Media mastery – latest news and advice

Engine MHP’s media experts share their insights and guidance for navigating today’s complex landscape

Why you must always be prepared for the toughest of questions

In a week that has seen Health Secretary Matt Hancock publicly humiliated by his own party, the media have been at pains to cross-check the sentiment with every person and organisation associated with him. So it should have come as no surprise to Sir Simon Stevens, Head of NHS England, when he was asked by a journalist whether he too thought Mr Hancock was “hopeless”.

His tight lipped smirk and silence spoke volumes. The interruption by his PR advisor even more so. There would be no defence of the Health Secretary from one of the people closest to him. That response inadvertently handed the journalist the soundbite and awkward imagery needed to prove the feelings toward Matt Hancock were widespread. This moment became the story across national press.

Whatever your personal views, media interviews are rarely the place to share them but it’s exactly what any journalist will be trying to tempt out of you. Often, as in this case, at the very end of the interview when you have relaxed your guard believing you have already given the journalist plenty of good quotes to use.

Maintaining control of the interview through to the last question is essential to ensuring a journalist is only left with material that you have provided on purpose. You must expect the questions you least want to answer and be ready with a deft response to bridge back to your messages.

Without even needing to pause, Sir Stevens could have said “I’m not going to comment on politics, what’s important right now is getting the NHS back to full strength and I won’t be distracted from this vital task.” That would have given the audience assurance that at least one person had their eye on the job at hand.

Silence speaks volumes – what to say when ‘no comment’ won’t do

Being door-stepped by a journalist can be intimidating and infuriating. Yet it’s a key tool used by the media and one any business figure should be prepared to handle. Staying silent allows the journalist to tell the story in their own words, while reacting badly creates a headline of its own.

Avram Glazer of the under fire family who own Manchester United was tracked down by Sky News while doing his grocery shopping in Palm Beach Florida, famed for being home to the uber wealthy, as he walked to his sports car. The journalist asked a barrage of questions; do you have anything to say to the fans, is it time to sell the club, are the fans just customers to you?

As he walked on without offering any reaction the journalist pointed out that it was an opportunity for him to speak to the fans and perhaps say sorry for the failed bid to join the European Super League. The encounter led to the headline that Mr Glazer ‘Refuses to apologise’ with Sky News taking the credit for confronting the billionaire who ‘refused to engage’.

Since the ESL ‘plot’ which drew thousands of irate Manchester United fans to protest at their home ground, calls have been deafening for the Glazer family to respond. Mr Glazer’s brother, Joel, quickly “apologised unreservedly” to fans following the club’s withdrawal, yet the fans (and/or the media) are pushing for the next chapter in the story by going after the family members one by one.

The trick to managing door-step questioning by a journalist is to flip the encounter from their terms to your own. Stop walking and take a pause to collect your thoughts (also allowing the journalist and crew a moment to position themselves so there’s no need for you to repeat yourself), then deliver a brief statement. All this should convey is that you understand the public interest, are considering the next step and will respond in due course. This is almost always a suitable template for what to say. Inevitably the journalist will fire back more questions, at this point politely repeat that you will respond in due course and then begin to walk away calmly.

You could argue that giving any statement adds fuel to the story and this is true. Yet it prevents a second attempt to door-step as well as headlines that portray you as uncaring and out of touch. It also buys you time to consider an appropriate response, knowing the story isn’t going away until you do.

Lose your head in an interview and it may be on the chopping block

Aggressive body language, raised voice and repeatedly interrupting the question were the hallmark signs of an interviewee losing control, as seen when Victoria Derbyshire challenged Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors over its response to claims by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

The seasoned BBC News presenter caught an already irate Mr Murray in a contradiction and as his frustration boiled over he raised his hands in angry gesticulation, pointed his finger, shook his head and rolled his eyes.

Mr Murray’s argument was only harmed by this reaction and he instantly lost all credibility. Who would believe that the media are fair and balanced when defended by spokesperson who was enraged and unprofessional?

Lose your temper in a broadcast interview and it’s game over – it’s virtually impossible to backtrack and regain control. Delivery is more powerful, more compelling when it is calm and measured. In the face of challenging questions, your key messages are your safe place.

