As I listened to Ross McEwan, the recently appointed chief executive of RBS’s interview with John Humphries on Radio 4 (1 November 2013), I was struck by how elegantly he dealt and deflected the probing questions thrown at him by John Humphries. He didn’t rile John Humphries by stone walling questions, rather through a tone of voice and articulate answers that simply won the argument and communicated his message to the audience. So how did he do this?
Every week on radio, TV or print there are news stories that take you through the gamut of emotions, capture the imagination, make you happy, sad or annoyed. The impact of a story can often be transformed through the interaction between interviewer and interviewee. The power of the media, and the interview, evokes this reaction and financial stories are no different; LIBOR rigging, another FCA fine or a business success story.
While banker bashing is still rife, in McEwan, I heard a man whose interview style was so assured and persuasive that I predict he will shape public perception and influence peoples’ attitudes that might bring an end to the banker bashing mentality that exists in the country. He might even be the man to liberate RBS and restore its health and value to become a vibrant self-sufficient bank.
When we media train clients we educate them to deal with all varieties of interviews, but the overriding theme is to prepare thoroughly. Be clear about what you want to impart to the audience and understand the medium through which you are communicating. The interview skills required for print and broadcast are very different, but in today’s round-the-clock news environment, senior management have to be effective spokespeople, comfortable and capable of handling a journalist’s probing questions with good interview skills. Just ask Tony Hayward, former BP CEO, if he wished he’d handled things differently during the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Hayward was vilified after a series of PR gaffes and poor interviews. When reflecting on this turbulent time Hayward commented that a degree in acting from RADA rather than geology would have prepared him better for handling the crisis.
What made the McEwan interview was his ability to bridge a question. He didn’t provide a weaselly wishy washy politician’s answer which you know isn’t quite the truth, but gave a measured honest assessment of the banks position. His answers compelled the listener to take note and concede that, yes he’s got a difficult task, mild understatement, but he knows the problems, understands the public’s despair and acknowledges the issues. He has a clear objective to make RBS ‘the most customer focused bank in the UK’ and provided a clear message that things will change to achieve this objective.
Our media training covers the theoretical side of dealing with the media and includes the ‘rules of engagement’ and communications skills. This covers what journalists expect and how to get your key messages across to ensure favourable reaction. For New Zealand-born McEwan, I suspect that the fact he holds a Bachelor of Business Studies, majoring in Industrial Relations & Personnel Management, helped him handle the irascible John Humphries. He got his messaging right; let’s hope that his business skills complete the task for which he has been appointed. On the basis of the media interviews given to date, he has won the first round.