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What would your spokesperson do if a journalist questioned the accuracy of something they had posted on social media?
They might promise to look into it after the interview and vow to take it down if it is wrong. They might go further and take the opportunity to apologise.
But one spokesperson who found himself in this uncomfortable situation during a radio interview decided to adopt a different strategy – and it is hard to think of a worse approach that he could have taken.
It happened when Daniel Kawczynski, the MP for Shrewsbury, appeared on Talk Radio yesterday to discuss the possibility of extending Article 50.
Presenter Alexis Conran, as he later went on to explain, had done his homework and found that Mr Kawczynski was at the centre of a social media storm, having posted a tweet a day earlier that many people had claimed was inaccurate.
Britain helped to liberate half of Europe. She mortgaged herself up to eye balls in process. No Marshall Plan for us only for Germany. We gave up war reparations in 1990. We put £370 billion into EU since we joined. Watch the way ungrateful EU treats us now. We will remember.— Daniel Kawczynski (@DKShrewsbury) February 2, 2019
Predictably, this tweet became the focus of the interview from the start and the politician was unable to move the conversation on.
Here is the key exchange:
Reporter: I’m really sorry Mr Kawczynski, I’ve asked you a very specific question. Are you stating that you are standing by your tweet that the UK did not receive any money in the Marshall Plan?
Mr Kawczynski: “I thought I had been invited to talk to you about Article 50.
Reporter: “Well, you see the thing is you have and I have plenty of questions for Article 50. But I, as someone who is posing the questions, need to figure out whether you are someone who can be trusted with giving answers. And the truth is Mr Kawczynski, you have got this completely wrong and it has been pointed out to you on Twitter by many, many people. Are you near a computer Mr Kawczynski?
Mr Kawczynski: “No.”
Reporter: “Would you do me the courtesy of Googling the Marshall Plan and you can see that the UK was the largest recipient of money.”
Mr Kawczynski: “I have been asked to come here to talk about Article 50. Do you want to talk about Article 50, fine. If you don’t, we’ll call it a day.”
Reporter: “What does that say about you Mr Kawczynski, when someone is reporting an inaccuracy in your tweet, oh he’s gone.”
"Would you like to apologise for misleading your Twitter followers?"@AlexisConran gave @DKShrewsbury the chance to clarify his tweet saying there was 'no Marshall Plan for us.'— talkRADIO (@talkRADIO) February 3, 2019
He decided to hang up. pic.twitter.com/A8Sb9fDq1Y
As you can see, it was a bit of a disaster. So what should he have done differently?
A better approach for anyone who finds themselves in this type of situation is to be honest and own up to making a mistake.
He could have said something along the lines of “It sounds like I have made a mistake with that tweet. I will look into it when I finish this interview and, if it is wrong, I will take the post down.” Or maybe he could have said: “I put that Tweet up quickly and I didn’t check my facts properly. If it is wrong, I will of course take it down.”
That might feel a little embarrassing, but, as we tell delegates on our media training courses, audiences will be sympathetic to the honesty and it will help put an end to that particular line of questioning.
‘I’m not here to talk about that’
You’ll notice in the above exchange that Mr Kawczynski made several attempts to tell the reporter he thought he had been invited to talk about Article 50.
Responses like ‘I’m not here to talk about that’, or ‘I thought I was here to talk about…’ do not help spokespeople.
They make them sound defensive and evasive.
While Mr Kawczynski clearly thought he was appearing on the radio to talk about Article 50, any journalist worth their salt was always going to ask questions about the misleading tweet.
We tell delegates on our media training courses that all spokespeople will sometime find themselves facing questions on a topic they don’t want to discuss or haven’t prepared for.
The key is to try to move the conversation on to safer ground through a natural sounding response. So Mr Kawczynski could have acknowledged the inaccuracies in his tweet, as we outlined above, and then said something along the lines of “but I think the really important thing we need to focus on today is…”.
Walking out, or in this case hanging up, on an interview because you don’t like the questions is something spokespeople really should avoid.
It is dramatic and attention-grabbing and because of that it virtually always results in damaging wider coverage.
Daniel Kawczynski hangs up on radio host after his howler of a Twitter error is pointed out Huff Post
Daniel Kawczynski hangs up on radio when confronted for inaccurate tweet Joe
The other issue in this particular example is that by leaving the interview early Mr Kawczynski left the journalist with some extra airtime to fill. And Mr Conran filled it by criticising his departed interviewee.
The key for spokespeople when they face questions they don’t like, or feel an interview is not going well, is to avoid showing any sign of frustration and to remain calm and composed. The audience is much more likely to be sympathetic if the spokesperson retains their composure.
It’s hard to imagine that Mr Kawczynski was unaware of the storm his tweet had created. So you have to wonder why he did not anticipate he would face questions about it and prepare how he would respond.
We always stress to delegates on our media training courses the importance of considering wider issues which could be brought into an interview as part of their preparation.
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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