Media training: Spokesperson caught out by negative language trap

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Spokesperson caught out by negative language trap

On our media training courses we often talk about the importance of spokespeople avoiding the trap of repeating the negative and loaded language used in a journalist’s question.

The reason is that even really good interviews can result in a negative angle simply because the interviewee has used that same language.

And there was a great example of this yesterday which resulted in a series of negative headlines.

England cricketer Chris Woakes was being interviewed by the BBC when he was asked for his views on Barbados-born player Jofra Archer being added to the World Cup squad after the England and Wales Board changed its residency rules.

Asked if it was fair that Archer could replace someone who has been part of the squad for the past three years, Woakes replied: “Fair is probably not the right word. It probably wouldn’t be fair morally, but at the same time it’s the nature of international sport.”

Now, you may well have no interest in cricket, but just take a look at the headlines that comment generated:

Jofra Archer: England World Cup squad place would ‘not be fair morally’ BBC Sport

Chris Woakes claims Jofra Archer World Cup selection would be ‘morally unfair’ Mirror

Chris Woakes: picking Jofra Archer for England World Cup squad wouldn’t be fair The Times

These examples all create an impression of defensiveness and unease from Woakes about the decision prompting him to take to Twitter to complain about ‘context’.



What he said does look more reasonable when you watch the whole clip (which you can watch here), but nevertheless, these are the words he used and it created easy headlines.

And it could have been easily avoided because Woakes had actually begun to answer the question well. Before repeating the reporter’s language he said: “It is the nature of professional sport and in professional sport I think we take it on the chin that selection is part and parcel of the game and the job that we do.”

If he had ended the response, or used the same response he had when faced with a similar question from Sky Sports, he would have avoided the kind of coverage we highlighted above.



But that is the problem with questions with negative and loaded language – it takes real discipline and control to avoid the temptation to repeat that language and it is natural to use those same words and phrases to rebut them. We do it in everyday conversation.

An example we often give on our media training courses is that the journalist might say ‘This is very disappointing isn’t it?’ and the interviewee begins their response by saying ‘I wouldn’t say it is disappointing’. A similar example is when an organisation is accused of being ‘incompetent’ and the natural instinct is to say something like ‘I wouldn’t agree that we are incompetent’.

The problem is the journalist’s negative language can now be attributed to the spokesperson and they have said the one word they were trying to avoid.  

The key is to mentally edit your response before you deliver it. Instead of repeating the language you are trying to avoid, use phrases like ‘On the contrary’, ‘I wouldn’t put it like that’, ‘You might say that – I would say’ or ‘What I would say is’.

Use your own words not the reporter's.

It’s also worth pointing out that if the reporter paraphrases your response, be careful not to agree with their summary unless you are happy to be quoted. A simple ‘yes’ and you are on record agreeing to their words.

If the interview is taking place on TV, spokespeople also need to be careful to avoid nodding their head during a negative question, otherwise it will look like they agree.


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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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