By Tsuey Shan Ho, Account Director, Byfield Consultancy,
By now if you haven’t watched Prince Andrew’s Newsnight interview, or read the numerous articles out there sharing strong opinions about his performance, you have been living under a rock.
After years of intense speculation about his relationship with convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein, the Duke of York finally made the decision to address the issue head on in a 50-minute interview with the BBC’s Emily Maitlis.
However, the ensuing fallout and criticism may not have been the Prince’s desired outcome, with many describing the interview as “disastrous” and “excruciating”. Unsurprisingly, the PR industry has also joined the discussion viewing this as a brand new case study of what not to do when on broadcast.
To most of us, the missteps will be obvious. But how then, in practice, can these be avoided?
Here are five things every PR should take away from the interview.
Know the best platform
Some critiques about Prince Andrew’s interview have centred around his and his advisers’ decision to agree to a broadcast interview. When addressing a crisis very publicly in the media the first thing to consider is the medium of the interview itself.
When television cameras are involved, every cough, grimace and any hesitation is captured. You won’t be given the option to review footage and ‘try again’ if the answer to a question is not delivered with satisfaction the first-time round. Whereas, with print media, an individual can prepare their comments ahead of time, and even, perhaps, have the chance to review copy before it goes to the printers.
This matters more when you consider the spokesperson who is being put forward for an interview – what are their strengths and weaknesses? Are they confident speaking to a camera, do they stutter when asked difficult questions? These are all important considerations when deciding the medium in which to conduct a crucial interview.
Prepare key messages ahead of an interview
Before a spokesperson appears in front of an audience, there should be serious thought given to the key messages they want to convey to stakeholders. It is important that the interviewer is not given the power to steer the interview in a direction that is detrimental to your client’s position.
The spokesperson should be well-equipped with carefully worded key messages and should be made to practise, practise, practise. They should feel confident that even if an interviewer is shrewd and unrelenting with their questions, they can direct them back to the prepared key messages.
Understand the context for the interview
Nothing in the world operates without context. Where does your client’s interview fit within the wider press narrative? The context of public outrage and the need for justice needs to be front of mind whilst conducting the interview.
At times, there will be calls for an apology. As we saw with Prince Andrew’s interview, his omission of apology for his questionable friendship with Epstein became a key take away from his Newsnight interview. His lack of apology came across as an insult to the victims.
As a PR, it’s up to you to do a perceptions audit to work this out. And if it’s blatantly obvious what the context is, and you don’t factor it in when coaching your client, you’ll seem very out of touch and alienate stakeholders.
Delivery in a broadcast interview
In a forensic-style interview, no matter the topic in question, viewers will naturally try to find clues in your spokesperson’s delivery. If, for example, your spokesperson laughs, hesitates or looks around nervously, the audience will pick up on these cues and subconsciously factor it into their judgement of the interview.
Again, this comes back to being well-practised to be able to appear to extemporise answers in accordance with your prepared key messages.
The best way to prepare your spokesperson’s delivery in this type of interview is to think of every possible question a journalist might ask and practise the answers to the questions, no matter how challenging they are. This way, rather than having to conduct an on-the-spot mental scan of the details of the question the interviewer is asking before thinking of their answer, your spokesperson has a well-crafted response to hand. In turn, this can also prevent your spokesperson from misspeaking and sparking additional probing questions for the interviewer.
It’s all about timing
Prince Andrew’s interview ran over the weekend – when there are usually fewer news stories running and when people generally have more time to digest news. Many publications also get their stories for Monday from the weekend papers.
Timing is important.
As a PR, if you believe an interview is necessary or inevitable, but your strategy is to mitigate reputational damage, then it might be a smart idea to secure an interview for a weekday.
In PR, there is no magic formula to defuse or manage the narrative in the media. But there certainly are ways to reduce the chances of fanning the flames of a crisis.
Before you put your spokesperson in front of a camera, make sure you know what they are.
Image of Prince Andrew’s Newsnight interview courtesy of BBC