Spokesperson endures empty chair humiliation

We are sometimes asked on our media training courses whether interview requests should ever be turned down.

The answer, perhaps not surprisingly considering what we do, is that these bids should almost always be accepted.

And an example from a news channel earlier today showed exactly how damaging it can be to turn down an interview.

Sky News presenter Kay Burley not only empty chaired Conservative Party chairman James Cleverly after he failed to appear on her programme, but she also delivered a furious three-minute rant.

She set out all the issues she wanted to discuss with the politician, which not only served to show why someone might have thought it as a good idea to swerve the interview, but also painted a picture of Mr Cleverly running scared.

During a segment that continually focused in on an empty chair in the studio, she said: “Where is he? He's probably 15 feet from where I am standing at the moment.

"I've been in to see him during the break, he said he wasn't due to come and talk to us today, although they had said they would talk to us."

She said she had wanted to ask him about Boris Johnson comparing Jeremy Corbyn to Stalin, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Grenfell Tower comments, a report on Russian interference and calls for the Welsh Secretary to resign, among many other issues.

Ms Burley continued: “I know Number 10 Downing Street watch our show, I know the spin doctors at Downing Street have absolutely reassured me by text that when politicians were doing the rounds in the morning, they would do this programme. And yet we have an empty chair.

"Where on earth is he? He is 15 feet away from me, James Cleverly, who is the chair of the Conservative Party.

"And he says he will not come on this programme to answer all of those allegations.

"I'm fuming. I'm sure if you are watching and you want answers to those questions you will be fizzing as well."


Mr Cleverly tweeted that he couldn’t do the interview because he had been booked for an interview on Talk Radio at the same time.

Whether this was a genuine administration error, or he had been advised not to appear on Sky News, the result was clearly not a good look.

The empty-chair capped quite a morning for Mr Cleverly, whose media rounds saw him appear on BBC Breakfast, Good Morning Britain, Today and LBC among others.

He endured a pretty torrid time and his performances in those interviews, together with the empty chair episode, saw him trend on Twitter all morning.

But at least he had the opportunity to defend himself in those interviews.

Whether or not Mr Cleverley was booked to appear on Sky News, there are lessons here for other organisations about the risks of turning down interview requests.

The empty-chair is a last-ditch option the media occasionally use to embarrass organisations who have not put a spokesperson forward for interview. It suggests actions are indefensible and is an action which is viewed suspiciously by the audience.  

The visual humiliation aside, the bigger risk is that organisations and spokespeople who take this approach, turn down the option to shape the story and put their side across

And the media will often turn to someone else to fill that void.

Yes, turning down an interview removes the chance of facing awkward and unexpected questions or saying something you might later regret.

That may sound appealing, especially when you are due to face a journalist with a reputation for asking challenging questions.

But saying nothing is almost always worse than saying something and as today’s incident showed, those challenging questions could well still be asked.

As a media training company, it is perhaps not surprising that we would advocate the importance of accepting interview bids.

There are only a few occasions where we believe they should be turned down.


When you don’t have a media-trained spokesperson available

Media interviews cannot be winged and a spokesperson without media training would be exposed. The key to avoiding this scenario is for organisations to have several spokespeople with recent media training that they can turn to.


Bad association

If someone in your sector is in the news for the wrong reasons you could be asked to give your views. But would it be a good idea for you to go on television or radio to talk about this? You could inadvertently be linked to the negative incident in the public's eyes.


Subject isn’t relevant

In the world of rolling 24-hour news channels sometimes journalists just need a spokesperson to talk about an issue, and the link can occasionally be a bit tenuous. If the topic is not relevant to your organisation, there is nothing really to be gained from doing the interview. And your spokesperson could find themselves in a position where they are discussing something they have no real expertise on or becoming embroiled in speculation, both of which could be very damaging.


Bad experience

If your organisation has had bad experiences with a particular reporter, such as spokespeople being repeatedly misquoted, it could be a good option to decline the request.


Exclusive interviews

If you have already given an exclusive interview to one particular organisation you cannot set up one with a rival media outlet. The key here though is to ensure the journalist does not completely lose interest in your organisation. Is there a different story you can offer them? Could you offer them an opportunity at a later date, perhaps a feature interview if it is a print journalist?


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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