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Negotiating Interviews With Sensitivity, Integrity, and Care

There are countless reasons why trying to land a crucial interview can go wrong. Here, interviews producer and writer Sam McAlister shares how to negotiate highly sought-after interviews with sensitivity, integrity, and care.

Fifteen feet. That’s how far I am from the back of Prince Andrew’s chair.

I can see the soles of his shiny shoes (hardly scuffed), the back of his head (new haircut), the bottoms of his trousers (tailored to a perfectly judged length), and the nervous movement in his left foot as it taps, taps, taps, over and over, against the ornate carpet. The chair itself is also pretty ornate (befitting a palace) but it seems very small with him sitting in it, moving nervously from side to side, awaiting his fate.

That was in Buckingham Palace, almost three years ago, in November 2019. I was the interviews producer at BBC Newsnight. The negotiator. I had started these particular negotiations months earlier. It started with an innocuous email in 2018. It ended with a far-from-innocuous interview in 2019. A year of emails, meetings, back and forth, to and fro. The merry dance an interviews producer does between persistence and being a pain in the ass.

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I couldn’t believe he’d actually finally said yes. As I sat in my chair, up against the palace wall, I surveyed the scene. It was surreal. The many pieces of equipment and chaos that television brings—lights, endless cables, a sound recordist, a make-up artist, a photographer, a raft of microphones—but all of that disappeared as I sat and watched the back of his chair, with the presenter, Emily Maitlis, in my direct line of vision. It was just his disastrous answers, and Emily’s meticulous, calm questions. Over and over, for almost an hour.

Just two days after I sat there, the world heard the contents of that extraordinary interview for the first time. You sat agog listening to a member of the Royal family talk about his friendship with a sex offender, about his sexual behavior, about THAT Pizza Express alibi, and his so-called inability to sweat. We first heard it all days before, in the final face-to-face negotiation. I barely dared to believe he’d actually say it on camera. But he did. It was the interview that launched a thousand memes, that rallied the nation behind the inescapable truth: that Prince Andrew had made a terrible mistake in agreeing to do it.

The reason we all got to hear his answers that day was because of months and months of painstaking negotiation. I had to convince him, to convince his chief of staff, Amanda Thirsk, that an interview was the right thing to do. “How on earth did you convince him to do it?” is the question I get asked almost every day. How do you convince someone, caught in a global scandal, facing possible criminal proceedings, to bare their soul in front of a TV camera with one of the foremost TV interrogators in the land?

Negotiating Interviews With Sensitivity, Integrity, and Care

In truth, whoever you’re approaching, it’s all about finding the “sweet spot”—that crucial piece of motivation, of human psychology, that will make the difference between a “yes” and a “no.” The same test applies whomever you’re dealing with—if you can’t put yourself in their shoes, imagine their concerns and fears, pre-empt their objections, and work out the problems that need to be overcome, you’re in trouble before you’ve started. It’s easy to work out what you want—the interview, the information—but having the empathy, insight, and compassion to work out what they want is the true key.

That was my producer “superpower.” In Andrew’s case, I’d researched him meticulously. I knew he was robust, used to getting his own way, likely to be certain of his capabilities, regardless of any advice he was given. I also knew that he was hoping to walk his daughter Beatrice down the aisle at her wedding, to celebrate his 60th birthday, and to return to his lifestyle that he’d enjoyed prior to his fatal association with Jeffrey Epstein, and the allegations of sexual assault brought against him by Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who, rightly, refused to let him evade justice.

For him the motivation was clear—in order to have a semblance of normality again, he’d have to vindicate himself, to explain himself, to answer the allegations against him. It seems insane now to think that he probably assumed the interview would clear his name, given how badly it went, but at the time, it was a plausible outcome.

The thing I’ve learnt is that no one thinks they’re going to do a bad interview. It’s the same with everyone I’ve dealt with—Stormy Daniels (brilliant), Steven Seagal (walked off), Amy Schumer (indifferent), Justin Trudeau (slick). It’s always the same story. This was to prove Prince Andrew’s undoing.

Negotiating Interviews With Sensitivity, Integrity, and Care

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The same tools I used in my career are lessons that can apply to every interview you try and secure, to every conversation you have, to every interaction, every research call. If you deal with people, treat them with respect, tell them the truth, don’t mislead, don’t over promise, don’t compromise who you are for the sake of trying to close a deal. It will always come back and bite you.

The crucial relationship that resulted in this interview happening was with his Chief of Staff, Amanda Thirsk. It was my dealings with her—open, honest, sometimes uncomfortable, direct, sincere—that laid the foundation for the eventual “yes.” She knew I was plain talking, and that my dealings were in good faith. Because that’s ultimately all that we have—our reputation.

Whoever you’re dealing with—whether it is research for your novel, or crucial information for your nonfiction, bear in mind what your behavior would look like to someone else, to a future journalist covering your story.

Eventually, that’s what happened to me—and thank goodness I had nothing to hide. Behave with compassion, behave with honesty, behave with sensitivity. As our parents might tell us—“treat others as you’d wish to be treated yourself”—don’t let the thirst for a good story get in the way.

If you aspire to be a professional writer, you must know the basics of communication. When you take this business writing workshop, you'll develop the skills necessary to survive in the business world as a writer. You will study Wilma Davidson's Business Writing: What Works, What Won't and discover practical advice for writing memos, business letters, reports, and other kinds of business documents. Enroll in Essentials of Business Writing today and get business writing tips that will help you succeed.

If you aspire to be a professional writer, you must know the basics of communication. When you take this business writing workshop, you'll develop the skills necessary to survive in the business world as a writer. You will study Wilma Davidson's Business Writing: What Works, What Won't and discover practical advice for writing memos, business letters, reports, and other kinds of business documents. Enroll in Essentials of Business Writing today and get business writing tips that will help you succeed.

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