Daney Parker, Editor, PRmoment.com
Putting your foot in your mouth is always embarrassing, but doing so on national media can ruin you. Get ready to cringe at the worst PR interview disasters in recent history selected by our contributors. Plus, they list ways to make sure car-crash interviews never happen to you or your clients.
Top six car-crash interviews
1. Laurence Fox
Sarah Moloney, London managing director of PR agency KWT Global: “A recent example is Laurence Fox’s controversial comment about ‘playing the race card is becoming boring’ when discussing Meghan Markle on Question Time. He also referred to Britain as the' most tolerant, lovely country’. This unthoughtful commentary resulted in over 250 complaints to the network, as well as, ongoing criticism toward Laurence online.
2. Dara Khosrowshahi
Andy Barr, CEO and founder of agency 10 Yetis Digital, says: “A recent car crash and careless interview that springs to mind is the interview of Dara Khosrowshahi – Uber’s CEO. He compared the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, to an accidental death caused by an autonomous vehicle by saying ‘everyone makes mistakes’.
This was a hugely irresponsible comment from Khosrowshahi, and I can imagine the PR team were listening in on it and scrambling when he made the comment.
Shortly after the interview, he quickly apologised for the comments he made and condemned the murder of Khashoggi, saying that he had said something in the moment that he did not believe. The team reacted quickly and efficiently, armed with comments acknowledging that he had made a ‘mistake’ and people soon forgave Uber for the thoughtless comments. It just goes to show that even those who you expect to be fully media trained can say things in the spur of the moment, or without a thought for the consequences, which do not resonate with public opinion and can lead to extensive backlash.”
3. Mike Coupe
Henry Warrington, creative director at PR agency Third City, says: “You just couldn’t make this one up. Sainsbury’s chief executive, Mike Coupe, mic on, was waiting to be interviewed about a merger with Asda, from which it was reported Sainsbury’s was set to make £500M.
Then Coupe, a shareholder, started singing to himself… ‘We’re In The Money!’ ITV released the clip, it went viral, and Coupe had to apologise. It wasn’t a good look, with Ian Cass, MD of the Forum of Private Business, commenting ‘I very much doubt small suppliers would choose the same song to sing… one option would be Highway to Hell’.”
Addy Frederick, group communications at financial services firm Prudential, adds: “As comms professionals, we spend so much time preparing spokespeople for interviews, ensuring they know the key messages and numbers.
However, in this instance, it wasn’t a spokesperson’s response to a journalist’s questions that was his undoing. The damage was done before that. That interview highlighted something that is so easily overlooked ahead of an interview: the need for spokespeople to make sure that they are interview-ready before and after the camera starts rolling.“
4. Jeff Fairburn
Fleur Stamford, comms assistant at agency TopLine Comms, says: “When Jeff Fairburn, the ex-CEO of Persimmon Homes, was asked by Spencer Stokes for BBC Look North about his £75m bonus during an interview, it was clear that he hadn’t prepared for that question to appear. Fairburn appeared to crumble under the pressure of the question, stumbling over his words and eventually turning to his PR advisor for support (who you can hear trying to salvage the situation). Eventually, Fairburn refuses to comment anymore and walks away from the interview. It’s a painful moment for Fairburn and gives a bad impression of the company.“
Eliot Wilson, head of research at public relations and reputation management practice Right Angles talks about the lessons this interview offers: “First, you can’t control the subject of an interview: a journalist will want to talk about whatever’s newsworthy, and there’s no point in stubbornly insisting on your pre-arranged topic. Second, know when you’ve lost: the interviewer had no interest in the bricks and that horse had bolted, so Fairburn should have taken it on the chin, rather than walking off (almost always the worst thing to do, unless you’re John Nott).”
5. Scott Morrison
Simon Benson, founder of agency ReputationPR, says: “During the recent bush fires, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison made a mistake I see so many times by world leaders – carrying on with their holiday during a time of sudden national crisis. You’d think they would learn, but whether it’s personal arrogance or the detachment from reality that can come with holding high office, it’s a guaranteed way of sleepwalking into a media crisis. In Morrison’s major interview disaster, he fanned the flames by saying there was no reason for him to come back because he ‘doesn’t hold a hose’. This made him look condescending to those who do, aloof from his public and to many people, simply un-Australian. In this case, being more empathetic could have averted a crisis that allowed a perception of weakness when his leadership skills should have been at their strongest.”
6. Prince Andrew
Last, but the opposite of least, Prince Andrew has to go down in history as an example of what NOT to do in media interviews. Karen Kay, managing director of media training agency Shoot the Messenger, says: “Prince Andrew’s November 2019 interview with Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis was a clearly agreed, rigorous journalistic examination of his links with the late Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire convicted sex offender who took his own life in prison while awaiting trial for sex trafficking.
“It may not have been a daytime TV ‘sofa chat’, but it was his – long-overdue – opportunity to show compassion for Epstein’s victims, to demonstrate contrition for his deeply questionable friendship with the felon and apologise without reservation for errors of judgment. Instead, the Duke of York’s responses to Maitlis’s questions were mostly complacent and self-regarding and always lacking in humanity.
“If his communications team had attempted to prepare him for the grilling, they had failed spectacularly to imbue him with any sense of empathy, humility or remorse. From the gilded cage of Buckingham Palace, Prince Andrew’s air of entitled arrogance and blatant disregard for others left viewers with the firm view that he cared only about his personal reputation – and therein lies the crux of almost every mishandled ‘crisis’ interview.”
KWT’s Sarah Moloney adds: “Not only did Prince Andrew show a lack of compassion towards Epstein’s victims, he went on to ramble bizarrely about Pizza Express in Woking and a medical condition that makes it ‘impossible’ for him to sweat? What the public saw during this interview was how he attempted to use his position of power to remove himself from any form of judgement. This has not only caused public damage, but extreme embarrassment to the royal family.”
How to prevent media disasters
Prep, prep, prep
Make sure you are ready for all types of questions, and have answers for those you are not expecting too. Be prepared with remarks that either reflect or deflect.
Stop repeating yourself
There is no point in keeping going on your pre-prepared subject as this does you no favours and makes it clear you are unable, or unwilling, to answer the journalist’s questions.
Do not walk off
Take perceived insults on the chin and be as gracious as you can.
Remember you are never off air
If there is a camera or microphone around, always assume it’s on, even in between interviews. Furthermore, with everyone having a smartphone in their pocket, you’re never truly off-air and have to behave as such. The media are always looking for a fresh angle, so don’t give it to them on a plate.
In media training, one of the key disciplines to practice is empathy. This not only improves messaging, but can also improve strategy.
Own up to your mistakes and show that you are genuinely sorry for them. Pretending you didn’t make them or showing no regret makes you look like a liar or a monster.
Keep your PR advisor out of sight
Press officers and PROs should never be seen or heard. You have to look like you are saying what you genuinely mean, not what you have been advised to say.
Be careful how you use humour
What you think is funny is another person’s bad taste. Use humour and sarcasm with care, because a joke can look like a callous remark when it is repeated out of context.
Being interviewed is like walking through a minefield, so make sure you are prepared for all those landmines, and if you do set one off, have a contingency plan for controlling the explosion.
If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe for free to our twice weekly event and subscriber alerts.
Currently, every new subscriber will receive three of our favourite reports about the public relations sector.