How To Answer Difficult Media Questions

Part of my job is to take care of my organisation’s PR matters – from managing PR agencies to ensuring that we remain “on brand” and “on message” through all our communications (which can be tedious and painful… but, oh well, someone’s gotta do it).

So I thought these tips were quite helpful when I stumbled upon them, via The Public Speaker from Quick and Dirty Tips: How to Answer Difficult Media Questions (Part 1) and (Part 2).

Key takeaways:

  1. Prepare and Practice Your Core Message
    Have at least 3-5 core messages you want to communicate. No matter what question is asked, your main goal is to answer the question and communicate at least one of your planned key messages. With preparation, any question from the media is a chance to tell your side of the story, or get your message across.
  2. Soundbites Can Be Helpful
    It’s better to summarise and simplify your message on your terms and to your liking – than leaving it open for the media to do it for it. So, the more concise, clear and straightforward your message is, the better.
  3. Bridging Is Useful (Me: But you can get called on it, if it’s not done well)
    First, you are not obligated to answer the questions exactly as asked. You never want to evade questions, but you do have the flexibility to rephrase or modify questions and to answer them in a positive, confident manner. Your responses may, or may not, briefly address the question asked before bridging to your prepared message.Again, the overall idea with bridging is to answer the question and set up the opportunity to deliver a positive core message, which might not have been possible had you directly answered the original question.

    I love this: Managing the media effectively means understanding the difference between a direct answer and a response.

  4. How To Answer Hostile Questions
    With hostile questions, it’s critical to remove any negatively charged language, reframe the question in the positive direction, and respond with your message. When responding, stick to the facts; ignore the personality. Most importantly, stay calm. Avoid an emotional reaction or that will end up being the story. If you need a moment to compose yourself, simply say “Before I answer that, I’ll need a moment.”
  5. Question The Questioner
    Another technique is to question the questioner. Always feel free to ask the interviewer a question to clarify. It’s OK to say, “Would you rephrase the question?”   Often the second time a question is asked it is more direct and concise.Sometimes it helps to understand the motivation behind the question. In this case you might try, “Why do you ask?” or “What do you mean by that?”

    At times the question may be difficult because you simply don’t understand what the person is asking. Maybe it’s because of a heavy accent, maybe the question wasn’t clear, or maybe the question seemed more like a comment. In this case the best thing to do is to pick out a few key words and make the clarification yourself by asking, “Are you asking me X?” That way, you either are correct or the reporter will say, “No I was asking about Y.” In any case, you’ll get clarity, which will allow you again to shift the conversation to the story you want to tell.

  6. How to Answer Know-It-All Questions
    That’s when the reporter wants to just wra p up quickly and say, “Oh, we already have the story, I just need to wrap-up a few points.” To handle those types of questions, it’s really important to find out what it is that reporter is speaking about.
  7. How to Answer Chummy and Goodbye Questions
    In both cases the reporter is attempting to catch you in a moment when you are relaxed and slightly off-guard. After the reporter puts his notebook down, he or she might say, “I know the official position, but just between us, how do you feel about it?” To manage this, remain focused on your core messages. Because the thing is, nothing is ever off the record, especially with the Internet. Though your answer may not end up in that specific press release, article, or media event, it could still get leaked somewhere else. Then all of a sudden, the thing that you thought was not such a big deal turned into a very big deal.Be wary of “the goodbye question” – the interview is never over until it is absolutely over. Otherwise, you may become a victim of “doorknob” reporting – where  the reporter has his hand on the doorknob, literally, walking out the door, or is getting ready to wrap up the phone call [when he] says something that completely catches you off-guard. And it’s going to be something a little shocking or provocative to try and get you [to react] a certain way so that they have their close. The important thing there is to remember they are still not out the door.
  8. How to Answer Jargonistic Questions
    These are questions where the reporter uses jargon in the question, usually in the form of acronyms. The best thing to do is really address the jargon and turn it into plain everyday language so that you can bring everybody in the room, or who are reading your article, or hearing your interview onto the same page. It’s important to avoid jargon and speak in simple, direct sentences instead.
  9. How to Answer Speculative Questions
    Speculative questions are “What if?” questions that try to lead you to talk about irrelevant topics. If you choose to reply to a speculative question, your response should be terse and it should be crystal clear that you’re answering a hypothetical question. However, speculating or answering hypothetical questions can get you into trouble. It’s best to ignore the speculation and confine your answers to what is known about the core issue.

