How an evasive interview approach left a great stink

“You are doing really well in not answering my questions.”

That was the comment from a journalist during an attention-grabbing interview this week.

The frustrated reaction, which offers many media training lessons, came as the spokesperson repeatedly attempted to answer different questions from the ones asked.

And he isn’t a politician.

It happened when a spokesperson for United Utilities appeared on Good Morning Britain as protesters called for the company to clean up Lake Windermere.

According to the Environment Agency, the company has dumped 27,000 hours’ worth of untreated sewage that has made its way into the lake since 2020.

Comedian Steve Coogan was among those who demonstrated at the lake and the United Utilities offices, calling for the company to stop putting sewage in the lake and “take out what they’ve put in”.

Chris Matthews, the firm’s head of regional engagement, faced the media and said the company shares the concerns of protesters.

He quickly stated that the company has invested £75 million to tackle the problem and a further £41 million to “reduce overflow operation by half”.

So far, so good.

But there were other figures he seemed much less keen to discuss.

Here’s what happened when presenter Susannah Reid asked about profits and shareholder dividends.

Matthews: “When it comes to profits, we reinvest our profits into our infrastructure…

Reid: “The question was, ‘What was your net profit last year?’.

Matthews: “Around about £300m.”

Reid: “And what did you return to shareholders?”

Matthews: “So, the way that it works is that we pay shareholders… Well, we invest three times what we give out to shareholders…”

Reid: “What did you return to shareholders?”

Matthews: “I think what is important to explain is that what we do need from our shareholders is the money upfront to invest in the assets so we can solve problems. That’s what people want us to do.”

Reid: “No, what the question was, ‘What dividend did shareholders get from United Utilities?’ because it is a privatised monopoly business. The figure I have here – you can confirm if this is correct or not – is £452m.

Matthews: “Well, the figure I can share with you is that over the last 30 years, we have invested some…”

Reid: “Is that figure correct that you returned £452m to shareholders in the last year?

Matthews: “It varies year to year. So, in the round, over the last 30 years…”

And so it continued.

You might think that one painful exchange would have been enough.

But Mr Matthews didn’t learn his lesson and dealt with a question from Ed Balls about sewage flows into the lake in the same fashion.

Asked if it had increased over the past three years compared to the previous three, it was again difficult to flush out a straight answer.

In fact, Mr Balls asked what he described as a “factual question” six times. And uttered the rebuke we used at the start of the media training blog. Even then, the answer was unclear.

As we stress during our media training courses, spokespeople will face difficult questions, particularly when their organisation is already at the centre of damning headlines.

And they cannot be ignored.

Mr Matthews could have answered the question about profits and dividends and then gone on to how much it is investing in its infrastructure.

He could have provided a straightforward answer to the sewage question and then gone on to discuss how it was being tackled.

Those questions are undoubtedly awkward for the company. But these attempts to contextualise rather than address them make their spokesperson seem evasive.

Journalists hate it when they think spokespeople are ignoring or avoiding their legitimate questions. They will call it out. And they will repeat those questions over and over again.  

It creates great footage and audio for the audience. But it is not a good look for the company involved and suggests they have something to hide and a reluctance to admit facts.  

The shame for Mr Matthews was there were parts of his performance I liked, particularly his use of analogy when asked why the company used the dividend money to clean up the lake.

“The way that it works is that we need the money upfront to be able to clean up the rivers and lakes that people want to see,” he said.

“The way it works in our industry is a bit like a mortgage with a house. You want to move into your house straight away. You need the money upfront to be able to do that, and you repay that over a period of time.

“It is exactly the same way that it works for our system. We get the money from our investors, they then get a return for giving us that money upfront – about three or four per cent, which is quite similar to what you get in your high street bank or building society. And what it means by having a system that works that way is we can invest now to reduce the impact of storm overflow operation and deliver the benefits people want to see.”

Analogies, as we tell our media training delegates, capture interest and can help make the complex understandable.

 

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2024 is shaping up to be a challenging year for water companies with increased scrutiny of the state of the country’s water, backed by high-profile campaigners.

Public trust is low. And finances, in many cases, seem unstable.

So, water company spokespeople will face many tough questions over the coming months. Ones they would prefer not to answer.

Attempting to evade them will not prevent reputations from being flushed further down the pan.

 

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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