The tale of the angry Aussie minister – what not to do in a media interview

It’s 1993 in Darwin, Australia. ABC television reporter Jeremy Thompson turns up at the offices of Territory Transport and Works Minister Max Ortmann. An appointment has been made between Thompson and Ortmann to record an interview for ABC’s 7.30 Report. Thompson has planned to ask Ortmann a few questions about a couple of paragliders (sounds innocent enough), but he’s reserved a few questions for the end of the interview. He wants to ask Ortmann about a controversial canal development project in the Darwin suburbs of Bayview. Thompson has heard a few rumours about potential bribery and favour doing.

What follows that unexpected line of questioning is quite shocking, and you can still watch the footage from the interview today. A rather peeved (which is probably an understatement) Ortmann decides to wrap the cord of his telephone around Thompson’s neck and apply pressure. Thompson was then given his marching orders.

Now if you’re Thompson in this situation, you’ve struck gold. What brilliant viewing. You’ve clearly caught the minister in some deep discomfort. However, if you’re Ortmann, you’ve royally screwed up and it looks like you’ve got something to hide.

Why invest in media training?

Now, if only Ortmann had had some media training, perhaps he would have been able to control himself and rebut the claims that were leveled at him. Sure, the minister was blindsided by some questions he had no idea were going to come up. But despite the underlying accusations implied by the questions, there was a way of handling them that didn’t involve choking someone out.

At Babel, I’ve ran a number of media training sessions with a variety of global executives, CEOs, and high-profile spokespeople. Each session, I ask one specific question – what do you dislike the most about media interviews? The response is always the same. ‘I don’t like not knowing what the journalist is going to ask,’ or variations on this theme.

Caught you off guard

It is very difficult to anticipate every single question a journalist may or may not ask. But we usually have a pretty good idea. For the remaining 5% we don’t know, we can still prepare for with some useful techniques to establish control. These points are even more important right now, when spokespeople and journalists alike are conducting interviews from remote locations, when technology can fail, and anything can happen (an interrupting child as an example!) It’s in these moments when the clarity of your message, your ability to remain calm under pressure and also think on your feet, really come into their own.

Virtual media training

But we also practice what we preach at Babel. With lockdown impeding our ability to meet clients face-to-face over the last few months, we had to turn to virtual means to conduct our media training sessions to ensure that spokespeople were prepared for all eventualities. My colleague Katie and I recently ran six virtual media trainings over three days for 18 high profile executives belonging to one of our telecoms clients. Not only was this a good test run for how virtual media training would work in practice (which it turns out, works very well), but it would also help us put the delegates attending the training through their paces.

As a result of those virtual sessions, here are three key takeaways for virtual media interviews or panel discussions:

  1. Check the tech works

No one likes a tech fail. It’s embarrassing when your face is frozen in an awkward position due to connectivity issues, or your camera is pointed somewhere it shouldn’t be (I’m looking at you, naked Spanish councillor). Make sure you have the right equipment for the task at hand, and do a dry run before you go into the interview. If you can anticipate what could potentially go wrong with technology before going ‘live on air’, the less anxious you’ll likely be if something does go wrong.

  1. Minimise disruptions

This is a lot harder to do given we’ve all been living in lockdown for the past four months. Our work lives have become enmeshed with our home lives, and this was perfectly demonstrated (and handled I might add) through a recent interview the BBC conducted with Dr Clare Wenham on local lockdowns. Where possible, try to minimise disruptions or distractions (such as your phone being put on silent, as an example). Where disruptions are simply unavoidable, follow Dr. Wenham’s suit. Be humble, and make light of the situation. Try not to get too flustered. My cat made an impromptu appearance in my training session. And so, a delegate got his own cat involved in the training too!

  1. Take control

Interrupting cats and connectivity issues aside, the one thing you absolutely can control in an interview is you. You are in control of how you react and respond to the interviewer. And that exertion of control comes from preparation and practice, hence the media training sessions we run at Babel.

As part of our sessions, we provide spokespeople with simulated journalist roleplays, to test their mettle against often disingenuously tricky faux interviewers. Before those simulations go ahead, we run through a variety of techniques and statements that journalists can use to pivot back to a safer line of questioning should they get an Ortmann-style question. Our advice to spokespeople is, before every single interview you give with media, rehearse, rehearse and rehearse again. Jot down your key points for the interview, practice responses to any trickier questions and use those statements to reassert yourself should you feel you’re being asked something you really can’t answer.

The moral of this story and the tale of the angry Aussie minister is this: don’t lose your cool. Today, experts come in all shapes and sizes. You never know when you might be called upon to give an interview or share your knowledge. But there’s no need to panic. You’ve got this. Structure your thoughts, practice your delivery and take control. However, if you do feel like you need to brush up your skills, why not get in touch?

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