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Want to Control a Media Interview? 8 Naive Mistakes

Most organisations want to control the media or at least want to control what is written or broadcast about its business.  A surprising number of senior business people, in my experience, do not understand that as the ‘fourth estate’ journalists can write whatever they like – with very little constraint. There are laws of libel and slander and some very strict rules around court reporting. But beyond that in the UK, most of Europe, the US and Australia there are very few other restrictions. The freedom of journalists can be more restricted in other countries.

want to control a media interview image

It is not sensible to verbally attack or threaten a journalist. Most treat their independence as a matter of honour and they may be tempted to write a critical piece just to prove the point.

This press freedom is a source of great angst and concern to many senior people. Even those who have absolutely nothing to hide.

[By contrast, seasoned media performers realise that 100% control is impossible.  Whilst they prepare and are disciplined about what they say, they are likely to take a more ‘you win some, you lose some’ attitude to what a journalist writes.]

Given the high level of unease, there are often inappropriate attempts to control the interview and write up process. Here are my top eight.

1. Asking for a list of questions before the interview

At first sight, this seems completely reasonable but journalists hate it, mostly because it gives the impression that they are being overly controlled. Many will not provide a list, others will happily give a list of questions and then ignore it in the actual interview. The effect is counter-productive for the interviewee because preparing for one set of questions only to be asked completely different ones is annoying and stressful. Much better to ask a broader question such as ‘what are you interested in?’, ‘what’s the story?’ or ‘what’s your angle?’.

2. Telling the journalist you know the editor and have influence

I have only come across this rarely and find it very funny. All I can say is that editors are rarely open to any kind of external influence. Being independent is a matter of honour for most journalists. What’s more, claiming special influence is likely to annoy everyone in the editorial process and they might be tempted to ‘prove’ their independence’ by printing something you would rather not see in print.

3. Asking to check the copy before it is printed

This is not uncommon these days in the trade press but is not something that respectable national newspapers would allow.  There is a less intrusive version which is to ask to ‘check quotes’. It still smacks of naivety to my mind and can give the interviewee a false sense of security. Even if a journalist allows you to see the copy or quotes before publication, he or she is unlikely to allow you to make anything but the most technical of changes.

4. Telling the journalist what they can’t ask

Again, journalists do not obey rules. If you tell them they can’t ask something they are very likely to ask it. You are potentially alerting them to a sensitive area. What is more, making it look as if you or your spokesperson is unable to handle a question makes you or them look weak.

5. Allowing your PR person to intervene during the interview

PR people should only intervene if they absolutely have to. Again, it makes the interviewee look weak and the organisation look over-bearing. I blogged a few months ago about the interview where the off-camera PR person intervened because the former CEO of Persimmon did not want to answer a question about his bonus. As we know the CEO subsequently lost his job -after the intervention went viral on YouTube!

6. Attacking the journalist

This used to be more common than it is these days. Most people now understand that it is never going to look or sound good. Better to understand that journalists are allowed to ask anything and you as the interviewee can choose how to respond. Often journalists do not subscribe to the point of view they are putting in a question. They are just representing another side of a story. We are taught always to balance a story or an interview and asking a tough question is one way to do that. Accept they are just doing their job.

7. Questioning the source of the journalist’s information

This is a more subtle form of attacking the journalist. For my money it is fine to say ‘I am not sure those numbers are right’ or ‘I don’t recognise that’ before moving to your argument. But don’t get into a fight with the journalist by saying ‘where did you get that from’, ‘tell me where you got those numbers’ etc.

8. Giving information then saying: that is ‘off the record’

There are some occasions where ‘off the record’ has a legitimate place in PR but they are fairly rare. If you want any agreement to be respected it must be put in place in advance of an interview and absolutely not during the interview, after you have just said something you shouldn’t have said. In general ‘off the record’ is a tool that can be used by a professional PR but should be avoided by interviewees.

The way to control media interviews is to do your preparation and deliver high-quality information in colloquial language. You should, of course, also prepare for any particularly difficult questions. Finally, it is important to be disciplined and in control during the interview to ensure you don’t say things by accident that provide embarrassing headlines. In fact what you need is a little training, but then I would say that wouldn’t I?

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

media interview traps

Media interview traps – how to avoid two of them

Media interview traps are relatively easy for journalists to set and for interviewees to fall headlong in to. At The Media Coach, we try to keep you safe by identifying the most common ones and giving you tips and techniques to avoid them. So it’s useful to look at two examples of interview traps which happened in recent days: being indiscreet near a microphone – even when you think you are not being recorded – and the journalist trying to get you to go ‘off message’ to create juicy headlines. The first trap resulted in days of embarrassing, negative publicity while the second was neatly avoided.

media interview traps

There are some well known media traps but people, even professionals, regularly get caught by them.

Media interview trap 1: Cameras are always on and microphones are always ‘hot’

During every media training session we drill into people the need to be very careful around microphones and cameras before and after an interview; in fact, whenever you are in a TV or radio studio. But familiarity can breed contempt and this week we saw even one of the UK’s most experienced journalists, BBC presenter John Humphrys, get caught out when he made controversial comments in a studio without realising he was being recorded.

He wasn’t on air at the time and was just chatting with a colleague before recording an interview when he made what he has since insisted were “jokey” comments about one of the biggest media stories in the previous week; Carrie Gracie’s resignation from the post of the BBC’s China editor because men in other editor posts were paid considerably more than she was.

The story about the lack of equal pay at the BBC had been running for several days and probably would have been winding down, but with the leaking of the recording, it is now right back up the news agenda.

One of John Humphry’s BBC colleagues, Jane Garvey, summed up the incident nicely when she tweeted:

media interview traps

Media interview trap 2: going off message/just reacting to the journalist’s questions

Also in recent days, experienced media performer, Stanley Johnson, (father of Foreign Secretary, Boris) deftly demonstrated how to avoid another common media interview trap, which I call the “while I’ve got you here, can I just ask you about…” question.

Mr Johnson was appearing on a phone in on Radio 5live’s Emma Barnett show after the UK Government announced proposals to curb plastic waste in the environment. After giving his view on the proposals, and mentioning Boris, Emma Barnett, seized the opportunity to go slightly off-topic with Stanley Johnson in search of a potentially juicy headline by revisiting the very public falling out between his son and the now Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, during the last Conservative leadership contest. ( You can click here for the full interview which starts at 1 hour 24 minutes and 55 seconds and will be available for the next three weeks.)

media interview traps

Stanley Johnson refused to be drawn when asked about the relationship between Michael Gove and his son Boris Johnson.

When asked to respond to the comments from his daughter Rachel that Mr Gove had stabbed her brother Boris “in the front and the back”, Stanley Johnson neatly spotted the potential for negative headlines which could overshadow his environmental agenda. He simply took the sting out of the topic by refusing to get drawn in and saying “I don’t think it’s a good idea to distract from talking about the environment” before going back to his key messages on his intended topic.

This is an effective example of the bridging technique which we teach during Media Coach training sessions to ensure interviewees can avoid being drawn off-topic and ending up with headlines they never intended.

Finally, to avoid both traps, the two cases illustrate the need to take media encounters seriously, focus and remain disciplined at all times.

Photo 1: Pixabay
Photo 2: Creative Commons