How to Effectively, Seamlessly and Honestly Nail the Interview by Answering the Toughest, Dirty, Trap Media Questions

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In my previous blog post, I talked about the how to best prepare messaging for a media interview (or a business meeting) by building a bridge from the question to your message.

But how do you answer the really tough questions? To get started, let’s first review the messages surrounding the launch of our sample product or service:

  • Last several years developing, testing and refining new technology
  • Enables consumers to accomplish tasks faster and more efficiently
  • Target audience is men and women 35-54 years old; educated; high disposable income
  • Vastly improves existing technology

And the possible types of questions:

  • Late to market
  • Too expensive
  • Not going to succeed
  • Already outdated
  • Not needed

My contention is that the toughest trap question is nothing more than a great chance to get your messages across (once you concisely answer the question). Let’s take a look at some of the most common trap questions:

  • A or B Questions:  “Was it poor planning or poor execution that made you guys late to market?” The A or B question is asked in a way that suggests an answer.  However, the options offered may not be the correct response.  You can pick an alternate direct response: Answer:  “Neither. The new technology vastly improves the outdated technology…
  • Hypothetical Questions:  “If this new technology flops, will the company survive?”  The iffy question asks you to predict the future.  This type of question usually asks you to accept the hypothesis. Instead, you can reject the theory and create one of your own.  Thus, the answer is: “That’s not going to happen.  We’ve spent the last several years developing…”
  • Third Party Questions:  You never have to argue with or defend anyone else.  Third parties include but are not limited to: competitors, industry analysts, other people in the company, customers or other industries. The best answer to questions about other people is: “Ask them,” or “I can’t speak for them.” Then you can bridge to the issue in the question by simply saying, “What I can tell you is…”
  • Unfair/untrue Statements:  These questions contain misleading or untrue assertions or the question may include inflammatory words or phrases.  “Why are you charging so much for a technology that is outdated?” Here there are several incorrect statements. You never want to repeat back the negatives, but you can absolutely disagree with the premise. “That’s not true. This technology vastly improves existing technology and we are targeting men and women with a high disposable income…”

While there are certainly other types of “trap questions” that may or may not be designed to trip you up, proper preparation should prevent any of them from becoming an issue. Also, remember there are questions you don’t have to answer – competitive, security, etc.

The process – boiled down – comes down to listening and making sure you understand the question; answering it short and sweet and either bridging to your pre-prepared messages OR answering the question short and sweet and wait for the next question if you don’t have anything relevant to say.

My next and final post in this series will tie everything together by providing message preparation steps and tips.

How the Three-Column Approach is the Best Way to Getting Your Messages Across AND Answering the Reporter’s Question

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When we last left our Strategy of Answering Questions blog, we were talking about – among other things – the ways to answer questions including not necessarily the way the media would like us to do so.

So, let’s get a little interactive. Grab a piece of paper. I’ll wait….

Draw three columns, making the middle column much narrower than the right and left columns. Label the right column Messages.

Now, think about a particular topic. This is the topic that was pitched to the media or – if reactionary – the topic the media is asking to talk about. Let’s say, the launch of a new product or service. Write down those points we want to get across. Think about it like you have a three-minute commercial to fill with facts. At this point, we aren’t sculpting true messages or worrying about anything other than those things associated with the launch.

I think it’s fair to say the points could look something like this:

  • Last several years developing, testing and refining new technology
  • Enables consumers to accomplish tasks faster and more efficiently
  • Target audience are men and women 35-54 years old; educated; high disposable income
  • Vastly improves existing technology

Pretty good list. Could have more bullets, but you get the idea. Label the column on the left side Questions and think about all the types of questions that may be asked.

Don’t look at the messages. Just think about the types of questions and jot those down.  Could look something like:

  • Late to market
  • Too expensive
  • Not going to succeed
  • Already outdated
  • Not needed

Again, you get the idea. Also, please note that I specifically did not write the questions in sentence format. Reality is a reporter isn’t going to repeat your questions verbatim. There are multiple ways a question can be asked and this prepares you to get comfortable with answering any type of questions – – even the tough ones.

Now if you take a look at both the left and right columns, you’ll see that the column on the right relates to the column on the left. Your message points may not specifically address the question, but they certainly relates to them.

But what about the middle column? Glad you asked.

The short, narrow middle column are for your Answers. The column is short and narrow to remind you to keep your answers short. You absolutely want to answer questions because you don’t want to sound like a politician, but you are taking part in an interview because you have messages you want to get across. Messages on a topic that you’ve already agreed upon.

So, a question is asked, concisely answered and “bridged” to your message points. Bridging is the technique that allows you to get from a question to your positive message. The secret to successful bridging is answering the question.  Whenever you’re asked a question give a short, honest answer, then bridge to the positive message you’ve prepared in advance. If you don’t have a positive message prepared in advance on the question’s subject, give a short honest answer and stop.

