How to handle awkward media questions

Matt Hancock and Priti Patel hit the headlines this week for mishandling journalists’ questions about COVID-19.

Hancock repeatedly dodged Piers Morgan’s questions on why had voted against extending Marcus Rashford’s free schools meals initiative in Parliament by circling back to the government ‘sorting it out’ and ‘putting it in place’.

And Priti Patel used a blizzard of words to avoiding answering questions from two journalists about why current lockdown restrictions are less severe than those during the first lockdown last year given virus infection and fatality rates are higher now.

Looping back to key messages and obfuscation are well-known media interview avoidance techniques. Yet Hancock and Patel only succeeded in making themselves appear slippery and evasive.

Both also came across as poorly prepared. Which should not have been the case given the volume of media interviews both jobs involve, the challenging and sometimes controversial nature of their policy briefs, a highly charged atmosphere, and the army of PR support they can draw on.

Bound by collective cabinet responsibility, presumably Hancock and Patel did not want to be seen to be breaking ranks in public, or to appear weak.

How could Hancock and Patel have responded?

Hancock’s challenge was the more straight-forward. After all, the government had already publicly u-turned having had its hand forced by Rashford.

When asked whether he regretted voting against extending free school meals, Hancock could simply have said: ‘Yes, knowing what I know now about the difficulties many families are in, not least in the context of covid, I would not have voted against it. My mistake, our mistake’.

Which would acknowledge the error and provide some semblance of empathy towards poor families.

Given questions from many quarters about the effectiveness of the current lockdown, and widespread speculation that the government would be forced to tighten restrictions, Patel faced the trickier proposition.

Asked whether the current lockdown rules were sufficient, she could have said ‘We are always keeping a close eye on how effective the rules are proving. Whilst it seems that most people are behaving very sensibly and sticking closely to the rules, we may indeed have to tighten them if infection rates continue to rise.’

Handling awkward questions from the media when your organisation has u-turned or may be about to u-turn can be a tricky proposition. But it need not be a car crash provided you are prepared to acknowledge the change of direction and individually or collectively accept responsibility.

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