You’re doing a live broadcast interview and the presenter asks you a question that you don’t have the answer to.  What do you do?  This is one of the issues that we explore in our media training courses, in particular when we’re helping participants to develop confidence.

One thing you don’t do is to do what Gillian Keegan, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Apprenticeships and Skills at the Department for Education did on the Today programme this morning.

“Can you clarify something that has been unclear throughout the programme,” asked Mishal Husain.  “That is if you are in one of the seven parts of the north-east of England where there are new restrictions operating for households mingling including indoors, can you still book an outside table at a restaurant or meet people from another household in a public place?”

It wasn’t what Ms Keegan had come on to the programme to talk about but it was a great example of the “While I’ve got you here,” question that reporters love to throw at interviewees.  It can happen in any media interview but during a live broadcast exchange it’s particularly terrifying – and potentially disastrous.  We offer advice in our media coaching sessions on how to prepare for these left field questions and how to answer them and move on.

“No, I’m sorry, I can’t clarify that. I know that in the rest of the country generally you can meet in a pub and you can book a table,” says Ms Keegan.  “The restrictions are indoors in terms of…”

At this point Mishal Husain interjects: “You don’t know the answer to that question.”  The gentle tone of disbelief is devastating.  Should her interviewee have been aware of the details?  Well, yes, she should certainly have been briefed on it.  Even if she wasn’t able to give details of the regulations affecting this specific region of the country, Ms Keegan should still be prepared for questions about social distancing and related issues.

“No, I don’t know the answer to that question but, you know, I’m sure they can find out the answer to that question. I don’t have the details of the seven areas,”

she replies.  In itself this isn’t a bad answer – it’s honest and straight forward, although she could offer some advice about how people could find out what they need to know rather than sounding so dismissive.

It’s her next response that really hits the wrong note:

“I’m sorry I can’t answer that question. I’m sure that many people could.  I don’t represent the north-east.”

So that doesn’t matter, then?  Sounding compassionate and concerned in any kind of difficult situation is essential and the Skills Minister should have phrased this to include a bit more care for people in this part of the country, even if she isn’t their MP.

Towards the end of this exchange Mishal Husain says:

“The rules are complex and if you can’t answer that question.  How do you expect other people to keep up?”

It’s a valid criticism – and one that has been expressed elsewhere and so any minister doing interviews this morning should have been ready to answer it.

“Well, I didn’t want to make a mistake,”

says Ms Keegan and his sounds very reasonable. One thing we always advise during our media training workshops, especially when handling difficult issues or crisis situations, is not to speculate.  It’s easy to get drawn into it and people sometimes do because they want to appear helpful but it can make the interviewee a hostage to fortune and cause severe embarrassment.

“I would imagine that ‘single household’ means ‘single household’ when you are indoors,”

suggests Ms Keegan.  She sounds as if she’s guessing.

“And you can book tables and go out to restaurants and bars that will close at 10pm. But I think it’s most important that people are very clear about these restrictions and I don’t represent the north-east and you know I haven’t got those details to hand.”

Here she repeats her message about not representing the north-east and not having the necessary information.  Repeating a positive message is a good idea, doing so with a bad message is a, well, bad idea.  Why drive home this apparently dismissive, uncaring theme?

What should Ms Keegan have done in this very difficult situation?  Ideally, she would have been aware of the regulations and been ready to explain them and then move back to her key message and the subject that she’d come on the programme to talk about.

If she didn’t have the details to hand then she could have been honest and admitted this, something that she does to a certain degree during the interview.  But the point is that she could have moved across to a positive, general message about this being a fast moving situation and the government doing all it can, guided by the science, to protect people’s health and livelihoods.

She could then find a way back to talk about that protection including apprenticeships and job support measures.  Being thrown a question that you don’t have the answer to is very difficult but with the kind of preparation and practice that we offer in our media training courses you can manage it and regain control of the interview.