A hopeless way to handle a difficult question?

What makes a good media spokesperson?

Well, you need someone articulate. And they should be confident and comfortable with the subject being discussed.

They also need to be relatable – likeability is a key component in winning the audience over.

And you also want someone who can maintain their composure when the going gets tough.

It can be easy to overlook the importance of composure, but getting rattled by difficult questions rarely plays out well.

Even if a journalist is aggressive, it is crucial to stay calm and collected.

I was reminded of the importance of spokespeople being level-headed yesterday (22/6) while watching Sky News.

Kay Burley was interviewing Health Secretary Matt Hancock – a combination that has previously led to one of our media training blogs.

And what stood out was the way he lost his temper when asked to defend the Government’s plan for social care amid claims its strategy had been ditched.

The tension grew as Ms Burley asked Mr Hancock why a meeting to discuss the issue with the Prime Minister and Chancellor had been cancelled.

The politician initially said he would not be drawn on questions about “diary management”.

But when he was pushed on this issue and asked when the meeting would take place he became increasingly frustrated:

Burley: “I'm sorry Health Secretary - why not? Why are you not telling us when the meetings are going to be?

“When are you going to discuss with the Chancellor and the PM something that was promised two years ago?

“A meeting has been postponed. You can't tell us when it's been rescheduled for.

“Meanwhile, 18,000 pensioners a week are being moved from hospital to social care, and they don't know if they're going to lose their houses because the PM has not delivered on his promise of dealing with social care."

Hancock: “Well I don't know where to start with the total rubbish in that question Kay.

"Firstly, I'm absolutely not going to get into diary management. I talk to the PM every day, and we're working very closely together on the delivery of this policy.

"The second thing is we were working on the plan before the pandemic struck, but you will understand, and your viewers will undoubtedly understand, that when the pandemic struck it was all hands-on deck to protect lives and get us out of this as soon as possible.

"The vaccines are doing that and the PM has committed to delivering this plan before the end of the year and we're going to do that."

Ms Burley responded by introducing her next question by saying “hopefully this isn’t such a rubbish question” - you may have expected a stronger reaction from a presenter with a fiery reputation.

Anyway, the exchange was picked up by the wider media.

HURLY-BURLEY Squirming Matt Hancock lashes out at Kay Burley and throws tantrum as she grills him over social care The Sun

Why Matt Hancock’s contempt for Kay Burley’s social care questions was ‘total rubbish’ Yorkshire Post

And it attracted plenty of attention on social media.

Whatever you think about the question – and it seems perfectly reasonable to me – it is hard to see the response as anything other than arrogant.

Why did he need to insult the question before responding?

It is not a spokesperson’s role to criticise a question or argue whether or not it is something that should be asked.

We tell delegates on our media training courses that showing frustration, annoyance, aggression and insulting the journalist means an interview will be memorable for the wrong reasons.

It ensures the audience focus on the lack of self-control and inability to handle tough questions rather than the message the spokesperson had intended to get across.

We also stress during our media training that the key to handling tough questions is preparation. Politicians typically face longer interviews than most other media spokespeople and often find themselves covering plenty of ground.

But it feels like a significant oversight not to have anticipated questions about a crucial meeting being cancelled and plan a way to respond to that calmly. Had he answered the question the first time it was asked rather than trying to avoid it, the conversation would have quickly moved on.

Was Hancock hopeless here? We’ll leave that sort of description for others. But there is plenty to learn from the way he handled this question.

The Health Secretary will undoubtedly be back on Sky News again soon. But a spokesperson without a government role who adopted a similar approach to challenging questions would probably find there is not much call for their services.

About to face the media? Get your media interview homework off to the best start by downloading your copy of our free media interview preparation eBook.

Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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