All media spokespeople will face questions they don’t want to answer at some point.
Whether they are tough, challenging questions, or focused on a subject they would rather not discuss, it is inevitable they will be asked.
What’s key is how these questions are answered.
One approach we would certainly not recommend on our media training courses is that which saw a spokesperson roll her eyes, dismiss questions as ‘silly’ and refuse to acknowledge others – let alone answer them.
That was the interview strategy served up by Maria Sharapova after her defeat in the Australian Open.
In a frosty post-match press conference she did little to hide her unease at questions on her use of meldonium – a substance she served a 15-month ban for taking - and the hostile reaction she had received from the crowd.
The tennis star first displayed her displeasure at a question about the crowd’s reaction to her seven-minute toilet break. Here is the awkward exchange with the journalist:
Journalist: “What did you make of the crowds’ reaction to you today? They booed you when you came back on court after that toilet break at the end of the second set and cheered that time violation. Did you think they were a bit unfair to you and did it affect you at all?
Sharapova: “What do you want me to say to that question?”
Reporter: “I don’t know. Just the truth I guess.”
Sharapova: “I think that is a silly question to ask.”
Worse was to follow when she was asked about meldonium. As the question was put to her Miss Sharapova looked visibly uncomfortable, rubbing her forehead and rolling her eyes. Here is what was said:
Journalist: “You took meldonium legally for 10 years to deal with your health problems. Now that it’s banned and you can no longer take it, is it a struggle physically to deal with the demand of a Grand Slam fortnight?”
Sharapova: “Is there another question.”
These are undoubtedly tough, punchy questions – arguably harder than those typically seen in most post-match press conferences – but they were perfectly legitimate questions and they could and should have been handled much better.
Instead, her press conference performance created some additional negative headlines.
Maria Sharapova refuses to answer ‘silly’ questions about drugs and booing Sky Sports
Maria Sharapova refuses to answer questions over meldonium use after crashing out of Australian Open The Telegraph
Sharapova fumes after being quizzed over loo breaks and drug habit by reporters at Australian Open The Sun
Social media users were not impressed either:
January 20, 2019
Totally reasonable questions. @MariaSharapova could’ve scored some brownie points if she came prepared to answer the tough questions she, no doubt, knew were going to be asked. https://t.co/u0mp172jse— Tom Phillips (@tomjphillips_) January 20, 2019
So what can other spokespeople learn from Sharapova’s press conference performance?
One of the key things we tell spokespeople on our media training courses is the importance of good body language and not giving any hint of frustration or being out of your comfort zone.
Eye-rolls and forehead rubbing are very obvious signs of exasperation. More subtle things to watch out for and avoid include fiddling with glasses or fidgeting with hands. These both suggest the spokesperson is feeling nervous and uncomfortable.
Maintaining good eye contact is also key to ensuring a spokesperson comes across as credible and honest. Looking up or down when answering a question can make them look shifty and untrustworthy.
On our media training courses we tell delegates not to criticise a question they don’t like.
It simply serves to show frustrations and unease about where the interview or press conference is going.
And in many cases that will cause the journalist to pursue that particular line of questioning.
Media training skills are crucial for successfully managing unwanted questions.
Bridging, for example, enables a spokesperson to briefly answer, or at least acknowledge the question, before taking control and steering the interview to something they are more comfortable talking about.
When it is used well, it sounds very natural and can be difficult for most people to detect.
Another key way to prepare for difficult questions is to anticipate them and know how you will respond. Miss Sharapova would surely have known she would face questions about meldonium – it was a huge story when it first broke. So why not prepare a response that doesn’t involve criticising the question or showing disgust at it?
If you or your spokesperson has done something wrong in the past and it comes up again in a media interview, show some humility and contrition. This will help to create a bond with the audience and mean it is likely they will remain supportive. Acting as if the question should not have been asked suggests arrogance.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.