At one time or another, we have all found ourselves in the middle of a conversation we’d rather not be having. Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna had one of those on live television a couple if weeks ago with Dermot Murnaghan on Sky News, when asked unexpectedly to comment on a letter the Prime Minister had sent to UK Muslim leaders. After an awkward exchange he pulled off his microphone and walked out.
So, if you are in the middle of an interview, and you realise that continuing the conversation is likely to make things worse rather than better, how do you get out of it? After all if you are in a hole, the advice to stop digging holds as true now as it ever did.
Apart from the point that Mr Umunna should probably have anticipated the question and been ready for it, the first rule is – stick to your guns. If you’ve already given the appropriate answer, you can say (in a politely reasonable way) something like “I don’t think there’s much I can add to what I’ve already said on that, for the reason ….” – repeat if necessary. When you feel you have made your position clear with unfailing politeness, try to move on to something more constructive. In our media training courses, we always suggest that with a print media journalist you can offer to call them back later with further comment. If you are on TV or radio, never walk out. Mr Umunna could perhaps have said something like “it’s something I’d want to give a considered response to, rather than shooting from the hip when I don’t have the full facts. But coming back to ….” (and then re-iterating one of his previous points). This interview was unusual in that he was given the opportunity to come back in half an hour when he did have a view – but he could simply have said he had prior commitments and carried on.
If you are speaking to a newspaper or magazine journalist over the telephone, it is better to try to create a ‘cool-down period’ than to continue with a fractious conversation – “there’s really not much I can add at the moment, I think the best thing is – give me a few minutes to think about it and I’ll see if I can come up with something better for you”… This is better than getting angry and saying something you might regret.
Annoying and unfair as it will feel at the time, even if the interviewer is being difficult or rude, it’s still your job to be extremely polite – it’s very much in your best interests to be so. After all, they are the ones writing the article not you, so you don’t want to burn through any remaining goodwill if you can possibly avoid it.
A revised version of this post appeared on Huffington Post this week.