Talk the talk, don’t walk the walk

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It all began as a media opportunity created to announce what Persimmon hoped would be a good news story about the opening of a new brick factory. It ended with the company’s CEO hitting the news headlines, and being put in the social media spotlight, for all the wrong reasons. Eighteen days later Jeff Fairburn’s tenure as CEO was over. Our Senior Copywriter, Richard Allen, looks at what lessons might be learned from one of the most infamous news interview walk-outs in recent times.

Spencer Stokes (BBC): “Persimmon is doing well this year, and did well last year. That was reflected in your bonus, do you have any regrets about the furore surrounding that?”

Jeff Fairburn: “I, er, I think, yep.”

A glance to his adviser off camera, an awkward smile, and then the interview was over with Mr Fairburn saying that he would ‘rather not talk about that, frankly’.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but all things considered the question was entirely predictable when you bear in mind that his bonus had already been the focus of media attention months before. Maybe he was just taking advice that he trusted, maybe he was just having a bad day, only he knows.

But looking from the outside, what all PR and media experts appear to agree on is that it would probably have been a fairly routine interview had Fairburn stood his ground and answered the question.

As soon as his interviewee walks away on camera, the journalist knows he has got his big story for that day. Like a B-side that goes to number one, ‘Doncaster brickworks opening’ was rapidly replaced by ‘£75million bonus CEO interview walkout’ on the BBC’s news agenda, and rocketed towards the top of the charts. A main course of car crash TV, with a side order of schadenfreude, is guaranteed to feed social media’s ravenous appetite – so it was no surprise that even before Fairburn and his PR team had sat down to work out where it all went wrong, the clip had brought him and Persimmon to the unwelcome attention of a whole new audience.

Eighteen days after the interview, the BBC was reporting that Fairburn had been ‘forced out’ by Persimmon – the company issued a statement saying that he had left by ‘mutual agreement and at the request of the company’. Who knows, maybe that would have happened even if he hadn’t walked out of the interview, but his refusal to answer a predictable question certainly didn’t help him or the company.

There’s a strong possibility that Fairburn’s career will be defined by that one moment. Some might say that comes with the job of being a well paid CEO, others might think that it’s unfair. Whatever the rights and wrongs, his name might well be added to the list of business executives, politicians, sports stars and celebrities whose achievements are overshadowed by one media appearance which lasts long in the memory of the general public, journalists, and TV show producers who will drag up the infamous interview in clip shows for years to come.

It’s likely to be added to TV clashes such as former UK Defence Secretary Sir John Nott v Sir Robin Day, Jeremy Paxman v Home Secretary Michael Howard on Newsnight, and the then Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan v Sky TV’s Richard Keys. Sir John Nott was so resigned to the fact that walking out on his interview in 1982 had defined his public persona

that he decided to call his autobiography ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’, a reference to Day’s phrase that infuriated Nott and prompted him to storm off mid-interview. In recent interviews about his autobiography, Keegan has expressed his reluctant acceptance of the fact that despite all of his achievements as a player with Liverpool and Hamburg, and 63 England caps, he’s still remembered by many for the ‘I will love it if we beat them’ interview (and falling off a Raleigh Europa in Superstars).

Like it or not, careers can be defined by one media appearance. That’s as true today as it was in the days when television was king, it’s just that social media magnifies and accelerates the impact when it all goes wrong.

Mr Fairburn might not lose too much sleep worrying about that as he counts his bonus, but no amount of money can prevent him from being remembered by Joe and Josephine Public as ‘that bloke with the big bonus who walked out of the BBC interview’.

As many PR commentators have observed, those few seconds of video will be used in every media training course for years to come. It’s a sobering reminder for everyone facing the media in similar circumstances to do their homework, be prepared for any line of questioning, and – above all – stand their ground and answer the question.


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