Handling the Media

by Jennifer Stenhouse

Pitfalls to avoid

If a print or broadcast journalist telephones you for an interview, ask if they are recording what you say. It has been known for radio journalists to telephone people and put them straight on the air without them being aware that they were broadcasting live.

The toughest type of interview to handle is the confrontational. A few well-known journalists, such as John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman, have made their name doing this kind of interview. Many journalists try to model their technique, but actually come over as plain rude. You, on the other hand, will always sound impassioned – but never angry or defensive.

You will also avoid using Christian names. It doesn’t sound quite right unless the viewers know you to be great friends with the interviewer. Also, if your interview is to be edited down to a 20-second sound bite, you’ll be making the editor’s job more difficult and time consuming. And your job is to make their lives easier.

Getting off a tricky subject...

You’ve worked out what you’re expecting in the interview, but what if the questions you’re asked aren’t what you expect? Listen to our politicians – you’ll hear that they will always say what they want, no matter the question.

Be careful to answer the question at some stage, however, or you may come over as if you haven’t understood it. It’s also extremely frustrating for the listener. How many times have you shouted at the radio or TV ‘Answer the ****** question!’?

The technique to use here is called bridging. You’re faced with a question you either weren’t expecting or are unsure how to answer. What do you do? You deal with that question very briefly and then move on to your main point again.

Example

Q: ‘It says here you’ve spent £8 million on repairs, yet your tenants still say they’re living in appalling conditions. How can that be?

A: ‘Well, I’d have to check those figures, but the important thing here is that we’ve made a start on what is in fact a massive modernisation programme, and this problem will be resolved.’

Useful bridging phrases

  • But what’s really important...
  • But just let me say...
  • To return to my original point...
  • You must remember...
  • What I really want to say is...
  • But let me tell you...

The crucial thing is to address the question, acknowledge it, and then move back to your original point to take advantage of the opportunity to get your message across.

Other pitfalls

  • If a journalist says: ‘Don’t you think that this is the worst thing that could happen?’ and you agree, it will be written as though you actually said it yourself. Be clear about what you want to say
  • If a question is based on an untrue premise or one you do not agree with, then you must rebut it. For example, if the interviewer says ‘So without a care for anyone, you embarked on this project at full tilt?’, your answer might be ‘I started the project after much careful consideration and consultation.’
  • Avoid repeating a negative statement with which you disagree in broadcast interviews. For example, an interviewer might say ‘Now, these half-yearly figures are pretty disastrous, aren’t they?’ The wrong answer would be ‘I don’t think they’re pretty disastrous’. The better way forward is to answer with a simple ‘No’, followed by a positive statement, for example ‘...they’re exactly what we were expecting.’
  • There is always a tendency, especially in print interviews, to keep talking. Give your message and examples and then terminate the interview once you’ve done. Never move into unprepared territory.
  • The journalist will rarely attack you personally, no matter how it seems. They’re only doing their job. Resist the temptation to respond angrily. Be the sweet voice of reason at all times.