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Ethical Oil on-air disaster brought to you by misguided interview strategy

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One of the interview samples I have been using in my media training workshops lately is from the CBC newsmagazine show Power and Politics where host Evan Soloman is doing a segment on whether a proposed oil pipeline should be permitted in western Canada.


On one side is John Bennett from the Sierra Club and on the other Kathryn Marshall of Ethical Oil.


I use it as one of the bad examples – the what not to do. It's an example of the type of media interview I'm seeing more and more often. And while I can't say with certainty, I have a very strong hunch that this is another example of, how can I put this delicately – half-assed media training – the kind that gives media training a bad name.


There's a belief out there, held by many journalists, that media training is about showing people how to avoid answering questions.  That's certainly not my philosophy. I do teach how to take a reasonable amount of control in media encounters, and increase the odds that the media isn't going to screw up what you say, but I also make no bones about the fact that an honest question deserves an honest answer.


The trouble is that not all media trainers agree. There is one school of though that in an interview, you should ignore the question and just deliver your message. The problem is that this doesn't work all that often. And even when the reporter doesn't come back and ask you again, and sometimes again after that, you still come off as sounding evasive.


Which brings us back to the segment with Ms. Marshall of Ethical Oil. From watching the piece I'd bet the mortgage that she had media training in which she was told – here is your line – “this is about foreign special interests and their puppet groups trying to hijack the process” and I bet she was told to just keep repeating that, no matter what she is asked.


The trouble though, is that Solomon is a skilled interviewer. Her repeated use of the term “puppet groups” in reference to environmental organizations, prompted Soloman to ask where Ethical Oil's money comes from and is it a puppet group of Enbridge?


This is where it got dicey, only because she refused to answer. He asked repeatedly whether any of her funding comes from Enbridge as the company that wants to build the pipeline, but all she would do would go back to her line, and remind Solomon that “this is about foreign special interests yadda yadda yadda”. In other words – Don't ask where our money comes from, that's irrelevant – just focus on the other side's funding. 


Her consistent refusal spoke volumes about whether Enbridge funds Ethical Oil. By the end of the piece I can't imagine there would be a viewer anywhere who wasn't dead certain that Enbridge is exactly where at least some of their money was coming from. Through her performance she lost whatever credibility she might have had going in. As interviews go, from the oil industry side, Ms. Marshall's performance was a disaster.


The interview went poorly for Ms. Marshall because she wouldn't answer the simple, straightforward, and I might add predictable question of whether Enbridge funds her group. Her points feel on deaf ears because the interviewer kept asking about the funding and she kept evading, all the time keeping the focus on that issue. They couldn't get past it.


And because they couldn't get past it, she lost the opportunity to perhaps score points by bringing the focus to the tactics of the environmental side to clog up the process. People may or may not have bought it, but it would certainly be better than what happened.


Some might say she could never admit Enbridge money was behind Ethical Oil. Well, her refusal to answer on that I expect for many, served as all the proof they needed.  So why wouldn't she just be honest – something like – “ We are funded through a lot of sources and yes, Enbridge is one of them, but that doesn't diminish the fact that the other side has adopted unfair tactics aimed at clogging up the consultation process and stalling the project, affecting jobs….etc etc etc and then she's off to the races. The focus would have shifted to the environmental side's tactics.


I suspect we have seen the last of Kathryn Marshall speaking on behalf of Ethical Oil. The new communications spokesperson for Ethical Oil is the soon to be former Fredericton, New Brunswick city councilor Jordan Graham.


Hopefully he's astute enough to understand that if he wants to be an effective spokesperson, he should start with honestly answering legitimate questions. We'll see.


Meantime, click here to watch the Power and Politics segment in question. 



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