Don’t do a Boris: Top tips on handling difficult media interviews

The car crash interview between Boris Johnson and Eddie Mair on the Andrew Marr show is sure to go down in media history alongside the infamous Jeremy Paxman interview with Michael Howard as how not to handle a press interview. Boris was caught completely off guard as Mair tore strips off him, dredging up past scandals, and even putting to the bewildered politician that he could be considered to be a ‘nasty piece of work’.

Johnson has taken the whole affair in good faith, even commending Mair on doing a good job of catching him off his guard and taking him to task, saying that: “he was perfectly within his rights to have a bash at me. In fact it would have been shocking if he hadn’t. If a BBC presenter can’t attack a nasty Tory politician what’s the world coming to?”

Despite the mayor’s good natured response, the interview seems to have polarised opinion, with many feeling that the interview went too far; in fact, the Press Gazette reported that the BBC received nearly 600 complaints. Whether Mair was right or wrong to take such a confrontational approach, the incident does highlight the need to always be on your guard when speaking with the press.

With this in mind, we have prepared a few handy hints and tips for handling tricky press interviews:

  1. Know your enemy – Before any interview your PR agency should provide you with a brief on who you will be speaking to: what is their interview style; what areas do they usually like to cover; who are they writing for; and the style of the publication. Having this information at your fingertips will allow you to take an angle that will gain the most interest and establish a swift rapport with the journalist so that you are able to secure the best coverage possible.
  2. Get your facts straight – Unless the interview is stated from the start to be ‘off the record’, then assume everything you say may and will go into print. With this in mind, it is never a good idea to mention customer names, financial information, or specific growth targets unless you know you have the authorisation to do so.
  3. Just say no – Many people in interview situations can fall into the trap of believing they absolutely have to answer everything that is asked of them, which simply isn’t true. The trick here is to have the confidence to simply say no. This can be a difficult art to master, as it demands that the interviewee refuses the journalist while still keeping them onside. There are a number of techniques that can be deployed to do this, for example, saying ‘while I can’t talk about x, I can talk about y’.
  4. Expect the unexpected – Ahead of any interview there should always be agreed parameters about why the interview is taking place and the key topics that will be discussed. However, journalists do not always stick to the script and sometimes they may be interested in gaining expert opinion on other topics. For example, there may have been breaking news that the journalist asks for comment on, or they may want to know about other areas of the business that you are not involved in. The key is to not let yourself get flustered; if you are comfortable answering the question then it can actually be beneficial form a relationship building perspective to get into a wider discussion. At the same time you should not feel pressured into answering anything that you are not comfortable talking about.

These are just a few simple ways in which you can help prepare for interviews; but it is always advisable to get media training if you are dealing with the press regularly. Overall the key is to always be prepared, stay calm, and be confident so that you maintain control of the interview – by doing so you can avoid ‘doing a Boris’!

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  1. […] are a much-vaunted, much-loved staple of any PR programme worth its salt, but, like anything in PR, they can go horribly wrong. But even when an interview isn’t a complete car crash, as any PR pro will know, a lot of […]

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