Adviser’s intervention turns a good news story into a horror show

You have seen interviews where the spokesperson has brought proceedings to an abrupt end when they don’t like a line of questioning.

But how about when the PR team becomes unhappy with the question?

Well, that scenario happened recently and it was predictably damaging.

It happened in Canada where Peter Mackay, a candidate to become the leader of the Conservative party, was interviewed by CTV News.

Having given the journalist a tour of a child and youth advocacy centre in Toronto that he co-chairs, the politician sat down for an interview where he said he wanted to raise the bar of political discourse and “do politics a little differently”.

Journalist Heather Wright than asked about a tweet from his account which had criticised Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for using $876.95 in Liberal party donations for yoga sessions, spa visits and other health club expenses.

Mr Mackay, to his credit, did not show any unease about the question and provided a good answer, which sounded open and honest

He said: “That was something that happened that I'm not proud of.

“I don't have the opportunity always to vet every single thing that goes on that social media account and so we are going to do better.”

But that response was then ruined by the intervention of his advisors.

One could be heard saying “I think we’re done” and the other said: “You went way over, I’m sorry.”

And even though Mr Mackay protested that “she’s just doing her job, she’s a journalist”, the interview was brought to an end.

Instantly a good news story was turned into a bad one and became another media training case study.

The strange thing with this awkward example is why Mr Mackay, having defended the journalist, didn’t insist on finishing the interview.

Not only could that have potentially helped prevent the interview from veering into disaster territory, but it would also have shown some authority and leadership.

Instead, he was left to look scared, defensive and clumsy.

The intervention also suggests a lack of confidence in the politician from within his own team to handle challenging questions, even though he was coming across well. Perhaps they felt like his answer on the tweet and the denial of any involvement had thrown them under the bus.  

Spokespeople will face difficult questions and ones they would prefer not to answer in interviews – it is an inevitable part of the territory.

For a media or PR advisor watching in the wings, it can feel pretty intense. But any attempt to intervene when the cameras are rolling will end badly.

You may remember the infamous interview where the then Persimmon Homes boss Jeff Fairburn faced an uncomfortable question about his £75m bonus.

Mr Fairburn initially seemed prepared to answer the question, before an off-screen voice interjected and he stopped talking. He ultimately ended up walking away from the interview while the cameras were still rolling.

Another example of the damage this can cause came when Ken Starr, a former Baylor University President, faced a question about whether during his time at the university he had seen an email about a rape allegation.

As he responded to the question, his PR advisor Mary Speath asked the reporter’s news director, off-camera, not to show that part of the pre-recorded interview.

When he refused, she stopped the interview and took Mr Starr away from the camera for some impromptu media training.   

When the interview eventually resumed, the journalist was told by Ms Spaeth to ask the question again because she wanted to ‘make sure it is not mis-edited’. But once Mr Starr answered, he immediately turned to his advisor to seek her approval as if he was still on a course or practising his answers.

He then answered the question again with his third different response.

Ms Spaeth subsequently apologised for her actions and admitted she made a ‘huge mistake’. The damage, however, had already been done.

 

Could you handle the tough questions in a media interview? Our media interview preparation eBook will show you how to anticipate and prepare for those challenging questions.

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 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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