Answer the question

Answer The Question! A Media Training Basic

Answer the question! A phrase that must be shouted at the radio and television hundreds of times a day. It is also a plea used by many a frustrated political interviewer. But last week interviewer Richard Madeley (of Richard and Judy) went one step further and after several attempts to get Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson to answer a question announced ‘interview terminated’ – out of sheer frustration.

I must admit I missed this storm in a teacup initially but by the end of the week, everyone was talking about it. And since then Madeley has written about it in The Guardian  (apparently it was the most popular thing he has ever done on television) and Charles Moore in the Spectator has stepped in to suggest that Madeley was in the wrong, not Williamson.

Just in case you like me missed it, here is the end of the Good Morning Britain interview. (The elephants in the background were explained earlier – Williamson was doing the interview from a Safari Park.)

This ruckus highlights something that has puzzled me for a very long time. Why have our politicians all been taught (and surely they must have been taught this) not to answer a question?

In our sort of media training, there is very strong guidance against ignoring a question. It is bound to lead to the journalist obsessing about the point and often prompts downright aggression. Much better to answer it and then also add something you want to say.

[I blogged here in September 2016 about the Prime Minister Theresa May’s mistake in constantly refusing to answer a question.]

In last week’s case, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was being asked by Madeley whether he regretted his ‘Trump-like’ choice of words when, back in March – in the aftermath of the nerve agent attack on the Skripals – he said ‘Russia should go away, it should shut up’.

Had Williamson anticipated this question he could have had a prepared phrase (or what we call a reactive line) such as:

“With hindsight, the choice of words was perhaps injudicious but people will have understood my frustration and anger at the attack on British soil…”

Or he might have chosen:

“No, I don’t regret the choice of words. There are times when straight talking is the right thing to do. But I don’t think the exact choice of words is the important issue here…”

Either way it is difficult to see what the long-term damage would have been and in fact, it would have been less of a news story than the actual refusal.

When we run message building sessions it is the preparation of arguments that takes the time. Preparing short responses to possible tough questions is usually fairly quick and straightforward. The trick is to try not to be quotable in your response. That can be hard if you are a high-profile politician (either of my suggested responses from Williamson could have made a news story but with little long-term impact) but much easier for everyone else.

The important thing is not to just ignore a question. A frustrated journalist who thinks he has the audience on his side is a dangerous thing.

Lindsay Williams

About Lindsay Williams

Prior to founding her communications training agency, The Media Coach, Lindsay Williams worked as a journalist from 1983. She specialised in financial and business journalism since 1991. After thirteen years in the BBC with local radio, regional television, Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live, she moved to Reuters Financial Television as Deputy Programme Editor. Working freelance from 1998, she was contracted in a variety of roles including as an executive producer for Bloomberg television delivering half hour profiles of Chief Executives, as a producer with Sky Business Unit and at CNBC. She has had articles published in Sunday Business, The Business, The Times and in specialist magazines such as Companies & Finance and Impact. For the majority of her journalism career she specialised in reporting business and finance. Lindsay Williams hosts a range of bespoke communication skills courses for The Media Coach which include Media Training, Presentation Training, Crisis Media Training and Message Building.

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