‘Aggressive’ interview tactics are nothing new in the cut and thrust world of the media. However, an interview conducted by Sky News presenter Kay Burley with the CEO of Merlin Entertainments, Nick Varney, following the tragic accident at Alton Towers, has hit a nerve and led to a wave of public criticism on social media.
The industry regulator, Ofcom, has since confirmed that it will not be investigating Sky News about Burley’s handling of the interview, despite receiving close to 2,000 complaints.
Having watched the interview, which took place several days after the accident, Burley was certainly unrelenting in her questioning and despite looking slightly ruffled at times, Varney held his ground admirably. But could your company spokesperson do the same?
Some spokespeople thrive in challenging media interview scenarios while others, despite being effective in other situations, find it difficult to confidently withstand the pressure of emotive, repetitive and leading questions.
In this interview Varney was told by Burley that ‘Smiler’ was "not safe enough" and he was probed about whether he had actually met the families of all four of the injured young people face to face. In a classic example of a leading question, which could so easily have made him seem insensitive and money-minded, he was asked to confirm if he was "content" with the safety measures the park had in place on the day of the accident. How could he be?
Despite the heat of the interview, Varney stuck to his messages well – the main ones being uncertainty surrounding the cause of the accident and safety being a number one priority. At intervals throughout the interview he also expressed his deep regret for what had happened, describing it at one point as a "harrowing experience for everybody".
If any fault can be found with Varney’s handling of the interview, it is perhaps that he appeared to rise to the bait on a couple of occasions, showing his irritation with the line of questioning – "you’re misrepresenting me" and "they’re in hospital aren’t they". While understandable in the face of such aggressive questioning, the ability to stay calm under pressure is vital when it comes to protecting corporate reputation in such situations.
A huge amount of damage can be caused to corporate reputation and indeed commercial performance when things go wrong. BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill comes to mind and didn’t the company’s CEO at the time, Tony Hayward, do a good job there! In that case, the apparent self-concern Hayward showed in the face of such disaster, which led him to utter the words "I’d like my life back", was widely criticised and the company’s share price plummeted.
Another flaw that is often evident when business leaders step up to give media interviews in crisis situations is the lack of depth to their preparation. Some dislike the idea of over-preparing for anything and this can leave them vulnerable. Others understand the value of preparing messages (and sticking to them) but fail to understand that headlines are not enough.
Anyone can stand up and deliver a message, but they must be prepared to talk in depth about what has happened and repeat their points. Failing to do this could mean they come across as shallow, weak or both, and force them into a situation where they have no choice but to perform to the journalist’s agenda.
In the wake of Burley v Varney, every corporate communications team worth its salt should be checking that their media training is up to date and there are no significant gaps. They should also consider if they have at least one board-level spokesperson who shines in challenging interview scenarios and make sure their skills are honed and ready to use.
If media training has been carried out recently at an intermediate level, focusing on tips for getting the most out of interviews, then it’s probably time for something more hard hitting.
Rebecca Scully is managing director at PR and digital services agency Smarts Illuminate