Imagine a journalist turning around to you or your spokesperson mid-interview and asking ‘why are you answering the questions like that?’.
Of course, if you had recently had some media training with us then you wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place.
But let’s just roll with it.
Would you change your approach, worried about further humiliation?
Or would you press on regardless?
Well, this embarrassing situation happened in an interview last week that grabbed our attention and the spokesperson in the firing line chose the latter option.
Now you might be thinking that the interviewee was facing a particularly challenging series of questions.
Well, it wasn’t really a question at all – it was a request for an example.
The spokesperson at the centre of this farcical interview – which you can listen to here (at 2:39) - was Stephan Knoll.
The South Australian Transport Minister appeared on ABC Radio Adelaide to discuss why he had repaid $29,000 in expenses that he claimed since December 2018 from the taxpayer-funded Country Members Allowance while staying at his parents' home in Adelaide.
.@DavidBevanSA and @ali__clarke try to get to the bottom of the expenses incurred by Transport Minster Stephan Knoll when he stayed at his parents' house in Adelaide #saparli pic.twitter.com/VUtJdt6Ty1— ABC Adelaide (@abcadelaide) July 22, 2020
Mr Knoll said he was paying the money back because there was ‘ambiguity’ in how the accommodation allowance could be claimed.
But he insisted he had incurred the expenses.
The only problem was that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give an example of those expenses.
And he led to a pretty astonishing exchange with presenters David Bevan and Ali Clarke.
Bevan: “Can you just explain what expenses you incurred at your mum and dad’s?”
Knoll: “Well David again, I do incur a range of expenses in relation to my accommodation…”
Bevan: “Well, it won’t be hard to name some then. Did they make you do chores? Did you have to do the dishes? Did you have to put the bins out? What did mum and dad ask you to do?
Knoll: “Again David, I can only reiterate that I do incur actual expenses, but I think that given there is an ambiguity…”
Bevan: “Ok, a range of expenses – name three."
Knoll: “So David, again I can only reiterate that I do incur actual expenses…"
Bevan: “And what are they?”
Knoll: “What we are seeking to do is gain clarity from the remuneration tribunal.”
Clarke: “Minister. Why do you continue to answer in this way? If I was driving in the car, I would be yelling at the radio right now. You’ve repeatedly said you incur expenses while staying at your mum and dad’s. We say ‘what are they?’ And you say?”
Knoll: “I do incur a range of expenses…"
Clarke: “Yea, so what are they?”
And so it went on, with Mr Knoll refusing to elaborate on those expenses or even confirm that they were rent.
It was a bizarre approach to take to the interview.
And it continued later on as well when the reporters asked Mr Knoll whether he had told the premier about the detail of the expenses.
We have said in this media training blog before that if a journalist thinks you are trying to evade or dodge their questions, they will simply ask it again and again.
And when that happens, the interview becomes memorable for the wrong reasons and reaches a far wider audience as it is shared on social media and covered in other parts of the mainstream media.
When you are already under scrutiny because people believe you or your organisation may have done something wrong, you need to create the impression that you are open and honest if you are going to convince and regain trust.
Presumably My Knoll agreed to the interview to try to show to a wider audience he had done nothing wrong.
But by ignoring questions and responding to them in a robotic, scripted fashion, those listening would have been convinced he had something to cover up.
I stumbled across this interview and had not heard of Mr Knoll before. But having listened to it, I was stuck with the thought that if he was not happy disclosing what he was claiming money for, should he have been claiming it in the first place?
And I imagine I was not alone.
There is also a point about preparation here.
The politician must have known that this was going to be a difficult interview and that he would face challenging questions. And it surely wouldn’t have taken too much thought to think that one of those questions might ask for an example of the type of expenses he had claimed for.
If he anticipated the question, then he should have been able to plan a response that didn’t look like he was trying to avoid the question or that he was scared to disclose an expense.
But another key point here is that even if Mr Knoll had believed, or been wrongly advised, that this evasive, scripted tactic was the right approach to take to the interview, there must have been a point where, having been asked the same question for the umpteenth time, he thought ‘this isn’t working’.
Good spokespeople are able to think on their feet and change their approach to questions when it is clear things are not going as they had anticipated.
The reporter saying to you ‘why you are you answering like this’ is about as clear an indicator of problems as you could possibly get.
Having listened to Mr Knoll squirm and evade for several minutes, the programme then moved on to another politician facing expenses problems.
The first question Tim Whetstone faced asked whether he was “corrupt or sloppy”.
How do you think he answered?
Yes, that’s right, he repeated the negative language from the journalist’s question.
“No, I’m not corrupt,” he said, breaking a golden media training rule and giving everyone a nice clip of him discussing whether or not he was corrupt.
At which point, I joined in the yelling at the radio.
A few days after the interviews went out, both men resigned from their cabinet positions.
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