Media spokespeople have different approaches to dealing with those inevitable challenging questions.
Some have clearly anticipated them and prepared their responses. Many use the bridging media training technique to steer the conversation to safer ground. Others make the mistake of attempting to answer completely different questions and occasionally some struggle to hide their frustration at the line of questioning.
One spokesperson I heard on the radio on Friday adopted a different approach – he asked the journalist to be more optimistic and stop focusing on negative issues.
It happened when Woody Johnson, the US ambassador to the UK, appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme to face questions about the relationship new Prime Minister Boris Johnson would have with President Donald Trump.
After a fairly gentle start to the interview, which you can listen to here at 2 minutes and 10 seconds, the ambassador was asked about previous comments Mr Johnson has made about the President and then about some of Mr Trump’s recent remarks being regarded as ‘racist’.
The ambassador remained calm but had clearly had enough and told presenter Mishal Husain: “Here’s the thing, we can concentrate on these sorts of things, which the country seems to have been doing for a while, or we can look optimistically at the future and we can look at how we can all prosper with the great relationship between our two countries, which is going to be increasingly important for this country and our country. If we look at the positives rather than constantly looking for things that we disagree on, we will come to a much better conclusion much faster.”
When the conversation moved on to the recent resignation of UK ambassador Kim Darroch, Mr Johnson again suggested the journalist was being negative.
He said: “Well Mishal, once again we can focus on all the negatives, but I think looking forwards at all the positive things we do together, our trading relationship and our security relationship which is second to none, we are going to have bumps in the road no question.”
And when that particular line of questioning continued, he added: “Once again, I think if we look forward optimistically into the future between our two great countries we are going to come out….” - you get the drift.
So, was this approach a success?
Well, let’s be honest, this approach to difficult questions was little different to the one politicians often employ in media interviews where they answer a completely different question to the one asked.
And it is not dissimilar from saying to a reporter ‘this isn’t newsworthy’ or ‘ask me about this’.
A quick check on social media would suggest few listeners were impressed.
Very odd and often uncomfortable R4 interview with US ambassador to UK Woody Johnson. Challenged on Trump’s racism/waywardness etc he kept just saying, “Let’s just focus on the future, on positive things.” That’s not really an answer.— Peter Walker (@peterwalker99) July 26, 2019
Top interview by @MishalHusain with US ambo Woody Johnson - very 😬😬 on Darroch, “go home” tweets and previous unflattering comments by Boris Johnson on Trump. Amb Johnson says we should focus on the positives! #r4today— Rob Powell (@robpowellnews) July 26, 2019
At the risk of being accused of not “Looking forward optimistically” the interview with Ambassador Woody Johnson on @BBCr4today was all about ignoring not engaging with challenging questions.— Ian Beestin (@IanBeestin) July 26, 2019
After this morning's interview with Woody Johnson I feel it bears repeating - Mishal Husain is the jewel in the #r4today crown— Karl O'Doherty (@karlodoherty) July 26, 2019
So calm, so straightforward, and creating such deliciously squirmy answers from the ambassador
What could he have done differently?
The key to tackling tough questions is to anticipate them in advance and plan how you will respond. It is often pretty easy to predict the difficult questions a journalist will ask.
For example, it is widely known than Boris Johnson has said some strong things about Mr Trump in the past, so that was an obvious line of questioning in an interview coming so soon after he became Prime Minister.
Similarly, a quick look at recent news coverage would suggest the racist language question was likely.
Rather than trying to dodge a tricky question, or criticise it, the best approach is to use the bridging media training technique.
Briefly answer, or at least acknowledge, the question and then look to move the conversation on to what you want to talk about.
Know the journalist
One of the key things spokespeople should do as part of their media preparation is to make sure they know the journalist and the media outlet they will be speaking to.
A small amount of research will reveal information about their reputation, the angles they take and what they tend to cover.
If you are appearing on the Today programme you can expect to be put on the spot by the journalist and face some uncomfortable questions. And with a quick Google search you will find that while Ms Husain has a reputation for being measured, she is also regarded as being a reporter who makes a lot of interruptions – something which suggests spokespeople may quickly feel under pressure.
It wasn’t all bad
Although Woody Johnson’s approach was not one we would recommend on our media training courses, one interesting thing was how calm he remained, even when the conversation had moved on to areas he was not comfortable discussing.
There have been many examples of spokespeople clearly losing their tempers and being unable to hide their frustration at questions during difficult interviews and that can be far more damaging.
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