CEO produces a masterclass in how not to handle an awkward question

On our media training courses we sometimes show our delegates some clips of interviews that have gone wrong.

It can help them avoid making similar errors in the future.

And now we have some new footage to add to that video library, because one CEO produced a masterclass last week in how not to handle an awkward question.

It happened when Jeff Fairburn, the boss of housing firm Persimmon, appeared on the BBC and faced a question about his £75m bonus.

BBC Look North reporter Spencer Stokes asked him whether he had any regrets about taking the payout.


Mr Fairburn seemed prepared to answer the question, before an off-screen voice – presumably belonging to an adviser – interjected and he stopped talking.

When the question was put to him again, he said: “I’d rather not talk about that. It has been well covered actually.”

When the journalist tried for a third time, Mr Fairburn simply walked away from the interview. He could then be heard saying off camera, "I think that's really unfortunate actually that you've done that."

Unfortunate perhaps for Mr Fairburn that he was unable or unwilling to provide an answer - and that in doing so he has reheated the debate around his pay - but there is nothing wrong with the question. It’s pretty standard, it is perfectly legitimate and there is a strong argument that the journalist would not have been doing his job had he not asked it.

During interviews on our media training courses we often bring in this type of wider question. It might be about something that has previously been in the news, an issue affecting the sector or maybe how an organisation is preparing for Brexit. We do this because it is what happens in interviews in the real world.

The way that Mr Fairburn dealt with that question led to a backlash that went way beyond the audience that would have seen the interview had he responded properly. 

A tweet from Mr Stokes featuring a clip of the interview has currently been viewed 1.3 million times, retweeted by 5,300 people and attracted 1,400 comments.



And then there are the negative headlines the clip generated:


Persimmon boss refuses to answer questions about £75m bonus BBC News

Persimmon boss Jeff Fairburn walks off in interview over £75m bonus City AM

Awkward moment Persimmon boss squirms then walks away when he is quizzed about furore over £75million bonus that was biggest in the country Daily Mail

The awkward moment Persimmon boss squirms when asked about his £75m bonus The Telegraph

Persimmon boss Jeff Fairburn shuts down interview after refusing to talk about £75m bonus Independent

So what can we learn from this?



The first thing is that this question should have been anticipated and prepared for. Mr Fairburn has done enough interviews to know that wider issues get brought into interviews and his PR advisers should have prepared him.



It is almost unbelievable that no-one at Persimmon thought this issue might come up and devised a plan on the best way to respond to the question.

He could have said something like: “There has obviously been a lot of debate about that bonus. I don’t set my own pay. What I can tell you is that I have given £*** to these causes (he had previously promised to donate to charity). My job is to help make the company a success and that helps the people who work for it by...”

Would we have been talking about this interview if he had said something like that?


Walking away

Even if an interview is going badly, or you are unhappy with a particular line of questioning, walking away needs to be avoided.

It is a dramatic move which makes interviews memorable for the wrong reasons and results in wider negative media coverage.

Maintaining composure is crucial.



When a PR advisor interrupts or intervenes in a broadcast interview it does not end well. In fact, it looks horrendous.

If a journalist asks a challenging question, and the advisor can be heard saying ‘can we not’ from the sideline – which is what happened here - you instantly get the impression of an organisation being defensive, uncertain and uncomfortable. It also suggests a lack of confidence in the spokesperson.

Persimmon probably imagined that the clip wouldn’t be used, but that is a dangerous gamble and there are plenty of examples of advisers intervening in interviews and ending up becoming the story.

One of the most infamous recent examples of this came from America when an interview with a TV station in Texas was interrupted by a PR adviser wanting to brief a spokesperson on how to respond to a particular question.

The station showed the entire clip. And why wouldn’t they? It makes for entertaining viewing, just as this latest example does, and we all love a bit of cringe. 

As someone who has sat at the side of many spokespeople during interviews, you have to step back and trust them to do the job you have prepared them for.

Personally, I think Mr Fairburn should have ignored the off-camera advice. He should have had faith in his own ability to respond to the question - at the very least it couldn’t have turned out any worse.



The question about Mr Fairburn’s bonus isn’t going to go away – perhaps he should invest a small part of it in some media training.


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