Doorstep disaster or a masterclass in distraction?

When it comes to disastrous responses to doorstep interviews, we thought we had seen it all.

In this media training blog, we have covered examples where spokespeople have simply ignored the journalist and pretended they are not there; others have shouted at the camera or tried to shove it out of the way’; and some have offered a ‘no comment’ response, leaving viewers to wonder what it is they had to hide.

But now we have seen a new way of responding to what is arguably the toughest interview format.

In a bizarre doorstep interview outside his home, Dominic Cummings, the No10 strategist, continually referenced the children’s cartoon PJ Masks in response to questions from a BBC reporter.

The weird exchange began with him being asked why HS2, something he had previously described as a ‘disaster zone’, had been given the go-ahead.

Mr Cummings responded by saying that “the night time is the right time to fight crime” before adding “I can’t think of a rhyme.”

When the bemused reporter then asked if this was a sign that Mr Cummings had lost his influence in Downing Street, he replied: “I think we need PJ Masks on the job. PJ Mask, they’re your guys.

Asked about another topical issue, the imminent cabinet reshuffle, he said: “PJ Masks would do a greater job than all of them put together.”

It was, in summary, an odd, tetchy exchange.  

‘PJ Masks would do a better job than all the Cabinet put together’: Maverick No10 aide Dominic Cummings makes bizarre reference to children’s TV show when quizzed on Boris Johnson’s looming reshuffle Daily Mail

PJ Masks could do a better job than ministers suggests Boris Johnson adviser The New European

PJ Masks would do better job than cabinet, says Dominic Cummings The Times

Boris aide rates cartoon trio over Cabinet Evening Standard

Dominic Cummings gives string of nonsense answers about Kids’ cartoon to avoid questions on HS2 Mirror

 

The Mirror headline sums up the performance perfectly – this was an attempt to avoid answering questions he didn’t want to answer.

But it is a tactic which led to negative headlines – based mainly on his apparent low opinion of the prime minister’s top team - that could have been avoided, with a polite, simple, non-weird answer.  

Many will argue that this is all part of a deliberate attempt to keep the focus away from the stories that matter. But I'm not so sure. It makes the Government look a little ridiculous when its spokesperson is having to respond to questions off the back of this interview about whether PJ Masks would do a better job than the cabinet.

And this approach would will also do little to appease those who feel the Government is scared of scrutiny. 

This is not the first time Mr Cummings has shown his dislike for being questioned by journalists.

Just a couple of weeks ago, he angrily shut down a reporter when he was approached outside a restaurant moments before Britain officially left the European Union, saying “have you got anything else to say? Are you just going to walk along and keep asking me questions?”

 

And it won't be the last time news organisations doorstep him because they know they will get footage that fills airtime and makes headlines. 

So, what should spokespeople do when faced by reporters on their doorstep when they don’t want to come across as much as a maverick as Mr Cummings?

The key thing here is that whether you operate in the corridors of power or are a CEO of an organisation in the midst of a crisis, journalists are typically only looking for a few words to bring the story forward.

No one really expects detailed responses. Give them a brief sound bite and promise to come back when there is more to say.

If you are surprised to find reporters outside your house or office – and it can be a surprising scenario – start by saying ‘good morning’ to buy yourself a little time to compose your thoughts.

And, while you may be annoyed by the media scrutiny, being rude, aggressive or deliberately obstructive to reporters and cameramen never looks good.

If you want to find out more about handling this tricky interview format, take a look at this short video with Siân Jones one of our expert media training tutors.

 

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.

Click here to find out more about our journalist led media training courses.

 

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