Very little can rouse me from a post-migraine stupor when I’m feeling sorry for myself as I was this morning. However, while listening to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 (a live special on midwives which was being broadcast from a hospital in Liverpool) I heard an interview with Dan Poulter, the Health Minister which was sufficiently annoying to force me muttering from sickbed to computer.
You can hear the interview here for the next seven days (it starts at 29:53).
I don’t know why I was so irritated as there was nothing wrong with it from a technical perspective. Dr Poulter had his messages worked out, he provided context, used numbers (2000 new midwives, a record 6000 in training) and meaningful examples, such as birthing pools and en suite bathrooms. He was also disciplined about trotting out his prepared sizzle (or in this case management consultant speak) ‘women want more choice about where they give birth’ and ‘best possible support’.
And maybe this is why it was so annoying. As an exercise in message control, it was fine but this wasn’t enough to
make him a good interviewee. What was noticeably missing was empathy (I’m obsessed with it at the moment) and a willingness to even address the central issue. It didn’t help that Dr Poulter was late for the interview (he was supposed to be on earlier in discussion with a midwife) and was cut short. As a man with power in this most female of health areas, he needed to display extra sensitivity and sympathy. But he sounded bored and refused to acknowledge the central question: why do midwives feel they can’t do their job properly due to a shortage of staff and funding?
Time and again my clients and friends tell me that the thing they hate the most about politicians is their refusal to take questions head-on. Now, I have some sympathy here because politicians can’t always give a straight answer due to a lack of information, or because conceding ground will make a headline or create a story in its own right. However, refusing to even acknowledge the question and bludgeoning people with your message is not only evasive but also ineffective because it turns the listener off.
This was highlighted for me during a conversation over the weekend with a friend’s mother who is a lawyer at a media organisation in the UK. She said that their internal research shows that the public is far more inclined to give a company a second chance if it’s spokespeople don’t try to avoid questions but show humility when things go wrong or when people have legitimate questions.
Now, Dr Poulter didn’t do a bad interview in a technical sense. But it really was a case of trotting out the prepared line rather than genuinely engaging with the questions. Digital media has made this kind of exchange all the more jarring because, even though it’s only right to promote your side of the argument, a reluctance to engage or even appear human is something people increasingly won’t stand for. And it doesn’t win politicians any brownie points with a public who already think they are out of touch and don’t know how to talk to ordinary people.