by Neil Sean / 18 Feb 2013
This article is from the March 2013 issue of Total Politics
Why do you need to become a more media-savvy personality?
It’s simple: we live in a society that judges us on our looks, awareness and ambition. More than ever these days, respect for those in power has greatly diminished, but there is a positive way to winkle your way onto the front page, attract the camera lights and forest of microphones – it just takes the correct image and lots of training.
Take, for example, a picture of David Cameron out running in the rain. What is that saying? ‘I’m vibrant, strong’ - and there’s the added PR bonus of the leg strap, which is code for: ‘Although I’m in pain, I’m still working for you.’
Don’t for one minute think that media training is a new genre. It goes right back to the beginning of time, one way or another. All the greats, from Churchill to Lady Thatcher, owe a huge debt to their media makers, and the ones we remember most are those who have left a great legacy. Only time will tell if today’s generation will make the mark. MPs, and Parliament in general, are still tarnished from the expenses scandal in which their money-grabbing private lives were laid bare.
Some escaped, but the latest technology will find all weaknesses because the media needs to lay blame, and thus you, the MP, are the sitting duck. But you don’t have to be: get clever, get wise, and above all, put in some visible work so that you too will be remembered as a leader, whatever your position, rather than a follower.
Many people ask me who is the most explosive star I’ve spent time with, and truthfully it’s those who are assured and who have nothing to prove but their charm and personality. Some argue you’re born with it – true, some are, but many work at it and get there just the same. The choice, of course, is yours. And, more importantly, your voters’.
Check out the host, reporters and show beforehand
It’s vital today that we equip ourselves with as much information as possible. Do your homework and learn about the programme you’re appearing on and its creatives, because not only will that knowledge serve you well in the long run, it will also show that you’ve taken the time to look into their background. Also, if things turn nasty, then you may need some ammunition that could also serve you live on air. Few will forget Philip Schofield’s interview and attempted ambush of Cameron with various names he had found on the internet. Cameron showed astute handling of the situation, made the presenter look foolish on live TV and gained the public’s trust.
It’s amazing how many MPs appear on a show but do very little to equip themselves. If you’re going to appear on something easy like Daybreak or This Morning, make sure you research its viewing demographic. It’s no use becoming all highbrow and mighty when, in reality, you’ll be appearing in front of many viewers who are unemployed, often through no fault of their own. Don’t mention holidays, private schooling, your expenses, or how hard your life is – including you, Mr Clegg.
Remember that on a show like BBC Radio 4’s Today there are no bigger egos than the presenters. If you don’t think that, then you really should book for media training right now. The 1pm and 6pm news are also vital slots, and many moments are filmed on the hoof or when you are emerging from buildings.
Always make sure you’re camera-ready. A good dust of anti-shine powder should be an essential tool in every MP’s box. And check teeth at all times; a good smile and clean, well-shaped teeth can go a long way to make people take in your message.
You may assume radio is unseen to almost everyone, but remember you are always on camera
Many radio stations have a live web link that shows your every move and flinch. From the moment you’re in the studio, every spit and cough is recorded. Even on a friendly breakfast show, someone in the digital department will be looking for value in anything you say for the wider media.
Make a point of grabbing a picture with the presenter. A well-known Hollywood actress told me she did this with her directors, because “afterwards, when they start saying rude things about me in the media, I have the proof of them standing smiling next to me, leaving them with nothing to stand on”.
Your speaking voice needs to be clear and concise on radio. Don’t be drawn into smut and tacky radio stunts, and be careful whose radio show you appear on. To appear on a show hosted by a presenter with a dark secret, could count against you in the future if ever they were to be exposed. Look at the great Mrs Thatcher, who unwittingly stood next to Jimmy Savile…
Surprisingly, radio does not favour the dramatic gesture. You should not flap your arms about like a wind turbine and raise your eye line. You need to learn to act with your voice − the correct rise and fall and vocal structure can do wonders to convince potential voters. Don’t get rid of your accent, but make it understandable. It’s a god-given tool and can assist in many areas when out canvassing. And be extra-careful during your radio interview not to become relaxed. I can hear many MPs falling into a relaxed state and forget that it’s not just one person listening, but potentially millions.
