Media training: How to handle the question that couldn’t be answered

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How to handle the question that couldn’t be answered

It was seemingly a question which could not be answered.

No matter how many times the journalist asked – and I made it 10 – the question was either met with vague responses or ignored altogether.

The result was an incredibly awkward interview, some damaging headlines and a lot of negative social media posts.

It must be said that this was always going to be a challenging interview for Liz Truss, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, appearing on Daily Politics in the aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn calling on Theresa May, during Prime Minister's Questions, to ‘show some humanity’ and make it free to call the Universal Credit helpline.

But she is experienced enough to have anticipated that she was always likely to be asked why it costs up to 55p a minute to call this line from a mobile and to have known that vagueness is not an effective media interview strategy (it’s certainly not something we would recommend on our media training courses).

Ms Truss became noticeably uncomfortable as soon as presenter Andrew Neil approached the subject and it went downhill from there.

 

 

Here is an extract:

 

Neil: “You call on a mobile phone, you are charging 55p a minute.”

Truss: “Well, I’d encourage people to visit the job centre, go in and get the advice.”

Neil: “Right, but these people have got kids to look after, they can’t afford nannies or help to look after them. Phoning might be the only way. They’ve got people visiting, the plumber, whatever, just the normal things of life, so getting on the phone is quite important. If it’s a landline, it is cheaper but many people don’t have landlines. If you’re counting the pennies, you save the rental from a landline, and get as cheap as possible a landline deal. And you are charging them 55p a minute! Why are you doing it?

Truss: “This is what I’m saying. We are moving to a new way of supporting people. It is much more interventionist, much more about helping people get into work.”

Neil: “By charging them 55p a minute? Why are you charging them 55p a minute to call up and try and get their Universal Credit payments fixed?”

And so it went on.

The ironic thing was that in desperately trying to avoid the question, Ms Truss produced a message which was seized on by critics and headline writers; that if you can’t afford the 55p minute charge you should go to the job centre – a dismissive sounding line which clearly lacked the compassion the situation required.

 

 

So what could she have done differently?

Well, the most frustrating thing about the interview is she almost found a good response relatively early on.

When Mr Neil put the question to her for the third time, Ms Truss started by saying ‘I don’t know the details of the call line’, before going on to state that it was cheaper to call from a landline.

The ‘I don’t know the details’ line would have worked if she had instead followed it up by promising to look at the issue.

So, for example, she could have said: “I don’t know the details of the call line, but I will look in to this with my civil servants.”

While it is not ideal for a spokesperson to admit they ‘don’t know’ the answer, we tell delegates on our media training courses that it is a much more effective approach than trying to dodge the question or get drawn into speculation. And by vowing to look in to the issue, she would have displayed some concern and a willingness to take some action.

 

And ultimately, it would have prevented her facing the same question so many times, ensuring that the question which couldn’t be answered could at least be met with an effective response.

 

 

 

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. 

 

Click here to find out more about our journalist-led media training courses.

 

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