Reporters can be a wily bunch. In their efforts to get to the truth, bottom of the story, real deal, or the inside skinny, they just might let slip a tricky question.
If you are on the receiving end of such an inquiry, the last thing you want to let slip is a less-than-ideal answer. There are ways to address such interrogatory snags, including the techniques we teach in our media training classes. As a spokesperson, you need to know the types of tricky questions reporters ask and how to answer them. We give you seven.
Journalists, investigators, talk-show hosts, teachers, and parents have all learned that blunt, startling questions often provoke blunt and startling answers. So, keep these tips handy.
Learn how to punt being too blunt, but come across as plain-spoken. Now, that’s a trick.
7 Tricky Questions Reporters Ask
1. The ones that stump you
In any given interview, a question may challenge your recall. A reporter may not necessarily be trying to stump you, but her question leaves you flat-footed, nevertheless.
Unless the interview is a challenging one or is hostile, the fact that you don’t know an answer shouldn’t provoke undue anxiety. You have several options.
Option No. 1 – A simple “I don’t know,” could suffice. If you have the time and resources, you might say: “I don’t know, but I will get you that information and follow-up with a more complete answer.” The next approach comes in handy if you or the reporter do not have the luxury of a follow-up interview, or the question concerned knowledge that you really should have had.
Option No. 2 – Tell the journalist what you know, not what you don’t. For example, you are a spokesperson for a bank, and you are asked what the household saving percentage rate is in the United States. You do not know that number, but that is not what you are going to say. Instead, you might offer this:
“That rate has been in flux for more than a decade, as economic factors, such as the global financial crisis, made it difficult for the average person or family to set aside more of their disposable income into savings. What remains consistent, however, is the desire to set aside that nest egg. What we know is that people count on those funds for short-term needs, such as unexpected repairs or other emergencies. They also consider them a base for a long-term plan in establishing the funds they need for bigger purchases or retirement.”
Many interviewers will likely cease this line of questioning and move on to the next thought. If a reporter presses, however, you would go back to Option No. 1.
Option No. 3 – If you are not the right person to answer a given question, it’s okay to say so. Simply concede that is not your area of expertise and offer to connect the reporter with someone who is. For instance, you are the head brewer for a craft beer company and during an interview, you are asked about the company’s financials – something to which you are not privy. Here’s how you could handle the situation:
“While I am well versed about grains and hops, I leave the dollars and cents to the people here who do that best. I’d be happy to connect you with someone who could answer that question.”
2. The ones that call for you to speculate
Most people don’t have to worry about whether their everyday, garden-variety predictions end up being true or not. Did they think traffic would be light, but instead found themselves in gridlock? Such is life. However, when it comes to media interviews, unless you are a seer, it’s probably best not to speculate. Still, among tricky questions reporters ask, predicting the future is a popular one.
Some questions can be innocuous. If you are a doctor, and the reporter asks you what the obesity epidemic in the United States will do to the cost of health care, you might offer a glimpse of the future based on facts. In general, it’s best not to engage in any theory or supposition that is not based on firm evidence. Several things can happen if you let slip incorrect information. You could:
- Escalate a situation unnecessarily.
- Provide incorrect information.
- Be proven wrong.
Here’s a scenario: You are the spokesperson for an electric company. An intense storm has knocked out power to thousands of people. A reporter asks you to speculate as to when power will be restored to all customers. Frustrations are probably high, so it’s important not to overpromise with a speculative answer. If you can reliably conclude a time frame, then go ahead and answer. Otherwise, respond with what you do know:
“Our crews are working as quickly as they can to restore power to our customers. At this time, I am unable to give exact times as to restoration. I can tell you we have crews across the county working tirelessly to get the power restored to thousands of customers. We are restoring power to critical areas first, those places with hospital and safety services, and then moving to repairs in areas that serve the most customers. We won’t rest until we get to each and every customer.”
3. The ones that seek your personal opinion
Conflicts between personal opinion and company policy occur frequently. Let’s say you are a spokesperson for a government agency that recently raised entrance fees to area parks and beaches. Personally, you feel the spike will make it prohibitive to the people who need that space the most.
After a reporter initially asks about the party line, he pivots and asks how you feel, personally, about the new policy. What can you do? Here is something to consider:
Don’t give your personal opinion.
We must be blunt. Most of the time, it’s best to keep your opinions to yourself when it comes to this tricky question reporters ask.
