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The Conservative Party leadership race is certainly raising some interesting media training points.
Just a few days after the televised leaders debates, the two remaining candidates have been appearing at hustings.
And one of them made a series of headlines by refusing to answer repeated questions about their private life.
Boris Johnson, the leadership race favourite, was at the event in Birmingham on Saturday when he faced questions about the argument at his home in the early hours of Friday that had been making headline news.
He initially said the audience “did not want to hear about that kind of thing” and would prefer to hear what his “plans are for the country and for my party.”
Interviewer Iain Dale was unimpressed by that answer “which told us absolutely nothing” and raised the question again saying that it was public interest to know why police were called to the home of a man who was aiming to be the next Prime Minister.
This was again met with a lot of waffle, including what he achieved on London buses while Mayor of London and cutting crime, which did not go anywhere close to addressing the question.
Does character matter to the choice of our next Prime Minister? When asked this straightforward question at the Tory leadership hustings @BorisJohnson replies by talking about delivering open platforms on the back of London’s routemaster buses— Nick Robinson (@bbcnickrobinson) June 22, 2019
Extraordinary that @BorisJohnson is point blank refusing to answer the straightforward and perfectly reasonable question from @IainDale asking why the police were called to his home last night. And some in the audience are cheering Boris and booing Iain. #worldsgonemad— Julia Hartley-Brewer (@JuliaHB1) June 22, 2019
Boris Johnson brings back the old bumbling fool persona to deflect questions about the police visit to his flat— dave M ❄️ 🥕 (@davemacladd) June 22, 2019
Wonder if even Tory members will start to see through this charadepic.twitter.com/8Sgil7J0oy
When asked whether someone’s private life had any bearing on whether they should be Prime Minister Mr Johnson said: “I’ve tried to give my answer pretty exhaustively. I think what people want to know is whether I have the determination and the courage to deliver on the commitments I am making.”
Finally, when Mr Dale put it to him that he was not going to make any comment about the incident, Mr Johnson said: “I think that is pretty obvious from the foregoing.”
All this resulted in more negative coverage:
Boris Johnson refuses to answer questions about ‘home row’ BBC News
Boris Johnson refuses to answer questions on why police were called to his flat Metro
Boris Johnson repeatedly refuses to answer questions about police being called to row with partner Independent
So, could this coverage have been avoided?
Certainly, the question should not have come as a surprise to Mr Johnson and his team. It was a timely and relevant topic. As Mr Dale said, it was "the subject on everyone’s lips" and it was something that any interviewer would have to ask.
So there really should have been a better plan to approaching this line of questioning than evasion.
We tell delegates on our media training courses that difficult questions cannot be ignored. Once Mr Johnson had addressed the question here, he could have then looked to steer the conversation to what he wanted to discuss.
Tackling the question directly would have given Mr Johnson more time to talk about his “message” as the conversation would have moved on more quickly.
The question was only asked repeatedly here because the journalist was frustrated by the attempts to dodge it.
He even said at one point “when he answers the question I will move on.”
The refusal to discuss the incident has allowed the story to rumble on and become a distraction.
His rival Jeremy Hunt gave several interviews yesterday where he accused Mr Johnson of “ducking very important questions” and that he must be prepared to answer “difficult questions.”
Jeremy Hunt: Boris Johnson needs to answer 'difficult questions' https://t.co/mBNMjQVQqA— Sky News (@SkyNews) June 23, 2019
Cabinet Minister Liam Fox additionally told Andrew Marr that it is “always easier to give an explanation and move on” and added that it was becoming a “distraction from issues about wider policy.”
Break your own bad news
This was an interview taking place in front of a supportive audience – a fact highlighted by the booing of the questions about Mr Johnson’s private life.
The best strategy would have been for him to raise the subject himself, possibly during his opening speech, or before Mr Dale got to his first question.
This would have given him greater control of the story and the narrative. Additionally, it would have helped to create an impression of transparency and openness, which was clearly lacking from his strategy on this issue.
And it would have made it harder for Mr Dale to address the topic during the interview.
Will Mr Johnson’s refusal change opinion of him? Probably not significantly among those who now decide the Conservative Party leadership race.
But a wider audience is unlikely to be forgiving and, with that in mind, there are key lessons from this performance for other media spokespeople.
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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