Next up – how exactly do you answer those really tough questions? Like, “Was it poor planning or poor execution that made you late to market?” or “What if the new technology fails?” Fear not. The toughest question is nothing more than a great opportunity to get your messages across.

Strategy of Answering Questions – Three Spokesperson Rights and Three Ways to Answer a Question (All Involve Answering Honestly)

BARBARA WALTERS, JUSTIN BIEBER

In the first post of this series on the Strategy of Answering Questions, I provided an overview on how and why the strategy and tactics used in “spokesperson training” for a media interview can be applied to any business meeting, presentation or conversation. I also made it clear the PR professionals’ job isn’t over after the interview is booked and the training occurs.

In this post, we will talk about the rights you have when you agree to an interview and the three ways to answer a question.

Our spokesperson has three rights we – as PR professionals – need to be aware of:

The Right to Be Prepared – A spokesperson should never enter into an interview without a clear understanding of what the interview is about.

The good PR professional is going to provide a briefing sheet. This is a given. But, know your spokesperson. The purpose of the briefing sheet is not to prove your existence or worth. More may not be better. You don’t want your spokesperson to overanalyze a reporter or try to be too clever by referencing some obscure fact you found about the reporter.

It should include basic information on the outlet and why it is important (our target/real audience reads it, etc.). Same for the reporter. If there are relevant stories, you may want to include.

Part of making sure your spokesperson is properly prepared is letting him/her know that it is okay to conduct an interview with notes in front of them. Whether over the phone, in-person or – in many instances – on television. Work with the spokesperson in determining what they prefer – – note cards, etc.

The Right to be Comfortable – It is important to be comfortable for two reasons.  First, when you are physically comfortable, you will be more confident. Second, you should be thinking about your message, and physical comfort will allow you to do that.

The good PR professional will not only make sure the spokesperson is comfortable, but aware of the task at-hand. For example, if conducting an interview over the phone, make sure the interview is on a landline or on a cell where there will be consistent, good coverage. No speaker. No driving. No distractions.

The Right to Be Treated Fairly – Common courtesy is not always common in an interview. Part of our role is to make sure our spokesperson understands who he/she is talking to – – a reporter/anchor is allowed to ask tough questions but should “call it down the middle” while a columnist/commentator is getting paid to offer up an opinion.

If a media outlet has the reputation of being off-color or irreverent, go in with your eyes open. If the topic you are discussing is explosive, the interview may be.

When it comes to answering a question, there are three ways:

Direct, Immediate Response – Whenever possible, this is the best way to answer a question. You definitely want to convey your willingness to answer tough questions.

Sometimes people ask non-questions like:  “Tell us about your company,” or “Describe your strategy with this new move.” These “questions” are simply an invitation to start talking.  The interviewer is “handing you the microphone” and asking you to communicate.  Take this opportunity to define your company or cause.

After Thought – There are some questions that require you to think before you answer.  Since you don’t want to stare at anyone in stunned silence, these are techniques that will give you time to think:

  • Ask the questioner to repeat or rephrase the question.  The question will always be easier the second time.  Even if the question is repeated verbatim, it buys you some time to think about your answer.
  • Repeat or rephrase the question yourself.  “If I understand you correctly, what you’re asking is” or “The key point you are raising in your question is” or “What is important for the audience to know is…”
  • You can also think aloud to buy some time.  “That dates back to the a few years ago” or “Let me just provide a perspective to that…”

Try not to overuse these techniques. Save them for those situations when they are really needed.

Not at All – There are questions you don’t have to answer…well, sort of. You do have to give a direct response explaining why you are not going to answer the question.  These responses include:

  • “That’s personal.”  Questions about your salary, voting record, hobbies, personal opinions.
  • “We consider that competitive information,” “Our competitors would love to know that.”  Questions about corporate strategy, profit margins, expansion plans, new products or services are proprietary.
  • “I really can’t talk about it while it’s in litigation.”  There are legal reasons for not answering questions.
  • “Negotiations are in progress.”  You don’t have to reveal the progress of ongoing negotiations or private discussions.
  • “It wouldn’t be smart to give a blueprint to our security.”  You don’t have to answer questions about these precautions.
  • “I don’t know the answer to that question.” The best reason of all not to answer a question is that you truly don’t know the answer. Abraham Lincoln said it best – – “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

One of two things will happen:  A question is asked and since you have agreed to the topic, and you’ve prepared ahead of time, you will concisely answer that question and “bridge” to your message points. Or, a question is asked and you don’t know the answer. Tell them that and wait for the next question.

