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Top Tips for Surviving Aggressive Interviews

10 Tips for Handling Aggressive Interviews

Aggressive interviews are relatively rare and mostly reserved for politicians. But because we all witness them on television from time to time, spokespeople are always aware that there is a chance things can turn nasty.

In practice, the tricks journalists use in aggressive interviews are small in number and well known.  And the most aggressive interviewers all have their own, well documented style.  Here is my list of this country’s most aggressive interviewers. I would be delighted to hear if you have others you’d like to add.

Top Tips for Surviving Aggressive Interviews

If you think you or your spokesperson could be facing aggressive interviews, here is a checklist of things to do or think about.

1. Rehearse your messages
As with all interviews, there is a need for rehearsed, thought through messages. Always ensure there is something credible to say.

2. Tough questions
Once you have your messages, work out what the tough questions are likely to be. Politicians and CEOs are in a much more difficult position than most because they can often be legitimately asked about a very wide range of subjects. For most others, the scope is more limited and anything outside the scope can be ‘closed down’ by simply explaining you are not the right person to answer the question.

3. Work out the answers!
Now you have worked out the tough questions, work out the answers but keep them as short as possible. These are called ‘reactive lines’ and are different to your messages. You don’t offer a reactive line unless asked the question.

4. Don’t lie
The hardest ‘reactive lines’ to sort out are the ones where you can’t tell the truth and you can’t lie. In my experience, there is always a way but it can take a few minutes to work it out, which is why you don’t want to be doing it in the interview.  However tempting it is, never ever lie.

5. Beware the ‘rabbit-punch’
Beware the ‘rabbit punch’ question: a tough destabilising first question, often unexpectedly personal. It’s a technique that was often used by the now retired UK journalist, Jeremy Paxman. A couple of his classics: to politician and former cabinet minister Ann Widdecombe ‘Were you a little in love with Michael Howard?’ To the Iranian ambassador ‘Sir, your country is lying to us isn’t it’. To deal with this you need to respond briefly and, if appropriate, with wit and then move on to saying something credible and relevant.

Top Tips for Surviving Aggressive Interviews

Now retired, Jeremy Paxman perfected the ‘rabbit-punch’ question

6. Slow down
If the questions get tough, slow down your answers, it will give you more thinking time.

7. Avoid jargon
Do not start using jargon and technical language; you will immediately lose the sympathy of the audience.

8. Be reasonable
Stay reasonable, even if the journalist isn’t, and be humble.

9. Say sorry
If you have made a mistake admit it and say sorry.

10. Don’t say ‘you’re wrong’
Don’t fight with the journalist. It’s better not to say ‘you’ at all i.e. don’t say, ‘you are wrong’, ‘I don’t know where you got that number from’, ‘you guys are all the same’, etc. If you make it personal, the journalist is likely to increase their aggression. Your job is to stay reasonable and professional. In this Sky News interview from June 2015, Kay Burley is very aggressive and also resorts to that classic question, ‘if nothing was wrong before, why are you fixing it’. Note that Nick Varney, the CEO of Merlin Entertainment, the owners of Alton Towers, never loses his cool despite a lot of provocation.

[This Alton Towers interview definitely falls into the category of a ‘crisis interview’ and my colleague Catherine Cross has written more about handling these in a previous blog.]

A final thought … nowadays it is not just the journalists who get to be aggressive. If you haven’t seen President Trump’s handling of questions from CNN’s Jim Acosta last week you really should!

A version of this post was published in July 2015

Preparing for a media interview

Preparing for a Media Interview: 5 Key Steps

Preparing for a media interview is common sense but knowing exactly what and how to prepare is less clear to most people. Almost all of us are time poor; knowing exactly what to do in the one or two-hour window allocated for interview preparation is not so obvious.

Pre-flight Checklist

So here is our five-step pre-flight checklist. If you are lucky enough to have good comms professionals around you, this will be a joint venture – but it is not something that can be delegated.

Preparing for a media interview

Like a pilot preparing for take-off, an interviewee should run through some disciplined pre-flight checks.

Step 1: Your Objectives

The first step is to be clear about your own or the business objectives of any media engagement. Why are you doing interviews? It may be something as general as ‘profile raising’ or something much more specific such as driving sales of a new product or trying to get a change in some regulation. Whatever it is, you should know before you start.

Step 2:  Ask Who is the Journalist? What is the Story?

Next, you need to know who you will be talking to. Who is the journalist, who is their audience and therefore what story will they be interested in? The journalist is never there to do your advertising for you. They will have a different perspective on the subject and you as the interviewee need to know what that is.  If you are dealing with a number of different journalists, for example at a media event or for a big launch, you must be aware of the different agendas of the different journalists: the Pensions Weekly freelancer will likely have a different angle than The Guardian columnist.