Follow the ABC method; acknowledge the question, bridge with a relevant segue and communicate your message. In a broadcast situation, this will enable you to move the interview in the direction you wish, it’s harder work for the interviewer to go backwards once you’ve moved on.

Mr Murray’s interview followed a widely criticised public statement by the Society, whose mission is to “fight for media freedom”, which refuted claims by Harry and Meghan that the UK media is bigoted. The day after Mr Murray’s interview the Society issued a ‘clarification’ following the backlash but by the end of the day Mr Murray had stepped down from his role.

Chaotic backdrop and hopeless messaging leaves minister exposed

The nation’s leading breakfast broadcasters took their turn to grill Health Minister Nadine Dorries, exposing her on two fronts; inadequate government messaging on the meagre 1% pay rise given to NHS staff and inability to handle difficult lines of questioning which showed her to be painfully out of touch.

Wrong message for the audience

Ms Dorries was given the impossible task of defending an indefensible decision yet this was made worse by her choice of words which displayed a vast chasm between policy makers and the people affected.

“I hope they receive the message we totally appreciate their efforts,” she said, “we hugely value them” but “unfortunately the 1% is all we can afford.” She went on to explain that we need to protect jobs and the economy. Cold comfort to nurses coming off a 12 hours night shift, watching the morning programmes. Absent was the human element; recognition of the disappointment and frustration that NHS staff would feel amidst the most difficult period of their professional lives.

Even her chaotic background, camera awkwardly positioned in a high corner exposing what must be the nation’s most peculiar loft, couldn’t distract from the cold heartedness of the messages.

Dodging difficult questions

Time after time she failed to answer direct questions which showed her to be ill prepared with suitable lines to take for obvious risk areas.

Asking what a newly qualified nurse earns, LBC’s Nick Ferrari caught the Minister in a woeful example of bridging. Always remember; acknowledge, bridge, control. Ignoring the question won’t make it go away and will incense the journalist.

And don’t forget, when the cameras are on you must behave on radio as you would on television.


Learn from Dominic Raab, don’t get upstaged by a broom

Working from home is never easy, especially when you’ve got two children like Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. So when he prepared to appear live on Sky News he was keen to make sure the interview wasn’t hijacked by his boys. Unfortunately it would appear his home office doesn’t have a lock, so Mr Raab barricaded himself inside by wedging a broom up against the door. That would have been fine, except the broom was in shot throughout his interview.

Mr Raab has since been mocked remorselessly on social media. Quite rightly.

But at least it made a change to the union flags some of Mr Raab’s colleagues like Priti Patel, Grant Shapps and Gavin Williamson have on display.

Worse still is the broom cupboard sized office Matt Hancock performs his interviews from.

In this world of video interviewing backgrounds matter. They give the viewer an insight into the private lives of politicians, business leaders and celebrities.

Too many people over think it. They’ve clearly spent hours deciding which books should be put on display, which family portraits or ‘statement’ objects like football shirts.

The answer is to keep it simple.

A plain background, well-lit and with little clutter is ideal. Then the viewer – and social media – can concentrate on what you say and not where you are saying it.

Terminating an interview will always make it the story

A terse exchange between Piers Morgan and cabinet minister Therese Coffey that ended with a virtual ‘walk out’ is proof that making a scene only makes for negative news headlines.

Challenged on her choice of words during an interview on Good Morning Britain, Ms Coffey made excuses about a tight schedule and abruptly hung up the video call leaving the presenters to continue their criticism. The incident was soon trending on social media and was picked up by numerous media outlets.

The simple rule of broadcast is to always stay calm. To refute a statement use measured language like “I disagree, what’s important to remember is…” or “Those are not the words I would use, the real issue here is…” and then move the conversation along by returning to your key messages.

Remember, broadcast is as much about entertainment as it is about facts. If you take the bait from an interviewer who is seeking to sensationalise, you will only do yourself harm. Remain calm and the audience is more likely to sympathise with you – provided you continue to adequately answer the question. Calm avoidance of a question is just as frustrating for a viewer as irate refusal to answer.

For expert advice on video interviewing or media training email or download our video interview guide here.