When your first appearance on the media since a major economic intervention causes you to tank in the polls and face mutiny from your own MPs, then it is probably safe to assume it hasn’t gone well.
Despite many Truss detractors claiming that this was a move of arrogance – underestimating the journalistic prowess of local hacks – there was more strategic thinking at play by the Truss camp. The premise made sense when faced with a ‘Westminster Bubble’ rebellion and days before Tory conference – bypass the bubble and get straight to the people that matter – the voters.
However, if ever there was an example of a well thought through comms strategy with poor delivery, this was it. With a little more preparation, maybe some of the disasters could have been averted.
So what went wrong?
Local journalists are connected to the concerns of their local readers or listeners in a way that national journalists never can be. While the national news outlets are the scene setters of the national mood, the regional reporters are the ones with the ability to get under the skin of the real-life impact on voters. Truss simply wasn’t prepared for the local-level questions fired at her by, for example, BBC Radio Lancashire. A by-election due there soon will be dominated by fracking – banned at present but which Truss wants to allow, but only with ‘local consent.’ Presenter Graham Liver leapt on this, asking ‘what does local consent look like?’ before pointing out that the local MP, Mark Menzies was anti-fracking. Similarly, on BBC Leeds she was asked for her thoughts about the Leeds bus services. Being able to answer these kinds of a local-level questions is a must for anyone going up against regional press – Truss simply wasn’t over the detail.
With the Prime Minister only having a few seconds between each interview – and within such a short time-frame – she was on the back foot from the start. Had she appeared on one of the flagship BBC Programs, the scope for longer, more in-depth questioning would have been greater, but the fight would have been fairer. The presenter and their producers would have worked up questions in advance; Truss’ media SpAds would be working from the opposite side, anticipating the obvious questions and nailing down their defensive messages.
The reality of the situation was far from ideal for Truss – whilst she was bounced from one interview to another, the producers at each of the radio stations were able to revise questions in real time, pointing out flaws on answers given only minutes or even seconds before. With her final interview kicking off on BBC Radio Stoke at 8:52am, this gave the Stoke presenters nearly an hour of prep time where Truss wouldn’t have been able to consult her media advisors. Far from getting into any kind of ‘flow,’ the PM was left running around in circles and tying herself in knots.
The format of the regional programs didn’t just give journalists the upper hand on the questioning – it also created the perfect short sound-bites for digitally savvy national media, with the opening ‘where’ve yer bin’ question from BBC Leeds shared embedded into national articles far and wide. In what rapidly became a national media blood bath, even the pro-Truss Telegraph struggled to defend the performance, while the Independent led with a simple ‘Seven best local radio takedowns of Liz Truss as she fails to defend ‘disastrous’ mini-budget.’ In a world of clicks and shares, the articles practically wrote themselves.
While Truss isn’t renowned for having the media flair of Johnson or even Sunak’s smooth delivery, it was something she was widely reported to be working on, with her performance throughout the leadership contest getting markedly better. However, this interview round showed a Prime Minister still clearly uncomfortable in front of a microphone, and lacking Johnson’s flexibility and ability to pivot away from difficult questions.
The result was a stilted performance that, by the fourth round of questioning started to sound more like an actor rehearsing their lines than the bold, trailblazing leader of the Tory revolution that party members voted for.