7 Media Training & Spokesperson Lessons from Rand Paul vs. Savannah Guthrie

guthrie paul interviewBy Gerard Braud

The New York Times called me Friday for a comment about Rand Paul’s hostile interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. When the Times starts calling for observations, that means the political season is in full swing. Reporter Alan Rappeport does a great job covering candidates and the things they say in his blog, First Draft. I wasn’t available when he called, but he did get some good insights from my friend and colleague Brad Phillips, who some of you know as Mr. Media Training.

You can learn a lot about your own media interview do’s and don’ts during campaigns, especially the presidential campaigns. We’ll take sometime this week to look at a few lessons.

For all of you who are spokespeople, I encourage you to first watch the NBC Today Show interview. Here are my observations about how it went:

Question one was background. It went smoothly.

Question two was about Iran negotiations. Guthrie tried to interrupt Paul 2:05 into the interview and Paul successfully interrupted to say, “Let me answer the question,” to which she did and the answer by Paul was a good one. However,

Lesson 1: To all spokespeople – the reporter has the right to interrupt you if it appears you are dodging the question. In this case, I think Paul was adding context, which many reporters don’t want to hear.

Lesson 2: Add context when you can. But if you look at the video, Guthrie appears embarrassed by the interruption. That isn’t good for Paul.

Lesson 3: Don’t embarrass a reporter on live television.

Question three was Guthrie at 3:03 into the interview asking Paul about issues that she said he changed his mind about over the years. On her third example at 3:16, Paul interrupts in a way that I believe crossed the line into being combative. Paul feels she is asking a biased question. Guthrie continues despite his talking over her. She completes the question by talking over his interruption, then he, in my opinion, comes across as being condescending as he begins to lecture her on how her question should have been phrased.

Lesson 4: Do not be condescending to a reporter. When a spokesperson reaches this point, things will always get uncomfortable and combative.

Lesson 5: As a spokesperson, you have the right to rephrase a question, but you should not think that lecturing a popular reporter on live television is a wise move.

My suggestion for any spokesperson at a time like this is to allow the reporter to finish their question, then to simply reply, “I cannot agree with the premise of your question.” The spokesperson should then state the facts as he or she believes them to be true.

Instead of the response I suggest, Paul initiates an argument that sounds much like a husband and wife who seem to be debating something that neither has heard correctly.

Lesson 6: When two people speak at the same time like this, neither can hear the other clearly.

From the perspective of control, Paul is completely controlling the interview. However, he is embarrassing Guthrie to the point that the loyal viewers who love and adore her will learn to hate Paul. For Paul, he gained control of the interview’s direction, but at what cost?

Brad Phillips told the New York Times that a spokesperson must remember, “The reporter is the conduit to the audience you want to reach out to.” This echoes the lesson I write about in Chapter 1 of Don’t Talk to the Media Until which is that in an interview, you are not talking to the media, you are talking to the media’s audience.

All of you who serve as spokespeople must walk a fine line when getting combative with a reporter, especially in a live interview on a high profile program like the Today Show.

Lesson 7: Making the media your enemy and being combative usually backfires. Making the media fall in love with you because you give great answers and sound bites always works. Just ask the young Senator from Chicago who ran for President and now sits in the White House. His quotes were always strong and that goes a long way.

The bottom line is that as a spokesperson, you have a right to provide context and to correct errors or misstatements. However, doing it right requires you to remember that, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

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