Personal questions have a habit of tripping up spokespeople in media interviews.
Often we see interviews where a spokesperson clearly knows the message they want to get across and has anticipated and rehearsed the difficult questions.
And then they are asked something about their personal experience and attitudes and the wheels begin to come off.
There were a couple of great examples of this recently.
The first one which caught my attention was when Liz Truss, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was interviewed by Eddie Mair on LBC.
She faced a personal question almost immediately when Mr Mair asked her “How have you personally been affected by austerity?”
And you could almost hear the panic and confusion in her voice as she tried to come up with a response.
Truss: Well I think the whole country has…
Mair (interrupting): I’m asking about you.
Truss: Well (sniggering), It’s not about me, it’s about the whole country.
Mair: My question is about you. How have you been affected?
Truss: What I would say is that we have… (sniggering)
Mair: I don’t know why it is funny. A lot of people have had a terrible time with austerity.
Truss: Eddie, I’m not laughing, I’m just questioning your question because…
Mair: Well, you leave the questions up to me. What’s the answer to mine?
Truss: My answer is that all of us have been affected by the difficult decision that had to be made, but what we have done is limited those difficult decisions and made sure we target money on those on the lowest incomes…
Mair: It would be ok wouldn’t it to say that you haven’t been affected?
Truss: I just don’t think it is a good question, I don’t know what it means.
Mair: Well, I won’t comment on your answer.
As you can see, it was an excruciating exchange (you can hear and watch it here). The rest of the interview did not get much better either, but we will leave that for another edition of this media training blog.
The other example of this difficulty with personal questions came when ITV reporter Joe Pike spoke to millionaire Charlie Hoult about being selected as the Conservative’s North of Tyne Mayor candidate.
Here the personal question was arguably a little more obvious – How much are you worth?
Yet, it was a question he needed three attempts to answer and even then finished by jokingly calling Mr Pike ‘You bugger’. Here's the exchange:
Hoult: Honestly, I do not know.
Pike: I think our viewers will find it very difficult to understand that someone does not know how much money they have and what they are worth. I know what is in my bank account. I know what my flat is worth. You don’t seem to have a clue.
Hoult: I have a good clue, I’m just not sure how relevant that is to this race.
Pike: So you don’t want to tell us, as opposed to you don’t know. That’s a different answer to what you gave us before.
Hoult: Really, it is quite complicated.
Pike: So give us a ball-park figure Mr Hoult.
Hoult: £2 million, £3 million.
WATCH: 'You bugger!'— Joe Pike (@joepike) March 15, 2019
Tories have selected millionaire businessman Charlie Hoult (@votehoult) to be their North of Tyne Mayor candidate.
But how much is he worth? In under a minute, his answers range from:
🔹I don't know.
🔹I don't want to tell you.
🔹£2-3 million.@itvtynetees pic.twitter.com/kpaBgIXWec
So, with two high-profile examples of how not to deal with personal questions, how should spokespeople handle them?
Well, the good news is that often the personal angle is a pretty obvious one for a journalist to take.
Mr Hoult surely should have anticipated that he would be asked a question about his wealth, for example.
To give you some other scenarios, if you’re representing the NHS you should be prepared to answer a question about the last time you visited a hospital or went along to see your GP. Perhaps you’re from a housing association. In that case you’d better be set for a question about whether you’d live in a particular development.
Preparation, as we say so often on our media training courses, is key.
And, as we’ve stressed before, part of that preparation should focus on knowing the journalist you are speaking to.
Mr Mair loves to ask a personal question. When he interviewed former Cabinet Officer minister Francis Maude about the then government’s Big Society initiative a few years ago, he began by asking him, “What volunteering do you do?”
And it was a question the politician struggled to answer, calling it an ‘unfair question’.
Similarly, Mr Pike recently grilled the Labour mayoral candidate Jamie Driscoll and got him in a complete tangle on Brexit.
WATCH: Jamie Driscoll - Labour's candidate to be the new North of Tyne Mayor - struggles to explain his position on #Brexit.— Joe Pike (@joepike) February 20, 2019
It is unclear whether he:
-Wants Brexit to happen or not.
-Wants a second referendum or not.@itvtynetees pic.twitter.com/43acaTou3l
A little research on either of these journalists would have shown that tough and potentially personal questions were likely to feature in the conversation.
Once you have anticipated and prepared for the personal questions, think about how you can briefly answer them and then move away from that back to the message you want to get across.
Responding to personal questions does not need to be as hard as these two latest examples suggest.
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.