When Key Messages aren’t Enough

(Originally posted on LinkedIn March 24, 2019)

Advisors to Ontario Education Minister Lisa Thompson must have thought long and hard before agreeing to book her for an interview with CBC Radio’s Matt Galloway. It meant subjecting a minister with a sketchy performance as a communicator to one of the most challenging interviewers in Canadian broadcasting. Galloway also commands the largest and most influential radio audience in the nation’s biggest market.

It did not go well.

There were plenty of warning signs. Thompson’s interactions with reporters in her first months in charge of the province’s second-largest ministry had been less than sterling. Clearly fearful of fumbling, particularly on the government’s contentious plans to replace the sex education curriculum, her people generally limited her interactions with the famously aggressive Queen’s Park Press Gallery. You could see why when she was spotted in a legislature hallway by City News’s intrepid cameraman Jamie Tumelty, who subjected her to an interrogation that was painful to watch.

The minister undoubtedly underwent intensive media training to improve her performance. Thompson’s staff and the Premier’s office evidently felt she was ready to step forward when she unveiled a major package of reforms, including the amended sex ed curriculum, a new approach to teaching math and a ban on cell phones in the classroom. But the communications landmine was planted in the decision to increase average class sizes in secondary schools from 22 to 28. It was bound to be the focus of any interview.

Sure enough, Galloway cut right to the heart of the matter with his first question: “How will larger class sizes help students?”

He listened without interrupting as she started by stressing that the government consulted widely before finally giving her answer that “this change will align Ontario with other jurisdictions across Canada.”

She was employing a common technique taught by many media trainers—focus on the positive part of your message first before addressing the question. Except–she failed to directly address the substance of Galloway’s question. Here is where I differ from other trainers. I advise to yes, stress the positive and get your message out but be sure to ANSWER THE QUESTION. She did not and immediately was in trouble.

Galloway is an effective interviewer not because he is mean, but because he is polite, persistent and prepared. If you evade, he will ask again. And again.

Which he did: “Let’s answer the question, though, which is how will larger class sizes help students?”

You could almost hear the nervousness in her voice as she stepped off into the deep end, perhaps struggling to remember her messaging: “Ok. ..So…We’re hearing from professors and employers alike that they’re lacking coping skills, they’re lacking resiliency…by increasing class sizes in high school, we’re preparing them for the reality of post-secondary, as well as the world of work.”

She claimed to have heard from teachers who had told her that the larger numbers are better for building team work, a fuzzy concept that she struggled to explain and that was immediately undercut when Galloway played a clip from a teacher saying bigger class sizes would hurt the ability to help students in need of extra attention.

Galloway pushed her repeatedly to answer the teacher’s criticism.

Thompson retreated to key messages, rather than viable responses:

“I can’t stress enough. We’re investing in that learning environment. We’re investing in teachers.”

You could almost hear teachers spitting out their coffee as they listened at home, given that the Toronto District School Board estimated that the changes would result in 800 fewer teachers.

It was a phone interview, which meant she likely had her key messages on a sheet in front of her. She did her best to insert them into the conversation, but it did not matter. Galloway started interrupting and pressing as she awkwardly bobbed and weaved around the central issue. The interview was a disaster.

Her “resiliency” line became an unwelcome headline, quickly sparking a hashtag: #MoreResilient and reams of online mockery.

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As an ex-reporter, I generally counsel clients to accept interview requests, particularly if it is a politician who has a duty to explain public policy decisions. Of course, we work on effective delivery of the key messages—that’s basic. But equally important is to anticipate the most likely questions and to prepare and practise credible answers.

If you would forgive some shameless promotion, here is the value in having a former journalist as your media trainer.

If Thompson’s practice interviews were realistic, they would have focused on the class size issue and should have revealed the weakness and potential danger of the message. Had I been coaching her and if she and her staff insisted on using the “resiliency” response, I would have advised declining one-on-one interviews. Better to say no than to walk into a train wreck.

They didn’t, and she did.

Increasing class sizes will always be a tough policy to sell, given that it is widely viewed as a cost-saving measure. Perhaps better to admit it and then argue that the optimal student-teacher ratio is a matter of debate. Your opponents will never agree, but it has the value of being a more credible answer and might just save you from becoming a hashtag.