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We tell delegates on our media training courses that one of the golden rules of a successful interview is to not show any frustration at the questions being asked.
Awkward questions that a spokesperson would rather not answer will inevitably be asked in interviews.
And any suggestion that they are frustrated or annoyed by that line of questioning will be seen as them having something to hide.
Spokespeople often seem to struggle with difficult or challenging questions when they believe they are talking about something positive.
There was a great example of this in Australia recently. New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, and transport minister, Andrew Constance, were riding a new $368 light rail in Newcastle ahead of its official launch.
After stepping off the tram they held a press conference where they clearly wanted to speak glowingly about the project and its benefits.
But when Newcastle Herald reporter Michael Parris’s line of questioning took on a more challenging tone the politicians struggled to hide their disdain:
Mr Parris: “You committed four years ago to release a business case for the extension (to the project) – we still have not seen it?”
Mr Constance: “Ah well…sorry what media outlet are you from?”
Mr Parris: “Newcastle Herald.”
Ms Berejiklian: “Yeah, that’s normal for them. That’s just operation normal.”
Mr Constance: “I just hope you have a little bit of a positive outlook on today because it is a wonderful outcome for the city and its good news for everyone.”
Mr Parris: “You talk about a positive outcome, but as we rode the tram today, the streets were virtually empty and you keep talking about revitalisation and that’s not the message we are getting from business people in the town.”
Ms Berejiklian: “Have you spoken to the Hunter Business Chamber?”
Mr Parris: “I have, I’ve spoken to the business chamber. I’ve walked up and down the street and spoken to just about every shopkeeper.
Mr Constance: “Mate, just let me say this to you - since we've taken the heavy rail up there's been $3 billion of private sector investment into the city. Everyone across the state, even in Bega, is talking about what's happening in Newcastle. You've got a city to be proud of and, you know what, I think there's an obligation on the part of the Newcastle Herald to be very positive about this town because it is a wonderful place.”
The exchange was caught on camera and the video is worth watching because the body language on display certainly adds to the feeling of the politicians treating the journalist with disdain.
INCONVENIENT QUESTIONS: Watch the Trump-like response from @GladysB & @AndrewConstance as a @newcastleherald journalist asks legitimate questions about Light Rail. The Herald is simply doing its job - journalism. @HeathHarro @LisaMAllan @mhparris #nswpol #journalism #democracy pic.twitter.com/DpIvOR25Uc— David Threlfo (@David_Threlfo) February 18, 2019
At best they come across as being arrogant.
And their approach to the questions became the focus of the story for several media organisations:
NSW Premier and Transport Minister mock reporter who asks them hard questions about Newcastle’s brand-new but 'empty' $368million light rail system Daily Mail
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian slammed over 'Trump-like response' to Newcastle journalist ABC News
Gladys Berejiklian filmed mocking a reporter for asking tough questions about an expensive light rail project news.com.au
And there was also a lot of social media criticism:
@GladysB terrible flippant response and visual from a state premier. Keeping that up will see you looking for a new job.— RMR08 (@RossMR08) February 18, 2019
Still can’t believe how Gladys and Andrew Constance treated the journalist who questioned them yesterday. Scott Morrison and Michelle Landry did the same when they were questioned in QLD. LNP think they’re too good to be held to account! 😡 #nswpol #auspol— 🌹MsRose🌹 (@msrose2343) February 21, 2019
Constance and Gladys arrogance personified— Frank (@stoocho) February 20, 2019
@GladysB @AndrewConstance The gentleman from @newcastleherald was doing his job (unlike both of you) and does NOT deserve to be mocked or ridiculed. It’s so disappointing that you chose to mock and make fun of someone for reporting facts. https://t.co/dqHisSU9PO— LARIA CORNEY (@MMAFAN4LIFE) February 21, 2019
The approach taken in this press conference feels like a softer version of the tactics employed by Donald Trump who regularly criticises journalists and the organisations they work for when he doesn’t like a question. You may recall that he once responded to a question from CNN reporter Abby Phillip by saying: “What a stupid question that is. What a stupid question.”
He then went on to add: “I watch you a lot. You ask a lot of stupid questions.”
But this is not just a tactic employed by politicians. Just last month, tennis star Maria Sharapova responded to questions she didn’t like by saying “I think that is a silly question to ask” and “Is there another question.”
But treating reporters and their difficult questions with disdain does not work out well.
A far better approach is to use media training skills to manage unwanted and challenging questions.
Bridging, for example, enables a spokesperson to briefly answer, or at least acknowledge the question, before taking control and steering the interview to something they are more comfortable talking about. When it is used well, it sounds very natural and can be difficult for most people to detect.
It is also crucial that spokespeople anticipate and prepare for difficult questions so that if they are asked they know how they will respond. If you believe what the politicians say about it being ‘normal’ for the Newcastle Herald to ask difficult questions, then surely the best approach is to try to anticipate what it might ask this time.
The key thing to remember is that difficult questions will be asked in interviews.
If you substitute the word ‘politicians’ for ‘spokespeople’, the Newcastle Herald’s editorial section best summed it up when it said: “Asking questions politicians would prefer not to be asked, however, is what the media is here for. It's what the community demands. And we'll keep asking.”
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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