The ‘look’ is another vital ingredient that every MP, male and female, should take into consideration, from accessorises right down to your nails, skin and teeth. One MP brought along his lunch in a Scooby-Doo snack box, with the explanation, “My son bought it for me for Christmas”. That’s touching, but it doesn’t inspire confidence in the long run.
Looking good on TV does not have to mean a trip to a designer store: take a look at the newscasters and see how they co-ordinate. Of course, they have stylists at their disposal and all clothing is normally given as part of their package, but they look good and know what suits them. You can too, and it’s amazing how the right look, colours, hairstyle and – above all for men – ties can send the right message.
News channel presenters are dull at best, and this is an area where you can shine. The presenter is often someone on the way up or, more so, down, and what they’re doing is just a job. They meet many MPs throughout the day, and often live in hope that their tiny audience might see them ‘take out an MP.’
So, be clued up: research the presenter’s career. If they’re seasoned, recall some of their bigger, brighter days and also make a point of meeting the channel editor. Once again a picture is vital here: many who run news channels are too busy for much grooming themselves, and are often running just to keep up with serving the nation its news.
Be available for prime-time slots and make sure the person booking you knows your value. Better still, get the editor to call you, as it shows to the team on the channel you are seen as a big hitter. And it is vital that you never, ever say anything ‘off the record’ at a news channel, because the newsroom is miked, everyone has mobiles ready to catch the off-the-cuff cut. We all know how Sky hacked the canoe man’s account... Think about that each time you enter a studio.
And another tip: when the channel sends a cab to pick you up, remember it’s their cab company and the oh-so-friendly cab driver is primed to get you talking. He/she will report back to the desk about your mood, your thoughts and whom you were calling. Don’t ring anyone until you’re in the comfort of private surroundings. Not just the walls have ears.
Culture and Arts
We all know the MPs who say they love a certain pop star/actor, just to appear cool, but it’s far better to keep a check on events and TV shows that would and do appeal to your constituents. Do try to steer clear of ‘reality’ culture, but stay in tune with whom has won a great sporting event, and with album sales. Bands or singers could be guesting on the same show as you, and could have done great business for the UK music industry. And take a palm leaf out of Nadine Dorries’ book – whatever you do, do not appear on any reality TV shows. Right back to Harold Wilson and through to Neil Kinnock, who appeared with Bananarama in the 1980s, MPs have been media advised to ‘get next to the biggest thing with the kids’.
Don’t be tempted. Dorries and Oona King decided to appear on reality TV shows and were perceived by the public as serving nothing but their own egos and expanding their purses. They may have claimed it was for good reasons, but from a media and political point of view, it’s a disaster.
Certain celebrities and celebrity ideas are more damaging than affirming in your voters’ eyes. Having Fern Britton offer you her ‘god’ slot for an interview might seem like a heaven-sent opportunity, but never mix politics and religion on a media stage. It’s not a clever move. And if anyone is media poison for politicians, it’s Piers Morgan. If appearing on his show didn’t seal Gordon Brown’s fate, then what did?
It’s always wise to consider, when discussing media arts and culture, how it will look in the future. One very media-savvy 1960s’ star may now be a huge icon, but she’s never pictured with anyone from that decade. Reason? She knows it dates her and thus can shorten her career. If your term is five years, is it wise to be pictured switching on the local Christmas lights with a reality TV star who dates and ages you? They will come back to haunt you, so make sure the person you’re posing with has some merit of achievement, or is the right someone to be seen with.
And I would definitely avoid Lance Armstrong’s phonecalls…
Neil Sean is the entertainment and royal reporter for NBC News/Access Hollywood/MSNBC. He also spent 10 years at Sky News. Neil regularly offers training and advice for MPs through Westminster Live, www.westminster-live.com