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tough media questions

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Facing an unexpectedly difficult question in an interview can certainly cause sweat to break out.

It’s journalists’ job to ask the difficult questions, and some reporters enjoy being provocative. Their questions can sometimes be aggressive, hypothetical, off base, insinuating, leading and even inappropriate. To avoid being ambushed in a media interview, prepare yourself and your client or company spokesperson to be ready for a media ambush – even in a pre-arranged interview. Reviewing and rehearsing possible answers to difficult questions can help executives survive the hardest interviews.

The Bridging Technique

Many media relations pros advocate bridging, a technique that avoids the question and “bridges” the question to the interviewee’s desired message. Bridging phrases include:

“What’s important to remember…”

“Let’s not forget…”

“Let’s start at the beginning…”

Communication strategist Jeremy Porter recommends media relations specialists to stop bridging. Journalists as well as the public have become familiar with the trick and only become annoyed. Instead, try reframing the question and turn a negative topic into a positive one.

For instance the question: “What good is tackling global warming if unemployment goes up through coal power station closures?” can be reframed as “What job creation opportunities are there in a clean energy economy?”

Three Major Points

Joyce Newman, founder of the Newman Group, emphasizes these three points:

Always tell the truth. The reporter can find the facts later. If you don’t know, say so and say when and if you can provide an answer.

Understand that an interview is not a conversation. Expect to be interrupted. Don’t be lulled into having an “off-the-record” conversation after the formal interview is over. That’s when a reporter can spring a question that you didn’t expect. Act as if everything is on-the-record – which it is.

Prepare in advance. You can often anticipate difficult questions. Rehearse your responses aloud on your own or with a colleague. You don’t want to sound like a robot, so use different words to make the same point.

Possible Responses

Kim Harrison, principal of Cutting Edge PR, offers some excellent advice on dealing with nasty questions:

Decline to answer. The topic is not within your area of responsibility. “You will have to ask…”

Give an incomplete answer. Provide a partial answer, start to answer but change the subject, or provide a negative answer. In other words, state what won’t happen instead of what will happen.

Ignore the question completely. This is risky, especially in broadcast interviews, because you can seem evasive. The reporter may repeat the question or reword it slightly to return to the subject.

Question the question. Ask for clarification or more information about the question as a delaying tactic. Alternatively, turn the tables on the interviewer with a response such as “Why do you ask that?” or “Who’s making that accusation?”

Question the appropriateness of the question: Say it fails to address the main issue, is based on a false assumption, is factually inaccurate, or is too personal or objectionable.

Say the question covers old ground and has already been answered.

Don’t rephrase the aggressive question in your answer. Don’t respond by saying “No, our company is not heading into bankruptcy.” Instead, rephrase the question into positive language: “Our company is on sound financial footing.”

Bottom Line: Facing difficult questions in media interviews is a major media relations challenge. Mastering the techniques of giving clear answers, restructuring questions, and deflecting off-target questions can help assure that your message is delivered effectively.