Charity spokeswoman shows how to avoid difficult, irrelevant questions
March 10, 2021

Speaking on Good Morning Britain on International Women’s Day Sarah Brown was thrown a number of questions by Piers Morgan that had little to do with what she was booked to talk about – and that risked drawing her into controversy.  We provide media training for charities and prominent spokespeople.  Charities like the fact that our lean, agile team means that we have lower overheads than the big media training consultancies and so we can offer smaller charities more affordable rates.

Ms Brown was appearing as Chair of Theirworld, a charity whose “mission is to ensure that every child has the best start in life, a safe place to learn, and skills for the future.”  Could she get her message across during the joint interview with Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid?  It’s never an easy task at the best of times but with so much else to talk about it was inevitable that she was going to be hijacked.

Certainly, Sarah Brown looked good.  This might sound like a trivial point but, as we say in our media training courses, how you look during a TV interview has a major impact on the audience.  These days with Zoom the norm and a living room or kitchen as the backdrop it’s more important than ever.  Ms Brown was well lit, she was the right distance from the camera and she had the charity’s logo in the background.  Her broadband connection and her microphone were of professional quality too.

She was asked as a former resident of Number 10 Downing Street about the decision by Boris Johnson’s partner Carrie Symonds to redecorate the flat above the office.  She gave a long answer but avoided making a memorable comment or getting involved in any kind of controversy.  Perhaps she could have bridged back to Theirworld here?  It might have been a bit of a stretch but it’s always worth trying.

Ms Brown was then asked about another controversial topical issue – nurses’ pay.  “I’m a lot happier talking to you about nurses than about redecoration,” she told Morgan and Reid with a gentle smile.  She went on to give a passionate defence of the work of nurses without getting drawn into the sharp end of the controversy over their pay.  Again, perhaps she could have moved across to another important cause – that of young people and education in the developing world.

Another “While-I’ve-got-you-here,” question, as we call them in our media training courses at Communicate Media, was inevitably about the Duchess of Sussex’s claim about racism.  As someone who has “hung around with the Royal Family,” as Susanna Reid puts it rather inelegantly, had Ms Brown seen any instances of racism?

“I haven’t seen it,” she says referring to the interview.  “At no moment is the Queen’s behaviour called into question at all.  Issues of racism wherever it’s found it’s something that we have to tackle.”  A good answer – and one that she’d clearly prepared.  Preparing for these left field questions is essential before any media interview.

Ms Brown is also asked about the Duchess’s complaints about the British media.  She says: “Look, our British press are notoriously tough on everyone and they were certainly tough on Gordon and to a lesser extent me during the time that we were in government. We were dealing with a global economic crisis at the time and there’s only so much time that you can spend doing the right thing versus looking like you’re doing the right thing or whatever it is to get the better coverage. I still think that you’ve got to work with the media that you’ve got and get the message out and my job is to talk about international women’s day and talk about girls at school and talk about the fact that we need to have a government now that invests in education and as we go forward to G7 that also invests in global education.”

This is a great bit of bridging – clear, simple, honest and direct.  If you’re going to take control of the interview that you’ve been booked for then don’t mess about – just do it.

“Very skilfully deflected as always,” says Piers Morgan and he’s right.   Another little touch is when she tells Piers Morgan, “I’ve read your book.” 

Having finally been asked about what’s she agreed to discuss, Ms Brown goes on to point out clearly and passionately that we need to ask: “Why girls have been particularly, disproportionately impacted,” by the pandemic.

She mentions the name of the charity, Theirworld, which is great but we’d just suggest that she emphasises it to drive it home.  However, she does go on to give a clear outline of what the charity does, and she introduces the research that it’s carried out.

“What really shocked us,” she begins.  This is a good example of flagging up a key message. She then goes on to give a simple top line statistic – “two thirds of girls are taking the lion’s share of chores around the home.”  She then illustrates what she’s talking about – that means the cooking, the cleaning, the caring.  There’s even a great example of the power of three an some alliteration – a very powerful soundbite.

She goes on to connect it with children going back to school today, which is very topical. 

This was bound to be a tough interview but Sarah Brown did well to bring it back to her key message.

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