There was a classic example this week of how all too often an organisation at the centre of a crisis can make matters worse, simply by the way they handle the media, or perhaps in this case, by not turning up to handle the media.
On the eve of the junior doctors’ strike, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt had apparently “declined all interview requests,” as Darren McCaffrey, the politics reporter for Sky News, explained it. Instead a senior official from NHS England was put up to do “one interview for all of us” – what’s known as a pool interview.
But when McCaffrey tried to ask the adviser, eminent surgeon Professor Sir Norman Williams, why Hunt was not answering questions and where he was, it all started to unravel.
At one point an aide piped up: “Hang on a minute, we’re not doing any of this nonsense”.
In a matter of seconds, so many basic rules of how to handle a media interview had been broken. To compound this calamity, it could easily have been avoided.
I don’t know if Williams had been offered any media training – if he hadn’t, that would seem very unfair – but if he had taken up an offer, it didn’t look like it to me. I wouldn’t dream of picking up a scalpel and guessing where to make the first incision, just as no doctor should enter the comfort zone of journalists, without first learning many of the skills and techniques they employ to extract the most information.
So let’s look more closely at what went wrong and how it could have been avoided:
- On the eve of such a monumental event (or crisis), the media will want to speak to the “boss”, not least because in a tax-payer funded organisation, that’s who the public expect to hear from. By putting up another official, no matter how well qualified, Hunt merely gave the media a new angle. He might argue he had a lot to deal with, but this was a short interview to be made available to all broadcasters and since Williams said Hunt was “at his desk, working hard,” given Sky’s Westminster studio is just half a mile from the Department of Health office, a short interview, where Hunt could have made his case, would surely have been minutes well spent.
- The aide in this interview was heard to say, “We agreed a series of questions,” to which McCaffrey replied, “I didn’t agree any questions”. I can’t have been the only journalist who cheered at this point. Self-respecting reporters do not agree to a list of questions. Yes, press officers and aides often ask for the questions in advance, but they are deluding themselves if they expect the apparently emollient journalist to stick to them – apart from anything else, this is an unfolding story, not a scripted performance. But, more importantly, we live in a democracy and if, as an interviewee, you’re representing an organisation at the heart of a story, a journalist is completely within their rights to ask pretty much anything that relates to the story. That said….
- An interviewee doesn’t have to know the answer to every question or feel they have to answer every question either. (But that’s never going to stop the journalist asking it.) The key point here – and one the aide appeared not to appreciate – is there is an effective way round this for the interviewee: if you can’t or won’t answer, don’t merely say that; it’s crucial you tell the audience why you can’t answer it. So it might be along the lines of, “I’m not privy to the exact details of the negotiations/I’ve come straight from a meeting and have not heard the latest on this, but am happy to comment when I have…etc..”. The really smart interviewee will then bridge to something they can talk about, e.g. “But I know, having worked in a hospital for three decades, that…”
This interview was such an own-goal by the Department of Health and one that was totally avoidable. Plus, it was a gaffe that led to widespread national newspaper coverage with headlines such as, “Sky News’ Reporter Darren McCaffrey ‘Gagged’ By NHS Chief’s Aide During Junior Doctors Strike Interview” and “Department of Health adviser ‘gagged’ in Sky interview on junior doctors’ strike”. Then there was the hashtag #WhereisJeremy, widely tweeted by striking doctors, which added to the humiliation.
— my name (@drphunkneuro) January 13, 2016
It wasn’t just Mr Hunt who was missing here, there was a good deal of understanding about how the media works that was missing too. And you can’t blame the journalists and the junior doctors for milking it.