Training Tony Abbott

In an age where today's TV interview is forever's YouTube content, Tony Abbott's shuddering on-camera silence was completely the wrong response for a politician who should have known better.

Speaking about tricky media interviews, stalwart American news anchor and reporter Sam Donaldson commented that "The questions don’t do the damage. Only the answers do.”

As Australia's mediaphiles frothed and fought over whether Mike Riley's scrutiny of Tony Abbott's "shit happens" comment was inappropriately out of context, or if his head-shaking, rage-fuse was no more than the impertinent newshound deserved, it's worth revisiting the engagement realities of the modern TV interview.

First up, today's TV interview is forever's YouTube content – a permanent definer of your character, professionalism and suitability for whatever office you occupy, or aspire to. As today's TV interview is tomorrow's digital resume, it's always preferable to have it bathe you in a flattering light.

Fight, flight or freeze

Sydney-based media trainer Geoffrey Stackhouse says the footage largely depicted a man susceptible to anger issues or wont to try bullying his adversaries. Stackhouse explains that humans have three basic threat responses: flight, fight or freeze. Abbott's freeze option looked bad for one so predisposed to PR pugilism – it conveyed petulance or rage control problems – yet it was certainly better than terminating the interview (flight). Stackhouse says that Abbott should have simply fought fair.

Though wily Riley's curveball was a bit provocative, it shouldn't have posed a problem. Not if there had been a ready and convincing response or rebuttal from the Opposition's number one. And there was – early in the interview Abbott had warned Riley against turning his desert quip into a desert storm (when it was clearly a difficult situation for the soldier's family). Why Abbott didn't simply reiterate that point suggests to me, and media crisis specialist Peter Wilkinson, that the normally media-sharp politician's mind simply went blank.

Wilkinson recalls that John Howard handled much tougher questions than that posed by Riley, and never once suffered from brain freeze.

Stackhouse disagrees. His reading is that Abbott was so overcome with rage that he let his considerable media training fly out the window and, instead, improvised some kind of mute retribution. Stackhouse read that the silence was the non-verbal equivalent of "no comment”, which constitutes PR and leadership suicide. Silence begs speculation, it forces us to interpret what Abbott meant – from uncontrollable rage to sheer panic or some dumb (read that how you want) semiology delivered to teach the interviewer a lesson. But it's not a classroom. It's a performance stage.

What Stackhouse and I will agree on is that stony silence or neurone-interrupted headshakes are not convincing on-camera responses – no matter how great or self-righteous the interviewee's indignation or anger may be. What it is great for is re-run and blooper material.

The media provocateur

The second reality of modern media interviews, is that we need to understand the job of the TV journalist or reporter. They rarely journal or report. They comment and editorialise, criticise and snipe. Nowadays, they're often playing catch-up with online media and citizen news sources. So their job is to chase 'the next story', not the truth. An interview where the subject answers every question flawlessly and emerges as an unflappable performer does not represent a good result for the media provocateur. It becomes just a PR puff or advert for the interviewee – and no editor wants to give out free promo time.

Yet for TV reporters, even better than getting the story is 'making the story'; that's where any moderately mischievous journalist wants to generate conflict. To do this, they'll try to put the interviewee off balance, throw a curveball, force their guard down, provoke a raw reaction or surprising response, create a new headline and spin the original incident into a controversial story of its own.

In effect, Tony Abbott made Mark Riley's story.

Content, not context

Thirdly, today's fast-paced media doesn't do context. Despite massive cost, production and technological efficiencies, a media that's better equipped than ever to properly explore, research and understand incidents and utterances (before taking a provocative angle or line with them) is still addicted to the whiff of spin, slip up or subterfuge. The appearance of wrongdoing seems more important than evidence of any actual transgression. Sensational seems more valued than substantial. (My personal fear with the invasion of social media is that uninformed criticism and idle opining will further usurp professional investigation and informed reporting in years to come – it's going to be boomtime for PR and crisis managers.)

Speaking of which, with almost 30 years as a TV editor and journalist, media crisis specialist Peter Wilkinson insists the interview will have disappeared by the weekend's end, overtaken by Abbott's spat with Julie Bishop or some other marginal media storm. And he believes that the wider public don't need the media to provide context – he insists that with social and digital media, they actually understand and decode more than they're given credit for. After 36-hours, he says, the interview is only relevant in the minds of nit-picking political pundits and obsessive PR analysts (thanks Peter!).

However, the 60 Minutes, Four Corners and ACA veteran does concur that Abbott's silent treatment was wrong in any interview situation, especially given his background and experience as a former political media adviser. The most 'dead air' anyone could ever hope to get away with is between up to 2 seconds, not almost 60 seconds.

As Sam Donaldson would surely attest, it was Abbott's perplexing reply that created the PR headache, not the question that was originally levelled at him.

Gerry McCusker is the author of the business book Public Relations Disasters, a case study anthology of inept PR. Gerry is also the owner of online reputation management consultancy Engage ORM .

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