The Big Interview: Gavin Esler - The art of great storytelling

After 37 years in media and usually asking the tricky questions, the long-serving Newsnight presenter has the tables turned on him by Kate Magee.

Gavin Esler - The Art of great storytelling
Gavin Esler - The Art of great storytelling

The longstanding Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler has written a new book, Lessons from the Top, in which he explores how successful leaders tell stories. Over the following pages, Esler speaks to PRWeek about spin, changes in the media and why George W. Bush was actually a great communicator.

Your book explains how successful leaders tell stories in order to connect with their followers and get ahead. Were there any key principles you discovered?

We all tell stories, but I believe leaders who communicate well organise their stories into three parts: Who am I? Who are we? What is our common purpose? It's a rough guide to how just about everybody does it.

In the book, you say that it is more important for a story to be authentic than true. Can you explain the difference?

A lot of things that leaders say are not completely true, but sound authentic. For example, Margaret Thatcher said she was the 'grocer's daughter from Grantham'. It's true, but she's a little bit more than that.

It's obviously better to tell the factual truth, but the truth is shapeable. Everybody understands that at one level because they do not put down all their bad points on their CV when applying for a job. I'm just trying to get people to understand it at different levels.

The PR industry would probably agree with that argument ...

One of the things that is curious to me is PR has very bad PR. I meet a lot of business people and they are all very cautious of the idea of PR without recognising that they do it any way. They might not call it that. They certainly would not call it spin. I find 'spin' a really unhelpful word, because it immediately says 'this is phoney'. What do you mean by phoney? CVs just tell you the nice stuff about an applicant. Does that mean every CV is spin?

Margaret Thatcher by Rex

Having been a journalist for many years, what changes have you seen in the PR industry?

There are several things I have noticed. One that is really annoying is the rise in the PR equivalent of cold calling - people who send out press releases willy nilly. I get some extraordinary nonsense and it's very untargeted. When you send something out to a lot of people, you are just telling everybody to ignore it.

Another is that in a lot of corporations, people who are engaged in trying to control the image of the firm seem to be taken a lot more seriously than they used to be.

The third thing that really strikes me is some companies that you feel would do PR a lot better are just catastrophic at it. BP is an obvious example. The comms mistakes it made during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill were breathtaking. In contrast, when M&S had an issue with some women over bra sizes, it took out an ad and said 'sorry, we've got it wrong'. That was brilliant.

Do you believe the media have less deference to leaders now?

It is certainly true of political leaders. I believe the difference came in after the Cold War. That's why Bill Clinton is such an important figure, because he's a transitional figure. He was asked questions that no other US President had faced regarding his marriage and adultery. Clinton was not the first adulterer in the White House.

What about business leaders?

For people in corporate life, there is still the ability to have some degree of privacy. It depends on how connected they are to their brand. If they become a celebrity - such as Richard Branson - that will open them up to other questions.

Also, everybody with a mobile phone is now part of the media. When (former BP CEO) Tony Hayward was in Cowes, it was inevitable the story would get out. He would not be able to keep it secret that he was watching his yacht race while people were unable to fish in the Gulf of Mexico due to BP's oil spill.

Which medium do you think is best for storytelling?

TV is the most flexible medium. When you see someone on TV, it is like they are in your living room. I believe most people don't necessarily think they are a genius about the economy, but almost everybody thinks they are really good judges of character. If you are a good storyteller and you seem relaxed and at ease with yourself, it's a great medium for you. However, there are some people who have quite a lot of skills, such as Gordon Brown, who are not good on TV. For Brown, TV was a big handicap and he always looked uncomfortable.

Do you feel that Brown's fate shows leaders need different attributes now to be successful in the modern media environment?

I admire Brown's reluctance to use his children in any way to say he's a family man on TV, but I'm not sure it was entirely effective.

The more damning problem for politicians is that most newspapers - aside from the quality titles - are not interested in policies. Boris Johnson connects to lots of people. But apart from Boris bikes and the fact he cycles to work, I'm sure most people could not tell you about any of his policies.

