Why specialist media training would have helped the CEO of Persimmon Homes

 The BBC Look North interview by Spencer Stokes with Jeff Fairburn, CEO of Persimmon Homes was just wrong on so many levels… http://https://twitter.com/spencerstokestv/status/1052981336288432128

Firstly, it was a clear reminder to public relations advisors that journalists are not there to ask easy questions and then write puff pieces on their behalf. No journalist worthy of the name will do that. That just simply isn’t the nature of the engagement, nor should it ever be, however good a relationship is between the organisation and its media, or dare I say, however powerful or important an organisation believes itself to be. 

In this interview a fairly straightforward question was met with incredulity, and something verging on arrogance. In effect, “Do you know who I am?  You can’t ask me that sort of question!”

It is perfectly acceptable ahead of the interview through dialogue with the interviewer or researcher to be clear about what areas are of interest and going to be explored during the interview.  You and your spokesperson can then identify content and evidence that provides information around those areas. That’s called planning.  However, it is naive in the extreme to think that a journalist will not stray from those areas, that just isn’t the nature of the beast.

 Any PR should ensure their interviewee is ready for journalists trying to take their spokespeople away from the safety of the planned messages.  The unexpected is fertile ground and contains much more interesting information for the journalist. They know that, and the PR should know it too.

 Trying to step in and prevent a question being asked or trying to stop the interview are strategies that are humiliating and doomed to fail. As in this case those actions become the story.  Spokespeople should be ready for the curve ball questions and have strategies that bring the interview back to where you want to be.  You cannot tell the journalist which questions to ask, it is how you respond to that which then matters. And, if you say, “Don’t ask questions about….” That is a sure-fire way to get those questions. It is just the way a journalist thinks.

 Whilst Persimmon Homes is clearly a very successful business that does not mean that the media will not challenge.  Just because an organisation sees a good news story doesn’t mean that everyone else will. Those in senior positions need to expect challenging questions and be able to deal with them. Specialist media training would achieve this.

So, I hear you asking, if Persimmon got it wrong, what would I have advised? As a PR I would have been clear about the purpose of the interview and agreed the areas that would be explored. I would have worked alongside the CEO and prepared the messages that we wanted to deliver. I would have also anticipated a range of challenging questions, probably the question on the CEO’s bonus being number 1.  We would have an agreed response to that and a range of other challenging questions. 

And what, you say, would have been my response?  What would I have said is something around; “X number of quality, much needed homes built this year, X number of families housed, allowed X first time buyers onto the housing ladder, X jobs created and sustained, created a platform for greater growth, shareholders confident leading to future investment….”

 So much of what Persimmon has achieved has been and is a good news story. But instead of talking about a successful business we are talking about a CEO who quite frankly looked embarrassingly weak when put under a bit of pressure by a journalist…

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