Q&A with Mark Laudi on the art of the interview: Asian companies, stop using being humble as an excuse for avoiding the media

Mark LaudiMark Laudi is a former CNBC presenter who, among other businesses, runs the media training consultancy Hong Bao Media, which recently opened a new facility in Singapore.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, Laudi talks about who are the best corporate communicators in Singapore, the delicate art of ‘bridging’ in an interview, and why local companies need to stop using being Asian as an excuse for keeping a low profile.

Tell us first about your view of the media landscape, and how engaging with the media fits within your understanding.

It’s getting harder to get commercial messages out in a media environment where consumers are increasingly cynical. You can’t just send out a press release and expect coverage. You can’t just have a press conference and expect lots of journalists to show up. You can’t just have a quarter page newspaper ad and expect to get customers.

In Asia, in an environment where audiences are more fickle and attention spans are getting shorter, put that together with a culture of not wanting to hog the limelight and where public speaking does not come naturally, you end up with a dangerous mix for some companies.

But interview skills are entirely learnable. First you need the confidence to do it, and the practice to carry it through. Watch television on Monday morning at 6am and see how rusty the presenters are. Everyone has to get back into the swing of things.

I don’t want to scare people, but all the world’s a television screen, as they say. Remember Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. It was a fundraiser where he talked about the 47% of Americans who’ll never vote for him. Someone captured that on a camera phone and it was the beginning of the end of his campaign. His opponents used it against him.

Where do you start with someone who’s not a natural public speaker? A creative director at Spikes Asia a few years ago took a shot of whisky before she went on stage because she was so unnerved. Is booze the answer?

It sounds obvious. But you have to have something to say. A lot of the fear people have of speaking is not knowing what to say. So, what is the story you’re trying to tell? And are you fully across this story?

Now, if you feel compelled to ask a reporter for a list of questions, you’re already putting yourself at a disadvantage. What you’re in essence saying to yourself and the reporter is that you’re unprepared; that you’re a deer in the headlights. You need to get to a level of confidence where you do not feel compelled to ask for a list of questions.

Media training is not about avoiding questions. It’s about adding more value, not less. You have to come across as credible and authoritative. Now that doesn’t mean necessarily that if you get asked a question such as what do you think of Brexit that you should have a fully formed point of view. But you should have a one liner at least, something to say to avoid going down the track of being evasive.

It’s not difficult to spot an interviewee who has been media trained though. For a journalist the term ‘media trained’ can mean people who can kill a story and avoid difficult questions…

There are people who are so teflon that they hold no credibility with the audience. As I’ve said, interviewees should offer more value not less, and be credible and authoritative. Someone who is evasive loses that credibility very quickly. I would add that journalists need to be tougher at asking questions, especially in this part of the world.

So it’s a fine balance between not giving too much away, but at least being interesting enough to give the journalist something to write about?

Yes, you can’t just offer a glib one-liner and be done with it. You need to approach the situation with some finesse. You are there because you’ve been asked about a certain subject. So you have to have a story ready, but you have to also have some empathy for the news process; understand how news works so that you both come out ahead.

Pam Bondi Anderson Cooper storyA good example of why people need to know where they are going with their own message was CNN journalist Anderson Cooper’s interview with Pam Bondi, the attorney general of Florida, in the wake of the Orlando shootings.

In the wake of the shootings [on an LGBT nightclub on 12 June], Cooper invited Bondi to appear on the programme to talk about the scam fundraisers for victims and their families and such like.

In the end though, Cooper asked Pam Bondi about why she didn’t support gay marriage in a previous election. Because this was such a combative interview, she then went on Fox and complained that the interview had moved away from scam fundraising to gay marriage.

To be frank, I have very little sympathy with the attorney general. She agreed to do the interview, and said ‘here I am, ask me questions.’ She may not like the fact that she’s asked about other topics, but she needs the skills to be able to deal with those questions.

Tell us about bridging and how it works.

In essence, bridging is the process of focusing on your own message. From a journalist’s perspective, the job is to pursue your line of questions. It’s like a tug of war between you and the interviewee. They can’t just say ‘thanks for your question, but I don’t want to talk about that.’ Because clearly that implies that you’re defensive, have something to hide, so you will probed even more.

