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Aping George W. Bush

By Ed Shiller

Ed's Blog

The more things change the more they remain the same - or so it seems in the realm of media training and interview performance.

Ask just about anyone what he or she thinks of the way politicians handle themselves in front of the media, and the likely response will be along the lines of: "They never give a straight answer to a question. They just disregard what the reporter asked and chime in with a canned and often irrelevant message."

Does this approach inspire confidence, trust or respect? Not hardly. The depth to which the image of most politicians has dived can be attributed more to their transparently manipulative behaviour with the media than to any other single cause. Yet the politicians and their handlers persist in steering this obviously self-defeating course.

The latest instances - but most assuredly not the last we will see - have occurred on the stage of American politics in the person of Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush.

Here's what the Toronto Star's Washington Bureau reporter Kathleen Kenna wrote about the Texas governor's performance in the first two public debates among the six Republican candidates:

"The consensus about Bush's performance in debates in New Hampshire and Arizona was that he was repetitive and too rehearsed. He used the same lines repeatedly - sometimes twice in an answer that didn't fit the question - and offered facile responses to tough questions."

Kenna's conclusion was that Bush is a "dope."

And why not? He is a living example of McLuhan's dictum that the "medium is the message." The medium isn't the newspaper, or the radio or TV station. The medium is you. If you act in a devious and manipulative way, the message you'll convey is that you are devious and manipulative and people will deride you as untrustworthy because you have something to hide or, as in Bush's case, just plain stupid.

Those wonderfully rehearsed words that you jumped through hoops to utter in the interview are not your real messages; they are merely carriers of the underlying messages formed by your behaviour. It's one thing to say you're the best candidate; it's quite another to get people to believe you.

Nonetheless, some media trainers persist in advising their minions to "steer," "zoom," or "deflect." Ask someone who has undergone training to recall an aspect of the program that first comes to mind and you might hear something like: "Go to the interview armed with a few key messages, then ignore the question and just repeat those messages." That sounds easy enough; just ape George Bush.

Plus ça change; plus la mème chose!

Of course, there is a better way. It is to be responsive - and truthful - to the reporter's questions. It is to enter the interview with an open mind about what might be asked and to focus on your training, your experience and your preparation to talk about whatever topics the reporter decides to raise.

Granted, you may not get the opportunity in any given interview to talk about those wonderful new widgets your company invented or the virtues of flying first class on your airline.

That's okay. First, because opportunities will arise in other interviews you give. But more importantly, people (that includes the reporter as well as all those who will read, hear or see an account of the interview) will get the message that you - and the organization you represent - are forthright and honest.

And this is the most powerful message you can ever get across in an interview - because this is the message that will build the goodwill and credibility that are vital to the attainment of every one of your organization's goals and objectives.


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