When the Media Advisor Needs Media Training

The most memorable quote out of Ottawa this year sprang not from the lips of a politician, but a top-level aide to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

It came in a lively and contentious interview that Conservative campaign spokesperson Kory Teneycke gave to Tom Clark of Global News.


They were speaking about the Tories’ decision to use Isis video in an attack ad aimed at Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.

As Clark pressed him to defend the tactic, Teneycke came out with this:

“We’re better than news because we’re truthful.”

Clark could scarcely believe his ears. A veteran interviewer of politicos, he pounced and drilled down on the point–to Teneycke’s clear discomfort.

Here’s the entire interview. The exchange about Isis begins at about the 3:30 mark:

Tom Clark interview with Kory Teneycke

Teneycke had a wry smile as he came out with the “truthful” remark and perhaps intended it as a joke. But as they say there is truth in a jest and the Harper team’s disdain, distrust and often-outright hostility for the news media shone through.

It was surely not the key message that the Tories hoped to deliver and earned him much unwanted commentary, including this hilarious take from the Globe and Mail’s Tabatha Southey:

Southey column

Political aides naturally focus on preparing politicians to face the media. This incident points up the need to train any member of your team who might be speaking with a reporter.

There are many examples of loose-lipped aides making news and inadvertently hijacking the team’s agenda.

Remember when a press advisor to Prime Minister Jean Chretien called President George W. Bush a “moron”? It was an error exacerbated when Chretien answered a reporter’s question by saying “he’s not a moron at all.”

From my past dealings with Teneycke I know that he is an adept operator with a sophisticated understanding of how the media work. He ran Sun TV until its demise earlier this year.

But in this case he was clearly unprepared. If it had been his boss doing the interview with Clark that day, he surely would have foreseen that questions about the Isis video would have been on the agenda.  Undoubtedly they would have discussed effective answers and reminded themselves of the imperative to not be pushed into an unwise wisecrack by persistent and aggressive questioning.

Ironically enough, it was Teneycke who facilitated my interview with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2009 when I hosted Global’s Focus Ontario—an encounter for which the PM was meticulously prepared.

It came at a momentous time. World economies were crashing. In an attempt to mitigate the effects his government was about to bring down a budget that would deliver the largest deficit in Canadian history.

The spending spree was a sea change for the fiscal hawk Harper. I challenged him to justify it:

I use this clip in my media training program because it highlights a couple of important lessons.

An essential element of media training is not only preparation, but anticipation.

You need to get into the mind of the reporter (a good reason to have an ex-journalist as your trainer) and consider what he is most likely to ask. In this case, Harper expected a question along those lines and was ready. He is an effective communicator, always well briefed and rarely stumbles in his exchanges with the news media. His antipathy for reporters keeps him from wanting to do interviews, but when he does them he does them very well.

 Any public figure should be ready to see his past words quoted by the interviewer.

It was a favourite tactic of Tim Russert, the late host of Meet the Press. The politician may well have a good reason for changing his mind about an issue, but he and his handlers need to think carefully in advance about how to explain it. Harper and his people did.

Preparing to face an informed and relentless questioner takes careful thought and realistic practice sessions.

That applies not only to the boss, but to anyone speaking on his behalf.