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Can you just keep talking in a media interview to limit the number of questions the journalist can ask?
Well, that was the accusation made against one spokesperson yesterday during an awkward radio interview.
It happened when Environment Secretary Michael Gove appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme ahead of the Brexit deal vote.
With the politician producing increasingly lengthy responses, presenter Nick Robinson made several attempts to interject.
He initially asked Mr Gove if he ‘could forgive the old fashioned idea that I might ask the odd question’.
And he then later told him: “I think that the listeners can work out what you are doing which is to just endlessly keep talking to ensure there are no questions. So let’s get back to the tradition of an interview.”
Of course, Mr Gove rejected the accusation with a fairly lengthy response.
Michael gove is trying to talk down Nick Robinson because he’s scared of questions #BBCR4today— Tom Stubbs (@tomstubbs) January 15, 2019
Nick Robinson just accused Michael Gove of "endlessly talking" to avoid facing questions and suggested they "go back to the tradition of an interview where I ask you questions".— Shehab Khan (@ShehabKhan) January 15, 2019
Michael Gove responded by saying it was an important people understood the scale of the Brexit...
Interviewer Nick Robinson to Michael Gove on #BBCR4today programme: “The listeners know what you are doing, endlessly talking in order to avoid being asked any questions.” — That sums up the quality of many of the debates and interviews in British and global politics these days.— Manuel Dries (@manueldries) January 15, 2019
Nick Robinson just tore Michael Gove a new one. Showed Gove up for what he is: a waffling career politician with zero answers #bbctoday— Jazzer McCreary (@JazzerArchers) January 15, 2019
We are unlikely to know whether the wordy approach taken in this interview, which you can listen to here at 2hr10, was indeed a deliberate tactic. However, if it was he wouldn’t be the first politician to try to be evasive in a media interview – even if the more common ploy is to ignore the questions being asked.
But is this a strategy other spokespeople can follow when they find themselves under pressure in a media interview or are fearful of what could be asked? Here are our thoughts:
Journalists know when a spokesperson is trying to avoid hard questions, whether that is rambling to reduce the number of questions they will face, or completely ignoring the question that has been asked.
And if the audience hasn’t already picked up on it, they will when the journalist calls the spokesperson out. This is something we see and hear increasingly. Just last year Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson suffered the ignominy of having an interview terminated after repeatedly trying to avoid a question.
And when a journalist resorts to criticising the approach taken by a spokesperson, that tends to be what the audience remembers from the interview – everything that went before is forgotten.
On our media training courses, we stress the importance of spokespeople ensuring their answers are the right length. Too short and they will appear defensive, and the interview risks becoming a quick fire question and answer session.
But long rambling responses, especially ones which attempt to make multiple points, should also be avoided.
One of the main reasons for this is because journalists know that long, complex answers can be hard for audiences to follow and that they will either zone out or switch off altogether. So they will often interrupt when they feel spokespeople are rambling.
And this presents its own problem because many spokespeople, even those with lots of experience, tend to find constant interruptions hard to deal with and sometimes struggle to remain calm. Any loss of composure in an interview has the potential to take the focus away from what a spokesperson wanted to get across in an interview.
It is inevitable that a spokesperson will face questions in a media interview that they probably don’t want to face.
But there are better ways to deal with this than to try and talk so much that they prevent them getting asked at all.
Media training skills like bridging are vital here, enabling the interviewee to briefly answer, or at least acknowledge the question which has been asked, 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 it can be difficult for most people to detect.
Mr Gove obviously gave his lengthy answers during a broadcast interview. But we often find delegates on our media training courses provide rambling answers during print interviews too.
This can make it hard for the journalist to follow what is being said and can lead to arguments being misconstrued and the spokesperson being misquoted.
Claiming that Mr Gove was talking at length to avoid more questions suggests that the main aim of his media interview was simply survival and that he was desperate to avoid what social media users increasingly refer to as a ‘car crash interview’.
Spokespeople should approach interviews with the aim of taking advantage of the opportunity it presents and compelling the audience to act or think differently.
While a high-profile politician like Mr Gove is always likely to be in demand for interviews, other spokespeople who try to evade questions may be less fortunate. If you have effectively wasted a journalist's time, why should they look to use you again in future?
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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