LEWIS 360° – The blog of global communications agency, LEWIS PR

PR blog covering communications trends, social media and more

Mandy v Marr

The clash between Lord Mandelson and Andrew Marr on BBC1 on Sunday morning was entertaining fare but an example of all that can go wrong when media training tactics are taken to an extreme.

Marr rightly asked about Mandelson’s remarks in a leaked email about Gordon Brown being “insecure, self-conscious physically and emotionally, uncomfortable in his skin and angry.”

In the narrow terms of defending his corner over the controversial comments Mandelson stonewalled, evaded and bullied brilliantly. However, his robotic and stubborn refusal to answer the questions and use of bridging even more obvious than the Golden Gate must have played terribly with the viewers.

Voters, and the public more generally, are becoming increasingly aware of the interview tactics those in authority use to avoid embarrassing questions – and increasingly more contemptuous and cynical. Mandelson’s systematic and arrogant avoidance of the issues is the sort of approach which has done so much to bring politics into disrepute and undermine people’s faith in the Westminster culture. (Even before the expenses scandal.)

There is nothing clever about deliberate evasion. Media trainers need to start telling those that attend their sessions that honesty and humility can be extremely powerful means of protecting their reputations. If Mandelson genuinely does support Brown, he would have been far more effective by admitting making the “angry and insecure” remarks but then confessing to having been mistaken in analysis. 

Instead, most I have talked to were left with the impression that he was embarrassed by press disclosure of the email – and still holds the views contained in it.

LEWIS PR offers services spanning PR and media relations, social media marketing, search engine optimization and digital content production. Find Out More About Working With Us

  • Eb Adeyeri

    I’ve always said that when the nuclear holocaust hits only two things will remain. Cockroaches and Peter Mandelson.
    Based on the now (in)famous interview between Mandy and Andrew Marr, I can see why. There’s been a debate in the office between myself, David Brown and Will Sturgeon about this.
    He is clearly a master in the art of controlling the media. I never thought I’d be defending anything Peter Mandelson said or stood for (I was first in line to cheer when he got pelted with green custard) but as someone who works in the dark art of PR, you have to admire the way he didn’t allow himself to get flustered by Marr. If anything, for most of the interview it seemed that Marr was the one with something to squirm about. It takes a lot to get a seasoned hack like Andrew Marr hot under the collar so Mandy clearly has something about him.
    Now I’m not saying that politicians should evade questions but in a age where lazy journalism seems to be the order of the day, reporters have to be on their toes when interviewing especially when the subject is as wily as Mandelson. It might be that Andrew was having an off day, but I’m sure he’ll think twice before taking Mandy again in future.

  • david brain

    I could not disagree more. I thought he handled Marr brilliantly and Marr was left at the end floundering around trying to back up his own use of rumours and interrupting Mandy when he was answering. I can't think of any other politician who could have handled that situation with such skill.

  • Stuart Bruce – Wolfs

    Very surprised at your take on this, which is at odds with what most people have said to me. I've had several none politically aligned colleagues ask me "Did you see Mandelson's interview on Marr". Most were commenting because they thought Peter made mincemeat of Marr. If you look look at the Twitter comments during and immediately after the interview you'll see that most of them agreed that Marr was well and truly beaten by Mandelson.

  • Laura Gillen

    Mandelson came over terribly. He was asked simple straightforward questions. PR should not be about dodging legitimate enquiries. Mandelson is not an elected politician and cannot be voted out by the electorate. So, we have to rely on the likes of Andy Marr to get to the truth.

  • David Brown

    I agree that Marr looked flustered when Mandelson asked him to quote from Blears' resignation email, which did, incidentally, indicate she had lost faith in Brown
    The only other time I remember a TV interviewee repeatedly harangue an interviewer with: "Next question. Next. Next" was Sir Jimmy Savile when quizzed by Louis Theroux. Savile came over as a suspicious, unsympathetic, hostile subject who looked like he had something to hide. Ditto Mandy.
    We in PR need to step outside our own bubble sometimes and realise how appearances like this play with the wider public. There is nothing remotely clever or impressive about deliberately ducking a legitimate enquiry.
    "Answer the question" is becoming the clarion call of an increasingly angry and disillusioned electorate and the sooner politicians realise that, the better for all of us.

  • Nadia Saint

    I'm on the fence a bit on this one.
    I'd definitely call Mandy the winner, but in some ways it's a spurious victory.
    While he's undoubtedly brilliant at controlling the conversation, it leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste. It's a bit like watching a particularly acrobatic cat burglar – deft and elegant, but ultimately still a thief.
    Have to admire this, though:
    "I'm not going to comment on every stray whisper, rumour, or… Old email."

  • Will Sturgeon

    I think the danger here is that a lot of PR professionals are getting very introspective and self-congratulatory while missing the point that Mandelson's performance was entirely out of tune with the public's mood.
    The vast majority of people watching won't have been PR pros patting themselves on the collective backs. They will have been voters looking for a shred of authority, decency, empathy, honesty, humility and substance from their politicians after the most bruising time in modern politics.
    I admit I do media training (including politicians) and while evading and bridging are absolutely key techniques they are not the beginning and end of a successful media interview.
    As PR people we’d do well to remember we are not the story, we are a means to a story. If people at home watched that programme and thought Mandelson was insincere, dishonest and evasive then I'd say that's a failing for media training. Nobody should be training these people to appear even less popular than they already are.
    It's like PR people celebrating the fact it's so easy to get releases picked up by the quality press, without realising the very thing they celebrate is a symptom of a more grave problem for us all.