Step 3: Prepare your Argument

Once you have completed step one and two you are in a position to pull together your messages. This is an essential step when preparing for a media interview. We write a lot about ‘messaging’ as we call it, so no need to go into it here. However, it helps to understand that you want a smorgasbord of an argument or a Chinese buffet. Each little bit of the argument is carefully prepared and ready for serving, but what exactly gets served in what order will depend on how the interview goes. Despite that, it is crucial that your prepared argument is crystal clear.

If you want to make any bold statements, look for ‘proof points’; include anecdotes and examples and above all keep the language simple. Remember, the journalists’ two favourite questions, often not articulated quite as bluntly but there none-the-less, are: ‘so what?’ and ‘can you prove it?’

Preparing for a media interview

Once you have done the preparation for an interview, you can be confident, in control and above all compelling.

Step 4: Plan for Tough Questions

Once you know what you want to say, you need to then think about the difficult questions and plan the responses. There may be challenging questions related to your messages but there may also be uncomfortable questions about wider issues – journalists can ask anything and are always looking for a headline or a good quote. Anticipating these is all part of preparing for a media interview. Generally, on these anticipated negative questions, you want to make a convincing but dull response in as short a time as possible.  Remember, you don’t want the journalist to focus on the negatives. Depending on the circumstances, another option may be to simply tell a journalist that it is not appropriate for you to answer such questions, perhaps the issue is confidential or simply outside the scope of your role. If so, say so.

Step 5: Rehearse

Finally, we think a few minutes rehearsing aloud is worth several hours talking about your interview with advisors. Role-play is uncomfortable but effective. Don’t be afraid to change your messages if they don’t work. Anyone can ask the questions, it is the act of getting your tongue around the messages and articulating the reactive lines that is valuable. So, give the list of tough questions to your teenage son, if you have one, and ask him to role-play being a journalist. I think of it as creating the neural pathways in advance so that you don’t have to do all that thinking in the interview.

After Thoughts

My last thoughts refer to after the interview rather than before. If you are senior in a big business many things in your world are tightly controlled and outcomes are predictable. If you tell someone to do something, they do it. Media engagement is not one of those things. The outcomes are not entirely predictable.

We often come across execs who have been upset or infuriated by journalists in the past. We also come across plenty who, while not being devastated were mildly annoyed or disappointed by some write up or broadcast. Preparation will limit the risks and potential for disappointment – but in the end, you are not buying advertising and you cannot tell the journalist what to write. If it goes wrong put it down to experience.

Above all do not blame the press officer! They have no more control than you do, but just like a professional investor, they do understand the risks and rewards better. They are advisors, not magicians and only a fool alienates their expert advisors.

Every day The Media Coach team help people preparing for a media interview. We also help organisations embed a media-aware culture, so media engagement becomes part of business as usual rather than something squeezed in after the day job. If you think we can help your organisation please give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Photos used under creative coms licence
Pre-flight Checklist  – Credit US Airforce
Thumbs up – Credit Centre for Aviation Photography

 

 

media training

Why critics of media training miss the point

Media training has long had its critics among journalists. As far back as 2001, Anne Robinson’s appearance on the TV show Room 101 became infamous for sparking hundreds of complaints when she nominated ‘the Welsh’ for fictional oblivion. What has largely been forgotten is that she also included media training on her list.

Media training often misunderstood

That acrimony has continued over the years with several of my former journalistic colleagues – on hearing I had ‘gone over to the dark side’ to become a media trainer – grumbling that ‘all it does is teach people how to avoid answering the questions’.

Alastair Stewart is just wrong

media training

Veteran newscaster Alastair Stewart says people should just answer questions. We disagree.

TV presenter Alastair Stewart illustrated this misconception again recently when offering advice on how to prepare, as a subject matter expert, for an interview. (The whole piece is at Jul28 on his Facebook page but as he is a prolific social media user it is hard to find! ) His top tip was “listen to the questions and answer them” rather than go in “with a predetermined set of must-make points”. And yet two of his other tips, “you know more than your audience” and “you won’t have long” run counter to his first point and highlight exactly why most people do need GOOD media training.

media training

Experts know too much

In nearly 30 years of journalism and media training I can’t remember coming across an interviewee who didn’t know their subject matter. In fact, the problem is usually quite the reverse; they know it so well that they can’t see the wood for the trees! During the initial interview in a media training session people often give rambling answers while they desperately try to make their point. Alternatively, some are virtually monosyllabic, assuming that lots of interesting information is ‘too obvious to mention’. Indeed many experts, particularly from the worlds of academia, science and technology, believe that ‘the facts speak for themselves’ and are surprised when, for most people, they actually don’t. Good media training is about helping people distil everything they know down into short, coherent points that they can deliver in a matter of seconds, in a way that a general audience can understand.

