Grabbing headline in pandemic Ann Buchner

Preparation is the key to a confident and successful interview. Knowing what you want to say and how you want to be quoted will help you craft great answers. But it’s easy to be put off your game when you are blind-sided with a tricky or aggressive question.

It’s a journalist’s job to gather information and that sometimes means asking tough or accusatorial questions. The most media savvy way to play interview hardball is to stay on your toes, spot the hazards and have some tactics to dodge them.

Here are 10 tricky questions you could encounter

1. Chatty question

Your interview starts the moment you are in the same space as the reporter and doesn’t end until you physically leave it. Remember that the microphone is always on and the camera can be rolling even if you think the interview hasn’t started or you believe it has finished.

What you say is still on the record and can be used in any way the journalist wants and a reporter’s warm up small talk might not be as innocent as it sounds. “Great tan, have you been away?”. You mention a recent holiday in the tropics. That sounds lovely except when it appears in an article, which mentions redundancies are about to be announced or sub contractors haven’t been paid

2. The Unexpected Opener question

While you may think you have agreed to talk about a particular subject or story angle, the media is an unpredictable beast. You can get off to a bad start when a reporter opens with an unexpected or seemingly random question.

This scenario is more likely during fast-paced radio interviews, where presenters may be doing 10 or more interviews and haven’t had time to be fully briefed about your story. It is also common with young or inexperienced journalists or when your subject matter is controversial. Sometimes journalists use it as a tactic to deliberately to throw an interviewee off-guard or to get a spontaneous, candid or emotional response.

3. Words In Your Mouth

Journalists often use negative phrases in their questions knowing full well that people will often repeat this negative language because we are hard wired to defending ourselves or rebut accusations. For example you might be asked: “This is a terrible outcome isn’t it?” You answer: “I wouldn’t say it’s a terrible outcome…” But you just have. Or when asked: “So you admit you made a mistake?” Your answer is:“ No we didn’t make a mistake.” This response sounds defensive and the audience tunes into the word “mistake”.

Snap! You have now given the journalist’s the headline grabbing quote” “Company X denies mistake”.

Never, EVER repeat a negative.

4. Crystal-Ball Gazing question

It’s called “News” for a reason. Journalists are always seeking to break “new” stories and fresh angles and so they are obsessed with the future, with hypotheticals and “what-if’s”. Hey, if we don’t know something, we can always speculate and invite you to look into your crystal ball.

What would happen if / What are your predictions for../ What is the worst that might have happened..?” are media gold but highly risky for interviewees. Even answering something as innocuous as: “Where do you see the business in three years’ time?” can come back to bite you in the future if it doesn’t pan out as predicted.

It’s particularly dangerous to speculate in a crisis situation about the cause or possible consequences of an incident or it’s possible consequence. In the age of digital media, everything you say is stored away and can be retrieved later to hold against you. If you don’t know, then don’t guess. Just stick to the facts.

5. The Multiple Choice question

Journalists will sometimes make a statement followed by a string of questions to test whether something is true or not. For example, “I’ve heard that redundancies are likely. How will you decide who goes and will this impact production and your overseas marketing plans?”

This type of machine gun question can leave your head spinning and distract you from your key messages. First up, if the first statement is inaccurate, correct it, as fiction can become fact and before you know it, other media outlets could be quoting the redundancy rumours. As for the multiple choice questions – pick the one you are most comfortable with, answer it and then bridge back to your key message.

6. The Backgrounder or Off The Record

Sometimes before or during an interview a journalist may ask you for some facts or figures just for background or to talk about something “off the record”. First up – nothing is ever “off the record”. Once you agree to an interview, anything is fair game and could be quoted, even if it’s along the lines of “a inside source at (your business/industry said…)?”

In terms of background information that isn’t directly related to your story, think very carefully about how it may be quoted. Is it highly controversial, market sensitive or a comment on your competitors? Beware, “background” information can easily end up in the foreground and completely overshadow your story.

7. The Invisible Critic question.

Sometimes you may be asked to respond to comments or criticisms by a generic or un-named source. I call these “mystery shopper questions” and they are usually along the lines of “customers/clients/competitors are saying…/people who work for you believe…” or “ I have it on good authority that…”

It can be very tempting to wade in and start defending yourself when you don’t even know if these critics actually exist. Unless of course you are former British PM Margaret Thatcher who famously responded to Australian journalist George Negus question: “Some people say you are ruthless and autocratic” with the smack-down answer: “ Who, George. Who said that? Name them, please…”

Don’t forget that the interview is your opportunity for you to get your message across rather than wasting valuable media exposure talking about faceless critics or your rivals. Acknowledge that you are happy to address their issues if they bring them directly to you or your organisation and then move back to your key messages.

8: Repeated question

We’ve all rolled our eyes at interviews where the journalist asks the same question over and again. So why won’t they let it go when the question has already been answered

Sometimes the journalist knows the spokesperson is hiding the truth and is trying to grind the interviewee down until they crack or provoke them into reacting negatively.

But experienced journalists also know that by asking questions multiple times and multiple ways, the interviewee out of politeness, boredom or frustration will eventually deviate from their message and give them the answer they want.

Your best tactic is to be polite, stay calm, keep repeating your answer and move the conversation back to something more positive from your point of view.

9. The Left of Field Question

Often a journalist will suddenly ask something completely random or out of left field. It may be topical, relevant to what you do or is related to something or someone in your company or industry. However it’s not what you are there to talk about and may be way out of your spokesperson boundaries.
It’s important to always be across other topical news issues relating to your business or sector and have an answer ready if the issue rears its head. However, don’t dwell on it. Briefly answer or acknowledge the question but them bridge back to your main message so that the interview doesn’t end up focusing on an issue that is not on your agenda.

10. The Sting In The Tail.

When an interview has gone well, don’t be lulled in to thinking you are in the clear. People often drop their guard when the interview is starting to wind up and it’s a classic journalist trick to leave the nastiest question to last.

Respond badly to provocative questions like “Do you think you’re worth your salary?”. “ How would you like a motorway built next to your home”, “Would you feed this to your children …?” and YOU could end up by becoming the story.

In our media training courses we will teach you the skills and tactics to deal with any type question so you can approach every interview with confidence, clarity and control. Click here to learn more….


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