However, there are instances when spokespersons and subject matter experts have leeway to speak their minds. For example, a global institution may have an expert who can talk about a geopolitical conflict in terms of what she witnessed and her opinion on the situation. Or, a think tank’s resident economist is asked his opinion about the numbers included in one of his reports.
If you have a strong moral objection to a new policy and feel compelled to say that, you’re probably not the right spokesperson for the topic. Ideally, you work out moral discrepancies internally, rather than on a televised news program or through a newspaper article.
Even if you offer your personal opinion as your own and not one of your company, the reporter will still identify you as a spokesperson of that agency. That disconnect can seriously wallop your message. Here are several reasons why:
- The audience may focus solely on the conflict between your ideals and those of your company, rather than the message or news you are trying to convey.
- Readers will be challenged to make sense of the message disconnect.
- You will be unsuccessful in accomplishing your major goal, which is to make your message land and stick.
How do you navigate out of this one?
- Address the request. Share with the reporter that you are speaking on behalf of your company or agency.
- Create a transition. It could go something like this: “I understand this represents a rather significant jump in prices. But, as a spokesperson for the department, I can tell you that we looked at what our facilities offered and what it takes to run them. We concluded that a price increase helps to create a better experience for the people who use our facilities.”
- Stay vigilant. Be careful not to say anything that contradicts your organization’s views. Those conflicts may become the news, rather than the news you hope to deliver.
4. The ones that try to put words in your mouth
At the more innocuous end of this less-than-ideal situation, reporters may only be trying to get a straight answer to a challenging question. (“So, you are saying that repairs to the driving garage will result in fewer spaces but higher costs. Isn’t that correct?”) Or, they want to get past the jargon. (“By saying you want to eliminate the health threat mosquitoes pose, you are just saying you are going to do more insecticide spraying, right?”) However, there are situations where reporters come in with an angle and will exploit that by paraphrasing your words.
If a reporter paraphrases your words, don’t accept the paraphrase unless it is completely accurate. If it’s not, correct the statement in your own words without using any of the reporter’s loaded language. You can’t control what the reporter will do with the information, but you can control what you offer. So, here’s an example:
You are the spokesperson for a multinational corporation with employees around the globe. At some of the company’s manufacturing sites, workers have demanded higher wages and better working conditions but have met with resistance from management. A reporter comes to the interview intent on contrasting the company’s purported culture with its reaction to the workers.
Reporter: “Right on your website, you tout yourself as a corporation that cares for its employees and responds quickly to their concerns. It sounds as if that philosophy doesn’t apply when it comes to these workers.”
You: “I disagree with that characterization. The employees have raised several issues, and it is our responsibility to learn more, engage in a productive dialogue, and work together, where possible, to resolve them.”
Reporter: “If what you say is true, why is this issue dragging out for months? I ask again, what’s the delay?”
You: “We’d rather get it right than offer the wrong remedy quickly. We are taking this time to assess their concerns and develop an in-depth response that addresses them meaningfully.”
The exchange may result in even more of the tricky questions reporters ask. In each response, your goal is to reinforce the messages you want to tell and deliver, rather than helping the reporter to create a headline that would not help your company, its brands, or its efforts to resolve the situation.
5. The ones that come out of left field
In 2018, during an interview with NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell, Dan Coats, the U.S. director of national intelligence, didn’t necessarily receive an out of left field question by Mitchell. Rather, it was a piece of news that had him momentarily speechless.
During a talk at the 2018 Aspen Security Forum, held by the Aspen Institute in Colorado, Mitchell interrupted her line of questions to report that the White House had announced, via Twitter, that Russian President Vladimir Putin was coming to the White House that fall. While that ultimately did not occur, Coats first reaction was this “Say that again …?” (See the video below.)
During questions and answer session later, Coats was asked if he had been aware of that visit. Here’s how that went:
Coats: “I think based on my reaction I wasn’t aware of that.”
Question: “OK, given that, what do you think the agenda should be for that meeting?”
Coats: “Oh, goodness. First of all, they are not going to ask me what the agenda is. We will be looking at what the potential intelligence risk could possibly be. And, we will make that information known to the president. And we will provide him with whatever information we can gather relative to what might be on Putin’s mind or what they might want to achieve. But, you know, here we are 15 to 20 minutes into this breaking news, about this, so I think this is something we will just have to assess going forward.”
