Watching Chloe Smith being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, I veered between two competing views on her performance:
On the one hand, you can’t help but feel sorry for anyone who is subject to such a relentless skewering from the master inquisitor, particularly one who looks – and is – so young.
What was George Osbourne doing, allowing such a junior and inexperienced subordinate be interviewed to defend his policy U-turn? And what were the Treasury’s PR people doing, allowing her to go into what was always going to be a difficult interview so woefully unprepared?
On the other hand, she is a minister in Her Majesty’s Government, she is elected to represent her constituents and has been promoted to a position where she makes decisions which affect millions of people. As such, she is fair game, as Jeremy Paxman clearly felt, and one would expect her to be both intelligent and across her own brief – and particularly that of the subject of the interview.
You can judge for yourself, but whatever view you subscribe to, don’t let this interview put you off agreeing to media interviews, because most people being interviewed will not face such an aggressive interviewer. Most people are not interviewed to defend a Government policy. Most have been asked onto TV or radio because they are experts whose views are being sought.
Even so, there are lessons that can be drawn from this interview.
Clearly Chloe Smith had taken on board the lesson about delivering her key message (about the government doing what it can to help hard-pressed households and businesses), as she did this repeatedly.
But there were two key areas which were missing from her preparation for the interview:
1. She did not research the style of the programme or the interviewer and take this into account. This is very important as the style of each programme and the approach of its presenters varies enormously. Think about the differences between Nicky Campbell on Five Live, the BBC Breakfast presenters, Eammon Holmes on Sky and Huw Edwards on the Ten O’Clock News, and be ready for them.
While most journalists will generally ask a ‘soft’, ‘open’ question at the beginning of an interview, Jeremy Paxman generally goes straight for the jugular, and asks his most difficult question first. So anyone on Newsnight needs to be ready for that and not be thrown.
2. She did not anticipate the questions that might be asked. This is important for any interview, but vital if you are there to defend or explain a policy or respond to a crisis. You have to think of everything that might come up, and work out how she was going respond to them.
Both these points – and more – are drilled into our trainees on our media training courses. Preparation, preparation, preparation is the key to success.