Media training lessons from a ‘horrendous’ interview

Managing frustration in media interviews can be a challenge.

Interviews do not always go as planned, and spokespeople may face unexpected and uncomfortable questions.

But showing anger can propel an interview to a wider audience and see it deemed as entertainment – who isn’t captivated by an on-air meltdown?

One relatively obscure spokesperson handled the questions in a routine interview so poorly last week he found himself trending on social media.

Paul Cook is the manager of Chesterfield Football Club. To put that into context for those who don’t follow football closely, the club play in the fifth tier of English football.

On Sunday, they faced a crunch match that would determine whether they got into the play-offs, and still had promotion hopes.

But a pre-match interview with BBC Sheffield did not go well.

And it provided a brilliant media training case study of how spokespeople should not handle difficult questions.

 

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The manager showed his frustration early. Having answered an opening question from Rob Staton on why the team produced an “unacceptable” performance in their last game, he was then asked about a perceived “lack of fight and desire”.

“I just answered your first question, which was a very negative one,” he said.

“Your second question is more negative than the first one.

“And your third one will probably be more negative than your second one. The truth is we put in a really, really low performance.”

But it was the fourth question where the action began to kick off.

Having been asked whether his team had a “blood and guts type performance” in them, Mr Cook replied: “With the greatest respect, I can’t keep answering your negative questions. I physically can’t.”

And he finished the response by saying the journalist should either ask him something about the next match (against Woking) or “end the conversation”.

Here’s how the exchange continued:

Staton: “I think fans expect some questions to be asked though don’t they, Paul?

Cook: “You have just asked five negative ones. How many more do you want to ask? You can’t physically keep asking negative questions. So, if you want to speak about Woking and Sunday, which is what we haven’t spoken about yet, then great. If not, I have tried to answer some questions for you. I am not going to answer anymore.”

Staton: “This is about your team. Surely, I am well within my rights to ask these questions because these are some of the questions that fans want asking?

Cook: “Yep. And you’ve asked four. I have told you I am not answering anymore. So, either ask about Woking or end the conversation. It is up to you.”

Staton: “If you don’t want to answer the questions that is your choice. But I have to ask them.

Cook: “I have just told you. You might as well end the conversation. I would rather speak about Woking on Sunday, and some optimism, and some positivity, rather than the negativity that you continue to ask me.”

Staton: “It is not your choice what questions I ask though, is it?

Cook: “It is my choice whether I sit and listen and carry on listening.”

The manager then asked the press officer to end the Zoom conversation. And, after a few more questions were asked and not answered, that is what happened.

That exchange propelled a routine preview interview with a regional radio station to a far wider audience. Paul Cook trended on Twitter. And the story was picked up by national and regional media.

‘Move on or end interview’ – Cook has heated exchange with BBC reporter over ‘negative’ questions Derbyshire Times

‘Horrendous’ cringey interview sees Chesterfield’s Paul Cook cut reporter’s call short Daily Star

Full transcript as former Portsmouth, Ipswich and Wigan manager Paul Cook angrily pulls plug on BBC interview he deems too 'negative' ahead of important Chesterfield game Portsmouth News

 

So, what can other spokespeople learn from this?

Well, firstly, it breaks a media training golden rule. The journalist is not your audience. The people who listen or watch their programme are.

In the context of this interview, local media tends to be the voice of the fans, particularly for the smaller clubs. The journalist will be asking questions the club supporters want to be answered.

The team had slipped from second to seventh under his management, losing eight of 18 games – many fans would have questions about that performance.

Secondly, showing frustration in media interviews is never a good look. Everyone who acts as a spokesperson will face questions they would rather not answer or they think is unfair.

But journalists should ask questions spokespeople would prefer not to answer – it is part of the job. And spokespeople should not try to control what they ask.

Maintaining composure is crucial. As soon as you show a hint of frustration, the reporter is likely to pursue that line of questions.

So, instead of getting angry, briefly answer those questions and use the bridging technique to try and steer the conversation to more comfortable territory.

The audience is more likely to remain sympathetic to a spokesperson who remains calm and doesn’t try to control what the journalist asks.

Finally, as we often state in these media training blogs, preparation is crucial.

The Chesterfield manager had refused media requests after the defeat that preceded this interview.

So, you don’t need to be Nostradamus to predict he may face some tough questions the next time he spoke to journalists.

And, had those questions been anticipated, you have to believe a better approach would have been taken.

What’s the outcome of this?

Well, apart from Chesterfield reaching a far wider audience – and not for a good reason – the club scraped into the end of season play-offs with a goalless draw.

But the manager refused to speak to BBC Sheffield after the game, further proving the notion that not all own goals happen on the pitch.

About to face the media? Get your media interview homework off to the best start by downloading your copy of our free media interview preparation eBook.

 

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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