Reporters are grateful when you prove helpful. They have stories to write, bylines they want to see in print, and editors and news directors to please.
But it is naïve to suggest there is not another side to this coin. They thrive on conflict. After all, that is what sells newspapers, generates online clicks, and garners TV ratings points.
Journalists have ways of trying to elicit information you may not want to cough up. Let us review some tricks of the reporter’s trade during the Q&A process that you need to know about:
- Planting words in your mouth: Don’t assume ownership of a reporter’s loaded language by simply responding yes. By doing so, you allow him to place quotes around that wording and attribute it to you. Instead, keep things positive and on the right track. Answer in your own words–words that keep the focus on your message. Don’t agree to a reporter’s translation. You may not be happy when you see it characterized that way in print.
- Rapid fire questions: Novices sometimes think of media interviews as a calm flow of questions with leisurely time for answers. Not always. Some reporters use the rapid fire technique. When he hits you with three or four questions in quick succession, answer the query that allows you to bridge to your message most seamlessly. He may or may not remember to get back to the more difficult queries. If he fails to do so, congratulations; you’ve just succeeded in making the interview easier on yourself.
- Interruption: Wait for the interruption to subside and remain of good cheer. Then finish your answer. Or, if the second question is friendlier, go with it. Regardless of how many times you are interrupted, don’t show any ruffled feathers. The reporter may be trying to throw you off your game. If you display irritation, he knows he’s won.
- Friendly: Keep your guard up. Maybe the reporter is by nature a friendly type. Tried and true friendships can occur. That’s great. After all, you don’t want to create adversaries. Just remember that your ultimate aim in any media interview is to cultivate reporters as business contacts, not to make friends.
- Pause: When you finish your reply and a silence hangs in the air, let the reporter fill it. Perhaps he’s just thinking of his next question or writing some extended notes. On the other hand, many of us are uncomfortable when silence hangs in the air, so he may be trying to use that silence to bait you into a trap, getting you to say something you don’t intend to say. A variation on the pause is the “Columbo” technique, named after the 1970s TV detective. Just when the interview seems about to conclude, the reporter, like the classic TV detective, says, “Oh, just one more thing…” Beware this last minute trap.
Different reporters use different methods. The good ones use them consciously. Others somehow manage to stumble into them.
Likewise, different spokespeople have different attitudes. For instance, some executives are not bothered in the least by silence while others become edgy. Interruptions don’t faze some, while others deem it rude (that last one, by the way, is me; if you should interrupt me when we chat, please pardon the icy look you are about to receive).
The point is by staying on high alert you minimize your odds of uttering a quote that will come back to haunt you.
This is but a handful of the available techniques we typically cover in our media training workshops. What other approaches have you observed (and hopefully not fallen victim to)? How did you manage to wiggle out of them?