A Bad Interview: 6 Reasons This Spokesperson Failed

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 8, 2012 – 9:08 PM

Tara Wall, a senior communications adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign, appeared on CNN’s Starting Point with Soledad O’Brien this morning.

Her appearance didn’t go particularly well.

When the conversation turned to foreign policy—as it predictably would, given that Gov. Romney’s major foreign policy address to the Virginia Military Institute also occurred today—Ms. Wall failed to make a convincing argument for her candidate.

Here’s the video:

There are at least six lessons to take away from this train wreck:

  1. 1. Know the host. Ms. O’Brien has developed a reputation for being a tough interrogator. Anyone going on her show should know they’re going to get grilled.
  2. 2. Know the answers to the obvious questions.
  3. 3. Choose the right spokesperson. Ms. Wall had the right instinct when she said: “I’m not going to get into the back and forth on foreign policy. I’m not a foreign policy expert.” But that raises a question: Why would the Romney campaign put out a surrogate who’s not a foreign policy expert on the day of his foreign policy speech?
  4. 4. Hold your ground. Ms. Wall actually had a good “out” available to her: She could have stayed in her lane and repeatedly said, “As I mentioned, Soledad, I’m not a foreign policy expert. I’d be happy to try to get a Romney foreign policy adviser on the show for you. In the meantime, can I answer any questions about domestic policy or the campaign for you?”
  5. 5. Answer direct and reasonable questions. Ms. O’Brien played two clips—one in which Mr. Romney advocated for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, and another in which he said the peace process was untenable. Instead of satisfactorily addressing the apparent conflict between those two positions, Ms. Wall dodged by criticizing President Obama’s policies. Ms. O’Brien rightly called her out for evading the question.
  6. 6. Maintain the right body language. When things got tough, Ms. Wall stared at her lap. It appeared as if she was reading something—perhaps an email with critical facts on her smartphone or some briefing documents. If she was, that’s a disastrous decision during a live media interview, especially ones that use the “split screen.” If she wasn’t, there was even less of an excuse for her to look down.

Some readers may accuse Ms. O’Brien of being “biased;” this article isn’t intended to address that concern. Even if you believe she is biased (some conservative websites accused Ms. O’Brien of omitting a key portion of a Romney quote), the Romney campaign had enough information about Ms. O’Brien’s brand of journalism before sending Ms. Wall onto her program. And regardless, a well-prepared spokesperson should have been better-equipped to answer these direct and rather obvious questions.

It’s possible, of course, that Ms. Wall did the best she could within the confines of a muddled message from the Romney campaign. Either way, this interview did not go well, and is making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

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Comments (3)

  1. By Monica Miller Rodgers:

    Brad, this is hard to watch, but I believe Ms. Wall would have been best served by your Tip #4 from the start. I always advise clients to stick to what they know, and bridge back to the message they need to get out by explaining to the reporter what they can expertly talk about. If they can’t answer a question, explain the reporter why they can’t answer it and offer another interview with an expert who can discuss that topic. Thanks for sharing your insight on this example of an interview gone bad.

  2. By Jennifer Shanks:

    Agreed that the interviewee should have stuck to Tip #4. But also, when confronted with her dancing around the question about the discrepancy between her client’s conflicting positions, she was extremely clumsy (verbally and visually) in her attempts to re-write the question. A well-trained spokesperson (and that should be a job requirement for anyone with the title “sr. communications advisor” to a presidential candidate) should have known that Soledad is tenacious in Q&As, and come better prepared to address this obvious and timely topic. All of your tips are spot on – but the impression I’m most strongly left with is: Wrong spokesperson for this interview.

  3. By Kimberly:

    She needs media training, which she seems to sorely lack.

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