Answer the Damn Question!
From time to time I get asked where I get my material from for my media training presentations, either the ones I do in-person or virtually. The answer is pretty simple. I get most of my material from politicians and business leaders who have made a mess in the media. It's a gift that keeps on giving.
In many ways, it's easier to teach people how to do something correctly by showing them what not to do first. In other words, using a case study of how somebody failed in a media interview makes it easier for people to learn how to do it correctly.
A Trudeau government cabinet minister has given me another great example of what "not" to do.
"Masking" the Problem
Late last week, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains was a guest on the CBC News Network program Power & Politics. The host of the program is Vassy Kapelos, who spent years working in the newsroom of Global TV in Edmonton. She left to move up to Global national, before jumping ship to join CBC.
Kapelos was asking Bains about a report in the Globe & Mail that a million face masks from China failed to meet Canadian standards. It didn’t go well.
Answer the Question
This was frustrating for me to watch because I know exactly what happened, why it happened and what should have happened.
Minister Bains and the people around him don’t want to get into the details of the substandard masks because it’s a political embarrassment for a government that has clearly shown it doesn’t want to do anything these days to offend China.
When Bains’ communication staff got him ready for this interview, they came up with the strategy of using the phrase “We knew there would be challenges” in relation to problems related to sourcing supplies from abroad. They figured that would be a folksy way of saying this turn of events wasn’t a big surprise to them. Following that statement, Bains then used a bridge to talk about what he wanted to talk about. A bridge is a great media interview technique. If you want to read more about it, check out this blog I wrote on using a bridge in media interviews.
The problem for Bains was, Kapelos has a pretty good bullshit meter. She immediately knew Bains wasn’t answering her question and he was using elementary media training tactics to do it. She wouldn’t let him off the hook, which shouldn’t be surprising to Bains’ handlers. A one-on-one TV interview with a veteran journalist is about the last place you can get away with this weak move.
What should have happened was this. Bains should have answered the first question the way he did, hoping Kapelos would somehow miss his evasive answer. When that didn’t happen, Bains should have gone to what I call a ‘back pocket response”, meaning he should have pulled the real answer (or as far as he wanted to go) out of his back pocket and used that as his answer to her second question. In other words, provide more information the second time than he did initially. If Kapelos came back at him a third time, like she did in the interview, at that point Bains should have stood his ground, told her he wasn’t going to go into further details and repeated answer #2.
What’s the difference? At least in my suggestion he would have provided a real answer in response #2, which would likely have avoided Kapelos asking the same question the third time. If that wasn’t sufficient, at least he would have tried to supply more information and then made it clear he didn’t want to get into greater detail, which is always an option for any government official.
Why Politicians Aren't Trusted
What happened was, Bains looked stupid by repeating the same talking points. The Minister and the people around him gambled and lost. They gambled Kapelos wouldn’t press him as much as she did. They were wrong.
If he would have provided more information and given an honest answer, it likely wouldn’t have been that embarrassing anyway. He even could have spun it the other way by saying the government is making sure it protects the health of Canadians in a pandemic, by ensuring only proper safety equipment is worn by front line workers.
If that would have happened, the clip from the interview wouldn’t have gone viral on social media last week (where I saw it) and I wouldn’t be writing about it.
There’s a bigger issue though and that’s the increasing occurrence of Prime Minister Trudeau and his cabinet ministers refusing to answer questions from reporters and giving the answer they want to give, regardless of whether it makes sense. It seems to be the new reality for this government.
I wrote about that during the federal election last fall and also mentioned the way Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was doing the same thing.
I don’t think there’s ever been a time in recent years that people are more focused on what’s in the news than now. They have more time on their hands, TV news channels in Canada and the US have hours of live coverage of events and news conferences every day and a lot of it finds its way onto social media. In addition, studies have shown people are spending more time on social media these days.
This isn’t the time to lie to people, or play games with the media. People want reliable information, they understand things will go wrong in a situation like this and when it does, our leaders should own up to it.
I wish the politicians and the people who advise them would understand that and answer the damn question.
Video and photo credit: CBC Power & Politics
Get Media Training During the Pandemic