Brian Edwards Media

If all you need to do is tell the truth, why do people need media training?

Hard Talk's Stephen Sackur

The debate over Mark Hotchin’s interview with Mark Sainsbury on Close Up  has produced the usual shibboleths about Public Relations and Media Training. The practitioners of these dark arts are seen  either as miracle workers who can make sinners look like saints – referred to in the advertising world as ‘polishing a turd’ –  or as shysters making a killing from teaching people how to successfully lie in interviews and thus pull the wool over the eyes of the general public.  If either of these outcomes were possible, Judy and I would not be blogging about the Hotchins, we’d be with them in Hawaii, only in a much nicer spot in a much nicer house.

The “miracle-worker” version is rooted in the idea that readers, listeners and viewers are idiots who can be easily taken in by the practised sleight of hand of the PR/media trained interviewee.  But it simply isn’t so. And especially not on television.

This is what the great doyen of British interviewers, Sir Robin Day, had to say about the televised political interview:

“When a TV interviewer questions a politician, this is one of the rare occasions, perhaps the only occasion outside Parliament, when a politician’s performance cannot be completely manipulated or packaged or artificially hyped. Some TV answers can, of course, be prepared by scriptwriters and committed to memory, but not all. The answers cannot be on autocue as for an address to camera.

 “The image-maker can advise on how to sit, or what hairstyle to have, or on voice quality. But once the interview has started, the politician is on his or her own… Provided there is time for probing  cross-examination, the politician cannot be wholly shielded against the unexpected. The politician’s own brain is seen to operate. His or her real personality tends to burst out. Truth is liable to raise its lovely head.

 “In a newspaper interview, the politician may flannel or fudge, but in a TV interview the flannelling and fudging can be seen and judged by the viewing public, just as the jury in a court can form their opinion of the candour and the credibility of a witness.”

Our advice to clients has not changed in a quarter of a century. It is: Be straightforward; Tell the truth; Admit your mistakes. Why? Because that’s the only thing that works.

The question then arises: If all you need to do is tell the truth, why do people need media training? This is the answer Judy and I give in the Foreword to our book  How to Survive and Win with the Media:

The best piece of advice you could give someone about to be interviewed by the press, radio or television, would probably be: relax and be yourself.

Unfortunately, the advice would be wasted on 99% of those to whom it was given. Very few people can relax or be themselves when faced with a reporter’s notebook, a microphone or TV camera. If it were otherwise, there would be no need for media training courses or books like this. They are necessary because the interview is an unnatural and specialised form of communication, quite different from normal conversation, however formal. It has its own traditions, its own conceits, its own rules of conduct and sometimes of war.

One of the critical differences between the interview and a normal conversation is the brevity of the exchange. The interviewee is required to state his or her position in a matter of minutes – or seconds in the case of television – regardless of the complexity of the issue. Very few people have the verbal skill, the confidence or the presence of mind to present a reasoned and persuasive argument in one or two minutes, let alone in an alien environment, confronted by a hostile professional interviewer and in the unseen presence of perhaps hundreds of thousands of other people.

Not surprisingly, most people find being interviewed an extremely nerve-wracking experience. Their nervousness in turn produces both physical and psychological akinesis, like the possum caught in the headlights of the oncoming car. They freeze, become wooden, defensive, monosyllabic, monotonous, lost for words, incapable of coherent thought. So much for relaxing and being yourself!

Most interviews, then,  are conducted on a very uneven playing field. The purpose of this book is to level the ground somewhat, by providing you, the reader, with an insight into the rules of the game and some invaluable coaching tips, designed to give you a more than even chance of surviving and hopefully winning the game.

Over the last 25 years we have been media advisors to several thousand prominent New Zealanders, including the chief executives of many of  our largest companies, the country’s most senior public servants and a couple of Prime Ministers. In every case our advice to the client has been the same: if you can’t tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, you must not agree to be interviewed. That is the advice which we give to you, the reader of this book. This is not a manual for those who wish to dissemble or deceive; it contains no recipes for evasion, no clever tricks for pulling the wool over the interviewer’s eyes, no intellectual sleight of hand. The truth is the best weapon in the interviewee’s armoury.

And there you have it. And you don’t need a Kim Hill, Mike Hosking or even a Stephen Sackur to get at the truth for you. The television close-up will provide all the information you need. All you have to do is open your eyes and ears and  think.

