How to avoid being Hodged

You don’t have to be a Labour Party supporter to admire Margaret Hodge MP, the charming yet utterly merciless chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

Her committee’s fearsome interrogations of the great, the good and the dodgy have been awesome to watch and have given rise to a new verb: to be Hodged.

They have also revealed a rich new line of work for public relations firms: preparing company bosses for select committee appearances.

The Public Accounts Committee is charged with the task of ensuring public money is being spent properly.  It has great power, is independent of Government and together with other select committees has greatly enhanced our democracy.

Mrs Hodge’s requirements are simple. “We just want openness, we want some honesty. We want direct answers to direct questions,” she told Radio 4’s You and Yours.

She can be crushingly blunt in her language. However high and mighty they are, wafflers and obfuscators are chastised as if they were petty criminals quivering in the dock.

Anyone called to give evidence in such a hostile televised environment risks his or her reputation and career.  Few people in business are used to the shocking aggression of some MPs’ questions and can easily be knocked off course. Only a fool would not prepare.

So I was astonished to hear her dismiss such preparations as “pathetic” and “absurd”. She seemed to be under the impression that any training for committee appearances would consist entirely of practising how to avoid answering questions.

This is a complete misreading of how a good PR firm prepares for difficult interviews. You don’t enhance your reputation by avoiding the issues. You answer truthfully and honestly. If you have screwed up it is usually best to admit it.

Preparing to do this while at the same time communicating other important messages takes planning and practice.

It was good to hear You and Yours presenter Winifred Robinson tripping Mrs Hodge with a surprise question about her own past use of PR support. Because she had clearly not prepared for hostile questions this caught her on the hop.

She floundered for a moment before giving such an unconvincing answer that you could almost say she waffled, if not actually obfuscated.

And the moral of this slip-up? Even such a consummate performer as Margaret Hodge would benefit from media training.

GARETH WEEKES, Deep South Media.