How not to handle questions you don’t want to answer

Sometimes media interviews on positive news announcement can be the most challenging for spokespeople.

Often the problem is caused by negative questions they did not anticipate or simply do not want to answer.

There are many ways to manage these questions, such as through media training techniques like bridging, to ensure you still get your message across successfully.

But even if the question has taken you by surprise or you don’t think it is appropriate, it is crucial you do not show your disdain or irritation to the journalist.

Sadly, this was a lesson ignored by Scottish Health Minister Aileen Campbell, who produced what has been widely described on social media as a ‘car crash interview’ when she appeared on the Today Programme on Friday  (which you can hear by clicking here 52:30) 

Ms Campbell was appearing on the programme to discuss the SNP government’s announcement of three cycles of IVF for eligible couples.

But she appeared to completely crumble when asked questions about how this would be funded - which surely should have been expected - and whether it should be a priority when A&E targets were being missed.

And she became so frustrated with the questioning she took to criticising the approach presenter Nick Robinson was taking. Here is a particularly uncomfortable part of the exchange:

Nick Robinson: “Why spend money on that when your own A&E target you are missing?” (sic)

Aileen Campbell: “I understood I was here to talk about the very positive announcement of allowing couples who are desiring to have a family to get access to three cycles (of IVF) and that has been welcomed across the different fertility organisations.”

This is a bit like saying to the reporter ‘ask me about this’ or suggesting the way they are trying to take the interview is not newsworthy. Things that are like a red rag to a bull with journalist and Mr Robinson queried her response: “You are the Scottish Health Minister, it seems to be not unusual I should ask you questions about health in Scotland.”

It was as if Ms Campbell was under the impression she was only going to be facing positive questions about the announcement and essentially be asked just to produce an audible version of the government’s press release.

There seemed to be no planning or preparation for the negative questions which would inevitably arise during an interview on such a high profile national programme.







And it didn’t get any better from that point. Asked again how the government could afford to introduce this, she simply replied ‘we’ve put aside money to do it’. Short answers are never a good approach because they sound defensive and simply give the journalist the opportunity to ask more questions.


'Short responses sound defensive and allow the reporter to ask more questions' via @mediafirstltd


She also became confused about what targets were being missed across the Scottish NHS and again found herself being challenged by the journalist.

So what could she do differently?

Well the key learning from this interview, and something we always talk about on our media training courses, is that no matter how positive you think the subject is, you always need to prepare for negative questions and wider issues you may get asked about.


'No matter how positive you think the subject is, you still need to prepare for negative questions' via @mediafirstltd


If, however, a question does still catch you off-guard, don’t show your irritation at the line of questioning – you are only going to encourage the reporter to pursue that approach. Instead, provide an answer to the question and then look to move the conversation on to the subject you want to talk about. And then use some human examples to strengthen that message and control the interview.

And, finally, always avoid short answers.


'Showing irritation at a question will only encourage the reporter to pursue that line of attack' via @mediafirstltd


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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