How to Handle Difficult Questions from Reporters

You put time and energy into building relationships with your local media. Soon your hard work pays off. You start getting calls from reporters who see you as an expert or respond to your story pitches.

And before you agree to any interview, you ask a reporter about the topics to be discussed. But sometimes in the conversation that follows you get unexpected—and tough—questions that seem to come out of nowhere.

Saying the wrong thing will take the story in a direction you don’t want to go. Here’s how you can be ready the next time a reporter throws you a curveball.

Prepare and Practice

There’s no substitute for preparation. Allow yourself plenty of time to research the interview subjects. Make a short list of controversial topics that might come up. Prepare your responses, and practice those answers with a colleague before you talk to the reporter.

Learn How to Bridge

You don’t have to respond directly to every question. Instead, use a bridging statement to talk about the points you want to make. Examples of bridging statements include, “The real issue here is,” “What matters most in this case is,” or “Let me emphasize again.”

Veteran viewers of Sunday public affairs shows will recognize this technique. It’s used regularly by national elected officials and spokespeople.

Don’t be Defensive

One of the benefits of planning ahead: You won’t be surprised if a tough topic comes up in an interview. Keep your game face on, stay calm and return to your messages. Look, too, for opportunities to express positivity and pride in the work your organization does.

You’re Always on The Record

Sometimes a tough question comes after the formal end of an interview.  You might think your comments no longer matter. But remember, everything you say is fair game—no matter when you speak.

And don’t forget this old trick used by some television reporters: After turning off the camera they might keep recording sound, including your post-interview remarks.  

It’s Okay to Say “I Don’t Know”

No matter how much you prepare, you’ll probably not know the answer to every question. If you don’t know, say so, and promise to get an answer after the interview. Yes, you want to be helpful to the media, but never guess or speculate.

Never (Ever) Repeat a Negative

When you answer a reporter, don’t repeat the negative portion of the question in your response. Doing so raises the issue in a listener’s mind. Instead, avoid the negative altogether and return the conversation to your messages.

To see world class examples of how handle curveball questions, check out this story from National Public Radio on the history of the “Gotcha” questions in American politics and how elected officials have responded.

What are your best tips for handling tough media interviews? Leave your ideas and suggestions in the comments below.

 

Mac Prichard

Mac started Prichard Communications in 2007 to serve nonprofits, foundations and public agencies after a long career working in the public and nonprofit sectors and with elected officials. Mac lives in Portland’s Ladd’s Addition where he is often spotted taking Instagram photos while walking his dog Kai, a Weimaraner.

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