By Geoffrey Stackhouse, Managing Director
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock spoke to Sky’s Kate Burley for a regular Covid-19 update, the first part went as you’d expect from a seasoned performer. But when the journalist went off piste on the hot story of the day – Tony Abbott’s mooted appointment to the UK Board of Trade – Hancock experienced the most excruciating three minutes of his life. You can watch the video here.
Schadenfreude aside, what went wrong and what should you do if you were in his place?
There are three simple rules to media engagement 101:
Rule 1: Know what you want to discuss and prepare your content
Rule 2: Anticipate what else could come up
Rule 3: Focus on your topic and always stay in your lane.
This interview is a brilliant demonstration of why you must stay in your lane and exert control over the direction of the interview.
Hancock’s mistake was at a macro level – he should never have engaged in the Abbott issue in the first place. When the question came up at around 1:18, the only possible response was: “Kate I’m the Health Secretary, that’s a question for the Trade Secretary, as Health Secretary my focus is …”.
Dull but effective.
If Hancock couldn’t fight his urge to be helpful he could have added Downing Street’s tried and tested official line “…but I understand no decisions have been made on that appointment”, and everyone would have gone home happy.
Instead he engaged and gave some insights into why Mr Abbott would be a valuable hire.
Even when he’d gone down the rabbit hole, Hancock could have got back on track by exerting control in what I call the Goldilocks zone.
In a challenging interview the key is to match your degree of control to the tempo of the journalist. Too little and you are roadkill, too much and you look like an evasive bully.
The gloves came off at about 2:21 with Ms Burley’s stonking slapdown “Health Secretary, that’s not my question … I’m asking you about…”. If the journo goes hard it’s an invitation for the interviewee to clap back.
I’d love to see him try: “Kate I heard your question, but I’m the Health Secretary, not the Trade Secretary. My focus is on Health, and particularly the challenges of Covid-19. Because we both know I cannot answer those questions you are doing a disservice to the people of Great Britain who are watching this to get critical health information and keep everyone safe”.
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