Picture the scene.
You are pretty sure your spokesperson is coming towards the end of their media interview.
You’re confident they have answered all the questions on the topic well and you feel they have got the message across successfully.
Then, all of a sudden, the journalist asks something completely unexpected, completely out of left field.
The final question has tripped up many a media spokesperson and often undone all of their previous good work.
So what can you and your media spokespeople do about it?
Often the last question will be introduced through a phrase like ‘while I’ve got you here’, which you have probably heard during radio or TV interviews.
It might take the form of a question about 11th hour developments on your subject. It could be about wider issues in your sector or industry, or perhaps about something a rival organisation has done.
Coronavirus, Brexit and Donald Trump are other issues that are likely to be brought into the conversation.
The key thing is for spokespeople to be aware that a tricky question could still be coming and that they don’t start to relax or rest on their laurels because they feel the interview has gone well.
Preparation is also absolutely crucial. Spokespeople need to spend time anticipating the wider issues that could be brought into an interview and in particular into a difficult final question.
You can be sure that the journalist has been doing their research and his means spokespeople need to ensure they know about the big issues in their industry and what the media has recently been interested in.
They also need to be aware of what the organisation’s official stance is on wider issues like Brexit and be confident to use that messaging in an interview.
It is also vital that spokespeople manage the final question properly in the interview itself.
Say too little, or sound irritated by the sudden change of questioning, and they could appear defensive. This would be likely to cause the journalist to pursue that line of questioning and ramp up the pressure.
Say too much, and the focus of the interview could be about the response to the final question rather than the subject they wanted to talk about.
While carrying out telephone print interviews on some of our media training courses, I’ve seen participants give such detailed responses to ‘while you are here’ type questions, that the focus of the write-up has to be on that subject.
The best replies to these questions are the ones where a spokesperson provides a brief response, which doesn’t include anything controversial, and then goes on to steer the conversation, using media training techniques, back to the subject they want to talk about.
But the last question doesn’t just have to be a ‘while you are here' type question. Some of the most devastating have been seemingly throwaway questions.
When something has gone badly wrong, the final question to a CEO might be ‘do you really think you are worth your salary’ or ‘are you going to resign’.
It was a question Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg prepared for extensively when he appeared in front of US Senators as his briefing notes showed.
The question was never asked, mainly because the line of questioning from the senators was pretty gentle, but it was a much better approach to prepare properly than hope a hard-hitting question wouldn’t come up.
Leaving the nastiest, or most difficult, question until last is a classic journalist trick. Anticipating that question and knowing how you will respond is the solution.
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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