An Olympic-Sized Bad Interview
I've been doing media training for a decade and I've come to realize the biggest satisfaction I get is when a person I've worked with to prepare them for media interviews does a great job, is happy with the way the interview went and is pleased with the final product in the media. That makes me feel proud.
When I come across media interviews that didn't go well I try to analyze what went wrong and why. The person who gave the bad interview always gets blamed, but I wonder if others should take some of the heat too because the spokesperson wasn't prepared properly?
This week, a close look at an interview with a federal cabinet minister about the Calgary Olympic bid - what went wrong and why.
Early last week I was tagged in a post on LinkedIn from colleague Neil Levine, who wanted to alert me to an interview that had been done last Monday on the CBC Calgary Eyeopener program. Neil thought I would be interested and he was right.
The interview was between veteran CBC journalist David Gray and the federal Minister of Science and Sport Kirsty Duncan, who’s from Toronto. I listened to the interview last Tuesday evening and at the time I appropriately was in Calgary, in between media training assignments. It also was the day before Calgary City Council did a big about face and voted to go ahead with the November 13 plebiscite on whether Calgary should submit an Olympic bid.
Here’s the interview. Give it a quick listen because the rest of this blog will make a lot more sense if you do.
Interview with Sports Minister Regarding Calgary Olympics
Love of the Olympics
There’s a lot of stuff for me to chew on, so let’s start right off the top with Duncan’s statements about how much she loves the Olympics.
I really liked the way David Gray realized she was reading from notes that had been prepared for her and called her on it. The problem with not answering the question and instead going off on a tangent about Olympic memories is that right away a smart interviewer like Gray knows how phony it sounds and resents being seen as a sucker by a politician. Mistrust immediately occurred between Gray and Duncan and she didn’t do anything to get it back.
If Duncan wanted to show her love of the Olympics, she should have answered Gray’s first question properly and then used a bridge to move onto her thoughts on the Olympics and it would have worked a lot better. Here’s a media tip I wrote on how to properly use a bridge.
Not Answering the Question
The next problem that occurred in the interview was that Duncan didn’t answer Gray’s questions properly.
I see this all the time. A politician and the communications people who prepare them for interviews don’t want to answer real questions and aren’t sure what to do when hard, but fair, questions are asked. They think it’s best to stay on message. While I understand that philosophy, it’s far better to be prepared with what I call “back pocket” responses if you need to use them.
Duncan kept saying the federal government was clear that it would match other public funding. Gray was entirely correct when he asked her to explain why it didn’t seem clear to the province of Alberta or the City of Calgary. Duncan needed to have a proper response to that question and not go back to the “we’ve been clear” refrain. That’s where the back pocket response comes in handy. She didn’t have anything in her back pocket and kept using the same single message.
Key messages are great in media interviews, but you need to anticipate the questions. If you do that well, then providing answers becomes a lot easier, as long as you actually plan to answer the questions.
Duncan got into a problem because she didn’t want to share any information about the negotiations on funding that were still going on. That would indicate what the feds had been “clear on” wasn’t cutting it. If she couldn’t say anything about the negotiations, then she should have said so right away.
Strategy and Delivery
I also wonder whether she should have agreed to doing the interview in the first place? If she couldn’t talk about negotiations then she didn’t have much to say other than she has great memories of the Olympics and the federal government had been clear in its approach to Olympic funding. Perhaps Duncan and the people working for her should have refused to do the interview until after Calgary City Council had voted and she could have talked about details.
I believe however they thought the interview would an easy one and that’s why Duncan led with the Olympic memories. The interview turned when Gray wasn’t buying what Duncan was selling and asked several hard hitting, but fair questions. This can happen on live talkshows. Unlike pre-recorded interviews where the reporter needs to pull one or two clips, this was a much fuller conversation. Not only were we going to get a sound bite from Duncan, we were going to get Gray’s questions and her less than adequate responses. A veteran media guy like Gray doesn’t want to look like a pushover. They should have known that.
One thing more. If I worked with Duncan, I would find a way to have her answer questions more naturally. She spoke in short sentences, with a continual upward inflection, which sounded like a number of short statements, rather than a natural response.
The interview wasn't a good one. I think we can all agree on that. Who should be blamed is another question. Was it Duncan, or the people who prepared her for it? Or Both?
There were no winners in this interview - to say Gray won misunderstands the whole process. An interview is an attempt to solicit information for the audience, not a debate and not a platform for a shill peddling tonic water. Duncan should have left the tonic water in the bottle and started by simply answering the questions asked as best she was able. It's okay to say "I can't answer that" but that has to be up front, not avoided. Then she needs to add a reason why she can't answer. Then she needs to make sure she isn't making other statements that contradict that. It was obvious listening to her that not only was she reading from notes and relying on printed statements for an answer, she was sitting down at her desk while doing so. She should have read the notes to the point she was comfortable with the content (not the verbiage) and then done the interview standing up. The result would have been much better for both Duncan and Gray.
I agree with you Ken. I don't think I wrote that Gray won in the interview, but I did like the fact that he held Duncan's feet to the fire and didn't let her get away with canned answers.
I agree with everything you said. That interview was abysmal and highlighted absolutely everything people can't stand about politicians. Repeating the same prepared non-informative position over and over again do nothing more than incite rage amongst taxpayers paying these people's salaries. But at the same time I think blame should be put on the entire government as this is completely and 100% reflective of Trudeau's style of presenting everything as wonderful with no problems and clearly no substance behind the sentiment.
I try not to get political in my blogs and instead only examine what was said or done. As far as the interview goes, we agree on the outcome.
It's clear that the winner in this conversation was David Gray. The minister had three paragraphs of 'speaking points' and the last line in each paragraph clearly said "Repeat as required".
If she had simply said "I can't provide details on the negotiation, and we're working together to understand any disconnect in our messaging that may have lead to misunderstanding." the interview would have pretty much concluded - and everyone would look just fine.
Sad to see that media training and basic conversation skills aren't a part of the Ministerial on-boarding program - this kind of interview seems to perpetuate the stereotype of clueless leadership proselytizing on hilltops while missing the bigger picture.
If the Minister was working for a private entity, would she perhaps have gone into the interview with a different attitude about why the situation exists?
Excellent comments. Federal ministers do get a lot of media training. Unfortunately sometimes the people around them don't have real world experience when it comes to the media and believe certain key messages will work. When they don't, we have a problem Houston.