|It's never too late, prepare and practice!|
Who is in charge?
The Congress Party and the Gandhi family can surely afford and have access to finest public relations communications minds and their advice in the world. I am sure this advice was given but overturned by those close to Rahul Gandhi, always eager to please and prove their loyalty to the family, even if means collateral damage. The party now blames those "close to him".
If you have a war chest of five billion rupees (roughly
I have been a witness and team member of some very high profile interviews in the Middle East. A wrong word can spark or reignite conflict. Leaders invest their own time and money to prepare, find and develop the most ideal communications strategy.
Format, Environment, Medium and Arnab Goswami
I had initially written all these points separately but it makes more sense to analyse them together as they are very interlinked. Before I go any further and I can't contain this questions any further within...
WHO THE FUCK DECIDED ON ARNAB GOSWAMI?
No seriously, this had a major impact on how things got played out but we will revisit this later in the article. Just had to let it out for now.
There are various formats options available now. It doesn't have to me a 90 minute sit-down with loudest mouth on television. If you are going to sit-downs, why for so long? and why just one channel? Why not give all five major channels on the same day? How would it have made a difference, you ask?
By choosing to give an exclusive to Arnab Goswami, Times Now had enough time to market the event as the boxing match of the century. The channel was plastered with banners, promos and even news items on how this will be interview of the century. Very little of the actual content of the interview was put out. This built up expectations, people were finally going to see Rahul Gandhi answer questions, the first time in 10 years!
There was only two ways this could have ended, either Rahul Gandhi comes out as a combination of Barack Obama and Arvind Kejrival and blows the nation over or as what really happened.
If you had decided to give the interview, 20 minutes each to three channels, they would have raced to be the first one to get it on air. Rahul Gandhi would have been the star, not Arnab Goswami. The interviews all would have different areas of focus and they would have played up their interview and what he said on it.
Unfortunately, by giving Arnab an exclusive, this has become some sort of "Gospel of Rahul as spoken to Arnab" and has achieved divinity status as his "coming out party".
Even if you were going to give it exclusive to a channel, why choose the Jawahar Bhawan and then "sit" for ninety minutes? A suited Arnab Goswami is in his natural habitat when sitting down with air conditioning. Why not take him for a tour of the Jawahar Bhawan and talk about the Rajiv Gandhi foundation and it's work? Or to be more direct, why not take charge of the environment and put to Arnab, subtly, who is the king of the jungle he is at right now.
Here is a good example of a recent BBC interview with His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai.
Do you see how the format and environment is set? From the word go, you know who the boss is. You start with the history, drive the journalist personally, see reactions from the public and settle at a resort setting where you are comfortable.
Imagine if Rahul Gandhi were to do the same? Imagine Arnab Goswami walking and climbing stairs. Like a wild animal, if Arnab was taken away from his natural habitat of an air conditioned closed enclosure, we would have less threatening and perhaps making him walk, climb and eat with you, might be tamed him enough for your purpose.
There are more interviews with Sheikh Mohammed on YouTube. Here is one from last year's 60 Minutes, notice the similarity in setting the environment and format?
This just leaves medium. Rahul Gandhi is not on social media and there have been reports that he might be getting on it. Now imagine if Team Rahul picked a journalist, even an international correspondent based in Delhi and made a YouTube video of the interview, live exclusively in a dedicated Congress YouTube channel? Announce his social media presence and encourage people to give their feedback? A very expensive lost opportunity.
Pranoy Roy or Walk the Talk with Shekhar Gupta would have been better choice to Mr Suited. I can't image what logic there was in going for Arnab and just him.
What's the message?
This interview could still have been saved if there had been a clear messaging focus. Is this an interview about Rahul Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi the VP of Congress. Is this an interview of who Rahul Gandhi is or about what the plans of the Congress party is for the 2014 elections? Here are two rules I always follow. 1. I always ask for questions in advance and share with journalists what my client will and will not answer. 2. If they ask something that was not agreed upon or something we very clearly stated we will not comment upon, we would say so in the interview. Not "I don't want to answer this" or walk out but "Arnab, we agreed before this interview the focus will be on development work and RTI, we agreed not to raise controversies, they do nothing more than raise your TRP, let's stick to plan and talk about how we can create a more positive politics. If you don't want to play by the rules we jointly set, I don't think this interview will be very beneficial."
