SSE's pre-recording pitfalls

SSE's head of corporate affairs discovers the perils of crafty editing

There are times when a PR professional acknowledges that today will not be a good day.

So pity Alan Young, utility company SSE's longstanding head of corporate affairs. With the firm facing a record Ofgem fine for mis-selling, Young was handed a tin hat by his executive directors, who chose not to face the media themselves and sent him out to take the flak.

After being terse and then meandering in the face of a live interview with a testy John Humphrys on the Today programme (N.B. - warm up with a colleague before an interview), Young played a blinder on BBC News, Sky, ITN and Channels 4 and 5. His tone of voice was appropriately humble, his language accessible, his personal and corporate apologies sincere. He sought to balance the story by reinforcing positive key messages about the action already taken to ensure mis-selling cannot happen again.

But he was less convincing on a pre-recorded Channel 4 piece about why there had been no resignations or more clawback of executive bonuses. The original 12-minute interview (see news/sse-energy-group-hit-with-record-fine-for-mis-selling) entailed a bullish Krishnan Guru-Murthy trying to goad Young, who remained admirably self-composed (of the 23 questions, 11 were interruptions). The 7pm news bulletin saw that cut to a four-minute, eight-question broadcast that highlights the potential pitfalls of pre-recording.

What do we learn? Controlling the interview and bridging to key messages is difficult when the broadcaster edits to fit the pre-planned interview agenda and removes all your key messages.

Young's first answer to the open question about what SSE was apologising for was broadcast intact - great, since rightly, Alan communicated all his key messages right at the start. But his answers in the full-length interview to the two key negative questions about lack of resignations and bonus clawbacks were cut from 53 to seven seconds and 30 to 14 seconds respectively in the shorter broadcast.

Gone were his key messages, replaced by an edit that made him appear terse and evasive.

Takeaway Tips
* There is no such thing as an unbiased news agenda, from the moment a morning editorial meeting decides which stories to cover.
* Try to avoid pre-recorded interviews for news bulletins, especially when often they are preceded by a news package that you won't have seen and that will have set the audience's mindset. You can challenge interruptions, present your case unedited and exercise greater control of what is aired.
* Print journalists often turn up with a mini-camera and post the interview online. Broadcasters posting all the pre-record justifies their edit and fills space.

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