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We’ve seen plenty of examples of spokespeople struggling to hide their frustration at difficult questions and regular interruptions in media interviews.
If you’ve read this media training blog before, you may recall seeing footage of Spain’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell storming out of an interview earlier this year or the boss of Persimmon Homes walking away from the cameras when asked about his bonus.
So how about an example of a spokesperson displaying great composure when faced with a series of hostile questions during a television interview?
Richard Parry, chief executive of the Canal and River Trust, found himself in the firing line when he appeared on Newsnight to face questions about a dam at Toddbrook Reservoir, in Derbyshire, being on the verge of collapse (you can watch the interview by clicking here).
He faced questions from presenter Emma Barnett as residents from the neighbouring town of Whaley Bridge were evacuated.
“We aren’t short of money to spend on reservoirs... we’re urgently anxious to understand what has happened in this case...“August 1, 2019
And he started strongly with an early, sincere-sounding apology for the disruption – a great beginning to an interview during a crisis media management incident.
He said: “We are clearly very sorry for the disruption this is causing to people. It must be awful to have to move out of your home overnight in this sudden way, but it is vital we keep everybody safe and put people’s safety first before we can draw down the reservoir.”
And, importantly, he didn’t get drawn into speculating about how long people may be out of their homes.
“It is very hard to estimate because of all the factors involved,” he said. “There are the pumps we have to get into the reservoir to draw the water down and the rate at which they can work; there is still water flowing into the reservoir from upstream and there is also the unknown factor of the weather – if there is more rain that will change things.”
He adopted the same approach to questions encouraging speculation on the cause of the incident.
Asked what he thought the cause might be, he said: “Well, until our engineers have a chance to inspect it, it would be foolish to speculate.”
After a fairly predictable start to the interview, the pressure quickly ramped up and Mr Parry was asked increasingly challenging questions.
These started with probes on whether the dam’s age was a factor and whether the trust has been adapting to climate change.
And interruptions became a regular feature of the interview, with Mr Parry frequently being asked a question before he had finished his answer to the previous one.
Many spokespeople struggle with interruption, but Mr Parry retained his composure and stuck to his message.
In fact, it was Ms Barnett who sounded frustrated as he avoided the traps of speculation and blaming the Government for a lack of funding,
At one point she said: “So, you’ve got enough money, but you’ve not said you’ve done anything differently and you don’t understand why this dam has broken in this way and it might still burst – it does sound like there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
Mr Parry replied by saying: “Well inevitably at this stage there are…”, before he was again interrupted.
We often tell delegates on our media training courses that if they remain composed under pressure they are more likely to retain the sympathy of the audience and that was the case here with viewers taking to social media to criticise the journalist.
Newsnight ridiculously aggressive interview with Richard Parry. A dam fails after 160 years, do we always need somebody to blame?— investmentman (@pyueck) August 1, 2019
Sorry, @Emmabarnett you’re picking on the wrong target. Nothing’s yet known about the cause of the dam’s failure in #WhaleyBridge. Richard Parry’s Canal and River Trust is a highly responsible custodian of a nationally important asset. Your challenges are unwarranted. #newsnight— Sarah Parks (@goldfinchgazer) August 1, 2019
Committed newsnight fan. But Emma Barnett’s interview of Richard Parry was unnecessarily hostile and harrying in tone and style, in marked contrast to his thoughtful and empathetic responses in the midst of a crisis. “Rigorous” enquiry needn’t mean lack of basic courtesy.— Andrew Medley (@AndrewMedley8) August 1, 2019
Excellent responses from Richard Parry clearly on top of his brief from @emmabarnett who seemingly thinks it’s all about her.— Mike Wood (@Bessy645) August 1, 2019
I think Emma Barnett is a very good journalist but was it really necessary to go full The Day Today on the canals & reservoir guy? #Newsnight— ‘Johnny’ Penman (@Gadgeagoogoo) August 1, 2019
Mr Parry’s performance wasn’t perfect. He had a tendency to start his responses with ‘well’, which adds nothing to the answer and can be a little distracting.
And he sometimes drifted away from the simple language spokespeople should strive for in an interview.
At one point he started a response by saying: “We have a very rigorous oversight of all our assets and apply a very well-developed asset management regime based on inspecting our assets and prioritising our spend to ensure we keep public safety paramount and make sure the whole canal network operates and is available for people to use.”
The follow-up question to this asked him to answer ‘in English’.
But, I’m not sure we have ever seen a ‘perfect’ media interview. The key in this situation and any interview during a crisis media management incident is to remain calm, apologise early, avoid speculation and show what action is being taken.
And Mr Parry did that expertly.
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