Politics and PR: The hard facts of HardTalk


Ranga Mberi

Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the MDC Alliance, has appeared on the BBC programme, HardTalk.
The reaction has been predictable.
State media liked the interview so much that they aired it during prime time viewing. The Herald gleefully reported that Chamisa had been “grilled over childish promises”.
Private media were more charitable. NewsDay said show host Steven Sackur was “condescending”.
Some reaction was more rabid. Rather laughably, Sackur was accused of being used by Zanu-PF. From journalists to analysts and politicians, folks are tearing out their hair in anger at Sackur, while some Chamisa opponents sing and dance in celebration.
Chamisa did not do any worse than other previous guests. The whole affair has been comical, but there’s a lot to learn, especially for the PR and communications teams of Zimbabwean political leaders.

Number 1: Don’t do it. Just don’t

PR guy, there’s no need for your leader to go HardTalk on BBBC or Tim Sebastian on Deutsche Welle. Don’t do it. It’s amazing how many of our politicians have gone on that show, only to sweat and turn white-lipped. For what?
Nothing good ever comes from it.
In fact, Josey Clark, HardTalk editor, said in one interview that it was a surprise that guests agree to go on the show at all. Clark could only guess that those who do so consider it some kind of “badge of honour”. You see, even those working on the show wonder why people do it.
This is basic PR; unless it is crisis, media engagement has to be deliberate. The benefits and targeted outcomes must be clear.
Sackur himself was once asked why no US presidents go on his show. His answer is one that our political PR teams should pay attention to.
“No US president would ever do HardTalk, because their minders, their communications chiefs, would tell them it was insane. ‘Why would you do HardTalk, Mr President? It’s half an hour of tough questions, plenty of downside and not much upside, so don’t do it’.”
This is simple, really. There is no upside on HardTalk.  

Number 2: If you do go on HardTalk

If you do lose your mind and decide that it is a good idea to go on HardTalk, here are a few things your PR people need to know.
First, HardTalk has had over 4 500 interviews since 1997. None of them was soft on its subjects. They don’t bend their style to suit their guests’ brittle feelings. It’s the guest that must bend to their rules.
Second, if you are PR, your leader needs to be prepared for Sackur’s abrasive interviewing style.
Sackur basically plays the devil’s advocate. What he does is take on the persona of your opponent. On one episode, Sackur told Antonio Trillanes, a Filipino opposition leader, that his opponent, the wacky President Rodrigo Duterte, was “far more popular”.
“Duterte represents a movement in the Philippines to change the way politics works,” Sackur declared to Trillanes.
So, watching Sackur try to unsettle Chamisa by telling him that he was losing to President Mnangagwa – and that Mnangagwa was leading reforms in Zimbabwe - was a shock only to those who’ve never watched Sackur do the same to countless other “victims”.
He has done it several times to Nigel Farage, the UK far right leader. You would expect any media team to know this.
As one blogger put it: “If God Almighty was in the opposite chair, Sackur would be obliged to be devil’s advocate.”
It is not the most tasteful style of journalism there is, but it is the sort that is practiced on a show that you freely put your leader on.

Number 3: Sackur used insults

Well, of course he did. Again, this is what happens on the show. If you don’t like it, don’t go there.
He is condescending? Of course he is. He has been condescending, snobbish and insufferable since 1997. You don’t go there expecting better treatment than all the thousands of others who have faced similar treatment.
Some have even told us that Sackur would never insult Western politicians. Well, he’s insulted Farage. He’s called the PM of New Zealand “deluded”. He’s called a senator “pathetic”, in an interview that went so bad that the poor chap threatened to sue Sackur.
When they hired Sackur to replace Tim Sebastian, they “were trying to find someone who would be grumpy enough for the job”, Sackur once said. Well, Sackur fits the bill. He’s supposed to be “grumpy” and bad mannered. It was a requirement for the job. If he became nice, he loses his job.
This is stuff that any PR team would have known before pushing their guy in front of a grumpy Sackur, only to complain that Sackur was grumpy.

Number 4: Sackur does his homework

Sackur doesn’t just show up for his show. “I go in heavily armed,” he once said. He has a team of researchers, which does intense research for three days before each show. A day before an interview, researchers give Sackur a 20-page dossier of facts, quotes and stats.
Which is why it was hilarious to see some suggesting that someone in Zimbabwe had fed Sackur with information.
Sackur does his homework. If you are going to go on his show, do yours too.

Number 5: Insulting Stephen Sackur

Let’s get over ourselves already. The dude has already moved on to another interviewee since Chamisa. He’s had more controversial guests, fired even harder questions before. This was big deal here, but a footnote at BBC HardTalk.
He is not losing sleep at the thought of being called a “scarfist” or “junta apologist”. He’s preparing for his next interview, which will solicit a new set of insults from some other corner of the globe.
The moment Chamisa walked out of the studio, it was on to the next one for Sackur. He was done. Get over it. Fast.

Number 6: Man-up

Sackur will crush anyone that rocks up with zero confidence. Your PR team, had it done its homework, would have known how Sackur reacts when someone pushes back with wit and verve. He reels a bit. He likes dishing abuse, but can barely take it. The chap has a glass jaw.
We all saw how Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov slapped him down real quick a few weeks back.
Another great episode to watch was with journalist and whistle-blower Glenn Greenwald. After Sackur, again playing his old devil’s advocate trick, badgered Greenwald for evidence of governments spying on citizens, Greenwald responded, calmly but firmly: “If you wanna scream at me, I can just disconnect”.
That earned Sackur’s respect. He was later quoted saying of Greenwald: "He's not afflicted with low confidence.”
There’s no point of Chamisa’s people now picking apart the flaws in Sackur’s questions, after the fact. Oh, Sackur said ballots have been printed. Oh, Sackur lied that there’s a truth and reconciliation commission. Oh, he lied that ED has done some reforms.
There was no magic sleep serum in the BBC tea that stopped Chamisa from sitting up and challenging those lies. He let that slide chance.  

There are some screaming that Sackur is reflecting British bias. Those saying so are either lying to Chamisa, to themselves, or, more likely, they have never watched an episode of HardTalk in their lives.
Among this number are journalists, editors even, and other “thought leaders” you’d have, wrongly on current evidence, expected to be better informed about such stuff.
There are lies being told in the aftermath. We are told Robert Mugabe lost his cool on HardTalk, that Hillary Clinton became violent, and that Olusegun Obasanjo walked out. The fact is neither Clinton nor Mugabe have ever appeared on HardTalk. Obasanjo never walked out.
All this could have been avoided. Just don’t go on HardTalk. If you do decide to go, don’t expect to be treated any differently to all the other 4500 guests who have had even worse treatment.
There’s no British conspiracy here.
Just a case of an honest but inexperienced young politician who is surrounded by yes-men and self-appointed strategists and advisors, who cast him into a lion’s pit but are now, trying to sheepishly cover their shortcomings by ranting online, spreading fake news about non-existent previous HardTalk appearances and spinning laughable conspiracy yarns.
Do your homework, or stay at home.





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