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Media interviews undoubtedly present a great opportunity and it is hard to rival the good exposure they can create.
But they also have the potential to go horribly wrong.
As media trainers we often see spokespeople falling into the same traps in television, radio and print interviews.
And the frustrating thing is that they can easily be avoided.
Here are eight pitfalls that could trip up a media spokesperson:
It may not be a deliberate trap, but a ‘hot-mic’ is a hazard that has tripped up many a spokesperson.
Recent cases of spokespeople being caught out by a microphone and camera that they didn’t expect to be on include Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe singing ‘We’re in the money’ while waiting for a TV interview to discuss his supermarket’s plans to buy rivals Asda.
Back in 2016, former chancellor Ken Clarke described the Tory leadership contest as a ‘fiasco’ and Theresa May as being ‘bloody difficult’ during a supposedly off-air gossip with former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind in the Sky News studios. Unfortunately for him, the whole conversation was recorded by the broadcaster and later aired.
Even journalists occasionally get caught out by this, as John Humphrys discovered when ‘jokey’ off-air comments he made about equal pay at the BBC, ahead of an interview with a colleague, were recorded.
They key is for spokespeople to avoid saying anything they don’t want the audience to hear and to remember that the interview starts as soon as they enter the room. The interview doesn’t end until the microphone and lights are out.
The exaggerated pause is a technique which encourages spokespeople to say more after they think they have answered a question.
It plays on that fear of awkward and uncomfortable silences that people have about conversations.
The spokesperson will finish their response and the journalist will then leave an extended gap before asking the next question in the hope that the spokesperson feels obligated to fill the silence.
The key is to embrace the pause and stay quiet until the journalist asks another question. It isn’t the spokesperson’s job to keep the interview moving forward.
The two-part question
Sometimes an interview will include a statement as part of a question
For example, they could say “You’re due to make redundancies, I know, but what are the big issues facing the organisation over the next year?” Or, to give another example, they might say “I know you are launching x next week, how do you see the market developing over the next few months?”
Now, the statement could be correct and that’s fine. But if not, the spokesperson should look to challenge and correct it before going on to answer the question.
Journalists will often do this because they believe what they are saying is correct. But other times they will be testing to see whether something is true or not.
Just for background
This is a similar issue to speaking ‘off-the-record’. A spokesperson will be going through an interview when they are suddenly asked to provide some information ‘just for background’.
In many cases, this will be fine, but the spokesperson needs to be very clear about how any information they offer here is going to be used.
Will it be attributed to ‘a source at…’? Will it be quoted at all? Does it involve commenting on a competitor?
This is a potential minefield, particularly if the spokesperson is inexperienced.
Depending on what is said, the ‘just for background’ response could very easily end up in the foreground.
‘I’m on deadline’
This is something I used during my print journalist days. Sometimes it would be because I was genuinely on deadline and needed to get a response to a breaking story.
But at other times it would be used to catch a spokesperson off-guard and under-prepared because they would be concerned about a story going out without their response.
The key here is for the spokesperson to avoid being rushed into saying something that will come back to haunt them and their organisation – as we say on our media training courses, preparation is crucial ahead of an interview.
Let the reporter know that you are keen to help and promise to call them back shortly. Then use that time to prepare what you want to say and what you think the journalist is likely to ask.
Clearly this preparation is going to be rushed, but it is better than doing the interview as soon as the reporter calls.
Again, this may not always be a deliberate trap, but it can present quite a problem for spokespeople.
The journalist will take a spokesperson’s response and then put it into their own words, often saying something along the lines of ‘so what you are saying is’. Channel 4 journalist Cathy Newman became the subject of internet memes after using the phrase repeatedly earlier this year.
This could be used because they think the response needs clarity or perhaps because something surprising has been said.
Whatever the reason, if it is wrong, it needs to be challenged otherwise the audience will feel that the spokesperson is happy with that interpretation of their answer.
The other way reinterpretation can come into an interview is when a journalist refers back to something a spokesperson has said earlier. For example, a question could start with “You said earlier that you do not believe that….?” As before, correct that assertion if it is wrong.
No-one likes to be constantly interrupted when they speak, particularly if they are responding to a difficult question.
And it can be hugely frustrating.
But spokespeople need to hide this frustration if they experience constant interruptions during an interview.
We tell delegates on our media training courses that a spokesperson who remains calm and composed under pressure is much more likely to retain the sympathy of the audience.
Additionally, if they get angry and the interview become hostile, no-one will remember what was said.
The final question
You are getting towards the end of the interview and you are pretty happy with how it has gone.
And then suddenly you’re struck by an unexpectedly difficult question. Often these are referred to as curveball or gotcha questions and they have the potential to derail the entire interview.
The key here is to expect the unexpected, both in terms of anticipating the difficult questions that could come up and remaining on your guard for them during the interview itself, even if it appears to be relaxed and friendly.
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.
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