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Politician defends a journalist – shock horror

June, 2016

Does it matter if someone is offended by a reporter’s line of questioning? Andy Rayfield, account director at Kent PR and public affairs agency Maxim, says he believes journalists have every right to ask probing questions.

It was refreshing recently to hear a politician tell off his own supporters when they heckled a journalist over their line of questioning.

Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, slapped down his own followers as they booed a journalist trying to quiz him, saying: “We have respect for journalists in this country. They ask tough questions, they are supposed to.” You can see the incident here.

At the other extreme, and a lesson in how not to do it, Boris Johnson told his supporters to interrupt Channel 4’s Paul Crick during a live broadcast. In today’s instant world this type of behaviour can seriously undermine public opinion and damage media relations. 

We have had clients, including people in public office, get annoyed that a reporter has pursued a particular line of questioning, asking what right they have to do so?

The answer is simple: They have every right.

What is a journalist's role?

The job of the journalist is to find the story, make sure it stacks up to scrutiny, and then publish. If their report is accurate, balanced and fair, then it doesn’t matter to them who takes offence at it.

Indeed, many editors believe they aren’t doing their job properly if their relationships with those in positions of power are not strained for much of the time. Their job isn’t to give officials an easy ride.

Most journalists have skins as thick as a rhinoceros. They will actually enjoy being heckled, believing it means they are getting under the skin of a subject and their supporters and are hitting a nerve.

Far from putting them off their stride and making them think twice about carrying on with their digging, it will convince them they are on to something, giving them the incentive to increase their efforts.

Journalists would argue they reflect the mood of the populace at large and have a duty to hold those in public office to account on their behalf.

Whether you agree with the premise or not, the public has limited opportunity to question those in positions of influence, even in an age where social media is all pervading, and most people will be informed and form their views from what they read, see and hear in traditional forms of media.

Outside of their immediate circle, the only person whose image and reputation suffers when a journalist is heckled by a politician’s supporters is the politician themselves, which is why it was important as well as refreshing that Trudeau rebuked his followers.

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.”

The press is not the enemy

When Maxim has been engaged to deliver media training, lesson one is not to regard the press as the enemy.

However, the rest of that proverb is important to bear in mind.

By understanding what a journalist is trying to achieve, why they believe the questions they are asking will help them, and how your reactions and those of your associates will influence their lines of inquiries, you will be in a better position to build and manage a positive relationship with them.

What you say, where you say it, how you say it, your body language, how you handle unexpected or difficult lines of questioning – these can all be prepared for.

And when you are prepared and comfortable in your dealings with the press, your supporters will be too.

Just ask Justin Trudeau.

posted in: advice, media relations, public relations, reputation management,

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