  • david brain

    Actually Will I think we just have a different view on this than you, but your chaep jibes noted.

  • rachel matthews

    Marr was given no opportunity by Mandy to answer his own question on Blears' email – he answered it himself and made up what suited him as the answer – yes overall it looked like he made mince meat of Marr, but reflection shows he came across as a flustered, angry and aggressive finger pointing XXXt which will do nothing to endear him or labour to the electorate

  • Will Sturgeon

    David, I do apologise if you or anybody else felt unfairly implicated, or singled out by my comment.
    I'm sorry also that you thought my comment was little more than a cheap jibe. I’m sure being from the agency world yourself, you’re well aware it stopped being cheap somewhere around the third paragraph.
    Of course, I didn't expect it to be universally popular, especially among more-established PR professionals, but conversely, I think a little cynicism is important in any industry and I was merely pointing out the danger of applauding the tactics rather than the results, which I’m sure we can all be guilty of from time to time.
    While many PR people were rushing onto Twitter on Sunday to proclaim it "a victory for media training" it was interesting to note a welter of negative comment elsewhere in the Twittersphere, suggesting Mandelson had only succeeded in further burning bridges to the UK electorate.
    Despite a perfect 10 from many in the PR world, one Tweet suggested Mandelson came across as “that oily little c*** Mandelson” adding he appears to be a “sinister f***ing toad”.
    (The asterisks are my own.)
    Now, granted I don’t think that was Oscar Wilde Tweeting from beyond the grave, but I also suspect it wasn’t the effect Mandelson will have been looking for at such a sensitive time for the government. There are a lot of similar comments.
    And let’s not forget instances where the performance wasn’t even that technically adept.
    Even somebody as Machiavellian as Mandelson cannot have intended to say: “I can assure you the cabinet is united against him [Brown].” And for somebody with his international background, he should probably have dropped “Chinese whispers” from his soundbite arsenal sometime in the late seventies.
    A victory for media training? I’m still not convinced. But I apologise if my cynicism sounds cheap or caused offence.

  • David Child

    Totally agree with Will. Politicians spend far too much time in interviews focusing on avoiding the questions – which results in tiresome and fruitless discussions for a disengaged electorate.
    Yes Mandelson did a sterling job in controlling the interview, giving Marr the run around and putting on a good show for 'his team' but as someone genuinely unsure who on earth is in charge of this country – and equally who I would like to be in charge – it delivered nought.
    Question Time is one of the few opportunities when real people force politicians to answer the question – the recent example following the expenses scandal was for me much more useful as a voter.
    Let's get some humility, positive actions and genuine emotion/passion/conviction – instead of self-gratification in interviews and the electorate might not be so disenfranchised.

  • Stephen Waddington

    Why are we celebrating this as an example of PR excellence? It was poor, by any measure, and added nought to the debate. There was no winner, and the only loser was democracy. Politicians need to engage in conversation, not rebuttal. Then the electorate might feel less disenfranchised, and we might get more than 30% turn out in an election. Marr reflects general opinion – we're pissed off and fed up with the performance of our politicians.

  • James Ashe

    This to me is very interesting argument. I don’t usually get involved with these discussions and maybe I am over simplifying the debate then I apologise but to me it is quite simple.
    If the name of game is public relations and, as a result of the interview, relations with the public are viewed as being worse than before the interview – then how can anyone in the PR world claim a victory for the industry?

  • david brain

    Will, you make good points. Again I don't agree because I can find many on Twitter that thought Marr was outflanked and out-thought. Context is key. Who else could go and defend this government at this stage on that platfrom? All the cards were in Marr's hand and he misused them and ended up blustering badly. The other context is that 'of course' Labour and politicians are not seen in a good light right now….but then hectoring journalists come pretty low too and anyone watching the second half of that cannot have thought well of Marr. He's no Paxman.

  • Will Sturgeon

    David, totally agree Marr didn’t shine either and his Sunday morning show is not the platform to try flexing his Paxman aspirations (and when he did he was found wanting). I think it was definitely a nil-nil draw though, with a lot of ugly and unnecessary fouls and mis-kicks.

  • Richard Houghton

    Simple question for me is – was I better informed at the end of the interview? No. Mandelson was patronising and evasive and Marr failed to pin him down. Poor journalism and not even very entertaining.

  • Steve George

    Winning the argument does not necessarily win you the vote.
    William Hague spent months bashing Tony Blair in the House of Commons only to suffer a spectacular landslide defeat at the election.
    We’d do well to remember that robust media performances need to be aligned to objectives, rather than demonstrating one’s ability to outmanoeuvre the journalist.

  • Paul Wolfenden

    Have come to the table late on this one, having only just caught the Marr interview of Mandy.
    Mandy has lost sight of what people are looking for in polititians – it`s certainly not the ability to stonewall journalists or broadcasters. He needs to remember that the elecctorate are crying out for someone to represent them and to ANSWER THE QUESTION.
    Mandy may have "got through" this interview with Marr unscathed, but the price he will pay is to lose even more empathy with the viewing/voting public.