Answering Questions From The Media

ON 7 JULY 2005, a senior executive appeared on CNBC to talk about the launch his company’s new product in Europe. Unfortunately, a few hours before the interview, a series of suicide bombings struck London's public transport system, and the city was in a state of shock.

As events were still unfolding, CNBC scrambled to fill airtime with footage of the tragedy and the links that might shed light on its implications. All the questions put to the executive were about the impact of terrorism, security, and planning for contingencies and business continuity. Even a seasoned interviewee would have found it difficult to tackle the questions.

In this instance, the executive had been briefed to focus clearly on the intended message and so replied to each of the reporter’s questions with a variant of “I’m not here to discuss that”. Believe it or not, this exchange went back and forth for at least five minutes. One can imagine the impression the executive left on the audience.

In every media interview, there is a right way and wrong way of handling things. In this case, the executive got it terribly wrong. He not only failed to provide his own corporate news, but he also came across as an indifferent and callous person.

You might wonder why he agreed to go ahead with the interview in the first place. He should have sensed what was happening and anticipated the most likely line of questioning. Even so, once in the hot seat, he could still have represented his company effectively and, despite the terrible events that day, achieved at least part of the original objective.

A better approach would have been to talk about the company's products, services or the latest news while answering different questions. Each response could have appropriately included a statement about some aspect of the business.

Doing this requires expertise in bridging – a technique that involves answering a reporter’s question, perhaps briefly, and then linking it to the point you want to emphasise. It enables you to maintain control over the interview, refocus on the topic and get your message across, regardless of the actual question.

Bridging is useful in a variety of situations, as shown in the following examples.

Prioritising issues

Sometimes, you may think the interviewer is focusing too much on relatively unimportant topics. As the company representative or business leader, it is up to you to keep things on track. For example, you might be asked to outline the impact of new regulations on your operations in India. Instead of getting entangled in the details, use a bridge such as: “Of course that’s important, and we will study it closely after the opening of our new factory in China.” In this way, you can redirect the interview and go on to speak about what is more important for the company at present.

The short non-answer

There are occasions when it is best to part with little or no information. In such situations, you may still want to appear helpful, while knowing there are limits to what you can reveal. If it is not possible to give a direct and informative answer, don’t ignore or dismiss the question. Instead, try something like: “We are taking steps to complete a full investigation to ensure the same thing does not happen again.”

Correcting a journalist

Even the best journalists can have inaccurate or misleading information. During an interview, you may, therefore, need to set the record straight without sounding defensive or hostile. If a reporter makes an incorrect statement or has outdated information, highlight the error immediately and suggest rechecking the details.

More than agreeing

When you are able to answer in the affirmative, it is easy to give a simple yes and wait for the next question. Alternatively, you can use this as an ideal opportunity to build on the basic answer and create a bridge to one of your key messages. For instance, you might say: “Yes, we do expect further growth in China, which is why we are reorganising our sales team and setting up a separate marketing division.”

When framing replies, there are other recognised techniques and phrases which often come in handy. These included introducing an answer by saying, for example, “There are three issues to consider”. This gives both the speaker and the interviewer a framework to follow, and buys time for a longer answer.

Also, when it is crucial to counteract a negative impression, it always pays to have a few of the latest facts and figures to back up your case. An explanation supported by an impressive set of figures goes much further than vague assurances about turning things around.

Sometimes, you may want to avoid a question. Politicians are the experts in this technique. We have all heard the line “What people really want to know is…” or “The only problem that concerns us is…” as a prelude to changing the subject. You don’t have to adopt these phrases, but recognise that diverting attention in this manner sounds better than a bald “I can’t talk about that”.

Finally, don't forget the value of mentioning time frames. They assist general understanding and provide a broader context. Therefore, if your company is facing a well-publicized problem, you might explain that it is of a short-term nature and that things should be back to normal in two weeks. Then emphasise improvements your company is making for the medium term or the long term.

For a business leader, the key to a successful media interview is to remember that you are there to provide information and to show your company in the best possible light.

The ideal way to do this is by being well prepared and reminding yourself to use the bridge technique. Answer a question and be ready to add something to get your intended message across clearly. Not everything you say will make it into print or appear in the final edited broadcast, but at least you will have done your part.


News stories

It is often said that a great news story depends on one of two things: either extraordinary people doing ordinary things or ordinary people doing extraordinary things. A celebrity baby or politician’s embarrassing remark is in the first category. Stories about earthquake survivors or student inventors are good examples of the second category. The point is that every day brings an almost unlimited number of potential news stories. The following are three elements for getting coverage for your company - tell the world something new, highlight industry trends and issues, stand out from the crowd and show a human side.

Press conference

If you are arranging a company press conference, there are certain tried and tested guidelines. Invite only those journalists who write or report for your target audience. Appoint one person to open and close the session, and to liaise with journalists in advance. Get people seated before the key speaker enters the room. Ensure that there is a lectern, with easy access, and a good audio system. Brief the speaker about the audience and run through the key messages beforehand.

Quotable quotes

Quotes are an essential part of any print or TV interview and, if catchy, help to define the speaker and succinctly convey their opinions. If you are hoping to provide a quotable phrase, remember to talk to people's hearts, not their heads. The best quotes are short, vivid, focused on results or ideas and put the critical information at the start of a sentence.

Differing agendas

Journalists cannot be expected to have the same agenda as a business leader company representative. Some interviewees are surprised by this or become suspicious about what they think are hidden agendas. In any interview, as in any business meeting, there should be a certain degree of caution. Generally, the subject area will be outlined in advance, so there is no reason to go off at a tangent. To make sure things go smoothly focus on the following: show an interest in the topic and be willing to discuss it, keep your objectives in mind, make your comments relevant to your agenda and don’t feel obliged to venture beyond your area of expertise.