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I recently stumbled across a podcast on media training and it’s safe to say it contained some of the worst advice I have heard.
The problem is that not only will those who took part in the podcast potentially follow this guidance when they next speak to a journalist, but it is also advice that I have unfortunately seen elsewhere before.
It typically goes something like this: “You don’t have to answer the question that is asked. You can answer your own question.”
This particular podcast also went on to say that ‘answering the question is optional’.
This guidance is fundamentally flawed and only results in spokespeople appearing evasive.
It is also a practice that is increasingly being called out by journalists who try to embarrass spokespeople who take this approach.
If you’ve read this media training blog before, you may remember last year that we highlighted how Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson had his interview on Good Morning Britain ‘terminated’ after ignoring the questions posed by presenter Richard Madeley and answering something altogether different.
Another infamous example, which we’ve used here before, was when Stephen Bates, the then boss of BlackBerry appeared on BBC Breakfast and desperately tried to avoid answering negative questions.
Of course, spokespeople will at some stage face questions from journalists that make them feel uncomfortable and that they would prefer not to answer.
But the best approach is to always answer that question directly - or at least acknowledge it - and then try to move the conversation on to safer ground. Journalists aren’t stupid. They know spokespeople have a message they want to get across, but they also want answers to their questions.
At the very least, journalists would expect their question to be acknowledged before the spokesperson moves the topic along.
The bridging technique is crucial in enabling spokespeople to do this and when it is used well it sounds natural and is very difficult for those outside the media industry to detect.
So, that wasn’t a great start to the podcast, but unfortunately the advice only got worse.
Having told listeners they didn’t have to answer the question they were asked, he then gave an example of how they could do this.
It was based on a question Donald Trump had reportedly once faced about whether he ‘disavowed the KKK’.
His approach was to avoid using the phrase ‘KKK’ in his response, which in itself is a good strategy.
But the key problem was that his recommended strategy for dealing with this question was to then criticise the journalist for asking it.
Here is the example response he set out: “That’s the dumbest question I have ever been asked. You should be ashamed of yourself for thinking that’s a reasonable question to ask. It’s time to take the training wheels off and see if you can join us at the big table.”
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could recommend this as a good approach to tackle a question you do not want to answer.
This type of response makes the spokesperson sound defensive and suggests they may have something to hide. And a good journalist will continue with this line of questioning and probe further.
The other issue with this strategy is that, no matter how calmly it is delivered, it will ensure the interview is only memorable for the outburst – conflict makes for compelling viewing and listening.
No-one will remember the message the spokesperson had wanted to get across. They will just remember the verbal attack on the journalist.
Perhaps we should be thankful that these two nuggets were the only bits of media training advice presented in the podcast because tips like these will only serve to create disastrous interviews.
What’s the worst piece of media training advice you have ever heard?
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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