Ignoring the question – a dangerous interview strategy

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If interviews with politicians leave you shouting at the radio or the telly, or even switching off altogether, you’re not alone.  Cabinet ministers, backbenchers, local councillors and party leaders are frequently criticised and mocked for not answering questions yet they persist in making this serious mistake.  These politicians have usually had no professional media training or, even worse, bad media training.  The latter is all too often PR-led and focused wholly on core/key messages, which means that interviewees neither understand nor care about the priorities of the audience.  One infamous example is Ed Miliband’s ITV interview in July 2011, in which he repeats the same soundbite in every single answer, resulting in a laughable video that has been watched hundreds of thousands of times online.  More recently, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson so incensed Richard Madeley by refusing to answer his question on Good Morning Britain, that the presenter abruptly terminated the interview.

Ignoring a legitimate question is a strategic mistake because:

  1. You are likely to appear out of touch, arrogant, ignorant or all three. Your message will probably fall on deaf ears.
  2. You will irritate the journalist. Perhaps you don’t care but you absolutely should, as an irritated journalist is more likely to go into combative mode and do a tougher interview.  The resulting piece/article/coverage is more likely to be unsympathetic.
  3. The question you don’t want to answer becomes the whole focus of the interview, hijacking your opportunity to get any message across (remember Jeremy Paxman and Michael Howard, Newsnight 1997).
  4. Most journalists are simply trying to do their job of asking questions on behalf of the audience. The audience is your voter/customer/staff/investor/regulator, so audience concerns should therefore be treated with respect.

Every spokesperson should learn how to avoid these pitfalls by having high-quality journalist-led media training.  This should include a complete interview strategy that covers:

  • understanding the role of the interviewer and the perspective of their audience
  • an objective review of messaging to ensure it connects with the audience
  • an unflinching, constructive critique of how the interviewee comes across
  • techniques for addressing difficult questions calmly and with authority

The best spokespeople in public life – in politics, in business and other sectors – have mastered all of this with the help of experienced, specialist Journalist Media Trainers.  How can you tell who they are?  The answer is, they don’t fear difficult questions and are adept at steering their interviews to the points they want to get across, all the while appearing relaxed, confident and in control.

Bridgid Nzekwu is Director of Media Training at TNR, part of the Press Association. She coaches spokespeople in business, politics and the public sector in media interview and public speaking skills and trains comms teams in media handling.  Bridgid is a former Channel 4 News presenter and reporter and is a freelance anchor for ITV News. 

Follow Bridgid on Twitter  @BridgidNzekwu

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