Working with the media can be difficult at the best of times, so we asked for advice from a professional. Steve Mongelluzzo has over 20 years of experience dealing with the news media as a Public Relations Officer for the Internal Revenue Service in Chicago. During those years, he dealt with print and broadcast reporters from all size media markets-from large cities to small towns. He also trained hundreds of senior officials, technicians and law enforcement personnel who served as spokespersons for the IRS both nationally and in local offices.
Mr. Mongelluzzo has been a featured speaker at the Public Library Association’s national conference in March 2008 as well as a speaker at the Kentucky Public Library Association conference in September 2010. He has a website where you can find out more about him, his upcoming speaking engagements and how to purchase his book, Winning Media Interviews, at www.WinningMediaInterviews.com. Mr. Mongelluzzo has written a wonderful book detailing the many ways to control your message when working with the media, and has graciously allowed us to use Chapter 6, which follows here.
TACTICS USED BY REPORTERS
Reporters use certain tactics or ask certain questions, especially on sensitive issues or for investigative stories, that could get you into trouble. These tactics can slant the story to the reporter’s viewpoint or trap you into saying something you did not intend to say. As a reporter tries one of the techniques, or asks you a question that could get you into trouble, a red flag should immediately start to wave.
Tricks of the Trade
Some people may consider the tricks of the trade used by reporters as “sneaky” or “below the belt.” The reporter may have a hidden agenda, may not believe you, or may just want to add some controversy to the story, unfortunately, at your expense. While that is not necessarily the intent in all cases, the results could prove embarrassing to you. The best policy is to assume that the reporter will quote everything you say.
Interruptions can take several forms. The reporter may interrupt your answer with another question. It is important to immediately regain control or the reporter will continue to interrupt you, and you will find it very difficult to complete your answer and get to your message. Instead, politely say something such as, “Excuse me. I would like to finish my answer. You asked a very good question and I think your audience will find my answer important.” People want to decide what is important; they do not want the reporter deciding for them.
Use this same technique if another guest interrupts you. The reporter will usually take your side and tell the other guest to let you finish before commenting.
Do not try to talk your way through interruptions. Even if you are successful during radio and TV interviews, the audience probably won’t grasp your message because two people are talking at the same time.
I strongly encourage you never to appear on a program where interruptions are encouraged and the moderator exercises little control or even adds to the mayhem. These shows are entertainment, not news, and even the best prepared spokesperson will have great difficulty delivering a message.
One tactic used by reporters in print and taped interviews is to remain silent after you finish answering a question. The reporter may try silence to get you to keep talking and possibly say more than you want to say on a topic.
This is especially true in two situations. One is when a reporter has a hand-held microphone and keeps it pointed at you after you finish your answer, inviting you to say more. The other is during phone interviews, when people have a tendency to become very relaxed as the interview progresses.
Don’t fall into these traps. The natural tendency is to start talking again. If you feel your answer was complete, remain silent. Silence is the reporter’s problem, not yours.
Silence is not always a “trick.”
During a print interview, a reporter may be silent while trying to catch up on taking notes. Honor the silence and don’t interrupt. You want the reporter to get the facts straight. Two ways to handle silence is to simply say, after a few seconds, “Do you have any more questions’?” or better yet, to bridge to one of your messages.
Putting words in your mouth
Avoid letting reporters finish your statement when you hesitate during an answer. Agree only if the information is completely accurate. Otherwise, say, “No, that is not what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say was … “
A reporter can also put words in your mouth by framing questions that are hypothetical, leading or that include inaccurate statements. More about answering these questions later in this chapter.
Asking more than one question at a time
Avoid trying to answer more than one question at a time. It is difficult enough to concentrate on one question, much less several questions that a reporter asks in rapid succession. If a reporter asks you several questions at once, you have other options that will put you in control.
You could say, “You have asked several questions. Which question would you like me to answer first?” Answer that question completely and then let the reporter ask you the next one.
Another option would be to answer the question you want to answer, usually the one with which you are most comfortable, and then suggest the reporter ask the other questions one at a time. Stay very courteous and professional at all times.
Repeat questions usually confuse the unsuspecting. A reporter sometimes repeats a question during the later part of an interview. You are confused because you have already answered it. Many people answer the question in a completely different way the second time around. Unless you can improve on your first answer, avoid this.
Repeat questions are frequently used during an interview on a controversial issue. Here the reporter is probably looking for a specific answer or reaction, and repeats the same question several times, sometimes in rapid succession. Do not fall into his trap. Simply answer the question the same way each time, or tell the reporter you have already answered the question and you are not going to change your answer. Above all, do not become defensive or sarcastic. Remember the impact of mixed messages.
For example, if you cannot comment on a question because of privacy rules, make sure you state that each time the question is asked: “Because of privacy rules, I cannot comment on that issue.” Otherwise, the reporter will use the one time you curtly answered “no comment” for the newscast, even though in every other quote you were courteous and professional and they included the qualifying statement.
Repeat questions are especially dangerous during phone interviews. Usually you are busy at your desk and start to get irritated because you feel you already answered the question. That irritation many times results in an off-the-wall or flippant comment that ends up as the lead quote in the story. Remember, if you do not want to be quoted saying something, do not say it.
The reporter appears sympathetic to your viewpoint
Sometimes reporters will lull you into a false sense of trust by appearing to support your viewpoint on a controversial issue. As the interview progresses, you become more relaxed and let your guard down. The reporter gives you the impression that he or she understands and even supports your position against an opposing one.
