The day I media trained Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson and media training don't seem like the most obvious words you'd find in the same sentence.

Boris Johnson: Grilled by US media at a press conference with Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week (credit: State Department Photo/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock)
Boris Johnson: Grilled by US media at a press conference with Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week (credit: State Department Photo/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock)
But when he was Mayor of London, I got the call to help media train him ahead of two important broadcasts, including BBC Question Time.  

I'd been media training CEOs and the like for many years, but he was the first politician I had trained since being a special adviser in Blair’s government.  

I immediately noticed that Boris had done his homework, but on me rather than his key messages. Right off, I was jovially accused of being a "pinko neo-socialist communist" or something very similar. 

Clearly, being a member of Progress was almost as subversive then as it is now.
We got cracking and it quickly became clear that key messages don’t come easily to him, simply because he is the key message. 

So we worked on moving the story to what he had to say rather than just the person saying it – critical for the audiences we were training for.

In our rapid-fire session, we found that there was a tendency to talk over people – something that grates on the punters watching on TV (as much as it will on diplomats the world over).  

So we focused hard on that, and of course he improved quickly. He was very good at sensing the journalistic traps I set during interviews, but perhaps needed to see that as the reputational challenge it is, rather than fun.

He knew perfectly well when he was blustering and that this approach would not work for the appearances we were training for. 

I suddenly realised I had hardly ever seen him do big set-pieces before. As Mayor, Boris gave the illusion of being omnipresent, but he’d actually rarely do major appearances.
He knew the importance of choosing the right moment and being prepared.

What I admired and respected about Boris was his genuine eagerness to listen and adapt. He certainly wasn’t above being trained or given direction, not even by a north London lefty. 

I met Boris a few more times after that, including when I ran an airline account for a big London agency. 

He spoke at an event we ran and showed real passion about the company and its huge investment in London and the UK, before dropping his ink pen at its CEO’s feet in front of the press. As we all know, there are some things in our industry we can never prepare for.  

As child of the 80s, I was brought up in an era of political giants, left and right. 

Now, Boris is one of the few natural communicators left in a political landscape that has more questions than answers. 

Perhaps that’s why Theresa May brought him in.  

But, while talk of Britain’s reduced presence on the world stage may have been silenced since his star arrival at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I hope he won’t forget the need to let others be heard as he zip-wires his way into the world's chancelleries.
Simon Benson is a former Labour special adviser and founder of 

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