Dora Scheidlinger is vice president at Method Communications.
With audience members comparing it to a dumpster fire and reporters like The New York Times’ Mike Isaac claiming it was one of the poorest executive interviews they’ve ever seen, there’s no question that X CEO Linda Yaccarino botched her recent interview at Vox’s Code Conference. I was as horrified as anyone, but as a former broadcast reporter, I was struck by how relevant the basic rules of PR still are.
Invest in media training
Media training is essentially a crash course in how to do an interview, including how to answer hard-hitting questions and how to prepare for the unexpected. It’s an opportunity to finalize the messages you want to convey and learn how to convey them in a quotable, catchy and memorable way.
And perhaps most important and relevant in this case, media training teaches executives the art of “bridging,” which is essentially a verbal control and defense tool. By using phrases like, what’s most important is, or that’s not my area of expertise, but I think your audience would be interested in knowing, you can politely steer a reporter away from controversial, uncomfortable or unflattering topics and get back to the messages you want to share.
It’s important to come to a high profile interview feeling confident in your message and armed with data to support any claims you’re making. This preparation, which is often part of media training, will make it harder to throw you off your game plan.
Listen for question “types” and respond accordingly
There are a variety of questions a reporter may ask and you don’t necessarily have to answer them all. Often, an interview will start and end with softball questions like, “What’s new at XX?” and “Is there anything else I should know that I didn’t ask you?” These are invitations to get your message across, so crush it and hit it out of the park. And believe it or not, a hardball question can also be an invitation to get your message across if you acknowledge the jab and use the bridging technique to pivot. If the question is unclear or ambiguous, ask for clarification. If it’s an assumptive question (as when CNBC’s Julia Boorstin asked Yaccarino when the last time she saw Elon Musk in “demon mode”), refute it – but do so clearly, kindly, and without letting the negative words come out of your own mouth.
There are also a variety of ways to say “no comment” without actually saying “no comment” if you incorporate bridging into your answer. For instance, use phrases like, “I can’t comment on that directly, but let me tell you” to re-route the conversation.
Be humble and human
Let your accomplishments speak for themselves while using every opportunity to demonstrate your humanity. Share personal anecdotes and paint a picture about where you were, what you saw and what you felt during the time in question. Don’t school the interviewer by criticizing their questions or reminding them of your previous answers, and at all costs avoid the condescending phrase, “as I told you before.” Express empathy when discussing other people’s hardships and respond to the interviewer with authenticity, saving corporate jargon for the boardroom. Make eye contact, smile when appropriate, and don’t be afraid of silence, which some reporters create intentionally, in hopes you’ll fill it with some stress-induced comment you didn’t plan to say. Be friendly and respectful to the reporter because they’re also humans trying to do their job.
Most importantly, get in or get out, but if you’re in, go all in: A surprise interview with former Twitter trust & safety head Yoel Roth a few hours before Yacarino’s coveted closing speaker spot clearly threw her for a loop. At that point, Yaccarino had two choices: back out of the interview or go on stage as planned. If you choose door number two, remember, it’s not a deposition. It’s a voluntary agreement to have a (in this case, recorded) conversation about what’s relevant, current, and interesting. Will there be hard questions? Yes. If you’re not up for that, door number one’s your best option.