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A new approach to media training and fielding difficult questions

By Ed Shiller

Ed's Blog

You’re nervous about facing the media, especially those tough reporters who always seem to ask loaded questions, twist your words or misrepresent your meaning, and you want to get media training that will help you avoid these pitfalls. All well and good.

But if you believe the object of the training is to learn how to identify a key message or two and then master such techniques as zooming, bridging or deflecting so that you will be able to weave those messages into your answers, even if those messages aren’t relevant to the question, you will be sorely disappointed.

Such behaviour will make you appear unresponsive, defensive or manipulative – and this will merely reinforce whatever negative stereotypes the reporter has of you, your organization or your industry. And this, in turn, will severely erode your credibility and thereby increase the likelihood that the reporter will ask loaded questions, twist your words or misrepresent your meaning. In effect, you have contributed to the continuation of a vicious cycle.

The proper way to handle a media interview is to be yourself and directly answer the questions you’re asked. There is nothing to be afraid of. If your organization is acting in a proper way and provides real benefits to its stakeholders, you have nothing to be ashamed of and should welcome any questions about any aspect of what your organization does.

The purpose of good media training is not to teach you manipulative techniques. Quite the contrary, it is to teach you how to identify accurate, truthful and newsworthy key points about each newsworthy issue involving your organization and how to introduce that key point into an answer when it is relevant to the question. The objective is to structure your answers and deliver them so that you will not only be speaking the truth, but that you will also be seen as speaking the truth.

The reason for this derives from a fundamental fact of communications: The messages you actually convey in a media interview have less to do with the actual words you utter than with your behaviour. Thus, if you act in an unresponsive, defensive or manipulative way, the message you convey is that you are unresponsive, defensive or manipulative. In this case, it won’t matter what you say, because people will not believe you; neither will they like or trust the organization you represent.

Still, facing a tough reporter can unnerve even the most truthful and honest spokesperson. Good media training will help you cope effectively with these situations, and having a clear idea of how to behave and what to say is a good way to begin. So here are 13 tips on fielding difficult questions:

1. Keep cool and remain respectful and polite, even in the face of extreme provocation by

the interviewer.

2. Don't run on - when you've given the answer you want, stop talking.

3. Don't ever say "no comment" - it will make you look arrogant and untrustworthy.

4. Don't tell the interviewer anything you wouldn't tell the whole world - nothing is "off

the record."

5. Don't disclose confidential information - but explain the reason why, and if appropriate,

bring in other relevant information that will shed light on what the reporter is asking.


6. Don't concern yourself with the reporter's overt or hidden agenda, but stick to your

own agenda of answering each question with a direct factual statement followed by a

relevant key point. Therefore, only answer the question that's been asked - don't

answer an anticipated question.

7. Don't guess at an answer - if you don't know, say so.

8. Don't get unnerved if the reporter repeatedly asks the same question - if the question is

the same, so is the answer.

9. Don't get penned in by the way the reporter phrases a question - answer by giving what you regard as the relevant facts amplified by your most relevant and persuasive key point.


Q. With its monopoly over the sale of wheat, the Canadian Wheat Board seems to be getting richer and richer, either by raising prices to stiff the consumer or lowering them to stiff the farmer. Which is it?

A. Neither. The Canadian Wheat Board is a non-profit agency that markets wheat on behalf of the farmers of Canada to ensure that they receive the maximum price possible.

10. Don't speculate - just give the facts.

11. Don't respond judgmentally to third-party quotes - the reporter wants you to say something derogatory

about the third-party, and thereby generate controversy. Instead, set the record straight by giving the relevant facts.

12. Don't repeat negative questions or derogatory comments - simply set the record

straight by giving an accurate description of the situation.

13. Don't ask the reporter to clarify a question - if the question is ambiguous, choose the

most obvious interpretation and answer that. Asking for clarification makes you look evasive.


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