This is interesting and shows that with confident, intelligent leaders, you can get sidetracked into the personality.

One of the reasons Tony Blair was such a good communicator was that he did not go through policy papers before every election. Instead, his advisers asked him the price of a pint of milk or a tin of beans. He recognised that nobody was going to say to him the NHS should cost 3.7 per cent more, but if he thought a tin of beans cost £20 or 5p, he would look completely out of touch.

That is why George W. Bush was also a great communicator - something that people in this country did not understand.

George W. Bush is not normally described as a good communicator ...

He told a very convincing and coherent story about being a guy from Texas who just liked clearing brush on his ranch. Yet, he was the son of a President. This particular story seemed authentic because it was part of his character that he was happy on the ranch, but it obliterated some of the negative stuff about him.

George W Bush

Recent research shows that people have less trust in business leaders and politicians, but more in 'people like me'. Do you believe this means leaders are not telling the right stories?

I think that's exactly right. That was why (Apple's former CEO) Steve Jobs connected so well. Of course, the products are hugely important, but he was able to appear like one of his customers. People, as customers, want to believe that it is about much more than just the money.

I believe that is one of the ways in which bankers have got themselves into such a terrible situation. Are corporate chiefs really not prepared to get out of bed unless they get million-pound bonuses? That sticks in the throat of most people and there's no amount of storytelling that can get round that. You've just got to not do it.

Is that why you say in the book you were surprised about Fred 'the Shred' Goodwin hiring PHA Media chairman Phil Hall to improve his reputation?

Professional comms advisers cannot change fundamental realities. If somebody has done something terribly wrong and they don't come out and apologise, there's no amount of massaging or planting stories in newspapers that is going to change things. If you want to change the story, you actually have to be different.

Do you believe media training works?

If 'media trained' means you have looked around a TV studio and had a discussion about what is expected of you, then I have no problem with that.

However, what you see in the corporate world is that media training equals sticking to scripts that somebody else has written for them. They say words that nobody uses in conversation, such as 'maximising shareholder value'. If people believe being media trained is to be given the keys to the castle and they can then trot out various phrases that will sum up their story for them, actually that is a complete disaster. When they appear on TV, I consider it is part of my job to puncture that.

Do you find conducting those interviews difficult?

The most difficult interviews to do are when you have a very intelligent political leader who is trying to address a very complicated question. We genuinely want to hear what they say, but you have to make it intelligible to the viewers and that can be tricky. But someone who is just reciting nonsense is not very challenging.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
2003: Presenter, Newsnight; Dateline London
1998: Columnist, The Scotsman
1997: Presenter, BBC News
1990: Chief North America correspondent, BBC
1989: Washington correspondent, BBC
1982: Reporter/presenter, BBC Newsnight
1977: Reporter, BBC Northern Ireland
1975: Reporter, Belfast Telegraph

ESLER'S EARLY CAREER - TROUBLED TIMES IN NORTHERN IRELAND

Northern Ireland, Rex

Esler started his journalism career in Northern Ireland in 1975, during violent political conflict.

He was thrown in at the deep end. Right at the start of his career at the Belfast Telegraph, ten people were killed in the Kingsmill massacre in South Armagh and most of the news team were sent there to report on the incident.

Esler was the only reporter in the office when a bomb exploded in the North Street Arcade shopping centre, just a stone's throw from his desk.

'The news editor sent me to the scene, but because it was so close I got there before the emergency services,' says Esler. 'There was a leg lying in the car park. There were lots of screaming women who had been cut by flying glass. That was my first story. It was hard and upsetting.'

Esler remained for many years in Northern Ireland, both at the Belfast Telegraph and then the BBC.

For another story, he interviewed a Protestant paramilitary leader.

'His first words to me were, "I am speaking to you as someone deeply involved in violence". That's a very powerful example of the STAR moment storytelling technique, where you give your audience "Something They Always Remember",' says Esler.

Images of Thatcher and Northern Ireland by Rex

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