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Key quote highlights risk of humour in media interviews

12 November 2014

Humour is a great way to attract media attention, but as John Key found this week, it comes with its risks.

When asked if he would advise Chilean President Michelle Bachelet that fugitive murderer Phillip John Smith appeared to have escaped to her country, the PM said: “I’ll just let her know that someone could be over there from New Zealand that she may not want to invite round for lunch.”

Journalists always want interesting sound bites to bring their stories to life. So if you can make a point with the use of humour, you will get quoted just about every time. The only problem, as Key found out, is that what may be funny to some people can offend others. That’s why we tell our media training clients to be very wary of using humour, and never use it where victims are involved.

Ironically the PM is one person who often uses humour quite well. For example, when asked to comment on the Green Party’s Housing Policy a few years ago, he said: “That’s not the Greens Housing Policy, that’s the latest version of monopoly.” That was effective because it let people know he thought the policy was unrealistic, it was political rather than personal and he knew the media would use the quote.

But where there are real victims, not just political opponents, humour is unwise.

To his credit, Key didn’t waste time in apologising. He said: “Obviously it was a very poorly placed attempt at humour and I regret that and unreservedly apologise.”

While I wouldn’t advise Key to avoid humour altogether because he normally uses it well, I wouldn’t advice its use for the media novice. The only exception would be particularly light-hearted stories.  Not only can it be risky by offending people, it can also lead to comparisons with professional comedians like Billy Connolly. And we all know who would win that competition.

For more on my media training and crisis communication planning workshops, contact pete@mediatrainingnz.co.nz or 029 200 8555.

Written by

Pete is a leading New Zealand media trainer and regular blogger for his company, Media Training NZ . He has helped leaders from all sectors of society communicate with the media and other stakeholders. Pete is a former daily newspaper reporter and press secretary in the New Zealand government. From these roles, he understands the media process from both sides of the camera.

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