When an interview goes wrong – three lessons from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s COP26 comments

2 November 2021  |  Insights
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The Archbishop of Canterbury (Image: Creative Commons/ Roger Harris)

You could be the Archbishop of Canterbury. It doesn’t matter, you can still get things wrong.

Justin Welby is a very experienced communicator, who has done hundreds, if not thousands, of successful media interviews over his tenure. But at the COP26 climate summit, he gave one he now regrets.

In a BBC interview, he compared failure to act at the Glasgow meeting with ignoring warnings about the Nazis in the 1930s.

An apology on Twitter followed soon after: “I unequivocally apologise for the words I used when trying to emphasise the gravity of the situation facing us at COP26. It’s never right to make comparisons with the atrocities brought by the Nazis and I’m sorry for the offence caused to Jews by these words.”

But this example demonstrates three important lessons for anyone who faces questions from the press:

Read the room

Make sure you recognise what impact your words will have on others. Often spokespeople use shocking analogies to drive home a point, but be careful. What comes out of your mouth, particularly in live interview scenarios such as the Archbishop’s interview, is officially your line, even if you later regret it. To help avoid making a mess of it, make sure you’ve done some preparation before being interviewed. Know your lines, know your key messages and be clear, compelling and consistent.

Monitor the response

After you’ve done a media interview, it’s important to carry out some form of social listening to see how your words have landed online. There are tools to help you with this such as Sendible, Hootsuite and Sprout Social. Knowing quickly if you’ve caused a problem with your comments will help you to form an appropriate and fast response. You don’t want to wake up the next morning with your phone bursting with notifications telling you you’ve messed up. Act quickly. This is damage limitation time. Which brings me to my third point...

If you mess up, say sorry

Justin Welby responded with an apology within a few hours of the media storm his words had caused. He knew he’d got it wrong and offended many people by his comparison to the Holocaust. His intent may have been praiseworthy, but his choice of words proved problematic. Saying sorry may seem like a backwards step, but it can often be the best step. It’ll help to save your reputation (although that’s not guaranteed), and is far more preferable than holding to a line which you regret. And when you say sorry, it needs to be genuine. After initially reacting furiously, Stephen Pollard, editor of The Jewish Chronicle newspaper, noted Justin Welby's quick and clear response, saying it was 'a proper apology, not mealy-mouthed.'

Jersey Road PR offers media interview and crisis communications training and support. Get in touch to find out how we can help you.

Written by Andrew Horton, Head of Content, Jersey Road PR

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