Political Communication: Tricks and Traps of Media Interviews
By Mahmud Jega
Russia-Ukraine style exchange of long-range artillery shells and small arms fire dominated the news in Nigeria at the weekend as Chernobyl-like radiation fallout from PDP presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar’s hour-long interview on Arise TV last Friday. It was the first major candidate interview of this political season, and surely it will not be the last.
The first of this season, but not the first in Nigeria. Following its scathing criticism of some of the things he said on Friday, Atiku’s media team has already challenged APC presidential candidate Asiwaju Bola Tinubu to do an hour-long interview of his own. Atiku’s team must already be scrambling together a team of analysts so that when Asiwaju does his interview, they will mount the political equivalent of a forensic audit to scrutinise every word he uttered.
Campaign interview is a tricky business. Every step in a campaign is tricky business, but an interview with the candidate is doubly so because millions of citizens will watch it. Even worse, clips of different segments of the interview will be posted in the social media, some of it cleverly quoted without the context, in order to score a point in favour of or against the candidate.
US President John Kennedy’s speechwriter Ted Sorensen once wrote that “the American political campaign is built around the speech.” The content of the speech is the most important thing but the choice of audience, venue, time, delivery style, format and appearance of the candidate are all very important. One author wrote that when Kennedy landed at a small town airport one early morning, his aides noticed that most of the supporters who waited overnight for his arrival were young women. So they pushed him back into the plane, rumpled his suit and hair a bit, told him to look tired, close one eye and lazily wave as he alighted the plane. It drove the young women crazy!
In Nigeria up until a few years ago, speech was hardly important in a political campaign. If it were, Alhaji Shehu Shagari with his soft Fulani-accented voice, Chief M.K.O Abiola with his stammer, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo with his crackling voice, Alhaji Umaru Yar’adua with his hardly audible voice, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan with his many gaffes and General Muhammadu Buhari with his ineloquent statements and forced smile would never have won any election. The onset of social media in recent times has however enhanced the import of speech and interviews in Nigerian politics, hence the need for candidates to sit up.
US campaign aides paid attention to the minutest detail. As told by David Halberstam in his book The Powers That Be, just before John Kennedy’s televised debate against Richard Nixon in 1960, his aides told him that the producer will come and offer to powder his face. Kennedy asked what the implications were. The aides said while powder is good for a TV appearance, it will be a small scandal if newsmen reported that his face was powdered. Nixon got the same advice and rejected the powder. When the producer peeped in and said, “Mr. Kennedy, would you like some powder?” Kennedy said, “F—k you!” Meanwhile, his media aide jumped over a fence, entered a drug store, bought some powder, smuggled it into the studio and secretly did make up for Kennedy. By the time they went on air, Kennedy looked smart and radiant while Nixon was sweating in the hot studio.
Trick number two is, how to face newsmen. Here is a secret: you don’t really have to answer the question they ask! Twenty years ago when I was Editor of New Nigerian, a British minister visited me in my office and he told me that, when a minister emerges from No 10 Downing Street and newsmen are waiting, he or she decides what to say and goes ahead and says it irrespective of the question! Television is particularly vulnerable to this trick because TV reporters need soundbite in order to give authenticity to their report. So, whatever you say, they must use that as soundbite whether or not it answered their question. Though print media reporters could go and report that you dodged the question, in the end their readers will remember what you said more than what you didn’t say. State House in Abuja has one of the biggest concentrations of news reporters lying in ambush for politicians. Just remember this: as you emerge from a meeting with the President, decide what message you want to pass across to the public and go ahead and say it irrespective of the questions, then pretend to be hurrying to another appointment and walk away.
In a one-on-one TV interview such as Atiku Abubakar had with Arise TV last Friday, it is less easy to apply the dodging trick. So the candidate should anticipate the questions instead. A media team made up of real professionals could sit down in advance, put themselves in the shoes of their colleagues who will do the interview and anticipate most of the questions. In the olden days, news makers used to ask interviewers to submit an advance copy of the questions, but media professionals will not accept that today. You don’t have to ask them; your media team can anticipate most of the questions, since these are mostly gleaned from newsworthy items that were recently reported about you.
Interviewers have egos. They want to look smart, independent and courageous to viewers, without regard to your own comfort as a candidate. So, expect some trap questions. One of the most successful traps in interview history was when CBS interviewer Roger Mudd asked Senator Ted Kennedy in 1979 why he wanted to be President of the United States. Ted fumbled and rambled and had no sharp answer. Since then, I have seen many interviewers imitating this question, so every major candidate should rehearse for it.
Just like a champion boxer has training sessions with his sparring partners before a match, a candidate should also have a sparring match with his media team. I wonder if Atiku Abubakar had such a training session. If he had, he would have been advised not to answer the question about his wealth with that Idiroko Peugeot 504 story because indeed, public servants have been prevented from engaging in private business other than farming since the days of the General Order. He probably would have been told that he needed better briefing on NNPC’s transformation to private status, and a much sharper answer to the problem of insecurity.
We could also learn many lessons from our own country’s history of political interviews. In 1979, when UPN presidential candidate Chief Obafemi Awolowo unveiled his party’s Four Cardinal Programs, everyone was asking how he intended to finance free education. When Awo stepped off a plane at Lagos Airport, newsmen rushed in and asked him how he could finance free education. Awo anticipated the question. He sat down in the lounge, opened his briefcase, brought out a sheaf of papers and proceeded for the next hour to reel out figures about how he will do it. Many of the reporters fell asleep.
When Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe appeared for an hour-long interview on NTA in 1979, he anticipated a question about his age [75, which newsmen were saying at the time that he was too old to run for president]. When the question was popped towards the end of the interview, Zik said, “I have been sitting here with you for the past hour, with no idea what questions you will ask, and I have been answering you, now you seem to suggest that I am senile?”
Ahead of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe of SDP squared up with NRC’s Dr. Sylvester Ugoh in the presidential running mates’ debate. Ugoh touted his credentials as a topflight economist. Kingibe dipped his hand under the table, brought out an old Biafran one-pound note, waved it in the face of Ugoh, who was Governor of the Bank of Biafra during the Civil War, and said the currency he managed was worth less than toilet paper.
Whenever they can, a candidate’s media team should steer him away from interview areas where he has natural deficiencies to areas where he has strength. A candidate who stammers, speaks very slowly or has a shrill voice is not good for television. During the 1992 US presidential contest, there was a squabble between President George Bush Snr’s aides and those of challenger Bill Clinton about the format of their debate. Clinton’s aides, knowing their candidate to be eloquent and quick thinking, demanded a debate format where the two men will engage each other directly. Bush’s team refused, so when the president appeared at his next campaign rally, a Clinton supporter raised a chicken-like effigy of Mr. Bush and shouted, “Chicken George! He chickened out of the debate!”
And then, by all means control your temper. In 1979, GNPP’s national publicity secretary withdrew from a live debate on NTA because he accused his PRP debate opponent of not allowing him to speak. If you are provoked on the set, don’t do like Minister Chris Ngige and say, “If you yab me, I will yab you back.”
Mahmud Jega is a respected columnist
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