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Imagine answering only a quarter of the questions put to you in a media interview.
That may sound completely unrealistic, but new research suggests that is exactly what Prime Minister Theresa May has done.
Academics have studied both her responses in broadcast interviews and to questions in Parliament and concluded that she is the most evasive Conservative Prime Minister in 50 years.
The University of York study showed that she answered just 27 per cent of questions in four interviews from the 2017 general election and similarly in two interviews after becoming Prime Minister in 2016.
In contrast, David Cameron answered 34 per cent of questions in the 2015 general election, while both John Major and Margaret Thatcher answered 39 per cent of questions in the 1992 and 1987 general elections respectively.
During Prime Minister’s Questions Mrs May answered only 11 per cent of questions.
The researchers identified two main techniques the Prime Minister uses – completely ignoring awkward questions and answering her own version of the question rather than what had actually been asked.
But apart from creating some damaging headlines – including a front page story in The Telegraph - what does this all mean and what can other spokespeople learn from it?
Theresa May is most evasive leader in past 50 years, scientific study finds The Telegraph
Theresa May ‘most evasive’ Conservative PM when answering questions Sky News
Theresa May ‘more evasive’ than her Tory predecessors, say academics ITV news
Well, apart from this research generating embarrassing headlines for the Prime Minister, there will be little impact in terms of media relations – journalists are still going to want to interview her because of the position she holds.
But for other spokespeople, gaining a reputation for dodging questions must be avoided. While we have to be honest and say their interviews are unlikely to be subjected to this level of academic research, journalists and audiences do not like spokespeople who appear evasive.
It typically results in interviews going horribly wrong. Jeremy Paxman’s infamous interview with Michael Howard and Richard Madeley ‘terminating’ an exchange with Gavin Williamson are just a couple of examples which spring to mind. And of course, away from politics, there was the disastrous BlackBerry boss interview on BBC Breakfast – something which has gone down in media training folklore.
Additionally, it is an approach which can make spokespeople seem untrustworthy. It is worth noting that Professor Peter Bull said that Mrs May’s evasiveness could cause a lack of trust among voters.
He said: “If Theresa May fails to answer questions, or even to acknowledge that she is not answering questions, to what extent can she be believed?”
I should point out that some people still believe that dodging is a good strategy for handling difficult questions.
Just last month I read an article in the i Newspaper which asked whether journalists are being ‘too aggressive to interviewees’. One of the experts quoted in that story offered this advice for handling uncomfortable questions: “One of the simplest ways of achieving [your aim] is to ignore the question you are asked and answer with your key message.”
What we can conclude from that is that not all media training is created equally.
So how should you deal with those awkward, uncomfortable and unexpected questions?
Well, it may sound simplistic, but the best approach is to briefly answer, or at least acknowledge, tough and challenging questions and then look to move the conversation on through the media training technique known as bridging. When this is used well it sounds completely natural and conversational and can be hard to detect.
However, without the necessary subtlety it can become obvious and make the spokesperson appear like they are trying to dodge the question. And there are two things that lead to you being a skilled interviewee – one is interview practice and the other is credible and effective media training.
Interview preparation is also crucial. The more effort that is put into anticipating the difficult questions in advance, and planning how to respond to them, the more likely it is a spokesperson will be able to answer with clarity, confidence and control.
Of course, despite this preparation, you could still get caught out by an unexpected curveball that you don’t know how to answer. It may feel uncomfortable, but admit that you don’t know the answer. Just don’t stop there – go on to tell us something that you do know. So your answer could look something like “I don’t know the answer to that specific question, but what I can tell you is…”
A word of warning though, don’t add the phrase “I’m no expert” when admitting you don’t know the answer. It damages credibility.
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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