4 more questions that can make spokespeople stumble

To get the answers they’re seeking, journalists might employ certain interview tactics that can flummox even the most practiced communicators. If you aren’t prepared, a small mistake can become a full-blown crisis.

Journalists, investigators, talk-show hosts, teachers and parents have all learned that blunt, startling questions often provoke blunt and startling answers.

In a media environment that often prioritizes entertainment and ratings, it is important to be prepared for interview questions that aim to provoke a response. After looking at three kinds of questions that can snag unprepared spokespeople, let’s take a look at four more:

1. The ones that try to put words in your mouth

Reporters might only be trying to get a straight answer to a challenging question. (“So, you are saying that repairs to the driving garage will result in fewer spaces but higher costs. Isn’t that correct?”) Or, they want to get past the jargon. (“By saying you want to eliminate the health threat mosquitoes pose, you are just saying you are going to do more insecticide spraying, right?”)

However, there are situations where reporters come in with an angle and will exploit this line of questioning by paraphrasing your words. Don’t accept a new construction of your thoughts unless it is completely accurate. If it’s not, correct the statement in your own words without using any of the reporter’s loaded language.

You can’t control what the reporter will do with the information, but you can control what you offer. Here’s an example:

You are the spokesperson for a multinational corporation with employees around the globe. At some of the company’s manufacturing sites, workers have demanded higher wages and better working conditions but have met with resistance from management. A reporter comes to the interview intent on contrasting the company’s purported culture with its reaction to the workers.

Reporter: “Right on your website, you tout yourself as a corporation that cares for its employees and responds quickly to their concerns. It sounds as if that philosophy doesn’t apply when it comes to these workers.”

You: “I disagree with that characterization. The employees have raised several issues, and it is our responsibility to learn more, engage in a productive dialogue, and work together, where possible, to resolve them.”

Reporter: “If what you say is true, why is this issue dragging out for months? What’s the delay?”

You: “We’d rather get it right than offer the wrong remedy quickly. We are taking this time to assess their concerns and develop an in-depth response that addresses them meaningfully.”

In each response, your goal is to reinforce the messages you want to tell and deliver, rather than helping the reporter to create a headline that would not help your organization.

2. The ones that come out of left field

In 2018, during an interview with NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell, Dan Coats, the U.S. director of national intelligence, didn’t necessarily receive an out of left field question by Mitchell. Rather, it was a piece of news that left him momentarily speechless.

During a talk at the 2018 Aspen Security Forum, held by the Aspen Institute in Colorado, Mitchell interrupted her line of questions to report that the White House had announced, via Twitter, that Russian President Vladimir Putin was coming to the White House that fall. While that ultimately did not occur, Coats first reaction was: “Say that again …?”

Reporters, in general, might spring the unexpected on you later in the interview, long after they have delivered a series of “easier” questions. The zing is intended to catch you off-guard.

Here are some of the ways to keep yourself rooted:

Answer the question. A response nearly always plays better to the audience. If you’ve practiced or undergone media training, you should have the tools and resources to handle even the toughest questions.

Deflect the question. If the question is wildly off-base from the topics the reporter indicated would be covered, you can indicate that you would be happy to schedule more time at a later date to discuss other issues. This is a good option if the topic is not in your wheelhouse, or the audience wouldn’t expect you to know much about it.

Offer a wider picture. If the reporter’s question is about a specific point, you can answer the questions by giving a more general response.

For instance, it is Monday and within an hour you have an interview set up with a local reporter to talk about your year of growth. Over the weekend, one of your employees ran afoul of the law, and you are not yet aware of it. It made the local news, and the reporter has taken the opportunity to ask you about it. When asked, you could say:

“As a matter of policy, we don’t speak about personnel matters. However, when we learn of a possible incident, we immediately begin an internal investigation and take any necessary disciplinary actions promptly.”

3. The ones that seek a critique

Conflict, whether found between the covers of a novel or on the front page, drives stories. Reporters take advantage of these tensions to pit one side against the other, and they are particularly attuned to any critical or negative quotes.

Consider this scenario: You are the CEO of a manufacturing company that is No. 2 in your industry. The reporter is gunning for a critique of the top competitor.

There may be times that you want to say something critical about the competition. Therefore, if your competitor’s product is inferior to your own, go ahead and say it. By highlighting genuine drawbacks, you might gain back some market share. However, such an approach must be intentional and deeply rooted as part of an overall media strategy.

If a critique is not what you want to project, here’s a way to keep it positive:

Reporter: “Do you think your competitors’ products are superior to your own? Is that why they command market share?

You: “I’ll let Company X speak for itself, but what I can tell you is what we have learned from our consumers. They tell us our products last longer and work better than others on the market. If products last, there is less need for replacement. We consider this a good problem to have.”

4. The ones that employ shaky attribution

A reporter might opt to use shaky attribution to go fishing for some controversial comments. Beware of questions with lead-ins such as “Rumor has it…,” “My sources say…” or some other trope.

In today’s media landscape, the use of unnamed sources doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Stories are peppered with anonymous sources. If the indirect attribution accurately addresses a common belief, then you must address it.

Overall, however, it is better not to discuss comments attributed to anonymous parties. You almost guarantee that the story will be focused on your reaction to those comments rather than on your messages.

Here’s how to get out of that trap:

Your answer: “I’m not going to spend time on what unnamed sources said, but I’ll address the topic more generally.” 

If a reporter asks you to comment on a report that you have not seen. You might say:

“I haven’t seen that report and want to examine it to understand the complete context before commenting.”

Media spokespersons may, from time to time, experience some challenging situations while responding to tricky questions reporters ask. One last thing to remember: While not every reporter intends to prosecute or trip up their sources, reporters are very good at asking the questions that get to the bottom of the story.

These techniques and tips give you the tools you need to tell your story.

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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