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Media training lessons from Kay Burley’s scrap with Matt Hancock over Tony Abbott
September 7, 2020

She’s known as one of TV’s toughest interviewers and Kay Burley is often cited in our media training courses as someone that participants would find it hard to face, especially in a crisis situation.

Last week Burley, who has clocked more live hours of TV than anyone else (she claims that it’s more than a million minutes) skewered health secretary Matt Hancock in an interview that will be of interest to anyone working in PR or corporate communications.

The interview had discussed the coronavirus and testing but then in a classic “while I’ve got you here,” ambush, the Sky Presenter asked Hancock about Tony Abbott.  Was he the right person to represent Britain in international trade talks, as has been suggested, given his comments about gay people, women and the elderly, she wanted to know.

During our media coaching sessions, we advise people, when they’re working with their PR companies and inhouse communications teams, to think not only about the points they want to get across but to be prepared for left field questions too.  This might be something in the news that day that they have some vague connection with or a subject tangentially related to whatever they’ve come on to discuss.

Here, Burley notes that Hancock was wearing his rainbow NHS pride badge and then refers to comments by Tony Abbott.

“He says he feels threatened by homosexuality, that older people should have been left to die naturally from Covid and that men are better set to exercise authority than women.  Is he the right person to represent us?” she asks.

Blink and you’ll miss it, but the look of horror and annoyance on the health secretary’s face as he’s presented with this awful question is a picture.  He pauses and then says:

“As far as I understand it, the proposal is that Mr Abbott supports UK on trade policy which is an area in which he’s got a huge amount of expertise.  I bow to nobody in my support for everybody to love who they love but we need to have the best experts in the world working in their field.”

Having failed to address the central point of her question Burley then interjects with:

“Even if he’s a homophobic misogynist?”

Disastrously Hancock tries to reject the allegation:

“I don’t think that’s true.”

Burley responds:

“I’ve just told you what he said.  I’m sure you don’t support some of his comments. He is a homophobe and a misogynist.”

Hancock has another go:

“Well, he is also an expert in trade.”

However, because he’s avoided the central question again Burley can make the point that according to him,

“one plays off against the other.”

Hancock adopts the classic approach of restating his key message.

“What I am saying,”

he tells her, any kind of conviction clearly draining away,

“is we need experts in different areas and someone who is the former Prime Minister of Australia is obviously an enormous expert in the field of trade. It doesn’t change my views.”

Because he still hasn’t answered her point, Burley quite rightly goes for the attack again:

“So, we can forgive his comments about women, about letting the elderly die of COVID-19, about his views on the gay community?  We can forgive all of that because he is good at trade?”

In a desperately clunky gear change, a now despondent Hancock says:

“Well, I’m doing everything in my power to prevent a second wave and prevent people from coronavirus.”

Burley replies:

“Health Secretary, that’s not my question.”

It’s a lovely bit of horrible television but what are the lessons that we can draw from this confrontation?  What does it teach those working in corporate communications and public relations?

As we say in our media training courses, you need to be prepared for those

“while-I’ve-got-you-here”

questions.  You don’t have to go into great detail – in fact, you shouldn’t, or you’ll end making up this, not your key message, the subject of the interview and the point that the audience will take away with them.

The bridging technique that we teach our participants in order to help them maintain control of media interviews – and other conversations – only works if you answer or address the question being put to you.  Hancock’s approach is typical of politicians (and, we’d say, why people trust them even less) in that he simply ignores the thrust of the question that he’s asked.

He’s essentially asked whether he’s comfortable with what Tony Abbott has said or not.  Unless he answers this question, he’s not going to be able to move on.  He’s obviously in a very difficult situation.  For what it’s worth, his boss has simply rejected Abbott’s views.

But the point is that Hancock’s advisors should have spotted this bear trap and given him a line to take on it so that he could handle it and then bridge back effectively to the subject that he wanted to discuss.

As we point out in our media training courses, when you simply refuse to answer the interviewer’s question it’s not them that you’re insulting.  It’s the audience – your audience – on whose behalf they’re asking the question.  Planning and testing an answer so that you can handle the issue and move on is essential for a good media interview.

Chat to Communicate Media

Our media training courses are realistic, bespoke to your needs, quick to turn around and cost effective.

Give us a call on 0800 1777080 or email us: gareth@communicatemedia.com

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