Being interviewed by the media is a daunting prospect for most people and even seasoned spokespeople who have been grilled by journalists on a regular basis can get tripped up. That’s why regular media training is key for anyone wanting to get more comfortable – and better – at handling themselves when faced with questions from journalists.
There may of course be some interview situations where a non-contentious issue is being discussed and you may find a journalist asking you mostly information-gathering questions with nothing too taxing to trip you up.
However, you must always be prepared for anything a journalist may throw at you, particularly when they ask questions designed to get a reaction, make you lose your cool or make you say something you shouldn’t.
One way to be more prepared is to take a closer look at the skills journalists use to get the information they want from interviewees. This includes understanding the types of questions they ask so you can spot those which put you at risk and ensure you have a confident answer ready to go.
Here are some examples of the different types of questions journalists ask with suggestions as to how they could be answered.
The safe questions:
These are the information gathering questions which help journalists get the wider context of a story – the background information if you like – which they can then use to drill down to the core of the story. Make sure you answer every safe question.
These will tend to be questions which answer the “Who, what, why, where, when, how” of every story and are a great opportunity to get your key messages delivered and get across the information you want to appear in any coverage.
Question: Tell me about your product and how does it differ to what’s currently available?
Answer: We believe this is a game changing test which works in a completely different way to the current standard of care.
Question: Where can people find out more information about that?
Answer: We have lots of information about this on our website which they can find at [give them the URL] or they can contact our support/helpline on [give the telephone number].
These tend to be asked when a journalist may not be up to speed on the story or not know much about you or your company and are again an unmissable chance to get your key points across.
Question: Tell me what’s exciting about your products?
Answer: We believe, and our research shows, that our products could [do what] because [how good/different they are].
These allow you to confirm facts journalists want to check and again give you an opportunity to deliver more information and key messages.
Question: Is it correct/can you confirm that you’ve recently signed a new partnership with [x company]?
Answer: We have and we’re absolutely delighted about it. It’s an incredible opportunity and means our product will…
Loaded or confrontational questions:
The aim of these questions is to throw you, make you panic and say something unintended or to force you to agree with, or repeat, a negative suggestion. Hold your nerve, correct any errors and bridge to the safe ground of your key messages. Be careful not to start your answer with a “yes” or an “absolutely” because that means you’re agreeing with what was said and your response can be spun accordingly.
Question: When are you going to stand up and take responsibility?
Answer: We’re committed to ensuring that all parties involved in this complex area…
These are a form of loaded question which are again trying to get you to say something unintended.
Question: But isn’t it the case that you’ve been asked to address this issue and haven’t actually done anything about it?
Answer: No, that’s not the case. In fact, we’ve already done [state what has been done and what else you intend to do using information from your key messages].
Journalists will keep asking you the same question in a slightly different way if they haven’t got a response, haven’t got the response they want, or want to increase the pressure on you to give an unintended answer. Keep calm, bridge to your messages but adapt your language each time so you don’t sound like you’re reading from a script (or delivering carefully prepared key messages!). Be careful not to lose your cool with what you say, how you say it or with your body language.
Question: If it’s not your responsibility, whose is it?
Who’s to blame for this current situation?
If it’s not your fault, whose is it?
Are you saying it’s not down to your failings?
Why aren’t you taking responsibility?
Answer: This is something we’re taking incredibly seriously and are actively [say a positive key message about what action you’re taking].
Negative repeat questions
These are questions journalists use to try to get you to use or repeat their negative language. Don’t!
Question: There is mounting evidence, growing on an almost on weekly basis, that this product is incredibly dangerous…
Answer: It’s important to remember that this is something which has been used by millions of people over the past few decades…
Yes or no questions
These are a great way for a journalist to try to trap you because, by having to say “yes” or “no” to a question, you’re put in a lose-lose situation with your answer being spun and most likely resulting in a negative headline. If you’re asked: “Are you going to apologise?”, saying “yes” means you have to apologise (and you may not want to or be able to or think you need to) and saying “no” could lead to a story stating: “Jane Doe, from This Company, refused to apologise yesterday when asked.”.
Question: Are you going to apologise?
Answer: This is an incredibly complex issue with a large number of parties involved. We’re determined to continue working with all involved to ensure lessons are learned and…
These questions are again used by journalists to try to get you to confirm something unintentionally or put words in your mouth. Again, don’t be drawn and give a confident, key message-led answer.
Question: So, you’re basically telling me that this isn’t going to have any impact at all?
Answer: We’re working incredibly hard to ensure there is minimal disruption to our service. So far we know that [give a fact-led piece of information about the current state of the disruption] and are doing everything we can to get things back to normal as quickly as possible by [state what plans are in place to minimise this disruption].
These see a journalist make a statement with the aim of getting you to agree or disagree with it. Don’t be drawn into it and instead answer with a key message.
Question: This seems like you’re putting profits before patients.
Answer: Our patients are our absolute priority and we’re doing everything we can to…
These questions aim to get you speculating but, if you get it wrong, they can lead to negative headlines at a later date or cause reputational damage.
Question: Does this takeover mean you’re going to be dropping your pipeline products in the future?
Answer: I can’t predict/speculate about what is going to happen in the future, but what I can tell you is that right now we’ve got a robust and exciting pipeline across multiple disease areas….
Journalists sometimes ask a few questions at once. Although they want to know the answers to them all, it gives you the chance to cherry pick which you answer with the likelihood being that they will move on and not pursue the unanswered questions.
Question: Why are you doing that? Is that the right course of action? How will it impact your business? What about your customers?
Answer: This is an incredibly important issue for us and our customers, and we’re committed to [state what you’re doing].
These can be tricky to deal with and can be a tool used by journalists to make you morally or personally responsible for something, so handle with care. You want to be seen to be open and honest, but you don’t want to put yourself at risk of unwanted scrutiny or attack, so be careful how you answer and know what you’re willing to share and what you aren’t. If the information they have is publicly known, keep your answer succinct and quickly bridge to your key messages. If it’s not widely known and you don’t want to answer it, use the bridging technique to get away from that line of questioning.
Question: How much money are you making from this acquisition?
Answer: It’s important to understand that this acquisition is going to have a huge impact on how quickly we can get this product out to people. We’re incredibly excited about the opportunities this merger brings….
Off-topic or third-party questions
In my media training sessions one of my top tips is that people ensure they know what is going on in the news in their wider company and in their field because a journalist may ask for their opinion or perspective on it. Give a short answer saying you can’t talk about it and then bridge to your key message.
Question: Your competitor recently announced [whatever they’ve announced]. What can you say about that?
Answer: Yes, I saw that, but it’s not appropriate for me to speculate on their decision. From my perspective, we’re/What I can tell you is that we’re [deliver a key message about what you’re doing/what your focus is].
As you can see, journalists have lots of tricks up their sleeves to try to glean the information they want. Get in touch if you want to hone your media interview skills and be put through your paces by a national newspaper journalist who has spent more than 20 years quizzing people from Prime Ministers to pop stars to everyday people. Let me help you tell YOUR story.