The geezerish performance of the boss of Sports Direct in front of MPs last week is being hailed as the template for how to deal with difficult questioning at the highest level. Billionaire Mike Ashley eventually hauled himself in front of MPs on the Business, Information and Skills select committee, but not before calling them “a joke”.
His alleged charge sheet is a long one: he stands accused of running a Dickensian workhouse culture of fear and bullying, with a six-strikes-and-you’re-out employment policy including for being ill or even pregnant; 80 per cent of staff are on zero-hours contracts; workers paid less than minimum wage; ambulances have been called more than 80 times in two years, including for a woman who gave birth in the staff toilets.
And yet, unlike many a big boss, he came out of the Select Committee experience almost untouched. He admitted he wasn’t “a saint”, along with not being “Santa Claus”, “an expert” or “an accountant”. He bantered with the committee, confessing he was “out of his depth some time ago” whilst promising relatively little real change.
No-one still seems quite sure if Mike Ashley was well-briefed and cunning, or just bowled into the room and shot from the hip. Sat next to his friend and PR man Keith Bishop, he even said at one point: “How would you media train me?”
But it’s hard to believe the billionnaire simply turned up on the day. He may not be media trained in the traditional sense, but you have to assume he will have planned his defence. So how should company spokespeople be trained? Should they now be prepped to act bumbling, stumbling and out of their depth?
Ashley’s ‘straight-talking’ swagger plays into a wider trend of the public rejecting erudite, educated establishment figures in favour of plain-speaking ‘outsiders’ such as Michael O’Leary, Nigel Farage and the Don of them all, Donald Trump.
The media training rule book is being torn up by a batch of larger-than-life characters who don’t stick to a script and reject authority - and we love them for it. However badly they’ve acted, the public simply roll their eyes and say, ‘”what’s he like” (for it seems it is always a he).
Their common strategy is simple: say whatever’s on your mind in that moment, don’t worry about offending common sensibilities, never back down, and try and get in a blatant plug while you’re at it.
Stoked by the rise of outspoken media commentary and online clickbait from the likes of Katie Hopkins, social media is playing a big part here - polarising opinion, encouraging everyone to vent their views and making ‘plain speaking’ a virtue. It’s a powerful but combustible concoction.
For the rest of us, getting our message across will always require preparation and training, but it could mean sticking less firmly to the corporate line and injecting some proper personality if you want to be believed not just heard. For it feels as if people now value honesty and sincerity in their public figures – whether they say sorry or not.
Mike Cheshire is an account director at Camargue.