Mitchell: “Would you recommend that there would not be a one on one without notetakers?
Coats: “If I were asked that question, I would look for a different way of doing it.”
In the above exchange, Coats experienced what could have been a tough situation, given the unexpected nature of the news. Coats utilized several strategies that work in just such a situation. He responded to the news, answered questions from the audience, and suggested he needed more time to discuss it further.
Reporters, in general, may spring the unexpected later in the interview, long after they have delivered a series of “easier” questions. The zing is intended to catch you off-guard.
Here are some of the ways to keep yourself rooted:
Answer the question. A response nearly always plays better to the audience. And, if you’ve practiced or undergone media training, you should have the tools and resources to handle even the toughest questions. (If you must be circumspect, however, you can see how to deliver a “no comment” answer without really saying, “no comment.”)
Deflect the question. If the question is wildly off-base from the topics the reporter indicated would be covered, you can indicate that you would be happy to schedule more time at a later date to discuss other issues. This is a good option if the topic is not in your wheelhouse, or the audience wouldn’t expect you to know much about it. The danger here is answering a question in such a way that does more harm than not answering it at all.
Offer a wider picture. If the reporter’s question is about a specific point, you can answer the questions by giving a more general response. For instance, it is Monday and within an hour you have an interview set up with a local reporter to talk about your year of growth. Over the weekend, one of your employees ran afoul with the law, and you are not yet aware of it. It made the local news, and the reporter has taken the opportunity to ask you about it. When asked, you could say: “As a matter of policy, we don’t speak about personnel matters. However, when we learn of a possible incident, we immediately begin an internal investigation and take any necessary disciplinary actions promptly.”
6. The ones that seek a critique
Conflict, whether found between the covers of a novel, on the front page, or on a flat screen, drives stories. Reporters take advantage of these tensions to pit one side against the other. They are particularly attuned to any critical or negative quotes. Here’s a scenario:
You are the CEO of a manufacturing company that is No. 2 in your industry. The reporter is gunning for a critique of the top competitor. There may be times that you want to say something critical about the competition. Therefore, if your competitor’s product is inferior to your own, go ahead and say it. By highlighting genuine drawbacks, you might gain back some market share. However, such an approach must be intentional and deeply rooted as part of an overall media strategy.
If a critique is not what you want to project, here’s a way to keep it positive:
Reporter: “Do you think your competitors’ products are superior to your own? Is that why they command market share?”
If you say “No, I don’t,” you’ve just given the reporter this: “Company X’s products aren’t all that, says Company Y’s CEO.” Here’s a better way:
“I’ll let Company X speak for itself, but what I can tell you is what we have learned from our consumers. They tell us our products last longer and work better than others on the market. If products last, there is less need for replacement. We consider this a good problem to have.”
7. The ones that employ shaky attribution
It’s the stuff of middle-school playgrounds. Here’s the scenario: Jake tells Emily that Sarah said that Emily dresses weirdly and laughs too loud. If Emily responds to Jake’s take of what Sarah said, then she might say something she regrets (based on information that was never even true in the first place).
Such shenanigans may play out during your media interview. A reporter may opt to utilize shaky attribution to go fishing for some controversial comments. Beware of questions with lead-ins such as, “Rumor has it …,” “My sources say …,” or “The word on the street is ….”
In today’s media landscape, the use of unnamed sources doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Stories are peppered with anonymous sources. Meanwhile, journalistic organizations have looked in to their use, as well.
If the indirect attribution accurately addresses a common belief, then you must address it. Overall, however, it is better not to discuss comments attributed to anonymous parties. You almost guarantee that the story will be focused on your reaction to those comments rather than on your messages. Here’s how to get out of that trap:
Your answer: “I’m not going to spend time on what unnamed sources said, but I’ll address the topic more generally.”
Sometimes, you are faced with direct attribution. For instance, a reporter asks you to comment on a report that you have not seen. You might say:
“I haven’t seen that report and want to examine it to understand the complete context before commenting.”
No tricks, just tips
Media spokespersons may, from time to time, experience some challenging situations while responding to tricky questions reporters ask. One last thing to remember: While not every reporter intends to prosecute or trip up their sources, reporters are very good at asking the questions that get to the bottom of the story.
These techniques and tips give you the tools you need to tell your story.
This article originally appeared on the Throughline Group blog; reprinted with permission.