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Media Training: Questionable Questions

  July 13, 2023

Do you have to answer every question a journalist asks during an interview? No.  Not every  journalist is created equal and not every question one asks is appropriate, on-topic or smart.  So how do you respond when you are in the media hot seat?

If a journalist asks you a question that is way too personal and really has nothing to do with the topic at hand, push back.  You might respond, "I think that's an inappropriate question.  I am happy to answer questions on topic."  

How about if a reporter shows up at your special event but only seems to be interested in negative, breaking news about your competitor? He would love nothing more than a juicy sound bite from you.  But how does that help your business?  It doesn't.  You could end up in legal trouble.  And besides, it takes the focus off your business.  So how do you say something without putting your foot it in?  Try, "I can't weigh in on that, but I would like to share our exciting news..."

Sometimes general assignment reporters can appear clueless when they interview you.  This can happen for a number of reasons.  Perhaps an Assignment Editor pulled them on to the story at the last minute and they have had no time to familiarize themselves with the topic.  It can also happen if you are super smart and work in a complex field.  Not every reporter has a strong science, math or tech  background.  The reporter likely has a general idea of what you do, but you are the expert.  I advise giving them a break.  Answer their questions without judgment.  And remember the audience needs to understand your answers too.  That means you need to learn how to simplify complex topics for general consumption.  You are not addressing your peers in this instance.

What if a journalist makes factual mistakes in their questioning of you?  You need to set the record straight.  If you let it slide, those errors may end up being reported on air, on line or in print.  There is an art to correcting someone without making the person feel stupid. If you want to build strong media relations (and you may need them in the future) now is a good time to start.  A good journalist wants his story to be accurate and if you lend a hand, it's a win for you, the journalist and the news consumer.  

Hopefully you'll never be the target of an ambush interview.  That's when a journalist and likely a videographer show up out of nowhere and start shouting questions at you.  It could be when you are exiting your office building or even at your house.  Typically these types of interviews happen during a crisis.  You've got a problem but you and your team haven't yet figured out if or how you want to respond to media inquiries.  It's tempting to rush past and give an angry, "no comment."  But is that really the best approach?  It's far better to stall for time.  How?  "We're looking in to this and will have a statement later."  Or, "We are in the process of reviewing this.  Check back with us later."

 In media training we deliberately pose questionable questions so our clients learn how to respond effectively.  Facing an uncomfortable situation in training is so much better than first experiencing it with a journalist.  You can practice until you are comfortable in many scenarios. The  most important thing you learn in media training is how to stay on your messaging.  You need to be able to bridge back to that messaging regardless of what you are asked.  

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