Media training: Doctor produces medal winning performance during hostile interview

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Doctor produces medal winning performance during hostile interview

We can probably all recall hostile interviews we have seen on television or heard on radio.

Some of the most infamous have featured politicians, such as the Jeremy Paxman interview with Michael Howard where he asked the same question 12 times in 90 excruciating minutes.

But, of course it not just politicians who find themselves subjected to these types of interviews.

Armchair spectators of the Athletics World Championship last night (8/8), witnessed a particularly challenging interview.

It came after Botswana’s Isaac Makwala was barred from competing in the 400m final because the sport’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), believed he had been showing symptoms of the norovirus.

As the story unfurled during the evening’s coverage, Dr Pam Venning, head of medical services at IAAF, eventually appeared to defend the decision not to let him compete.

Now we are not suggesting that presenter Gaby Logan delivered a Paxman like grilling, but this was challenging in its own way as it was effectively an interview by committee (click on the picture below to view at 3hrs34mins).

Pam Venning.JPG

As well as facing questions from the main presenter, Ms Venning was also interrogated by pundits, and former athletes, Denise Lewis, Paula Radcliffe and Michael Johnson, who seemed to struggle to hide their disappointment that a star attraction, and realistic medal hope, had not been allowed to run.

In this daunting situation many spokespeople would have struggled, but Ms Venning’s performance seemed to win over public opinion at a time when the IAAF appeared to be rapidly hurtling towards a PR disaster.



So what was good about the interview?

It was a performance which contained a lot of the media training skills needed to negotiate a tough interview.

Importantly she repeatedly showed compassion for the barred runner while presenting a clear explanation as to why the decision had been taken.

She said: “We feel very sorry for the athletes who have to be withdrawn from competition, but the issue is we have a responsibility to all the athletes and we need to make sure they are all protected.

Later she added: “We have great sympathy for the athletes who can’t compete because they have contracted this infection, but the fact of the matter is we are responsible for all the athletes’ health and it would have put all the athletes at risk. You would risk many, many more athletes not competing as well. The worst case scenario is masses of people dropping out and staff being affected."

Crucially, she did not get drawn into speculation. When asked about another athlete who had collapsed but had been allowed to continue to compete, she said she was unaware of the case. Similarly, when asked about whether the decision would prevent other teams from reporting sickness among their athletes, she replied ‘we have had great cooperation from all the teams who have presented athletes who are sick’.

On our media training courses we tell delegates that in interviews of this nature it is imperative they do not provide short answers, which can sound defensive. Ms Venning’s responses were detailed and often went beyond answering what was asked and moved back to her main message – that she, and the IAAF, had a responsibility to all athletes.

But perhaps most important of all, she was able to maintain her composure despite the group grilling and the somewhat repetitive nature of the questions posed by the pundits. In a hostile interview, it is crucial spokespeople don’t get rattled or show anger at the questions. The audience is more likely to be sympathetic if they remain calm and composed. Getting into an argument with the journalists – or the wider panel in this case – will not help a spokesperson fight their corner.


On a night where events off the track took centre stage, this was a medal winning interview performance.






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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