to converting to a green future?”


In real life, we tried not to make it less blatant but the outline was clear


If you got a difficult question, the messages were the safe answer


“Isn’t it true that your company poisoned a whole generation of villagers?”

“What is undoubtedly true is that we produce products which exceed every global safety standard. Our 97 point quality assurance procedure means that we do this consistently. Shall I talk you through it?”


Once I was helping a head of state to prepare for a long, tough TV interview. His staff and I knew that he would be asked about dealings with the thuggish head of a neighbouring régime. We recommended a safe, dull answer so that the journalist would move on to discuss the new economic initiatives we were trying to push: “We have honest and respectful discussions and a constructive relationship” or something like that, we advised our Principal to say.


 The head of state in question was clearly better at media technique than I was; he had a different suggestion. Why not answer with something more like this: “Look, the President and I don’t agree about much and I doubt we’ll ever be friends but we know how to live next to one another. I’m not going to tell you on TV everything that we disagree about because it wouldn’t help either of our countries. But you can be sure that he and I tell one another what we think. Honesty is good among neighbours” His chief of staff and I soon convinced him that this was a bad idea and, grumbling, he agreed to our dull answer.


The man heading the country was, though, right back then and his answer would be even more right today. It’s just taken me a while to get the point. Actually, it took a series of very unlikely politicians winning elections in Europe and North America.


In the US Republican primaries, the imperturbable and solid Jeb Bush was never even a serious contender against the loud, unpredictable and often-offensive Donald Trump. Chris Christie devastated the polished Marco Rubio during one Republican event by exposing Rubio’s use of exactly the media training techniques that I’ve been teaching for 20 years. (Rubio later made a comeback by doing a parody of Trump’s speaking style)


In the UK, the rumpled, far-left Jeremy Corbin beat a big field of smooth, well-prepared professional political contenders to win the Labour leadership. Corbyn did this despite a track record of supporting terrorist groups and singing Marxist anthems at every opportunity


The polls suggest that Americans don’t really want to ban all Muslim immigrants and that British voters are not really ready to sign up for an agenda that is “socialist, pacifist, atheist and republican.” Both groups do, though, like someone who seems authentic, straightforward and who does not look as if he is reading from a script. Even if they don’t like the person being interviewed and don’t agree with him, they feel that they can trust him.


What works now

The challenge now is to seem authentic. Getting facts right, delivering careful soundbites and avoiding trick questions matters much less than sounding as if you mean what you are saying.


Here are five rules (and the inevitable acronym: be UPPER A)


  • Know what you want to say in under ten seconds. Any interview will let you have your ten seconds. Just be ready and use a natural break or wait for a pause and say, “Listen Jane, there’s one important thing that I have to say…” If you say it well, that is what will be put on Vine and Twitter and, by the way, what will make it to the very short news summaries that still get read or watched. If it’s really interesting, some people will click through to the rest.
    • Here’s a rare snappy scientist: “I’m going to dare to be an optimist This could be the year when we see the last ever case of polio”
  • Talk emotionally and personally. Why should the viewer trust you about this subject? If you have personal experience, be ready to discuss it
    • Here’s the King of Jordan “When I was a tank commander, I understood clearly that you have to be able to explain exactly where you want your men to arrive and what you want them to do when they get there”
  • You’re not expected to be perfect. It’s fine not to know. It’s even OK to say that you think something is true but you need to check
    • Here’s an example from a practice session, “I don’t know when we said that but I can check or we could Google it now”
  • Explain why you won’t answer a question
    • We used to say it wasn’t policy but that look evasive these days. “I can’t tell you about what we plan to charge because it might look like I was trying to coordinate prices with our competitors. I know it’s frustrating but that’s the law”
  • React honestly to a difficult question and don’t be afraid to admit to mistakes. Would you react that way to your husband or your wife? If not, don’t react that way to the TV viewers
    • Here’s a CEO in a practice session,  “I didn’t explain it well but I didn’t lie. I tell my kids never to lie and I mean it. Let me tell you what I wish I had said”
    • Here’s another, “I can’t imagine how bad things are for those families.Thank God,  nothing like that has ever happened to me. I’m determined to make sure that it doesn’t happen to anyone else either….”
  • Sound accessible and — within reason — be accessible. It is easy in this day and age. A few weeks ago, I criticised the head of UNDP in a Tweet. She Tweeted back a few moments later asking why I didn’t agree. I explained and she said she would look at it again. Of course, she came out of it looking reasonable and rational. (Although I still think that her original speech was a bit silly and that she had probably given it without reading it)
    • “If any of your viewers are worried, ask them to Tweet me or get in touch on Facebook. I or one of my team will try to answer any questions. If we get overwhelmed, I’ll let people know”


Why has it changed?

The problem is that we trainers have been too good at our jobs. Every politician, every senior executive, even the head of the national NGO, uses our old technique in every interview. The public now recognises it and assumes that it is part of an attempt to cover up or to lie. At best, the public assume that the interviewee is just the puppet of the spin doctors.


The way the public interacts with the media has changed too. The TV or radio used to be on in the background: most people missed most of the content. They noticed the overall impression: did someone look confident and in charge? If so, it was probably all going OK. These days, viewers are just as likely to see a short clip on social media as the original programme. They watch what they want to and flip to something else when they’re bored.


The public gets bored much faster than it used to. Paradoxically, there is a growing market for in-depth reporting and specialist writing but readers want to decide which few things they look at in detail (or let their friends recommend them). They look at the rest through 140-character Tweets or pictures with captions on Instagram or a mini-article in a free newspaper. Tell them what’s important and let them hyperlink to the subtleties, the qualifications and the details.


What a reader’s favourite newspaper thought mattered much more in the past than it does today. The same broadsheet or tabloid would arrive at home every day and its view of the world often became that of the reader. These days, most of us rely on many more news sources. More important, we look at articles or clips sent by friends or colleagues in emails or social media. We are swayed by the reaction of the intermediary much more than the point of view of the journalist or outlet.


The audience for TV network news, phone-in radio and print newspapers is dying fast. The new consumers construct their own view of the world.


Because media is so fragmented, every article and outlet is screaming for our eyeballs to look at it. So, we are much less easily shocked than we used to be. We are more immune to media hype: every link promises a shocking revelation or an amazing tip. We are also much more realistic about human frailty: even politicians say things they haven’t thought through and we know that most of us would find it uncomfortable if the world had access to our browsing history or, indeed, Uber’s records of everywhere we went last year. Maybe we are not exactly forgiving but we have been forced to become more accepting.


Finally, we are much less sure that there is an objective truth just waiting to be uncovered. A Google search is likely to uncover multiple, often conflicting, answers to every question. We can watch the news in English on Fox or Al Jazeera or the Christian Broadcasting Network or France 24 or Russia Today or China’s CCTV 9. All seem at least a bit plausible: maybe truth is not quite as black and white as old-school journalists would have had us think.


We probably live an eleven-dimensional multiverse. In some reality somewhere, an impenetrable wall along the Mexican border has probably already been built.