As Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy put it: “I will defend anyone’s right to act like an arse, but if they do, they shouldn’t be surprised if anyone else decides to park their bike somewhere painful.”
You may have seen the video of Persimmon plc CEO, Jeff Fairburn, walking off-camera during a recent BBC interview. He objected to being asked whether there were any lessons to be learned from a furore surrounding his £100m bonus earlier in the year. Fairburn appeared surprised that the issue was being raised – he was planning to talk about a brick factory – replying: “I’d rather not talk about that, it’s been well covered actually.” As someone (a company PR perhaps?) pleads off-camera saying “can we not [discuss this]?”, Fairburn is pressed twice more, stays silent and then just walks away. Can’t or won’t justify it? It matters not.
How could Fairburn – or any CEO faced with unexpected difficult interview questions – have handled it?
During the normal course of their business lives, CEOs are used to being in charge, making decisions and many are not keen on being challenged once those decisions have been made. But where subordinates quaver, journalists question. Many CEOs are deeply uncomfortable being questioned by journalists – we know, we’ve trained enough of them over the years. While some CEOs value media relationships, others wish to avoid contact as much as they can, at best tolerating the media’s ‘impertinent’ or ‘facile’ questions or at worst, treating them with barely disguised contempt.
- You may have a CEO who is not a fan of the media. But if your organisation is not one that can fly under its radar, you need to reinforce regularly the reasons and benefits of media contact to the organisation and to them personally (and the downsides of doing it badly). This is why you are the communications adviser to your organisation, not merely an agent of it. You need sensitively to acknowledge the CEO’s discomfort and support them through it. Behavioural economics, the psychology of communications, stakeholder engagement – these are your acknowledged areas of expertise. Quality media training – regularly refreshed for handling new issues and new external environments – helps by coaching and supporting them to overcome anxieties and unhelpful temperaments as well as preparing them to deal with the unexpected.
- Tell them never to walk out of a media interview that you’ve organised (being doorstepped has its own rules and you can find advice on them here). If they do, they look evasive and petulant – and why would a CEO want to be seen to behave in public like a toddler? As Fairburn walks off, he says: “I think that’s really unfortunate actually that you’ve done that” – blaming the journalist for terminating the interview. The audience will rarely blame the interviewer – they will usually blame you. As far as the audience is concerned, the journalist is the independent verifier of the truth, merely asking questions on behalf of the public that it would ask if it could. Moreover, as in this instance, walking out of an interview often becomes a story in itself, generating widespread media coverage and criticism. And maybe questions from your sophisticated stakeholders about your character and judgment.
Be prepared to face the questions that the public wants answered. Had the PR agreed the terms of the interview beforehand about what would be covered? Maybe, maybe not. But even if a journalist breaches an agreement, for a CEO to stand helpless while the PR pleads off camera makes them both look weak. Anticipate negative questions and prepare answers to them, as well as the positive points you want to make during an interview. There is rarely anything in the questioning leading to a walkout that could not have been predicted in advance by the interviewee and their communications adviser. The ‘bridging technique’ can help but look to bridge to ‘who you are’ that emotionally connects with the audience not just some clinical ‘key message’. Maybe Fairburn could just have said “We agreed that we were here to celebrate the building of this brick factory and the employment it has created rather than last April’s coverage of my bonus. But since you have asked, we have learnt from that situation, changed our bonus rules and I donated a significant part of mine to charity. That was then but as I say, we are here today to ….”
7th November update
Ever doubted that the media matters? Well today, Persimmon’s CEO was sacked. According to the company, his pay issue “continues to have a negative impact on the reputation of the business and consequently on Jeff’s ability to continue in his role”.
As a shareholder commented in the FT: “He has been instrumental in leading it all. But in this day and age of leading a company, you need more than just skills of operational and financial performance. You have more stakeholders to answer to — media, customers, suppliers. It is the right thing to do to draw a line under it.”