If Liz Truss and her PR advisers thought that local radio would give her a much easier ride than national news programmes, then they were sorely mistaken.
Breaking her silence after four days of turmoil in the financial markets prompted by Friday’s mini-Budget (which saw the IMF call on the government to reverse its tax-cutting plans, the Bank of England make an emergency intervention to prevent a run on pension funds, interest rates shoot up, mortgage deals withdrawn, and sterling collapse to record lows), Truss gave her first media interviews to eight BBC radio stations across the country yesterday morning.
Allocated just five minutes each to grill the Prime Minister, and determined to reflect the concerns, fears and fury felt by their listeners, the presenters wasted no time in going for the jugular, contrary to the patronising suggestions by certain media commentators that local radio interviews would be a soft option.
From Radio Leeds’ opener, “Where’ve you been?”, to a Radio Nottingham listener’s claims that tax cuts were “like a reverse Robinhood”, Radio Teesside’s questioning about dead crabs washing up on local shores, to Radio Lancashire’s focus on fracking, Truss faced a gruelling series of bruising interviews on a range of subjects dear to local radio listeners’ hearts.
Determined to stick to her key messages and defend last Friday’s “fiscal event”, Truss would not accept any responsibility for Britain’s economic crisis, laying the blame squarely on Vladimir Putin. Sometimes she refused to accept the premise of questioning or simply avoided answering the question altogether. Hesitant and robotic in her delivery, at one stage she was lost for words for almost four seconds while attempting to justify her economic policies to Radio Stoke. It made for painful listening.
“An utter shitshow”, “brutal”, “gaslighting” and “blind to reality” were just some of the reactions to her car crash interviews from media commentators and MPs across the political divide.
As The Guardian pointed out, the “PM’s eight short interviews produced more news than a typical slot on Radio 4’s Today programme”.
Whatever you think about Truss and Kwarteng’s dogged devotion to trickle-down economics, the episode shows the importance of communication in averting and handling a crisis (although Truss’s team, of course, deny that it is a crisis).
While Truss is by no means a natural communicator, there are still some fundamental principles that she, and her team, should observe:
- Be prepared – don’t launch a new initiative until you’re ready, then provide a thorough and timely briefing of the policy or strategy, backed up by sound evidence, and plan for tough questioning.
- Don’t shy away from or delay giving media interviews – a head-in-the-sand mentality simply compounds the crisis, giving the impression of arrogance, complacency or ineptitude. Or all three. But – crucially, as above – be prepared.
- Know your audience – be aware of and ensure you can respond to the wide range of issues that might arise, particularly when giving local media interviews.
- Show empathy – acknowledge, listen and respond to people’s very real concerns, rather than regurgitating scripted answers that evade the question.
- Don’t be afraid to admit when you’ve got it wrong, take ownership, and adjust your strategy accordingly, rather than claiming everything is going to plan despite clear evidence to the contrary.
Truss – who lest we forget was put in power by a mere 0.17% of British voters – now finds herself alienating not just the markets and the public, including many in the crucial Red Wall constituencies, but a large number of Tory MPs too – among them some of her supporters at the recent leadership contest.
Unsurprisingly, Labour is riding high in the polls, positioning itself as the party of economic competence.
With the term ‘fin de siècle vibes’ reportedly being bandied about Westminster, Truss will need all the communications skills she can muster if she, and her party, have any chance of surviving this self-inflicted crisis of confidence and leadership.
By Sarah Peters
Friday 30th September 2022