3 questions that can trip up your media interview

Some journalists will intentionally throw curveballs to try and knock your spokesperson off his or her game and make a salient mistake. Here’s how to prepare for probing reportage.

Reporters can be a wily bunch. In their efforts to get to the truth, bottom of the story, real deal, or the inside skinny, they just might let slip a tricky question.

If you are on the receiving end of such an inquiry, the last thing you want to blurt out a less-than-ideal answer. As a spokesperson, you must know the types of tricky questions reporters ask and how to answer them.

Here are three kinds of questions you should prepare for:

1. The ones that stump you

In any given interview, a question may challenge your recall. A reporter might not necessarily be trying to stump you, but her question leaves you flat-footed, nevertheless.

Unless the interview is a challenging one or is hostile, the fact that you don’t know an answer shouldn’t provoke undue anxiety. You have several options.

Option No. 1 – A simple “I don’t know” might suffice. If you have the time and resources, you might say: “I don’t know, but I will get you that information and follow-up with a more complete answer.” This approach might not be enough if the reporter does not have the luxury of a follow-up interview, or the question concerns knowledge that you really should have had.

Option No. 2 – Tell the journalist what you know, not what you don’t. For example, you are a spokesperson for a bank, and you are asked what the household saving percentage rate is in the United States. You do not know that number, but that is not what you are going to say. Instead, you might offer this:

“That rate has been in flux for more than a decade, as economic factors, such as the global financial crisis, made it difficult for the average person or family to set aside more of their disposable income into savings. What remains consistent, however, is the desire to set aside that nest egg.”

Many interviewers will likely cease this line of questioning and move on to the next thought. If a reporter presses, however, you would go back to the first option.

Option No. 3 – If you are not the right person to answer a given question, it’s okay to say so.

Simply concede that is not your area of expertise and offer to connect the reporter with a more knowledgeable colleague. For instance, you are the head brewer for a craft beer company and during an interview, you are asked about the company’s financials, something to which you are not privy. Here’s how you could handle the situation:

“While I am well versed about grains and hops, I leave the dollars and cents to the people here who do that best. I’d be happy to connect you with someone who could answer that question.”

2. The ones that call for you to speculate

Most people don’t have to worry about whether their everyday, garden-variety predictions end up being true or not. Did they think traffic would be light, but instead found themselves in gridlock? Such is life.

However, when it comes to media interviews, it’s probably best not to speculate. Yet, reporters will still ask.

Sometimes these questions can be innocuous. If you are a doctor, and the reporter asks you what the obesity epidemic in the United States will do to the cost of health care, you might offer a glimpse of the future based on facts. In general, it’s best not to engage in any theory or supposition that is not based on firm evidence. Several things can happen if you let slip incorrect information. You could:

  • Escalate a situation unnecessarily.
  • Provide incorrect information.
  • Be proven wrong.

Consider this scenario: You are the spokesperson for an electric company. An intense storm has knocked out power to thousands of people, and a reporter asks you to speculate as to when power will be restored to all customers.

Frustrations are probably high, so it’s important not to overpromise with a speculative answer. If you can reliably conclude a time frame, then go ahead and answer. Otherwise, respond with what you do know:

“Our crews are working as quickly as they can to restore power to our customers. At this time, I am unable to give exact times as to restoration. I can tell you we have crews across the county working tirelessly to get the power restored to thousands of customers.”

3. The ones that seek your personal opinion

Conflicts between personal opinion and company policy occur frequently.

Let’s say you are a spokesperson for a government agency that recently raised entrance fees to area parks and beaches. Personally, you feel the spike will make it prohibitive for some visitors to enter the parks. After a reporter get the basic information, he pivots and asks how you feel, personally, about the new policy.

What can you do? Here is something to consider:

Don’t give your personal opinion. Most of the time, it’s best to keep your opinions to yourself.

However, there are instances when spokespeople and subject matter experts have leeway to speak their minds. For example, a global institution might have an expert who can talk about a geopolitical conflict in terms of what she witnessed and her opinion on the situation. Or, a think tank’s resident economist could be asked for his opinion about the numbers included in one of his reports.

If you have a strong moral objection to a new policy and feel compelled to say that, you’re probably not the right spokesperson for the topic. Ideally, communicators should work out any moral misgivings internally, rather than on a televised news program or through a newspaper article.

Even if you offer your personal opinion as your own and not one of your company, the reporter will still identify you as a spokesperson of that agency, and that disconnect can seriously undermine your message. Here are several reasons why:

  • The audience may focus solely on the conflict between your ideals and those of your company, rather than the message or news you are trying to convey.
  • Readers will be challenged to make sense of the message disconnect.
  • You will damage your own reputation as a credible, reliable source.

How can you give an authentic answer in this situation?

Address the request. Share with the reporter that you are speaking on behalf of your company or agency.

Create a transition. It could go something like this:

“I understand this represents a rather significant jump in prices. But, as a spokesperson for the department, I can tell you that we looked at what our facilities offered and what it takes to run them. We concluded that a price increase helps to create a better experience for the people who use our facilities.”

Stay vigilant. Be careful not to say anything that contradicts your organization’s views. Those conflicts may become the news, rather than the information you hope to deliver.

Christina Hennessy is the Chief Content Officer for Throughline Group, which offers public speaking and media training open-enrollment classes and custom workshops. This post originally appeared on the Throughline Blog.

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