How Ed Miliband Can Avoid Future Goggling at Questions on Shopping and Swindon

27/05/2014 12:55 BST | Updated 23/07/2014 10:59 BST

We can all have a bad day at the office, but when the Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, had a really bad day in the TV and radio studios by not knowing much about food shopping bills or anything at all about the Labour Party Leader in Swindon - he didn't just sound unconvincing - he broke a number of important rules of politics and of media interviews.

One of the worst things that can happen to you in a media interview is to be asked a perfectly fair question and show that you do not know the answer. The public will not be impressed when, as Ed did on both ITV's Good Morning Britain and later on BBC Radio Wiltshire, he was asked obvious questions, and he floundered.

On Good Morning Britain his eyes goggled as presenters Susannah Reid and Charlotte Hawkins, pressed him on how much his own family spends on supermarket shopping. He clearly did not have a clue and, although he followed basic media training guidelines on changing the subject when you are unsure of your ground, he could not get away entirely.

He settled on a figure of £70 to £80 a week for a family of four's supermarket shopping bill. His interviewers informed him the average figure is £100 and Susannah Reid suggested his own family (being well paid) would be spending 'significantly' more than that.

She then added (not unfairly at all in the circumstances): " People would say one of the problems with politicians is that they are actually talking about something, but are out of touch with reality."

This interview was definitely damaging to the Labour Party Leader's authority in a major interview as someone who wants voters to believe he knows and cares about what his Labour Party calls 'the cost-of-living crisis faced by millions of families..'

How could he have avoided this damage? Well it is really important to prepare your answers before you set foot in a radio or TV studio. If you are going to bang on about the cost of living, it really isn't unreasonable for interviewers to ask you detailed questions about the topic. So it is very important however busy you are, either as a politician or as a business spokesperson, to set aside time to look at your topic and think of obvious questions and how you will deal with them.

How much does your family spend on your weekly supermarket shopping bill? This is an obvious question when talking about the cost of living. Mr Miliband is not on his own against the media. He has a team of people who should be doing this kind of preparation with him. 'Always do your homework' is the advice I always give as a media trainer.

Perhaps Mr Miliband and his media advisors should be given detention and told to write this out 100 times so they get the point

Mr Miliband should have prepared better for his ITV breakfast TV interview. However, having got stuck in a hole, he could have tried a more humorous approach. He wants to be Prime Minister. So let's think about what his predecessor Tony Blair might have done.

If he was stuck, he would probably say something like "Well Cherie will shoot me here, but I'm not entirely sure. I know we are comfortably off and we are lucky not to have the worries that people on low incomes do. The important message here is that there is a cost of living crisis for many millions of people and what we want to do is ......" etc.. etc.

(Of course Blair might also have the added advantage that his Director of Communications and seasoned tabloid hack, Alastair Campbell, would probably have thought of this question anyway.)

Keeping going convincingly is half the battle here. Ed Miliband didn't manage this and he needs to learn to do it if he wants the public to give him the keys to Ten Downing Street.

Later, on the same day, when he was interviewed on BBC Radio Wiltshire, things got even worse when he managed to show that he did not know the name of the Labour Leader on Swindon council and also he did not know whether Labour ran the council or not.

As an example of how not to do a local radio interview this one takes some beating. And I think it is worth examining in detail. After some preliminary questions about (yes the topic of the day) weekly shopping, the radio presenter, Ben Prater, asked Ed Miliband: What do you make of Jim Grant? Ed Miliband paused and then said; "I beg your pardon?" .

The interviewer then asked him; "You do know who Jim Grant is Mr Miliband?

EM: You will enlighten me I'm sure.

BP: Swindon Labour leader.

EM : Yeah I think he is doing a good job.

BP: Will he feel like you support him enough if you don't even know his name?

EM: Well he is doing a good job as leader of the council Jim is and I think that is the case.

BP: I mean it's Swindon Labour Leader. Do you think by your comments now people might be a bit perplexed by why you wouldn't know who Jim Grant is?

EM: No. I know that Jim is doing a good job for Swindon and I think he is doing a good job as Leader of the Council.

BP: But he is not leader of the council is he Mr Miliband? It's a Conservative-led council.

EM: I think he is doing a good job for Labour on the Council. I think he is doing a good job for Labour on the Council.

BP: So let's be clear. Who runs Swindon Council?

EM: It's a Conservative-controlled Council.

Obviously this embarrassing exchange breaks the basic rules of taking the trouble to actually know what you are talking about and who your audience is when you give a radio interview.

It also breaks the important political rule as spelled out by the legendary Tip O'Neill, the 55th Speaker of the US House of Representatives. "All politics is local" he famously said. And he used his own advice very effectively when he defeated political opponents by using his local knowledge of their own states against them.

As Labour's Leader, Ed Miliband often has to give a long series of TV and radio interviews in one day. Yes it is demanding. But he needs to be sharp on the details of his arguments and the details of the places wherever and whenever he is interviewed. So, if he wants to avoid further interview disasters, definitely more homework is needed before his next round of demanding campaigning interviews.