Politicians and media coaching – do’s and don’ts

In many ways, it’s a bit of a thankless job being a local councillor. Too often they’re seen as the poor relations of MPs.

Often “the council” gets the blame whether they’re at fault or not…the state of our roads, our schools,the refuse collection service, the size of our council tax bill or the state of the bus service.

If you don’t recognise the low esteem they’re held in by large swathes of the public,listen to any phone-in on local radio and you won’t have to wait too long for someone to accuse them being “in it for themselves” or that “they’re all the same”.

It’s not just MPs that get the flak.

And although there are some first class councillor interviewees I certainly believe that many could communicate their message much more effectively even when there’s no serious crisis or reputation management issue at stake.

Most MP’s receive media coaching at some stage of their career (often courtesy of their respective parties) but many of our local politicians learn ‘on the hoof’. And that’s not always a good thing as bad media communication habits take hold and are difficult to shake off after time.

If good media training is given early in a politician’s career after a while (and I would argue at regular intervals) certain things should become second nature. And if they’re not then the local authority’s media relations team should seriously consider giving them media coaching or corporate media training.

What kind of stuff do I mean?

Well for starters, taking some time out before the interview to prioritise your message is a critical element of media coaching. Yet speaking to journalists and politicians I’m genuinely quite shocked that some people in key positions in council chambers never or seldom prepare properly.

And then they wonder why their message isn’t heard by enough local people.

I’m a great believer in the so-called ‘Rule of Three’-— in a short 3-5 minute interview make sure you have a maximum of THREE key messages to impart and make sure you get them out.

If you’ve got to repeat your main message then do so,particularly on live radio which is more flexible than tv – if you can use a slightly different phraseology great,but don’t sweat about it.

Do Your Prep

Make sure you’re across your brief in the KEY details but don’t get bogged down with the minutiae of, say, a council decision – you stand the risk of losing your audience.

And if you think of a useful phrase to describe something then try to remember it or write it down…..a well thought-out analogy or phrase can really illustrate a point and help to make your message clearer. And don’t be afraid of taking notes into the radio studio – ideally a few buzz words on a bit of paper or the back of your hand which you can refer to if your mind temporarily goes blank.

They’re fairly obvious prompts but I’m amazed by interviewees who keep to some sort of perceived broadcast protocol against taking notes into a studio ; if it works for you,do it – it’s not a school exam!  But DON’T EVER read out from a written statement when in a live interview situation – it looks and sounds awful – just keep a brief note with key words to prompt you.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised how the adrenalin kicks in and improves your performance without a prepared speech.

If you’re one of those people who can remember snappy Churchillian or Shakespearean quotes then lucky you, but make sure you get it right otherwise you may sound daft.

(No of course,I’m not thinking of a well-known UK politician here).

Remembrance of Things Past

In 1984 I was working for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and I was interviewing a local politician-cum-author who was known to be a bit of a show-off.
In answer to one of my questions he started quoting Marcel Proust ..”We always end up doing the thing we are second best at”.

A decent enough quotation in the right context but he left himself open to my riposte which was on the lines of “Well what is the thing that you as a politician should have really done as a first choice instead of going into politics?”

He certainly didn’t appreciate a quip like that from the young upstart scouse reporter but then he was showboating and had opened himself up to that kind of reply. He’d certainly done his prep on Proust but it was the wrong quote at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

It was a self-inflicted blow which on most occasions might be quickly forgotten but in a different context could have viewed as unhelpful and distracting when trying to convey a serious message.

When interviewees get over-confident and flippant the Gerald Ratner effect can kick with disastrous results.

Of course some councillors seldom appear on the radio or tv but I’m sure that many of those who do could argue their case much more effectively – especially in these tough economic times when increasing numbers are being called to account because of the difficult decisions they’ve had to make.

So the basic media training message here is always do your prep, think carefully about your key messages, cut out the unnecessary detail and please listen to your media trainer or press team when they give you constructive criticism.

Our media coaching workshops are designed to take you and your teams through the paces via our high-intensity workshops – from prep right through to feedback once the interviews are over.

These basic practical tips needs to be part of your councils crisis communications plan.

And if you need support in updating yours give me a call.

And one final tip.

Don’t try quoting Proust… or you risk coming over like Jeffrey Archer.

Whoops.

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