Stay on message to avoid trouble

Staying ‘on message’ in a media interview means saying what you need to say, and avoiding irrelevancies and distractions. Say what you planned to say, avoid over-elaborating, and – above all – don’t get drawn into areas that don’t support your message.

A politician who wants to be Britain’s next Prime Minister just discovered, the hard way, what happens when you stray off-message.

Andrea Leadsom was invited by the Times newspaper to talk about why she aspired to lead the Conservative Party, following the resignation of David Cameron.

Her objective was simple:

  • To emphasize her financial skills (a successful career in banking before entering politics);
  • To overcome her limited ministerial experience (two minor positions);
  • To promote her leadership skills;
  • To set out a vision for a post-EU Britain.

It should have been easy. But it went badly wrong. The Times headlined the article “Being a mother gives me edge on May” – a reference to the front-runner candidate Theresa May.

The journalist had surprised Ms Leadsom by asking “Do you feel like a mum in politics?” Instead of deflecting the question, or bridging to a key message, Ms Leadsom engaged with the question.

She said: “I don’t really know Theresa very well but I am sure she will be really really sad she doesn’t have children. I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.

“She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people, but I have children, who are going to have children, who will directly be a part of what happens next.”

Was she really suggesting if you don’t have children you are less invested in your country? That being a mum makes you a better Prime Minister? That’s how some senior Conservatives interpreted the words. They called Ms Leadsom’s comments ‘vile’, and suggested she should apologize.

Ms Leadsom’s reaction was to blame the reporter. “In the course of a lengthy interview yesterday, I was repeatedly asked about my children and I repeatedly made it clear that I did not want this in any way a feature of the campaign,” she said.

The fact is, she decided to talk about her own children, and she decided to muse about Theresa May’s life without children.

If she didn’t want to motherhood to feature in the campaign, she had a simple solution. Stay on message.

UPDATE

Andrea Leadsom’s ill-judged comments to the Times newspaper were published on a Saturday. By Monday she had quit the content for leadership of the Conservative Party.

Officially, her reason was to avoid a bruising contest stretching over nine weeks that would ‘destabilize the country’ following the Brexit vote.

But most observers say she was simply unprepared for the level of scrutiny that came with aspirations to be Prime Minister. Her gaffes in the Times interview were just one illustration of that.