How to Answer Questions From a Reporter Without Messing Up

Answer questions, Reporter Q&A

Always answer questions truthfully

Once you’ve mentioned your key messages during an interview with a reporter, are you prepared to answer the questions that are sure to be asked?

The Q&A can be the most important part of the interview. If you blow an answer – or blow off the reporter – all your media training and hard work will be down the drain.

Maintain Control

You can’t control the reporter or the content of a story. You can, and must, control your input into the reporter’s story throughout the interview.

A media interview isn’t the same as making a business presentation, where the audience will generally refrain from asking questions until you are finished speaking.

Expect to be interrupted. The reporter isn’t there to serve as a sponge absorbing all you have to say. A good reporter will question and challenge your points.

Tell the Truth

The first rule is to be truthful. Never lie, because the reporter can find out the real facts on the Internet or from your competitors.

You’re not obligated to answer every question. However, you are obliged to respond, even if it’s to say that you can’t discuss proprietary information.

If you don’t know the answer say so, and state the likelihood of providing a response. If you can get the answer tell the reporter when you’ll get back to her. Or suggest that she speak to someone else in your company, or an outside source, who may have the answer.

A Media Interview is Not a Conversation

Media interview tips

Media interviews are not friendly conversations

An interview is not a friendly conversation that travels gently to different topics – don’t treat it as such. You are there to represent your organization, so be courteous in responding to questions, but be diligent in making your key message points.

Frequently, when a reporter says you did not answer the question, it really means that you did not answer the way the reporter had hoped you would. If that happens, paraphrase the question as you understood it, and answer it truthfully, including your key message points.

Be honest and tell the reporter if you can’t answer a question at all because you don’t know the answer, or you can’t because the information is private.

Change the Subject

Do not limit yourself to the subject matter of the questions. Take the opportunity to “bridge” to additional points. Use linking phrases, such as “Let me tell you about….” or “Are you aware that…?”

Be sure to mention the name of your organization, instead of “we.” You want the reporter to use your company name throughout the story.  It’s also a reminder to associate your comments with your company and not attribute them to another organization he may be including in the story.

Prepare in Advance

Frequently, you can anticipate the questions you’ll be asked. Make a list and then write out the answers. Rehearse your responses aloud on your own or with a colleague. Practice working in your key messages. You don’t want to sound like a robot, so use different words to make the same point.

You can never let your guard down when answering questions from a reporter. Don’t be lulled into having an “off-the-record” friendly conversation after the formal interview is over. That’s when a reporter can spring a question that you didn’t expect.

We all tend to relax and breathe a sigh of relief when we feel the heat is off but don’t forget you’re still on the record. Don’t say do or say anything you wouldn’t want to see in print or on air.

Book Tour Mishap

This reminds me of the time I was coaching Johnnie Cochran for his first book, Journey to Justice. The Dateline producers were at his home in LA, and about halfway through the interview they told Johnnie that since they were changing the film, he could just talk.

So, talk he did. Of course, what he said was off message and then there he was on air saying things that he thought were merely conversation points! This was not too much of a disaster but Johnnie learned a good lesson.

Remember that everything is on the record in a media interview. Be smart, keep it simple and stay “on message”.

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