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Numbers in media interviews continue to be something of a trip hazard for media spokespeople.
In recent times several high profile spokespeople have stumbled and floundered on air when faced by a journalist asking for specific figures.
And this week has seen a new person added to that list.
Victoria Atkins, a home office minister, came unstuck on radio station LBC when she was asked if she knew the number of police officers in the country.
What ensued was an awkward exchange where Ms Atkins at first tried to give the figures for London before admitting the national number had ‘slipped’ her mind.
A Home Office minister denied that police cuts had affected crime figures. So surely she could tell Nick Ferrari how many police officers there are in Britain?https://t.co/fci8HpUV2Z— LBC (@LBC) April 9, 2018
The interview happened on Monday and you don’t have to search hard on social media to find people grumbling that Ms Atkins’ performance has not generated anywhere near as much media coverage and humiliation as the infamous interview Dianne Abbott gave during the run-up to the last general election. You will probably recall that Ms Abbott became completely unstuck when asked about the cost of plans to put 1,000 more police officers on the street.
There are two points here.
Firstly, Ms Atkins' interview has resulted in some negative headlines. The Daily Mail, The Mirror, The Sun, Sky News and The Express have all carried reports on her performance.
Not much cop: Home Office minister admits she doesn’t know how many police officers there are in the service – as she gave an interview about police numbers The Sun
Home Office MP suffers car crash Ferrari grilling when she forgets police numbers The Express
Tory Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins admits she does not know how many police officers there are Huff Post
Secondly, the reason people are not talking as much about Ms Atkins’ performance is that the two interviews are just not on the same scale. When Ms Abbott's interview began to unravel, she engaged in a damaging guessing game involving wildly varying figures.
Ms Atkins used a much better approach – she simply admitted, with more than a hint of embarrassment, that she did not know the answer, rather than become involved in speculation and guesswork. Here’s the key part of the exchange:
Ferrari: “You’ll be aware of the number of police officers we have in the country at this time won’t you?”
Atkins: “Um. Yes. I think. I know in London it’s around 31,000 officers.”
Ferrari: “Right but the whole of the country, you’ll be aware of the figure, won’t you minister?”
Atkins: “It’s, er, er, you’re testing me, Nick. I’m so sorry. It’s, um, um, I’m not going to hazard a guess, I’m just going to front up and say I’m so sorry, that number has slipped my mind. I do apologise.”
Ferrari: “You are a Home Office minister, minister, wouldn’t it be a good idea to have the figures?”
Atkins: “It would be Nick, thank you.”
As we tell delegates on our media training courses, admitting you don’t know an answer in a media interview is not ideal. But it is far less damaging than speculating and guessing.
Of course, you can argue that as a Home Office minister Ms Atkins should have known these figures.
But as media trainers, the more pertinent issue for us and media spokespeople, is that she should have known what to expect when she agreed to appear on LBC. Nick Ferrari has something of a reputation for skewering politicians and it almost always seems to involve figures.
Effective interview preparation involves looking at the journalist who is going to be carrying out the interview and understanding the approach they typically take. Even the smallest amount of research would have shown that Mr Ferrari was likely to ask some questions on figures.
Why can't MPs do an interview with Nick Ferrari on policing without getting the numbers hopelessly wrong? https://t.co/l92aArB8Fb— LBC (@LBC) April 10, 2018
Ms Atkins' pre-interview homework should have included anticipating the types of figures she could be asked for, and to rule out the possibility of ‘brain fade’ or details ‘slipping her mind’, she should have had them to hand in a briefing document for the interview itself.
The Home Office minister may have stumbled in this interview, but avoiding guesswork limited the damage.
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