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One media spokesperson had quite a morning earlier this week.
It was not so much a case of the interview unraveling on one question, as the same question causing him problems across a range of television and radio appearances.
And it was an entirely predictable question which caused all the problems.
It happened when Schools Minister Nick Gibb spoke to several broadcasters about Government plans for more times tables tests for eight and nine-year-olds.
The recurring problem first arose when he was asked a multiplication question on Good Morning Britain.
Asked what eight times nine is, he said: “I’m not going to get into this, I’ve learned through bitter experience never to answer these kinds of questions on live television. I’m very tempted, but I’m not going to.”
He was then asked what nine times nine was during a subsequent appearance on LBC and he replied: “I’ve been strongly advised not to engage in these. If I get one wrong that will be the story and I want the story to be about what we are doing to improve standards in our primary schools’.
When presenter Nick Ferrari suggested the story would be about his refusal to ‘say what nine times nine is', Mr Gibb said that would be a ‘minor’ story and that getting the sum wrong would be a ‘bigger’ story.
Judging by how his interviews were reported in the media, I’m not sure that prediction played out particularly well. Here are a few examples:
School minister Nick Gibb refuses to answer ‘what is 8x9?’ on TV The Guardian
School Minister Nick Gibb Fails To Answer Simple Maths Question Huff Post
Schools minister Nick Gibb refuses to answer maths question on TV as he launches times tables tests Independent
Minister Nick Gibb refuses to answer times tables questions of Good Morning Britain and Sky as he launches new times tables policy Evening Standard
Tory Education Minister Nick Gibb REFUSES to answer simple times tables sum live on Good Morning Britain Daily Mirror
School minister Nick Gibb refuses to do times tables Sky News
Attempts to get Mr Gibb to answer multiplication questions on Sky News and Talk Radio were met with similar responses.
And it seems clear that he adopted this approach on the advice of his PR / comms team.
But was that advice right?
Clearly his team were trying to avoid the types of headlines that these pub quiz style questions in media interviews can generate. You may remember a Newsnight interview where Boris Johnson admitted he didn’t know how much a pint of milk costs and a Sky News interview where Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry refused to name the French foreign minister or the South Korean President.
If you can cast your mind back to 1998, you may also recall Stephen Byers, the then minister responsible for standards in British schools, being asked to multiply eight by seven and giving the answer ‘fifty four’.
But Mr Gibb’s cautious approach directly replaced one potential source for negative coverage with another. Social media users, including journalists and presenters, were as equally damming.
8x9 is also 9x8 and everyone knows 10x8 is 80, so just takeaway 8 and you’ve got 8x9=72. Timetables can be understood & worked out, not just learned by heart. Bravo @GMB for putting Nick Gibb on the spot, did you ask him about homework too? https://t.co/EJwzgw8zb9— Kirstie Mary Allsopp (@KirstieMAllsopp) February 14, 2018
Schools Minister @NickGibbUK refuses to answer one single multiplication question on @BBCBreakfast this morning, yet expects 8 & 9yr olds to sit his Government tests which will have no value to children’s education. Says everything really.— rob kelsall (@rob_kelsall) February 14, 2018
Education minister Nick Gibb who demands primary schools check times tables in primary schools refuses request on TV to say what 8x9 equals— Jeremy Beecham (@JeremyBeecham) February 15, 2018
What was interesting with Mr Gibb was that he appeared confident he could answer the question. He told Talk Radio host Julia Hartley-Brewer that he ‘knew the answer’ to six times seven but that he would not be drawn into giving it because of the advice he had been given.
Thousands of primary school children will take times tables tests this spring. Does the Minster of State for Schools know the answer to 6x7? @JuliaHB1 @NickGibbUK Find out below ▼ pic.twitter.com/eBaNyoKa8g— talkRADIO (@talkRADIO) February 14, 2018
If he really did feel confident in his arithmetic surely it would have been a better approach to ditch the caution and provide the answer.
Instead, by sticking to the advice he had been given, his non-answer built up something of a head of steam and he was asked a multiplication question in every interview he took part in.
The quick fire question approach is one that journalists often use and it is one a lot of spokespeople struggle to prepare for.
And, as we say on our media training courses, interview preparation is crucial. If you are going to go on air stressing the case for children to bested on times tables, it is pretty likely your own mathamatical skills are going to be put to the test.
So instead of trying to avoid these questions, the Schools Minister would have been better served by doing his homework and making sure he knew his times tables.
And, as we tell delegates on our media training courses, that preparation should also have involved buying himself a little thinking time so that he could mentally check his answers before he broadcast them to the nation. For example, he could have said ‘even I struggle sometimes under pressure, but the answer is…’ or ‘you’re trying to catch me on the hop but the answer is…’.
Additionally, when you have a whole day of interviews, it is important spokespeople and their comms people use the time between each appearance to assess what is working well in the interviews and any areas where they should change tact. A quick social media check after the Good Morning Britain interview would have shown Mr Gibb and his team that his refusal to answer the times table question was becoming the main message.
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