Two very different ways to handle awkward questions

Your spokespeople will face awkward and uncomfortable questions in their media interviews.

Even those who have done their preparation and had recent media training can find themselves facing questions they don’t want to answer, or that are unexpected.

How would your spokesperson react?

Two recent television interviews provided two different approaches to challenging questions.

First up, let’s look at Mel Gibson’s interview with Fox News.

The Hollywood star was discussing his new film, during an interview carried out remotely, when the conversation veered to the incident at the Oscars where Will Smith slapped host Chris Rock.

Presenter Jesse Watters said: “You understand it probably better than a lot of people, with your career. I was wondering if, you know, you had been the one that jumped up out of his seat and slapped Chris Rock, if you would have been treated the same way, Mel?”

The actor could be seen laughing and pointing at the camera. But this was no laughing matter for his publicist, who clearly did not want him to discuss the issue.

She interrupted the interview by saying: “Hello Jesse, thank you - that’s our time.”

When the presenter tried to ask the question again, she said: “Thank you, Jesse. Uh, we - that is our time.” And the interview ended.

It was not an approach we would recommend during our media training. And it captured the interest of the wider media:

Mel Gibson interview awkwardly cut off after he’s asked about Will Smith hitting Chris Rock Independent

Mel Gibson handler stops interview after Will Smith Oscars slap question New York Post

'Thanks, that's time': VERY awkward moment Mel Gibson's handler cuts off interview after controversial star is asked about Will Smith's slap of Chris Rock Daily Mail

 

A similar question was put to another actor, and he dealt with it much better.

Daniel Radcliffe was appearing on Good Morning Britain when presenter Susannah Reid asked him about the same Oscars incident.

The Harry Potter star was equally keen not to get dragged into offering an opinion.

"I saw it, I’m just so already dramatically bored of hearing people’s opinions about it, that I just don’t want to be another opinion added to it,” he said.

When the presenter said, "You don’t even want to hear yourself," the actor replied, "No, no, not at all."

It was clear he was not going to offer a view. But he did it with subtlety and without sounding defensive or with an advisor panicking and ending the interview.

Journalists often ask questions that encourage spokespeople to discuss other topical stories during interviews.

Often this comes towards the end as a ‘while you are here’ or an ‘and finally’ question. It could be because they believe their audience wants to know what the spokesperson thinks about the issue.

It may be because they think they have not got a strong story from what has already been said. Or it may be to get a reaction – something successfully achieved with the Mel Gibson interview.

I’m going to assume your spokesperson isn’t a Hollywood A-lister. What ‘while you are here’ questions could they face?

Well, if you look at the news agenda, it could be about the conflict in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis or rising covid figures, to give a few examples. The consequences of Brexit remain another likely topic.

Whatever the subject, this type of question poses a risk for spokespeople.

Say too much – or something that differs from the views shared by others – and this could become the focus of the interview, distracting attention away from everything that has gone before and, crucially, the message you wanted to get across.

But showing frustration, giving an ‘I couldn’t possibly comment on that’ type of answer, or attempting to bring the interview to a premature end can all be equally damaging.

 

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What should you do?

Preparation is vital. Most ‘while you are here’ questions, as we have already mentioned, can be anticipated – if you are an actor interviewed in the days immediately after the Oscars, then you are likely to be asked about that slap.

So, interview preparation must include looking at what issues and stories are being discussed in your industry and the hot topics the media is focusing on.

You may be happy to discuss some of these issues, and the organisation could have an official stance.

There are other issues you are likely to not want to get drawn into discussing.

So, spokespeople need to be clear on what they are willing to discuss and then use the bridging technique to move away from questions on uncomfortable or ‘red line’ subjects back to their message.

To do this, acknowledge or briefly answer the question and then move the conversation back to what you want to discuss.

Here are a few examples:

“I can understand why people may have those concerns, but our research shows that…”

“That’s not something I’m an expert on, but what I do know is that…”

“I believe/don’t believe that’s the case, but another thing to remember is that…”

“I have heard that, but keep in mind that…”

That acknowledgement is imperative. Without it, you will sound like an evasive politician answering the question they wanted to be asked rather than the one posed. 

You could also answer the question with more detail than we have here if you are comfortable with the subject.

The other crucial point with the technique is that these phrases are just examples and not a template. They may not work for you.

Bridging works best when spokespeople use language they are comfortable with, and sounds like something they would say.

Mel Gibson once said, “I’m too rich to care what the critics say.” So, he’s unlikely to be too bothered by the coverage of his media interview.

But other spokespeople need to sprinkle their interviews with a bit more magic. And that involves knowing how to handle challenging questions.

 

About to face the media? Get your media interview homework off to the best start by downloading your copy of our free media interview preparation eBook.

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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