A good politician goes into every interview with a message they'd like their audience to take away. It doesn't matter if it's a hard or soft news opportunity; politicians don't open their traps unless it's to get a point across they think will make them more electable the next time around.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn't get as much stick for scripting himself as his predecessor did, but I guarantee you the Liberal communications team doesn't let their leader bat an eyelid in public without knowing in whose direction it's aimed. And so it surely was when Team Trudeau plunked their man down with Montreal-born baseball writer Jonah Keri.
The interview was billed as a talk about sports and growing up in Montreal, with some policy to boot. It was a chance for Mr. Trudeau to burnish his everyman credentials, tarnished earlier this year with revelations of his billionaire Bahamian adventure.
And what are we talking about in the wake of the Keri sports interview? Cupping – and not the jock-strap variety.
For the uninitiated, cupping is an ancient "healing" process recently resuscitated by the celebrity crowd. It has a tenuous relationship with science and reviews of scientific literature have struggled to confer any benefit from the procedure.
And why are we talking about cupping? Ready for a casual chat, Mr. Trudeau had his shirtsleeves rolled up, revealing the tell-tale cupping treatment marks.
Now what Mr. Trudeau chooses to do to his body – other than pulverize it with hard drugs, I suppose – is his choice. But having a supposed science-loving government led by someone with a stake in "alternative" therapies such as cupping isn't exactly on-brand. (Imagine if Stephen Harper, who was thought of as anti-science, did the same.)
The response from the Prime Minister's Office to media inquiries about Mr. Trudeau's cupping indicate discomfort. "We can confirm that he does indeed use that treatment," is all they'll say about it. They'd rather be talking about, as they were surely meant to be, the Prime Minister's love for the long-lost Montreal Expos.
Here, the Keri interview is a perfect example of why the outcome of soft interviews are notoriously hard to control.
The softer the interview, the more worried I was about how, exactly, Stephen Harper would make news. A hard news interview about the economy is much easier to war game than a soft news interview about music or sports.
A politician speaking about politics or policy knows (or should know, anyway) their subject matter, their tribe and what it wants to hear. The same politician asked about, say, where the latest Radiohead record ranks in the band's canon is sure to upset or confuse more than he or she will please.
Which isn't to suggest interviews on non-political subjects should be avoided. Far from it. A great soft interview goes further than its harder equivalent, if only because people so rarely get to see their politicians acting like "regular" people. Soft also tends to be stickier in a distracted voter's mind.
But how (and when) you go soft matters. There's not only message to consider; the physical set-up matters as much for a casual chat as it does for a formal sit-down interview with the grandees of television journalism. If Mr. Trudeau had been suited and booted for the Keri sit-down, his use of cupping would have been kept secret. Had I been running the interview, I would have asked the boss if he wanted his cupping known (and recommended against it).
The news swerve into cupping might not add up to much in the long run, but it has the hallmarks of water-cooler talk and its viral online equivalent.
Today, the PMO is hoping the press will have moved on from cupping and back to the business of governing, but perhaps not to the part of the Liberal platform that reads:
"We will value science and treat scientists with respect."
An own goal, then.