We bet we can show you how to avoid making this media interview gaffe

“I was taken by surprise”.

That’s the excuse offered by Rishi Sunak after he was widely criticised for making a “cruel” bet during a TV interview.

But should someone who gives many media interviews really be caught so off-guard by a ‘gotcha’ moment?

And what can other media spokespeople learn from it?

The bet was made during an interview with Piers Morgan on TalkTV during a section where he was questioned about his Rwanda plan.

“I’ll bet you £1,000 to a refugee charity you don’t get anybody on those planes before the election. Will you take that bet?”, the presenter asked.

The Prime Minister didn’t say he would take the bet. But he accepted Mr Morgan’s handshake, which has obvious inference.

And it almost immediately saw Mr Sunak accused of “gambling with people’s lives”, reducing vulnerable people to a “cruel bet” and “falling below the high standards people should expect of those in public life.”

Placing a £1,000 bet when so many are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis has also been highlighted as another example of Mr Sunak being out of touch with the electorate.

It is also worth stating that a £1,000 stake would hit the ‘binge gambling’ threshold under his Government’s proposed affordability checks for the gambling industry.

Rishi Sunak accused of ‘new low’ after betting £1,000 on Rwanda deportation flights Independent

Sunak accused of making 'depraved bet' with Piers Morgan on Rwanda plan Sky News

Sunak ‘out of touch’ for betting £1,000 on Rwanda plan’s success, says Labour The Guardian

'Out of touch' Rishi Sunak blasted for £1,000 Rwanda deportations bet with Piers Morgan Mirror

Given the backlash, you can understand why he tried to distance himself from the bet the next day.

Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live on Tuesday, he said he was “not a betting person” and he had been “taken by surprise”.

He said: “I am not a betting person, and I was taken totally by surprise in that interview.

“The point I was trying to get across – I was taken totally by surprise – was actually about the Rwanda policy and about tackling illegal migration, which is something I care deeply about.

“Obviously, people have strong views on this. And I was just underlining my absolute commitment to this policy, my desire to get it through parliament, up and running because I believe you need to have the deterrent.”

The “not a betting person” line might have some plausibility if he had not previously spoken to Radio 4’s Test Match Special about spread betting on cricket.

But this is a media training blog, so we should focus attention on the “taken by surprise” defence.

Spokespeople will face unexpected questions during media interviews. It goes with the territory. Not everything can be anticipated.

Journalists might ask these sorts of questions to get a reaction, because they feel they haven’t got a story or when the interviewee seems robotic and overly rehearsed.

Happily, unexpected questions can often be anticipated. They tend to relate to something already on the news agenda, things happening in your sector or previous coverage of your organisation.

Interview preparation should always include considering wider issues spokespeople could be asked about.

If your organisation had negative coverage a few months ago, that could be brought into the interview. Similarly, if your CEO's pay has attracted controversy in the past, that could become a line of questioning. You might be asked something about the cost-of-living crisis or the ongoing impact of Brexit, to give some examples of more general hot topic question areas.

Then plan how you would respond to questions on these topics. You may not anticipate every issue, but practising responding to unexpected questions helps spokespeople think on their feet in media interviews.

The more you do it, the better you become.

Good spokespeople, as we’ve highlighted in our media training blogs before, are agile. They can edit their responses and actions. They are attuned to their audience, are aware of boundaries, and know what will motivate people to take positive action and what will cause them to switch off. And they can spot pitfalls.

The other part of interview preparation we always highlight during our media training courses, is to consider the journalist asking the questions.

What style do they have? What is their speciality? Do they have a reputation for hard-hitting questions? Piers Morgan is known for being outspoken and for ‘gotcha’ moments.

It is unfair to argue Mr Sunak should have anticipated a high-stakes wager being suggested. But he should have been aware there were increased odds of some form of trap being placed.


What if you get asked something that catches you off guard?

It is unlikely you or your company spokesperson will be asked to make a bet during a media interview.

But there are likely to be times when you are caught flat-footed by a curveball question, whether you are carrying out a national television, local radio or print interview.

What should you do?



You don’t want to show that you are rattled or feel uneasy.

Stay calm.

And buy yourself some thinking time.

A brief pause or a phrase like ‘That’s a good question’ – as long as used sparingly – can give you a few moments to gather your thoughts and plan how you will respond.

It’s much better than jumping into an answer you later regret.



You don’t want to be seen to be trying to dodge a question, no matter how unexpected it might be or whether it invites you to make a bet.

So, the bridging technique we teach in our media training courses is vital.

Use it to briefly answer - or at least acknowledge the question - and then look to steer the conversation back to what you want to talk about.

To put that in context, the Prime Minster could have said something like: “I’m not going to make a bet with you about people’s lives.

“But what I will say is that this policy will…”. Then steer the conversation back to his message about the policy.

A response like that answers the question while avoiding making a bet that has angered many.

And it doesn’t suggest he lacks confidence in his flagship Rwanda plan.


Don't make media interview mistakes like this

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Don’t know

It wouldn’t work in this scenario where the Prime Minister has been invited to make a bet.

But “I don’t know” is a response that can work with unexpected questions, even if it is a phrase spokespeople are often afraid to say.

It is a far better approach than getting drawn into discussing a topic you don’t fully understand or speculating on something that may come back to haunt you. If you use this phrase in a broadcast interview, go on to tell us what you do know. It will help to ensure you still sound helpful and cooperative. Additionally, just saying, “I don’t know”, on its own surrenders control to the journalist and is likely to lead to a barrage of questions.

Can the Prime Minister quickly move on from the latest furore? I wouldn’t bet on it.


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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