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After Tucker-Putin, some advice for media interviews

There are some words and phrases that always announce 'car crash ahead'

How not to conduct an interview: Tucker Carlson lets Vladimir Putin talk, and talk, and talk Handout via Reuters
How not to conduct an interview: Tucker Carlson lets Vladimir Putin talk, and talk, and talk

There are right ways and wrong ways to conduct an interview with a prominent figure, and often it comes down to a few simple words.

Even the most fervent fan of Tucker Carlson, the American right-wing broadcaster, will admit that the recent interview with President Putin of Russia was not exactly the most hard-hitting confrontation of recent times.

Frost-Nixon it was not, certainly not Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, not remotely Stephen Sackur on Hard Talk.

Having watched the two-hour car crash, I think I’ve identified the place where it all went wrong for the former Fox commentator: when, at the very beginning of their talk, Putin uses the phrase “a little historical background”.

Tucker then allows Putin to launch into a 20-minute ramble about the history of Russia-Ukraine relations, which destroys the whole interview. For Carlson, there was no way back; for Putin, the status of master and servant was set.

With that in mind, here are some words and phrases that should never be allowed in interviews, which the interviewer should ban and which the interviewee should avoid:

“Just a little background” Whenever a politician or chief executive uses this phrase, get ready for a long chunk of pre-prepared policy statement or marketing document, littered with talk of “pillars” and “ecosystems” straight from a media-training session. It is the death of spontaneous conversation, and an invitation to switch off for the viewer/reader.

“Absolutely” Use of this phrase in response to a closed question (one demanding a yes or no answer) is increasingly common in media interviews. The interviewee means “yes” but instead is tied irrevocably to a position with absolute conviction. There is no way back from an “absolutely” response and it should be avoided at all costs, as should its close relation …

“Absolutely not” Historians of the global banking scene will recall how these two words effectively sealed the fate of Credit Suisse when they were used by a Saudi banker asked whether his bank would put more money into the troubled Zurich institution. Credit Suisse shares went into nosedive, and it was soon taken over by rival UBS. The Saudi banker resigned not long after too.

“That’s a very good question” The interviewer is immediately put on edge, either suspicious that his/her ego is being inflated, or wondering whether the rest of the questions will be equally good. The phrase gives the interviewee a couple of seconds in which to formulate a response, I suppose, but always comes across as fake and gratuitous. To be avoided, as should its cousin “I’m glad you asked me that because …” This just makes the interview appear rigged to the viewer/reader.

“We never comment on market speculation” Perhaps the single most irritating response an interviewee can deliver. The interrogator may have documentary proof of the event he/she is putting to the subject – a graph of a collapsed share price, or an affidavit from a whistleblower – but the respondent dismisses this as “speculation”, showing a) that the allegation is true and b) that the in-house comms team failed to come up with a convincing answer.

“I’m not sure my wife/children/dog would agree with you” This – and any reference to family and personal life – is an attempt by an interviewee under pressure to seem human and vulnerable but is really a sign that they are at the end of their tether and are resorting to desperate measures. It was most famously and disastrously used by former BP chief executive Tony Hayward in his “I’d like my life back” interview as the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was in flames in the Gulf of Mexico.

“No comment” Perhaps the most popular of all dismissive responses, but doesn’t the interviewee realise that the phrase just makes him/her sound as shifty as a suspect being grilled by the Feds somewhere deep in south Manhattan?

On the other hand, “you might think so, but I couldn’t possibly comment” shows the subject has a) watched the excellent TV series House of Cards and b) has a nuanced understanding of plausible deniability. This phrase can be devastatingly effective when used in the correct circumstances.

I’m sure there are other fatal “no-nos” in media interviews, and I would be delighted to hear from readers with other examples. Drop me a line on my LinkedIn account.

However, I doubt any advice would have helped Tucker with Putin.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia and is a media adviser to First Abu Dhabi Bank of the UAE

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