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If you have been on one of our media training courses before, you know we stress the importance of preparing for the ‘while you are here’ question.
This question, which is also known as the ‘and finally’ and ‘while I’ve got you’ question, unsurprisingly comes at the end of interviews.
The spokesperson has discussed the issue they arranged to talk about and have seemingly answered all the questions on the topic.
And then suddenly, the journalist asks something completely unrelated.
It’s likely to be topical and vaguely related to the sector where the spokesperson works, but nothing to do with what they had arranged to speak about.
And it is a question type which has tripped up many a spokesperson, in both crisis and positive interviews. The risk is that it can completely take the focus away from everything which has gone before, no matter how well they have performed.
There was a great example of this earlier this week.
Andy Barratt, the chairman and managing director of Ford UK, appeared on 5 Live Breakfast to discuss his company offering refunds to customers whose EcoBoost engines have failed.
He answered a series of questions and the interview (which you can hear here at 2:15) appeared to be coming to a natural conclusion. And then the reporter, Sean Farrington, brought a much wider issue into the conversation – Brexit.
Farrington: Can I just ask you a question while we have you? We are talking about the Conservative Party conference and the Brexit conversations that are going on. The way that those conversations are going, do you feel confident a deal will be done which will be good for Ford in the UK.”
Mr Barratt responded confidently and produced a pretty solid answer. He said: "I think the whole manufacturing sector, the whole automotive sector is key. We all need the same things. Frictionless trade is absolutely paramount. If you have a manufacturing facility in the UK it is run on a just-in-time basis and any delays at customs, at ports can can cost millions in downtime in the plant. And we need that to be a low cost, efficient manufacturing organisation."
It was clear that he’d given thought to his response and was, as all spokespeople should be, prepared for an ‘and finally’ question on Brexit.
But what he did not appear to have prepared for was multiple ‘and finally’ questions. So, when Mr Farrington probed further on Brexit, the interview started to fall apart, as this exchange shows:
Farrington: Are you making changes now to mitigate any potential problems?
Barratt: We have every level of scenario planning in place.
Farrington: If it is ‘no deal’, what are you doing?
Barratt: We are not going to go into that now. I don’t think it is appropriate.
Farrington: Why is it not appropriate? Wouldn’t it be better for the Government to know, for the other part of the industry, your suppliers and customers to know what businesses in the UK are doing to handle every scenario ?
Barratt: Those conversations are taking place at the appropriate levels, but are not for public record at this point.
Farrington: Do you think that is something we may well hear before any final decision on ‘no deal’ or Chequers is done?
Barratt: I think there will be a lot more to come out around the manufacturing sector. For Ford, everything we manufacture here is exported and everything we sell here is imported, so it is paramount to a company like Ford.
Farrington: Is there potential for some sort of stockpiling where you might want to get more of your parts in the UK beforehand in warehouses here rather than just waiting for that just-in-time around Brexit?
Barratt: Well, we have some unique supply chains at Ford, so it will affect every manufacturer differently.
These ‘while you are here’ questions turned Mr Barratt from a composed and confident sounding spokesperson into one who appeared unclear, unsure, shifty and defensive. At times he was pretty close to saying ‘no comment’ and relied on short answers.
And, as they were obviously the last questions, that will be the lasting memory of him for many – certainly for my boss who tipped me off about the interview.
It was interesting just how much the journalist wanted from Mr Barratt. But that should also act as a warning to other media spokespeople – preparing for one ‘while you are here question’ may not be enough.
In a way, preparation for these questions should be a bit like the way many organisations prepare holding statements on particular issues in case of media interest.
You will typically have a ‘line to take’, a bit like the one Mr Barratt used, which is quite general and top level.
But there then needs to be more messages that can be used ‘if pushed’. These will go into more details and give the reporter some more specific information.
One of the other key things Mr Barratt could have done better was to buy himself a little thinking time before he answered.
A brief moment of silence, or a phrase like ‘that’s a good question’, would have given him a few seconds to plan his response.
Instead, he tended to launch himself into an answer immediately, often starting before the journalist had finished the question.
What other skills and techniques can spokespeople use when faced by a ‘while you are here’ question? Here are a few more tips from our media training courses:
As tough as a ‘while you are here’ question might be, a spokesperson can’t afford to appear to dodge it.
Not only will it makes them appear defensive and untrustworthy, but it is likely the journalist will pursue that line of questioning. This is exactly what happened in the Ford example we outlined earlier.
It is worth remembering that even with these wider questions, the journalist is still raising the issues they believe their audience want answered.
This is a key skill and enables the spokesperson to briefly answer the question and then steer the conversation on to more familiar ground.
It is something Mr Barratt could have used in his response to the first ‘while you are here’ question. For example, he could have acknowledged the question and then said something like ‘but what we are concerned with right now is…’ to try to move the conversation on.
Bridging sounds very natural and conversational and can be hard for most people to detect when used well.
A lot of ‘while you are here’ questions encourage spokespeople to speculate.
Journalists obsess about the future. If anything their tendency to speculate seems to have increased in recent times.
‘What would happen if’ is a question a spokesperson should expect to face.
And this puts them on shaky ground.
The key is to not get dawn in and make any bold predictions about what may happen in the future which could leave your organisation a hostage to fortune.
A lot of these types of questions are often laced with negative language.
And the temptation can be for the spokesperson to repeat that language as they attempt to rebut what was implied.
For example, they might be asked something like ‘while you are here, your latest financial results were a disaster weren’t they?’
And the spokesperson might then start their response by saying ‘I wouldn’t say they were a disaster’.
Result? The journalist now has a sound-bite of them using the negative phrase.
Mr Barratt seemed to try and avoid answering the follow up Brexit questions because he didn’t want to reveal what gets discussed behind closed doors at Ford.
This is fair enough but, as a high-profile businessman, he should be able to talk generally about the impacts that Brexit could have on all manufacturing / retail / automotive businesses. This would have made him appear more transparent which in turn helps to rebuild trust in a brand in crisis.
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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