The video of Mike Coupe, chief executive of Sainsbury’s, singing We’re in the money while awaiting a link up to a television studio to discuss the merger with Asda serves as another painful reminder that, when it comes to media interactions, the interview starts whenever the journalist deigns.
I am surprised at the moral outrage from some PRs who appeared shocked that ITV would leak such footage. Why? Coupe didn’t enter the confessional booth; he was in hack territory. As soon as Coupe was miked up and sitting in that chair, he should have been on point. Granted, the story would have been less amusing if he had been singing About a quarter to nine, another tune from 42nd Street, the musical Coupe saw last year which he claimed happened to come to mind at such an inopportune time.
So if he had been reading notes about the deal out loud in preparation, would that have been a story? If he had taken a call from a banker while waiting and discussed job losses, would that have been a story? If he had demonstrated a gross personal habit? Every piece of footage from that booth is a potential story, and like face-to-face interviews, the bits that aren’t interesting will be discarded. But Coupe was running solo and forgot his media training. It doesn't matter that the actual interview was flawless, and kept to the key messages. Nobody remembers what he said now, only what he sang.
It is always tiresome (though increasingly the norm) when the CEO or interview subject turns up with a PR minder, who intervenes before a tricky question can be answered or shuts down particularly difficult lines of questioning.
But such an approach does not always stop the stories. I have worked with journalists who considered that, if they were invited into a subject’s office to wait for their arrival, any document left on the desk was fair game. Or who try to catch their subject’s assistants out with a nifty question.
Just like in a job interview, a journalist is looking to glean any information about the subject. Is their handshake a bit clammy? Can they remember the name of the staff outside their office? What are the books on their shelves? What do the pictures on the walls mean? Obviously, such personal titbits will be dialled up or down according to the type of article being written.
Whether it is an interview in an office or over lunch, it starts the moment initial contact is made. There is no such thing as small talk or pleasantries. It is all on-the-record talk unless it has been heavily signalled that it is not. Heck, journalists are even breaking stories by using zoom lenses to read documents that are unwisely on display.
But even the best minders can err. The legendary Lucas van Praag was once marshalling an interview between Sunday Times journalist John Arlidge and his then-boss Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs. After sensing that his boss was tiring of the conversation's tone, van Praag wound the interview up, and the duo walked Arlidge to the lift. ‘So what are you off to do now?’ he asked Blankfein. ‘Oh, you know me,’ came the sarcastic response, ‘off to do God’s work!’
Pleas that, as they were now in the lobby, such comments were off-the-record fell on deaf ears. The Sunday Times had a field day with the throwaway comment, even inviting Church leaders to express their views on such a claim.
The story should end there, but it doesn’t. Sometime later, the Sunday Times requested a follow up interview. The invitation was put to Blankfein who declined using the immortal line: The Lloyd giveth, and the Lloyd taketh away.