Bénédicte Paviot

How NOT to become a Viral Sensation

The President of the Foreign Press Association in London explains how - in the age of 24 hour news - politicians can avoid it all going so terribly wrong…

When I was a child, it seemed like tomorrow would never come. Now, our 24-hour non-stop media means tomorrow seems to happen today. As a French TV and radio journalist based in London reporting for international media, my job is to explain the ins and outs of what’s going on. For years, I’ve stood outside Parliament or in Downing Street, come rain or shine, reporting what was going on.

Nowadays I have to be ready to jettison whatever was previously planned because some new event or statement has come crashing in because unpredictability and sensationalism are the new name of the game. Reporting is more complex, with almost every politician seemingly on the verge of saying or doing something that could make them a viral sensation - and so very possibly put an end to their career.

Right before I go on air - armed with the latest facts and quotes - I quickly scroll through my phone to check and see if I will have to change my report. A recent example is Jacob Rees-Mogg. As the then Leader of the House of Commons, he was caught during a headline-grabbing late-night debate on Brexit reclining and snoozing on the famous green benches in what some have described as “Madame Récamier style”.

This pose turned him into a viral sensation with Rees-Mogg memes quickly springing up and trending. A surprise to all, including to the man dubbed the “Honourable Member for the 18th century”. Days later, he grabbed news headlines again with even more dramatic coverage of unfeeling comments he made in a live radio interview about the terrible Grenfell fire. Public reaction was swift and unrelenting, deeming him to be an over-privileged snob completely out-of-touch with ordinary people.

During the following days, he was under the media spotlight and widely criticised for what many considered ill-advised remarks. In one fell swoop, he went from being one of the most trusted and ubiquitous performers of the new Johnson régime to being almost invisible during the General Election campaign that ensued for fear he could cost the Conservatives vital votes…

Chasing eyeballs, ears, clicks, subscriptions, in an ever-increasing competitive media market with shrinking financial budgets. The new reality is far more wide-reaching and therefore potentially more dangerous

And what happened to him is happening elsewhere. There was uproar in France last year over a video posted on Facebook. French student Marie Laguerre was walking home when she was violently assaulted outside a Paris café. After CCTV footage of the attack went viral, Laguerre used her platform to educate others on the unacceptable violence faced by women in France and worldwide.

The first viral sensation I remember was back in the General Election of April 2010. Gordon Brown’s campaign was thrown into turmoil, indeed never recovered, after he was caught on mic calling a Labour supporter who had challenged him over the economy and immigration a “bigoted woman”.

The changing nature of the media and of broadcasting - with the merging of TV, radio and print - means anyone and anything can go viral, national, indeed global in minutes. We are now driven towards creating content that sets social media alight. Chasing eyeballs, ears, clicks, subscriptions, in an ever-increasing competitive media market with shrinking financial budgets. The new reality is far more wide-reaching and therefore potentially more dangerous.

Where may this take us in future? Politicians will have more and more media training to deliver their message and pre-prepared lines to avoid gaffes. Their media handlers will increasingly restrict access to them and pick easier, softer interviews, avoiding tougher and more forensic media interrogators, calculating that it is safer to avoid them and take the hit, rather than the fall-out from the possibility of a car crash interview that could derail an election campaign.

Thus, despite the ever-growing plurality of media outlets, we

will be less well-informed about the goals and objectives of our politicians and leaders. This will not help to rebuild much-needed trust and respect for them by voters.

Ever since the publication of Tony Blair’s dodgy dossier on the Iraq war and the alleged reasons for sending British troops to fight Saddam Hussein’s regime to destroy “weapons of mass destruction,” an increasing number of U.K. voters have accused politicians of all being liars. Many deplore that but appear to accept it as a fait accompli. Yet others cry out for a resurgence of honesty and integrity in politics. Who will prevail? Qui vivra, verra…


  • When in doubt refrain from tweeting, instagramming, posting on Facebook…
  • Phone a trusted colleague who understands the possible fall-out and ramifications of what you are proposing to do and ask for advice.
  • If you become a viral sensation, despite all your best efforts, address the situation quickly: an apology plus a little self-deprecation are advisable. How you handle the exposure will be crucial.

Geoffrey Van Orden

Gaza Crisis 2021