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  1. Which is why it is important that MPs be given the chance to front up and be judged. John Campbell interrupted the Earthquake interview with Mr Brownlie in Kaiapoi last week. He said that Mr Brownlie should answer the question and that it was John’s job to ask the questions about earthquake assistance, and Jerry’s job to answer without running on with “flannel”.(My word. Not John’s.) That interview was not posted on replay.

  2. …not sure about Sir Robin Day’s advice.

    Bill Clinton always knew how to project well on TV as full of candour, but I don’t think anyone, except the most partisan would consider it anything but a facade in some/many cases.

    …and just to show I have no political bias, Raegan was superb at projecting credibility. He was Mr Communication. I’d suggest the reality of his competence, especially due to failing health/faculties in the last year’s of his Presidency, was somewhat different.

    Then again, maybe I’ve misunderstood Sir Robin Day…

    BE: Maybe. Day is saying, and I agree, that the viewer will see through falseness and posturing. New Zealand viewers, as a matter of interest, are particularly good at reading people who appear on television. We’re telly-literate.

  3. And a reaction can be very revealing. We call it ‘Answering without speaking’.

    Watch Mark Hotchin’s answer to Nadine Chalmers-Ross’ question about FAI.

  4. I read your book some time ago and found it excellent; full of good advice. However I regret to inform you that I borrowed it from the library which will cause you to grind your teeth.


  5. Never feel guilty about diddling the authors, Ben. As with me, you should feel duty-bound to borrow books from the library, if for no other reason than to keep the staff gainfully employed. I feel a strong moral obligation to support a Council service that is on offer to their ratepayers.
    And I always experience a flush of “community spirit” as I walk through the library doors. Almost overwhelming, really.

  6. That’s a fair assessment, Brian. It’s easy to get pretentious about TV as mentally light-weight, but the complimentary nature of various media forms is the key to presenting ‘the full package’ well. Which is why the Hotchins may have done ok in the last week or so, but there is still a long way to go…

    You took some flack a few weeks ago about Rob Muldoon’s media skills. A difficult man to assess objectively for many, as he was so polarising – which he was well-aware of, but probably didn’t set out to do deliberately. I think he was just always (brutally) honest, without an ounce of affect or pretense, with a ‘let the chips fall where they may’ attitude that enabled him to connect well with the NZ public.

    Not sure his opponents, or his present critics ever understood that, and they tended to make excuses/manufacture plot theories (dancing Coassacks, and the Moyle affair) to explain his outstanding ability to project that honesty.

  7. I might be swimming uphill here but I thought that Hotchin had balls to go on Close Up. He has had his reputation slammed but in my mind has always “fronted”. His “act” wasn’t that polished so I’m guessing that you cant polish a turd.

    He’s criticised for enough for not caring or fronting but you would have to ask yourself -how would you look if you’d had printed about yourself what he has…and how you’d go on the telly in an interview.

  8. Regardless of what people think the simple fact is that Mark Hotchin fronted. And for that he deserves credit.

    While he looked nervous, who wouldn’t when you’re having a one-on-one interview on national TV.

    I think he did all right.

  9. I give Hotchin zero credit for fronting. It was cynical just like all the other times he was given credit for fronting. He was given credit for “fronting” when he sold the dud moratorium to investors. He was given credit for “fronting” when he sold the dud Allied deal to investors. What snake oil is he trying to sell this time? This mindless “credit for fronting” mantra is dull. Judge a man by his actions not his words – and his case his actions and their aftermath speak volumes.

  10. My guess is he’s singularly responsible for every finance company to hit the wall here, (the $1.6b we’re having to stump up for South Canterbury as tax payers too), Lehmans Bros, the global financial crisis etc….he’s been busy.

  11. no, just Hanover

  12. Ruth, while it is no surprise we disagree again, people were screaming for the guy to front, so he did.

    The only credit he has earned is that people have finally shut up about his alleged “hiding” overseas. It is pretty clear now that he is not.

    And perhaps a few people who may be better educated not to jump to conclusions before even a single charge has been laid.

  13. @Trevor, DLMMackie and Catus Kate

    The only reason why Hotchin jumped into the limelight (the cynical opportunist that he is), is so that he could lay more blame at Alloway’s feet. Especially, as Allied Farmers are about to announce a further deterioration of their position.

