The Interview Dilemma

The Interview Dilemma

Ian Katz’s piece (£) bemoaning the death of the political interview has implications for business leaders in the media too.

He recalls that Rachel Reeves tweet, but concludes that in fact “a large proportion of political interviews – maybe even most – are boring snoring.”

He blames “PR capos” who care more about delivering “the line” than their charges coming across as human beings engaging in genuine conversation with the public.

This “safety first ethos”, making even the most interesting political figures seem dull, is also a danger for business leaders. Political leaders with a “weakness for candour” are kept away from the cameras. Many a PR with a larger than life CEO or Chairman who enjoys deviating from the lines to take will be familiar with this.

Of course we want to ensure our clients make the most of every opportunity, delivering their key message, no matter what the question. But these sort of interviews, just like the political interview, turn viewers or listeners off.

The problem does not just sit with those being interviewed. Portland’s Tim Allan, quoted by Katz, blames adversarial “punk journalism” that “judges itself by how many hits it can rack up against its subject”. Former broadcaster now Labour MP Gloria De Piero tweeted that when writing questions for Humphrys and Dimbleby “the questions were formulated to trip up rather than inform”.

Certainly this is true for business leaders put up to defend their difficult decisions, whether lacklustre financials, or a product that has gone wrong. Yes, the interviewer has a duty to uncover the truth. But the adversarial nature of the interview means we lose something.

We lose a chance to genuinely understand and tackle the hard questions facing our politicians and businesses. Katz tells of a Tory Minister’s desire to say “Here’s the policy…there are quite a few problems with it but let me tell you why both of [the other] options were worse.”

Can you imagine that happening on Marr to the 8.10 Today slot? Or a CEO admitting that their results weren’t as good as they’d have liked, or that it really was the toughest decision of their life to make those redundancies?

Yes, message discipline and rehearsing key points matters. But business leaders need to sound like human beings, providing candid answers, not like automatons. To achieve this though, as Katz argues in relation to political interviews, interviewers need to give their subjects “space to breathe”.

Everyone gains from this. The interviewer is more likely to get something interesting than simply “the line” delivered 4 or 5 times. The interviewee gains the space to explain some difficult truths. But the person who gains most is us, the punters.

The status quo treats us like we don’t have the capacity to understand the big issues. Having been out of the political and media bubble for a year on maternity leave, I’ve had a lot of time to consume media like a member of the public. And I couldn’t bear hearing the pre-prepared lines, or the aggressive tone. It made me switch off.

So we can all only hope that the proposed ceasefire happens. The challenge – as with the prisoner’s dilemma – is that it only works if everyone does it, and no-one has the incentive to go first.

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