Why it’s back to school for this spokesperson

It’s that time of year where much of the news coverage is filled by exam results.

Students across the country have been receiving their A-level, GCSE and BTEC grades.

TV screens, radio airwaves and newspapers have been full of students and teachers reacting to the results.

And amid these interviews, there was one that stood out for the wrong reasons.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s interview with LBC fell apart as he faced the most predictable of questions.

Having waxed lyrical about how it felt to go to his sixth form college in Scarborough and get his results, the politician was unable, or unwilling, to reveal what grades he achieved.

After serval attempts to ignore the question, Mr Williamson finally claimed he could not remember those results because it was 27 years ago.

“I have forgotten,” he said. “It is so long ago. It is 27 years ago.

“You probably can’t remember what was happening last weekend.”

It was an answer that lacked plausibility given how vividly Mr Williamson seemed to be able to remember the rest of that day.

Earlier in the interview, he had said: “I remember walking up to those college doors, going into my college at sixth form, getting that envelope, opening it and seeing the grades on there and feeling absolute delight.

“The was a sudden realisation that all my dreams of that next step of doing social science at Bradford opened up. And, for a lad growing up in Scarborough, Bradford was the most exotic and exciting place in the whole world.”

This strange response, where he could recall everything about the day apart from the crucial bit, propelled the interview to a much wider audience.

And it would be fair to say the printed media were not impressed:

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson claims he's 'forgotten' his A-Level results Mirror

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson says he can't remember what he got in his A-levels Sky News

Gavin Williamson’s memory lapse over his A-level grades Evening Standard

What were my A-level results? I’ve forgotten, says Gavin Williamson The Telegraph

And perhaps most damming:

The rest of us have always known that Gavin Williamson is a joke – now even he accepts it Independent

So, what media training lessons can we learn from this?


Personal stories

Well, firstly, Mr Williamson should be congratulated for wanting to include personal stories in his interview.

We tell delegates on our media training courses that people love to hear stories about other people. It helps spokespeople to seem human and plays a vital role in making messages resonate.

But, if you are going to share personal stories, and pack them with lots of description, you can’t brush over the crucial detail.

If Mr Williamson wasn’t keen to discuss his grades, maybe he should not have launched into a detailed account of his recollections of results day.



Another key aspect of this is that whether or not Mr Williamson told his exams day story, it was predictable he would face questions about his grades.

This was the Education Secretary facing the media on the morning of A-level results day. If LBC’s Nick Ferrari hadn’t asked the question, one of the other journalists he spoke to would have done.

We talk a lot in our media training blogs about the importance of preparation and anticipating potential questions.

Surely, this type of question was predicted. And if it was, Mr Williamson and his team must have realised that claiming a memory lapse was unlikely to work.

Even if he could not remember his results, how hard would it have been to do a bit of digging ahead of the interviews and refresh your recollection?

Let’s assume the real reason was Mr Williamson was reluctant to discuss the results because he felt they were not that impressive.

Wouldn’t it be inspiring to hear from someone who had not done that well but went on to reach such a senior position? It’s hard to believe it would have resulted in coverage any more negative than the articles that followed this interview.



A golden rule of media training is that you cannot ignore the questions you don’t want to answer.

Mr Ferrari had to ask this question five times before Mr Williamson acknowledged it.

If a reporter believes a spokesperson is trying to dodge a particular issue, they will ask the question over and over again. And it becomes a distraction, as it did here.

People will not remember anything else Mr Williamson said in this interview.

They will only recall his attempts to ignore the question and the believability of his eventual answer.

And they will be left wondering how bad his results must be for him to refuse to talk about them.


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.


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