If you tuned into the radio yesterday morning you may have heard a journalist repeatedly ask a spokesperson to provide an example to support a claim.
And it became a bit of radio that makes you sit up and pay extra attention as the interviewee repeatedly tried to sidestep and fudge those attempts to gain a case study.
It certainly grabbed the attention of one of our current working journalists tutors who stopped what she was doing to make sure I was listening to it.
It happened on Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday (1/7), which you can listen to here (at 2.22) for as long as the broadcaster makes it available, when Business Secretary Alok Sharma was interviewed about the government’s ‘Project Spend’ infrastructure plan.
The interview began to crumble as presenter Nick Robinson asked the politician about the Prime Minister’s criticism of the planning system. Here is the key exchange:
Mr Robinson: “Can you give us an example of where the planning system is stopping this country building houses on the scale it needs to?”
Mr Sharma: “Well, look, over the last year we built 241,000 homes...”
Mr Robinson (interrupting): “No, I asked you for an example, Mr Sharma.”
Mr Sharma: “Well, the Prime Minister referred to where we are looking at speeding up. I think we mentioned environmental issues. Of course, what we don’t want to do…”
Mr Robinson (interrupting): “Can you give me an example?”
Mr Sharma: “As I said, we are not talking about cutting back. We are talking about…
Mr Robinson (interrupting): “No, no. I’m just asking you for an example of something that was at the centre of the Prime Minister’s speech and you are the business secretary.”
When Mr Sharma eventually decided to bring in an example, he gave one about how the system would be changed rather than one the journalist has asked for.
It was a memorable exchange and social media was predictably unforgiving.
#r4today Can u give example of planning system stopping us building houses?— MG (@Gregom10) July 1, 2020
Alok Sharma: Er.. PM referred to where we're speeding up..
R4: Can u give me an example?
AS: We're not talking abt cutting back ..
R4: I'm asking 4 example
AS: Er ..
The uselessness of the Tory Cabinet
Alok Sharma having a shocker on #r4today— Julie Minns (@kenningtonkitty) July 1, 2020
Can someone throw Alok Sharma a life belt? He’s drowning. #r4today— Mick Collins (@MickPCollins) July 1, 2020
So how could this have been avoided and what can other media spokespeople learn from this?
It all comes down to AMEN.
No, not a plea for some divine intervention, but an acronym we use on our media training courses -whether face-to-face or on video conferencing software - to help delegates prepare for their interviews and get their message across.
It stands for Audience, Message, Example and Negatives.
Mr Sharma’s example – or lack of one - fits into the last two parts of that model.
If the message he wanted to get across was that the planning system needs to be sped up – a key point in what the Prime Minister had said a day earlier – it needed to be supported with examples of where planning had delayed infrastructure projects.
We need evidence. As we say on our media training courses, messages without examples are just rhetoric.
If that was not where he wanted the focus to be, then he still should have anticipated it could be something that may be asked, given its prominence 24 hours earlier. Journalists often play devil's advocate and present an opposing view and Mr Sharma should have prepared for that under the 'negative' part of AMEN.
Again, that preparation should have included examples to support the government message.
Of course, this isn’t the only media training lesson that can be learnt from this example.
Spokespeople should always avoid trying to dodge questions they don’t like or don’t know how to answer. Instead, of ignoring the requests for an example, Mr Sharma should have said something along the lines of “I don’t have one to hand, but what I can tell you is…” and tried to steer the conversation away.
Journalists hate it when their questions are ignored and will simply ask them again. And every time the spokesperson ignores a question, they appear more evasive.
It is a maddening habit for journalists and audiences alike.
And we have plenty of examples to support that claim in previous editions of this blog.
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