    For your benefit, I repeat what I wrote on May 19:

    “These honchos cooked up their massive dividends by capitalising the interest into the loans of the borrowers, and treating it as revenue. They went about revaluing the assets by way of fanciful extrapolation on the basis of a never-ending appreciating real estate market. Worse, still, much of the loans involved undisclosed related-party lending; essentially, using Hanover as their private piggy bank. There was simply no limits to their duplicity and cynicism. When it became clear that Hanover was collapsing — because of their toxic loan book — these two White Knights made the “magnanimous” gesture to the jittery investors, by saying that they would buffer them, by pumping in cash and their own assets. What they were able to do, was to jettison their over-leveraged worthless junk into this miasmic pool. The deception was further perpetuated by the way Hotchin was able to cajole the investors into granting the moratorium, undertaking full repayment sans interest. Now, that Allied Farmers have taken over the Hanover’s loan book, the value has been further slashed by more than $100 million. These investors have been screwed every way, possible — upside-down, back-to-front and doggy etc.”

    Hotchin claims the massive dividends he and Watson sucked out of Hanover, were ploughed back in to reduce debt. Yeah, but they were offsetting their own liabilities of the properties they acquired for themselves. And if that isn’t paying homage to Charles Ponzi, you three tell me what is.

    Hotchin’s performance on Close Up, showed no contrition; he came across as aloof and cold, diffident and self-justificatory.

  14. Ruth, I’m so pleased you see fit to lay the entire world’s financial and economic woes on just one man – Mark Hotchin.

    I’m hoping that you will be able to blame him for the Christchurch earthquake and the resulting devastation wrought against the fine people of Canterbury.

    Some people it seems just cannot be pleased.

  15. DLMMackie – again, it’s just Hanover that Mark Hotchin is responsible for…you have quite a vivid imagination

    Cactus Kate – no sweat. Charges are for the SFO and Secuities Commission and I agree, we can wait and see. Irrespective though the investors of Hanover (distinguish their grievance from the specific matters the SFO and Secuities Comm are charged with looking at) have plenty of facts to hang their hats on. Sadly they probably have no money to organise themselves and bring an effective civil action against the army of lawyers that Hotchin has employed. After all he can pay those lawyers with the cash savings he took from those people which were then converted ito divdend for him. Magic!

    Merv – nice to see someone here actually is interested in understanding the facts

  16. ‘After just over six months in the job, Hanover Group chief executive Sam Stubbs is stepping down.

    Hanover chairman Greg Muir said Stubbs’ decision to walk away from the job was driven mainly by the state of the finance company sector.

    “When we first started talking to Sam earlier on in the year there looked to be a number of opportunities in the sector that we really hoped we could take advantage of and of course what’s happened with the liquidity crunch that’s occurred, not only in New Zealand but around the world, those opportunities just aren’t there.”
    —this from nz herald DEC 2007,YET Hotchin and Watson still milking the cash cow !

  17. Ruth, I can understand the frustration but my understanding is that NO charges have been laid yet by either the SFO or Securities Commission. There seems to be a lot of comment about “they” copping all the blame. Who is they?

    Questions for you. Did you work within Hanover, or Allied and have a insider view of the deals or are you basing your comments on what you’ve read in the media?

    Merv, great comments. So are you implying that the independent directors of the companies were completely hoodwinked by Hotch and Wats and that Greg Muir, Sir Tipene O’Regan, Sam Stubbs etc are all idiots. If so was Hanover’s success all based on clever marketing and dumb investors?

  18. I dont think I would consider Hanover’s situation a success.The marketing was clever. The investors were for the most part naive to what they were actually investing in.

  19. DLMMackie – correct – the Serious Fraud Office and Securities Commission have not laid charges yet. Who knows if they will. They seem to be working towards that. They have both announced they are investigating (presumably they have some cause for concern) and in the case of the latter they are so concerned as to have frozen Mark Hotchin’s assets (or at least the ones they know about). No, I have never worked at those places (odd question) however there are some facts that speak for themselves. The huge amounts taken out as dividends just bfore the freeze on investor payments is a fact. The failure of the moratorium and Allied deals are facts. What Hotchin stated at the time of those deals is on record. The allegations of undisclosed related party dealings made by more than one Hanover borrower are on record. I could go on. My only frustration is that some people seem intent on ignoring what evidence there is and blurring the story to some end that one could only speculate on. There is no basis in fact to defend this man or what he has done to 1000s of New Zealanders and their families.