Prepare and Practice Your Core Message

As you mentioned, you already understand the importance of preparation and practice. are. Specifically, it’s important to know ahead of time exactly what it is that you want to communicate so that you can effectively manage the interaction.

To some extent, the actual questions asked are less important than your preparation and practice of the three to five core messages you want to communicate. No matter what question is asked, your main goal is to answer the question and communicate at least one of your planned key messages. With preparation, any question from the media is a chance to tell your side of the story, or get your message across.

Should You Speak in Sound Bites?

Some people are resistant to creating these sound bites because they feel they’re simplistic and not complete. But, it’s always better for you to summarize and simplify your ideas rather than leaving that to the reporter. Only you know the best way to create the impact that you want. Particularly in difficult situations you don’t want your words misconstrued, so the more concise your message is, the better. Remember the goal is not just to survive the interview, but to compel the audience to take the ultimate action you want them to– such as to trust your company or buy your book.

Once you know what your core messages and what you want to accomplish, you’ll need some strategies to help you manage the interaction. Two important, basic techniques are bridging and questioning the questioner.

What is Bridging?

First, you are not obligated to answer the questions exactly as asked. You never want to evade questions, but you do have the flexibility to rephrase or modify questions and to answer them in a positive, confident manner. Your responses may, or may not, briefly address the question asked before bridging to your prepared message.

For example, you can change the scope of the question by making it narrower or broader. You say, “Yes, X is a concern and let’s consider the larger issue here…” You can even change the entire direction of the question. For example, you could say, “Well, to fully answer that question, I first need to explain that…”

How Should You Answer Hostile Questions?

With hostile questions, it’s critical to remove any negatively charged language, reframe the question in the positive direction, and respond with your message. When responding, stick to the facts; ignore the personality. Most importantly, stay calm. Avoid an emotional reaction or that will end up being the story. If you need a moment to compose yourself, simply say “Before I answer that, I’ll need a moment.”

I heard a great example of an answer to a hostile question just today. A current professional real estate investor was asked, “Some people call you a vulture; how do you respond to that?”

First, he diffused the question with a smile. The he paused and said, “Well, they must not understand what it is that we do. We’ll buy this dilapidated house when no one else will, and then we’ll make it the best house on the block. Which would you rather live next to?”

I thought that was a great response. Notice, he responded to somewhat hostile question with a smile, then immediately he flipped the question in his own mind and responded with a positive core message.

Again, the overall idea with bridging is to answer the question and set up the opportunity to deliver a positive core message, which might not have been possible had you directly answered the original question. Managing the media effectively means understanding the difference between a direct answer and a response.

Question the Questioner

Another technique is to question the questioner. Always feel free to ask the interviewer a question to clarify. It’s OK to say, “Would you rephrase the question?”   Often the second time a question is asked it is more direct and concise.

Sometimes it helps to understand the motivation behind the question. In this case you might try, “Why do you ask?” or “What do you mean by that?”

At times the question may be difficult because you simply don’t understand what the person is asking. Maybe it’s because of a heavy accent, maybe the question wasn’t clear, or maybe the question seemed more like a comment. In this case the best thing to do is to pick out a few key words and make the clarification yourself by asking, “Are you asking me X?” That way, you either are correct or the reporter will say, “No I was asking about Y.” In any case, you’ll get clarity, which will allow you again to shift the conversation to the story you want to tell.

Summary for Answering Media Questions

So there you have it, Marie-Adele, some general strategies to help you navigate difficult reporters’ questions and stay focused. First, you need to prepare and practice your core messages, next you need to practice bridging from the question asked to your prepared responses, and finally, when necessary, it’s important to be comfortable responding to reporter questions with your own questions to gain clarity.I know you asked also about tips for specific types of questions, such as know-it-all, chummy, good-bye, jargonistic, and speculative questions. I’ll cover those next week in How to Answer Difficult Media Questions – Part 2. I’m very excited because in that episode I talk with publicist, Helen Coranto, who will share some great tips for handling these types of questions.

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