Talk to Me, Don't Read to Me
I saw something on the TV news recently that got me upset. Ok, lots of events on the TV news bother me, but this was different. It wasn’t a crime story, government wrongdoing, or a tax hike. It was the way some politicians were delivering announcements.
Once again I noticed an Alberta politician reading from a prepared statement when “speaking” to the news media. I don’t know about you, but I don’t elect politicians to read from prepared statements when they have an announcement to make. I want them to talk to me and tell me why they’re making the decision. I don’t want to be “read to.”
I have worked with politicians and bureaucrats to get them ready to face the media and would never send them in front of the media and have them start by reading a prepared statement.
Here’s why, and how they should be talking to the media.
Why Are They Reading to Us?
I live in Edmonton and almost two years ago, Albertans elected an NDP government led by Rachel Notley. It’s been interesting to see how the Premier and her Ministers have interacted with the media from a distance. I’m not a legislature reporter, so I can’t give you a firsthand account of how they speak at news conferences and other events, but what I can talk about is what I see in the form of final products in the media.
I don’t like what I see.
A few weeks ago the government wanted to announced a ban on door-to-door sales for energy companies. For years there have been companies, with less than stellar reputations, who sent salespeople through neighbourhoods trying to get residents to sign up for their energy packages. Salespeople are usually pushy and when they came to my house I told them I would never sign with their company because of its reputation. They pretended not to know what I was talking about, but if they understood, it was fun to see them try to explain past transgressions.
In late November, Service Alberta Minister Stephanie McLean held a news conference in the home of an Edmonton senior citizen who claimed she was duped into signing a five year energy contract from a door-to-door salesperson.
I understand why the government decided to hold the news conference there. It was a unique, folksy location. However it was also awkward as reporters trekked into the senior’s home and figured out the best location to place their cameras.
When I watched the news coverage that night, Minister McLean was reading from a prepared statement sitting on the woman’s kitchen table to explain why the government was banning door-to-door sales for energy products and other home items like air conditioners and energy audits.
Why a prepared statement? I wasn’t at the news conference, but when I was in the media, the last thing we wanted from a politician was for them to read from a prepared statement. If McLean did answer questions from the media to explain the reasons behind the government’s decision, those clips weren’t shown on any of the newscasts I watched. I have to assume the prepared statement was the best thing the media got from her that day.
I’m sure reporters were provided with a written news release. That can explain the background and provide the details reporters need to write their stories. The politician should respond with their thoughts and knowledge and not rely on reading the news release or speaking notes.
Reading Isn’t a Natural Form of Communication
When Prime Minister Trudeau announced the approval of the construction two pipelines in early December, Premier Notley followed that announcement by reading a prepared statement to give her opinion on the announcement. I found that the statement made her look rigid and stiff, but yet when she took questions from reporters about the government’s decision she spoke from the heart with conviction and credibility. Why the need for the prepared statement when she said much the same thing and said it so much better in response to questions? Maybe it’s something she had to do because Trudeau had also read a prepared statement. Perhaps it was protocol.
When any politician reads a prepared statement to make an announcement, I wonder how much they’ve been involved in the decision and are happy with it, or whether they’re just a figurehead reading a statement that’s been given to them by their bureaucrats. I always wonder if the tail is wagging the dog. After all, we elect politicians to lead and not to follow the command of their bureaucrats. That doesn’t appear to be the case when they read statements that have been prepared for them.
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper became very good at making announcements. He used notes, but only as a guide. He was able to take the notes off the page and make the announcement sound as though he had a deep understanding of the issue. Earlier in his term as Prime Minister he didn’t always do that, so like anything else, a big part of the ability to speak in public simply comes down to experience.
Maybe that’s it. Perhaps because of the lack of experience many Alberta cabinet ministers have they want to read from a prepared statement. I’ve seen a few other cabinet ministers reading from statements in the legislature’s press room, where media conferences are held.
My comments are not intended to criticize communications people working with government ministers. I’ve been there and I know their advice isn’t always followed by people above them. It’s unfortunate because they have experience with the media and know what they’re doing. Communications officers are almost universally smart people, but I would be willing to bet a "higher up" has made the decision to get government ministers to read prepared statements. It's safer.
Here’s How It’s Done
As you likely know, I do most of my work as a media trainer, preparing people to speak to the news media, including politicians. Here’s how I would prepare any government Minister to make an announcement.
I think it’s important before any announcement is made to spend time reviewing written material with the person who’ll be speaking, including details in the news release and speaking notes. If they know what they’re going to say before they say it, chances are they will say it better. Then I would develop a list of questions for the politician because I can anticipate about 90% of the questions that’ll be asked. I used to be in the media and have done media training for years. It’s easy to know what questions will be asked by reporters.
With that information, it’s fairly easy to develop a set of key messages and it’s these messages that should be used to answer many of the questions. I believe it’s also important to let the person tell a story to illustrate their point, which allows them to speak from the heart and gives the media the sound bites it’s after.
Finally the most important part is the practicing that takes place before the news conference. It really brings everything together. In my mind, by the time the person conducting the news conference takes questions from journalists, they should have practiced taking questions from their aides at least twice. You don’t always get a chance to prepare, I understand that, but even 15 minutes of practice can make a huge difference.
Rather than the politician reading the prepared statement, they should start the news conference by paraphrasing the news release, talking about the specific aspects of the announcement they want to highlight and then they can take questions from reporters. The media can get details from the written news release.
I’m not saying these steps aren’t being taken by the people who work with Alberta cabinet ministers, but it doesn’t appear that way from watching the TV news. Politicians should be allowed to talk to reporters and not read to them. Isn’t that why we elected them?
The trick is to make it look natural. As the line in the Rod Stewart song You’re in My Heart went “Her ad lib lines were well rehearsed.