For example, the reporter may say something such as, “I can see why you feel that is unfair,” or, “It certainly appears you were justified in your actions.” In reality, the reporter may be using this technique to get you to say things you might not otherwise say. The end result could be very embarrassing. Once again, the best policy is to assume that the reporter will quote everything you say.
The reporter tries to surprise you with information
If a reporter tries to surprise you with damaging information or negative statistics that you are not familiar with, just say, “I haven’t heard that before. However, what I do know about this issue is “and bridge to a message.
Quoting another source
A reporter may quote another source on a sensitive or controversial topic, or even make up a quote, in an attempt to draw out how you feel about that issue. Although you would not have answered a direct question about the topic if asked, you may feel compelled to state your side or correct the information. Don’t fall into this trap. If you should not discuss the issue, don’t comment on a quote from another source.
Sometimes a reporter will show you the “first draft” of a story he or she is working on and ask for your comments or side of an issue or topic you should not discuss. The reporter may have put the story together from several sources, or made some assumptions based on sketchy details. Commenting on this “first draft” would be the same as answering a direct question on the topic or issue. Do so only if you would answer a direct question during an interview.
Some reporters will try to intimidate you. For example, reporters have said to me, “You know, this will make you look bad.” Other reporters have said, “I know you are not telling me everything,” or, “Why don’t you be honest?” insinuating that they are going to give a negative slant to the story. Do not be intimidated and change your answer. Besides, usually nothing bad will appear in the story.
TYPES OF QUESTIONS
Reporters can greatly influence the interview and the direction of your answers by the type of questions they ask. Some questions are asked for background information. They provide you with an easy opportunity to deliver a message. Others are challenging and could steer the unsuspecting or poorly prepared into saying something they will regret. Instead, stick to the topic of the interview and use suggested techniques to diffuse the questions.
Background questions are usually those asked early in the interview to gather information. They are the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How questions. Do not be content to just answer these questions. You should answer them and look for opportunities to bridge to one of your messages. If the reporter asks you, “Tell me about the summer reading program at your library,” don’t talk about when the program starts and who can attend. Instead, respond by saying, “Children who attend the summer reading program will not only retain the skills they just learned this past year, but they will also be better prepared for the coming school year.”
The familiar “What if’ question is a favorite of reporters. There are two possibilities here, and neither is good. First, the reporter could be asking you to predict the future, and that is always dangerous. Sometimes it is best to not answer in a serious way and tell the reporter you cannot predict the future, but, “Here is what I can tell you … “and bridge to a message.
A second possibility is that the reporter has a specific case in mind, and gives you general facts that fit the case, but does not mention it specifically. You may notice that the questions seem very familiar to something that has been in the news recently. While the individual questions may seem harmless, the reporter pieces your answers together and comes up with a specific conclusion to the case that he or she may attribute to you.
When a reporter uses this technique, emphasize that your information is general in nature and that you must always look at the “specific facts and circumstances of each case” when making a decision. Do not hesitate to repeat this statement as often as needed. The reporter may get irritated, but you are covering your bases.
A reporter may give you two choices to select from, neither of which is accurate or the best choices available. Picking between the two is a “lose-lose” situation. Do not be forced into selecting between the two. State that, “Neither is correct,” or, “There are other options that I would consider.” You could then outline what those options are and bridge to your message.
A reporter may ask you to judge someone’s behavior: “Why would he do that?” or, “What could she have been thinking of?” Do not answer. Tell the reporter you can not speculate on another person’s behavior.
A reporter could also ask you for a personal opinion on a sensitive area: “Is that fair?” or, “Doesn’t the law need to be changed?” Again, do not be pressured into an answer. You could say, “The law is very specific regarding this matter. What I suggest people do is …” Sometimes you have to be blunt and tell the reporter you keep your personal opinions to yourself.
Don’t select the lesser of two evils!
Questions that are”forced choices” are frequently a choice between the lesser of two evils. For example, if a politician is asked a question such as, “There are only two ways to adequately fund education—by raising real estate taxes or raising income taxes. Which do you prefer?” Instead of making a choice, he or she could answer by saying, “I disagree that those are our only two choices_ I think that we need to look at all of our options, such as … “
With a loaded question, the reporter will use inaccurate information, false assumptions or negative words in a question. Immediately set the record straight or the reporter and the audience will believe you agree with the information in the question. For example, a reporter may ask, “With the advent of the internet, library attendance has decreased steadily. What new services will you be offering if the referendum passes?” Before answering the question, correct the inaccurate information (without repeating the negative statement): “I don’t agree with your statement. During the last five years we have seen a 25 percent increase in the number of people who use our library.” Then proceed to answer the question.
If the reporter has too many inaccurate assumptions, he or she may not understand the subject matter. As this can be very dangerous, you may want to advise the reporter to get the facts straight before proceeding with the interview. Although this is a difficult position to take, on rare occasions you may have to take it or face the potential of an inaccurate or slanted story.
Be cautious if a reporter asks leading questions such as, “Wouldn’t you say?” “Don’t you agree?” or “Isn’t it true?” followed by a statement, which is usually negative. These types of questions could easily slant the story or influence your answer. Don’t agree if it is not true. Sometimes it is best to start your answer with a definite “No.” Then give the correct information. For example, a reporter may ask, “Don’t you agree that the new procedures will add a significant burden to local residents?” Don’t repeat the negative. Instead, answer: “No. The new procedure will give us an opportunity to significantly increase our service to residents with no additional cost to them.”
If the reporter accuses you or your organization of making a mistake, accept responsibility if the information is correct, but quickly move on by saying, “We should not have done it that way. Here is what we have done to make sure it does not happen again.” If the question contains inaccurate information, don’t react defensively. Correct the record immediately and bridge to a message.