It’s also about sense-checking the way people talk and the language they use. I have lost count of the times when having asked what should be the simple question ‘What does your company do?’ I received an answer along the lines of:

‘We create compelling customer journeys by engaging with our clients and offering end-to-end solutions. We optimise operations and help our clients transform their value proposition.’

Virtually every sector and every business is full of jargon and acronyms that mean absolutely nothing to outsiders and what critics of media training fail to realise is that not everyone is a natural communicator who can switch easily from ‘the day job’ to being a media star.

Media interviews are often turned down

In fact, the world of the journalist is completely alien to most people and, as a result, many turn down an interview through fear. I often hear ‘What if I say the ‘wrong’ thing?’ and ‘What if they ask me something I don’t know? I don’t want to look stupid.’ Alastair Stewart’s view that interviewees should not have some predetermined talking points and, instead, simply answer the questions, ignores the reality of many expert’s experience – that their interviews were frustrating because they felt the journalist didn’t ask the right questions so the interview never really got going. Having some carefully thought out points that are well crafted, with proof points backed up by good examples, ensures an interview can be a win-win situation for both the journalist and the expert. For most interviewees this doesn’t happen magically on the spot, it is the product of good media training.

Here is a blog I wrote earlier on media on interview tips.

If you would like to book media training please call us on +44 (020) 7099 2012.

 

Alastair Stewart image from YouTube

 

 

a case for clear arguments on radio

How not to talk about free trade: a case study

An interview on the business slot of this morning’s Radio 4‘s Today programme reminded me how important it is for broadcast spokespeople to make their arguments clear and concrete even if they think their desired audience already knows what they are talking about.

From recent professional experience I know that the issue of TTIP –  i.e. the sprawling free trade agreement currently being negotiated between the EU and US – is one that  flummoxes people who have to talk about it. The mere mention of its almost wilfully boring title – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – could put a charging rhino to sleep at 100 paces.   And, depending on your viewpoint it’s either a huge opportunity to create jobs and growth on both sides of the Atlantic or a neo-liberal conspiracy to give big business free rein to undermine European social values and safeguards.

So this is a hard topic to talk about, as it seems vast, vague and abstract.  On top of that, most of the TTIP negotiations have been conducted behind closed doors and the resulting information vacuum has been filled with rumour. However, if it is your job to make the case for or against TTIP you need to make a compelling argument if you’re going to be persuasive and memorable.

Sadly, the interview in question was not one of those. Gary Campkin is director of International Strategy with TheCityUK, an independent membership body that promotes the UK financial services industry within the UK & internationally.

 1. Where were the messages?

Mr Campkin failed to nail his elevator pitch. Rather, than taking the bull by the horns he talked vaguely about ‘potential for the future’, growth’ and ‘jobs’ before moving onto the trump card of ‘regulatory coherence’. This is the pits: if regulatory coherence is your best interview line then you will lose half your audience. The journalist  immediately spotted this, and  interrupted Mr Campkin to ask what TTIP will actually do but then had to prise an example out of him. This was poor preparation on Mr Campkin’s part. He should have been able to offer up several clear and concrete examples, ideally about the benefits for the UK’s small businesses and consumers, without being prompted.   He was better on the US-UK trade relationship and emphasised that the bilateral export relationship was the most important one the UK had ever had. But he should have done more, as he still sounded speculative, abstract and disengaged from his topic.

2. No control strategy

TTIP is controversial. A lot of people think it’s going to see privatisation of the NHS and give companies power to sue governments. Mr Campkin was mostly in rebuttal territory and did not have a convincing strategy for dealing with these entirely predictable negative questions. He could have provided context from previous trade agreements or named the EU negotiators leading the talks to make him appear more plugged in to what’s going on. As it was, he simply talked about ‘cast iron’ guarantees from the UK Government and EU negotiators (whoever they are) without providing any evidence or linking back to broader arguments about the benefits to the UK from TTIP.

3. Enthusiasm

Mr Campion was not the world’s most enthusiastic interviewee. He didn’t need to jump out of his chair or go into Ted Talk mode but he could have faked it a bit so that he didn’t sound as though it was 6:15 on a Wednesday morning and that he had skimmed the briefing his PR had given him in the car on the way to the BBC.

Talking about TTIP is never going to set people’s worlds on fire (unless you are hold strong views about it in the first place). But if you are a spokesperson for or against it then you need to work extra hard to de-conceptualise it. And you need to sound like you care about what happens. Otherwise, you can be sure no one else will.

You can click here to see my tips on how to communicate more effectively on TTIP.