Bridging is simply the process of saying, ‘I hear you and I understand the question, and will deal with the question,’ while making sure that your message gets through.

One example of a particularly evasive executive came in Australia in 2013, when the CEO of Adobe Systems, Shantanu Narayen, refused to answer repeated questions from journalists about pricing and insisted on talking about Adobe’s Creative Cloud solution instead.

The point is, journalists are not going to be buying commercial messages hook, line and sinker. For the CEO to immediately cut to the message is jarring, for us as viewers and for journalists.

Take any company that is asked a tricky question. What’s the thing that consumers and journalists want to hear? What makes them feel better about the interview? The first thing is that they’re being heard. ‘I heard your question. I empathise with your question.’

I see executives in Asia, partly because of media system that we’re in, trying to control the interview by asking for a list of questions, and deciding which questions they’re going to answer. That’s not going to work anymore. Especially if you’re on stage and get asked a question by someone in the front row who has a camera phone pointed at you. Asking for a list of questions is passé.

Is there a turn of phrase, or a way of linking sentences together, that can redirect a conversation to the message you’re trying to get across in an interview?

It’s very simple – ABC: Acknowledge, bridge and convince. In the case of Adobe, he could have first acknowledged that there are different price points depending on where the product is purchased, and then explained why there is a difference in price.

Bridging comes next, and you can use a number of different words to do this. It’s your turn to pull on the rope in the tug of war. You could say something like, and by the way when you order the product online, you will find that our product offers such and such, giving you the chance to talk about the features and benefits.

Lastly, you have to be convincing in your answer. Again, the idea that you can just let go a glib PR line – forget it, that ended in the 1980s.

What’s your view on the way the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair handled himself in the Q&A with journalists after the Chilcot inquiry recently, when he was slammed for taking the country to war with Iraq under false pretenses?

What struck me were two things. First, his openness to questions. He did not set a time limit, or a limit on the number of questions he would take. This was to communicate “I’ve got nothing to hide”.

Second, he called out the interviewers’ motivations. He said, “please stop saying I was lying”. This aims to ‘innoculate’ viewers and readers against reports in which the journalist questions whether Blair was lying. We are now conscious every time we read “was Blair lying?”, and we challenge the journalists’ motivations for writing this. It’s risky for speakers to use the word “lying” (because viewers will associate the speaker with this very negative word) but Blair obviously felt he needed to put a stop to the use of this word in connection with him.

What’s your take on how probing the media is here in Singapore? The media does not hold the government to account here, so do you feel interviewees tend to get let off the hook?

We need to give the local media a bit more credit. The veterans as well as the younger crop of reporters do actually ask pretty good questions, in my experience. If you go by their reputation, maybe not, but if you see them in action, you’ll notice that they do.

My greatest concern for executives is that they come from an era of complacency. Because they’ve been able to ask for questions in advance, and can decline questions they don’t want to answer, they now have a false sense of security.

If you’re going to go into an interview thinking I’ll tell the journalist what they can and can’t ask, and you’re not prepared to respond to certain uncomfortable questions, then you’re setting yourself up for failure.

It’s not an option to say ‘I just don’t want to be in the media’ anymore. That is simply you saying that you will let them have that conversation without you.

And you can’t just say ‘no comment’. There may be certain instances where no matter what we say will be perceived as wrong. So I can understand the motivation for saying, I don’t want to talk to the media. It’s a natural human response – flight or fight.

Pink Dot storyBut remember that this is an environment where screen shots can survive long after an image or a video is removed from a web page. The guy who made the comments about opening fire on the supporters of Pink Dot, made shortly after the Orlando massacre, deleted the comment and also his Facebook page. But the screen shots are still out there.

As much as I understand the motivation for not wanting to ‘front up’, it doesn’t help your cause. You would be better off being part of that conversation.

We’re now moving on to the topic of crisis communications, and the first move to make in this area is often to say sorry, we got it wrong. It may not feel great. But the sooner you front up, the better it is for you.

Breadtalk 'says sorry' story in ST

Take as an example the Breadtalk soy milk story. Someone spotted a staff member pouring soy milk from a Yeo’s bottle into smaller bottles, which were claimed to be homemade. So again, a crisis in the making.

