With a month to go until the UK General Election, the inevitable focus is on the media performance of the party leaders. The heated rows around the leaders’ TV debates exemplify the continued desire to see politicians squirm to answer tough questions on stage. A recent YouGov survey showed that seven in 10 voters want to see televised debates, and more than half believe that they are good for democracy. And so, last week under the studio lights, we finally started to see some of our toughest interviewers tackle the party leaders.
As you may have witnessed from afar, it certainly did not start well for the Greens. Their leader, Natalie Bennett, quickly discovered that just knowing your numbers is an essential part of interview preparation—especially if it is a live radio interview. She appeared on London’s talk station, LBC, where the presenter quite reasonably asked her how her party would fund the building of 500,000 new council houses—but she just didn’t know the numbers. The interview continued for a further three painful minutes of stutters, stumbles, awkward pauses, and long silences.
While Natalie Bennett blamed “brain fade,” the media were quick to report that what she actually needed was media training. And, perhaps she is not the only one.
On my travels, I am often asked for examples of the best business communicators. Despite running media training sessions for the past 15 years, the irony is that the list of CEOs who best handle the media pressure hasn’t really changed at all.
Time and time again, the likes of Gates, Jobs, and Branson are the easiest to name. One good communicator, since retired, was supermarket boss Justin King. His success has been attributed to his ability not only to steer through change, but also to communicate what he was doing—both inside and outside the business. As Alex Benady said in his PR Week article: “Justin King is a natural communicator who enjoys the give and take of human interaction even when it concerns bad news.”
Right though that is, the battlefield has changed—as we all know and as Branson himself recently accepted: “Embracing social media isn’t just a bit of fun, it’s a vital way to communicate, keep your ear to the ground and improve your business.”
According to Brandfog, almost three quarters of people in the UK and US believe that CEO participation in social media leads to better leadership, helps build better connections with customers, employees and investors, and improves trust. Yet, the cost of getting it wrong can be equally as bad as a car crash TV interview.
Just as Natalie Bennett’s interview on live radio, Ryanair CEO Michael O’ Leary’s infamous Twitter debut in 2013 did not go so smoothly. While the aim was to soften O’Leary’s image and brand, the reality was a series of sexist and confrontational remarks—more in keeping with his existing image as a brash, arrogant CEO. When an attractive-looking customer tweeted to ask a question, he was quick to respond with: “Nice pic. Phwoaaarr!! MOL.” Another more recent casualty: Gene Morphis, finance chief of US fashion retailer Francesca Holdings, lost his job after some poorly judged tweets were found to contravene company policies.
For leaders looking to communicate with their audiences—be it voters, customers, investors, or employees—either on social media or via a camera and microphone, there are lessons to be learnt in the triumphs and failures of those who have gone before. But perhaps the most important one, simple though it sounds, is to be fully prepared. Interestingly, as Harvard Business Review showed in its Research: What CEOs Really Want From Coaching, two-thirds of CEOs (66 percent) still do not receive coaching from outside consultants.
To borrow another of Richard Branson’s quotes: “Chance favours the prepared mind. The more you practice, the luckier you become.” For the leaders jockeying for position in the run up to the General Election, luck will favour those prepared enough to tackle the difficult questions thrown at them in TV debates, and so convince the viewing public to vote for them on 7th May.
Tim Luckett, Global Crisis Practice Leader, Hill+Knowlton Strategies