    Ruth, you have been asked not to make ad hominem attacks on other contributors to this site. I have removed them from this comment.

  20. @ DLMMackie: edited

    See above. Please stop fighting amongst yourselves. It’s rude and tedious. We’re looking for rational debate, not the trading of petty insults.

  21. Hope it counts as rational debate: –

    Ruth, when you say, “There is no basis in fact to defend this man or what he has done to 1000s of New Zealanders and their families”, I suggest you are incorrect.

    A person is presumed innocent until such time as they are found guilty by a court – and that is not the court of public opinion!

    We understand you think Mark Hotchin is as guilty as a cat with budgie feathers in its mouth. Let’s see if the system reinforces your belief.

    I appreciate you don’t want the system to “go all soft” on him, as a result of the favourable coverage you perceive Brian’s site, and other media forums have done. Fair enough. But can you not also see that it would be equally calamitous if the system ‘took notice/was influenced’ by your attempts to even things up? There is a reason lady justice is blind.

  22. Merv has correctly pointed out that the problems were well apparent in the industry and within Hanover as far back as 2006/2007. His entry prompted me to spend a little time looking back too. There is an incredible amount of trashy muck written about this – including to be fair all the stuff about holiday’s in Hawaii. If one puts that muck aside there seems to be fairly consistent data about a history of related party dealings, trouble at Hanover and in industry, dividends taken out, allegations of shady dealings etc. These blogs by Brian have been incredibly helpful clarifying my thinking. Yes, I feel strongly because I know some victims of Hanover who have had their lives ruined by this man. I too was distracted by some of the stories of mansions and parties, of high life and holidays but Brian’s blog and some of the pro-Hotchin rhetoric that has been flying around has prompted me to take a cold hard look at the vast number of articles from multiple sources. Anyone really resourceful can then search some of these places and names in companies office records online or land transfer office records. I started to and the whiff wasn’t good at all. The complexity is astonishing even at a superficial glance and so it is no surprise to me now that the unusual move of freezing Hotchin’s assets occurred. But there are many more articles and I would invite anyone who really is interested in this so-called ‘rational debate’ to avail themselves of some of this background (other than Merv who clearly already has):

  23. Because something is deemed to be legal, it doesnt mean it is ethically right.If the law finds Mr Hotchins innocent of charges I still consider he should take some responsibilty for his investors situations.

  24. Ruth an interesting comment from one of the articles you referred to.”The only way you are going to find truth on these matters is by torture”.The truth may be buried so deep we may never know.

  25. Kimbo – Lady Justice should be blind. But alas we know better than that when it comes to political will. The regulators are not the Courts. it is not yet with Lady Justice. There is a critical moment in time when the will and resource of the regulators is typically tested (especially in a hitherto unregulated wild west like ours). It is at that moment that there is a risk that the PR and media momentum becomes unduly important. Kimbo, if the matter was already before the Courts I would accept your point wholeheartedly. It’s not before the Courts yet and the only explanation for the latest PR blitz from a man who has a track record of only using PR to persue a selfish commercial end (note the PR blitz around the moratorium and Allied deals) seems to be to obfuscate and blur and thereby exhaust the regulators enthusiasm and perhap0s the enthusiasm of Tim Rainey the lawyer acting for the Hanover investors. It will take Elliot Ness like zeal to unravel the complex trusts and shadowy deals. But unravelled they should be. It is a game of persistence and patience – and based on the undisputed carnage done to the savings of the 1000s of Hanover investors and the various things uncovered by the media (excluding the muck) one muight feelk justified in fighting fire with fire in the hope Lady Justice will at least be given the opportunity, albeit blindly, to take a good look.

  26. Pjr – the law will never deem something legal it just may not be able to prove that it was illegal. Subtle distinction. And you are right about Hotchin’s ethical responsibility.

  27. What started out as a critique about Hotchin’s media appearances and the so-called PR blitz; by all accounts one TV appearance,one radio and a Herald article.

    Yes his appearance results in all sorts of comments, but he fronted, and while appearing quite wooden, I doubt many would have presented any better.

    The SFO and Securities Commission will progress their investigations and will no doubt be under pressure to look as through they are winning. Sad but true.

    I just hope that justice prevails, and that people can move forward instead of re-hashing the past and stopping progress. Helen Clark’s famous line springs to mind… “move on…”