PR 101: Always prepare for difficult media questions

At Calacus, we do a fair amount of media training and the impressions our clients have ahead of the workshops are always the same.

They are cynical of the media, scared that the journalists are our to get them or that they have already decided what they are going to write or say, so they tend to be very wary.

To be honest, working as a journalist, I encountered many hacks who had already written their stories and sometimes even undertook interviews just to get the quotes that they had already written. 

Now that I'm on the other side of the media fence, I explain to anyone ahead of an interview that whatever happens, they must get in their key message first and be prepared for every possible line of questioning.

When a new product or initiative is being launched or promoted, spokespeople are usually happy to speak to the media to share the good news, raise awareness of their plans and hopefully inspire a feelgood factor.

That's all well and good but as Benjamin Franklin once said, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

It is crazy to go into an interview unprepared for any of the difficult issues or topics that may arise, as Nestle CEO Fiona Kendrick appeared to do on BBC Five Live Breakfast on Friday.

The interview was arranged to discuss the good news that Nestle is creating 1600 jobs for young people in a bid to help tackle youth unemployment.

Ms Kendrick answered the questions well and had clearly been well briefed about the messages she would have to deliver. Talking about good news where there are few opportunities for criticism is not a huge challenge for an experienced speaker.

However, any journalist worth their salt would take the opportunity when interviewing a CEO to ask the difficult questions.

And any PR department worth their salt should have briefed their spokesperson ahead of the interview with answers for all the hazardous questions that could arise if the journalist went off-topic.

Nestle has a big issue at the moment with infant milk. A boycott campaign has been taking place for some time in response to Nestle's marketing strategy which it is claimed is contributing to avoidable infant deaths around the world.

A number of major charities support the boycott including Oxfam and Save The Children.

Ms Kendrick stuttered and was clearly thrown by the boycott questioning, offering brief and unconvincing answers to the interviewers who were reasoned and not even aggressive as they raised the topic.

I can imagine the Nestle PR might have been unhappy by the line of questioning but it bemuses me that they would not have briefed their spokesperson fully.

It could be argued that Ms Kendrick should have her responses to such topics prepared anyway, such is her status at Nestle, but either way, the interview will be remembered for the boycott issue rather than new jobs.

And that underlines the need for full briefings and regular media training ahead of any interview.

David Alexander