That reply, with interruptions will eat into his allotted interview time and will remind him about jungle he is in now and who is the king.
Always record your interviews. Always. This also puts pressure, they can't edit part out. Also, you have every right to refuse to answer a question. You don't need to give an explanation. Rahul could have pointed out:
On 1984, "It was horrible what happened in 1984, we are to blame, we were in charge and our president, the Prime Minister has apologised for it. I was 12 at the time and if you think it will help those who suffered and ease their pain and bring closure to them, I apologise too and I am willing to say sorry a 1000 times. My party and I are determined to do everything in our power to make sure it doesn't happen again and we will make sure anyone responsible for it is punished."
On Modi: "There is reasonable and reliable testimonies available in the public domain from witnesses, journalists and researchers to suggest collusion between the administration and armed mobs. As the head of the administration, he needs to take responsibility. If you are asking me what's different from 1984, I don't know. But 2002 is not 1984, if you need to go back 18 years to justify an action, I don't think it add much merit to your argument."
"The Congress party is not fighting this election based on the character certificate of Modi or others in the RSS or VHP or Bajranj Dal. We are fighting this election on what the Congress party stands for and what we have delivered in the last 10 years.
We have made mistakes, we are not perfect but we will correct it. I have been an MP just for two terms, recently I have become the vice president. We will change, we need fresh ideas, we need to reset and reboot and be ready for this century and aspirations of our youth. It's not going to be easy."
In his interview Rahul Gandhi seems to come out confused, it is evident that there was an attempted to coach him on the messaging but there seems to very little practice. Pivoting is a art, a little knowledge of it without practice is a dangerous thing. If you have seen Sanjay Jha on television, you have seen a very bad example of how it is done.
Do it too soon and if comes across you are avoiding the questions, do it subtly and slowly, the journalist will buy it because they want to move on to the next question. It's a three step process.
- Empathise with the question and it's background. You are basically repeating the question but coating it with your understanding.
- The link. From the background the question pick a point that is mostly closely related to your key messages.
- Suggest your key message as your answer and solution to the problem.
Rahul Gandhi, seemed aware of the concept but on a few occasions, he started with it. Whatever the question, he ended up starting his reply with RTI several times.
I am not sure how way people noticed but Rahul Gandhi was on the edge of his seat for the entire duration of the interview. Why? Relax, sit back, have a conversation. He is in your house. This is not a job interview, you are doing him a favour by giving him an opportunity to interview you.
This is a big no-no, it happened a few times during the interview. It shows lack of preparation. Again, I think the length and flow of the interview had a lot to do with it.
This involves research and practice. In the interview, the only thing Rahul Gandhi seemed to have known about Arnab Goswami was that he is from Assam. It is critical that you know everything about the journalist and his media organisation. The explanation that Times Now was chosen because of TRP was a fatal mistake.
If you know the know more about the journalist, you can use points from his background to pivot. Again, this seems to have been briefed to the Rahul Gandhi but either he didn't pay any attention or he didn't practice.
Mock interviews are very important, especially with a similar journalist and in a similar setting. You should have set responses to at least 50 topics in your head.
So what happens now?
To limit the damage, he needs to do more interviews, not sit downs but like the Sheikh Mohammed interviews I cited above. Doing it like on the campaign trail with Rahul or a day in the life of Rahul or Rahul making a difference.
The worst thing for him to do now is to stay away from the media. You are letting Arnab bask in glory of carrying your head as a hunting trophy. Do better and more meaningful media interactions as soon as possible.
Build your own social media channels, this will help you build your own distribution channels. The worst thing for him to do now would be to wait another five or ten years for the next interview.
I mentioned on twitter shortly after the interview that those around Rahul Gandhi will congratulate him on a job well done, he will never know the truth. I am going this send this post to him by email, I hope it helps him. Why? I don't agree with his politics or his party but our country deserves better political debates and communication. If not, we will be stuck on shouting matches, cliches and headline grabbing insane quotes. No one will discuss the finer details, there will be no clarity. TV news readers, like Aranb, will go for "road kill" interviews such as this.
It's now close to a week since the interview, other than reducing Rahul to the latest comedian on TV, the interview did not serve any purpose. If Rahul Gandhi is not up to the challenge, he should just quit and retire from political life. If he wants to do this seriously, he should prepare and train himself to face the Arnabs on the world.