To Breadtalk’s credit, they were very quick to come out and say sorry if we led anyone astray, and here are the reasons why.

As a consumer and a journalist, what else are you going to do? They’ve already said sorry. Are you going to lambast them some more?

Even with Volkswagen [the emissions scandal], setting aside what came later, their initial response was to say, guys, we stuffed up. We’re sorry. Until you say sorry, consumers are not going to be willing to believe the rest. So you have to have a strategy, and your spokespeople have to know what they’re going to do in a crisis before it happens. As a consumer we just want to hear sorry, and be told how they’re going to fix it.

But isn’t the problem with the word sorry is that it’s an admission of liability?

That concern is often overblown. It has to be said that if you show remorse and regret, and the quicker you’re out there to join a negative conversation about your company, the more favourably the courts will look at it. It’s those who the courts have to hunt down and drag an apology from who tend to have a much tougher time.

One example from my time at CNBC was when a large Australian packaging company called AmCor revealed in a three page press statement – out of the blue – that they’d been involved in price fixing. Within that statement they said sorry, explained the reasons why, and how they were going to fix it. The stock price fell, but within a week was back to what it was before.

How can brands be authentic in this context? How honest should you be?

You should never tell untruths or half truths. That will only come back to bite you later on. What’s important is to make sure that the consumer has trust in your brand, and that can only come about through credible, authoritative commentary.

The IDA job ad

IDA used the name of the person who they were replacing in a job ad

You need to highlight how you are fixing the problem. Take the IDA’s recent job ad [read about it here] where the name of the person being replaced was used in the headline. The IDA admitted their error, and explained that it was a mistake made by one of their HR team members, who was new to using the job ad IT system and entered a name instead of a job title. The IDA said that person was being “counselled” to ensure the mistake doesn’t happen again.

Once a company has said sorry, what else is there to say? Yes, it feels uncomfortable, but what is the alternative? It is that a one or two day issue becomes a one or two week issue.

How well prepared are companies in Asia for crises in your view?

Generally, communications need to sit at the heart of what the company does, not something that the comms team manages. Singapore companies tend not to be where multinational companies are in terms of their desire to communicate. That’s a shame, as I see that is setting apart some local companies from MNCs. Many more household name multinational companies would come from Singapore if only they were better at communications.

Give us some examples of local companies that are good at communications. For instance Singapore Airlines is a great brand, but do not seem to be the most fond of communicating (they were very late to embracing social media…).

StarHub. Their CEO Tan Tong Hai stands out as an executive who is a really good communicator. Another is OSIM – the CEO Ron Sim really gets it. Also Kenny Yap of Qian Hu Corporation, or ‘Kenny the fish’ as he’s known. He’s a great communicator. Always available. Choo Chee Kong, the executive vice chairman of CNMC Goldmine Holdings is another strong communicator.

Kenny Yap, Ron Sim, Tan Tong Hai

What sets them apart from other locally listed companies? It’s a love for communication, and an understanding of how to do it well. It’s the confidence that they can do it, even if the news is bad.

This idea that Singapore companies are not so good [at communication] because they’re Asian is nonsense. I get that excuse from the companies themselves too, who say, ‘well Mark, we’re a bit more humble, we don’t hog the limelight like Western companies, we’re not so outspoken.’

Well, there are 46,000 listed companies in the world all competing for capital. If you want to be out there selling product in a new media environment where consumers are already talking about you, where the media is already having a conversation with or without you, saying we’re demure and modest and we don’t want to be out there is like starving yourself of oxygen.

You mentioned Kenny Yap of Qian Hu fish farm. He seems like a man who is obsessed with his own publicity, with walls at his farm many metres long plastered with news clippings about himself and his company. But I haven’t noticed a clipping on that wall from January when he was arrested for drink driving…

Media wall at Qian Hu fish farm

Media wall at Qian Hu fish farm

ST article on Kenny YapHis response [to the drink driving story] was not to slam the door in a journalist’s face and say ‘no comment’. He said sorry, and now let’s move on. In order to say sorry, takes courage. But once we get over the idea that you need to have the list of questions, and recognise that with training and practice you can be out there talking about your brand, everything changes.


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