You may have heard people complain that a reporter took their words out of context.  Odds are, the reporter didn’t do that. Odds are that person went off his message or tried to answer a question he wasn’t prepared to answer. The same could be said if someone “misinterprets” something you said. Never try to guess the right answer to a question.

Now that you know how to answer and what you can and cannot answer, the next post will talk about the process you should go through when preparing your messages and the technique of bridging, or transitioning from your answer to your message.

Prepping Your Spokesperson is More than Just How to do an Interview

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Few weeks back I talked about the Four Ways to Make Sure Your Spokesperson Isn’t ‘Taken Out of Context’ by the Media. It was a much-abridged version of media training; something that is near and dear to me and a topic I was asked by several people to expand upon.

Before I do anything, I must credit the late, great Ken Fairchild who I was lucky enough to spend time with, learning this craft. Many consider Ken the “Godfather of Spokesperson Training” for he started this “take” on media training in the 1970s. Ken was a good man and is dearly missed.

Now, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I dislike calling these training sessions’ media or spokesperson training. The fact is, while these sessions are designed to prepare an individual to handle the toughest of interviews from 60 Minutes, 20/20 and the like, what is being taught is a strategy of answering questions that can be applied to conducting new business meetings, presentations to clients or vendors, or any conversation where you are wanting to get your message across. Works with everyone except my wife.

Another little secret. If our spokesperson goes through training and we stop our work after we secure the interview and review key messages, we are just as much to blame if an interview goes wrong.

Without the proper training, most people when confronted with a media interview surrender their right to be an equal participant in a two-party conversation. An interviewee often behaves like a witness under a subpoena and not an active participant with a message to convey to a larger audience.

Remember, a media interview is more than just an agreement to answer a reporter’s questions. You participate in an interview because you have a message you want your real audience to receive (that said, and I cannot stress this enough – – you must answer the question).

Prior to the start of the interview, the PR professional should restate to the interviewer the purpose of the interview and what the spokesperson is going to bring to the table. If the spokesperson is by him/herself, he/she needs to do this.

Sometimes things get lost in translation between producer who was pitched and anchor/host who is doing the story. Doing this level sets, addresses any confusion and provides you or the spokesperson to possibly “test-drive” a key message you want to get across. This should be done with all interviews, not just broadcast. It reinforces what you are wanting to talk about.

As an interviewee, you have certain rights. In my next blog post, I’ll discuss what those rights are, and how you can leverage them to make sure you not only answer the questions, but do so and get your messages across.

Managing My (Now) 8 PR Pet Peeves – – All I Need is Love

Beatles - All You Need Is Love

Earlier this year I wrote about my five PR Pet Peeves:

#5: Client or prospect says, “I want to hire someone that has a good Rolodex” insinuating that the relationship we have precludes the story we are pitching.

#4: Those who want to send the pitch out to everyone and see who picks it up.

#3: Let’s spin that. Put a positive spin on that. Go do some PR on that.

#2: There’s no such thing as bad PR.

#1: I didn’t say that. The reporter took what I said out of context.

Apparently, I have more peeves of the pet variety:

Sending out a news release without following up – The caveat here is if you are sending out a release over the wire (PR Newswire, Business Wire, PR Web, etc.) for the sole reason of getting ranked higher on Google searches. Go for it. May want to consider writing a blog instead, but have at it.

However, if you are thinking the Good Morning America producer, the education reporter at the Washington Post or the business editor at the Chicago Tribune are waiting to receive your release sent out over one of the PR newswire services, forget it. Not going to happen. Major media. In the United States.

If you are a publicly-held company reporting your earnings, yes, the business wire services (Reuters, Dow Jones, Bloomberg) may use parts of the release – including a quote – but for the average company sending out a release over the wire thinking that major media (and a live person at the major outlet) will see and use…Not the case.

Relying on the vehicle more than the message – Many people are enamored by the myriad of touchpoints available to reach their real audience. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the book of face, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. Companies should be absolutely taking advantage of these different ways to get what they want out to the right people. Those not doing so are not only missing the boat, they are missing opportunities to increase revenues, better public perception, etc.

The challenge occurs when the proper care is not used in developing and crafting the key messages. Empty and/or inappropriate/irrelevant messages do no good whatsoever.

Throwing marketing, advertising and PR under the same umbrella – While we are all communication professionals we all take a different approach. You wouldn’t want a podiatrist to perform heart surgery (trouble would be afoot). Asking an advertising agency to write a release is not the best approach. Ideally, you’d want the three disciplines to work together…wait a second, what am I doing….

I love public relations. Why am I focusing on some of the challenges we face on a daily basis? Here are three of the many aspects of public relations that rock:

Creating the story – The full story. Taking what we need to get across and developing around it. Looking at the story a different way. Going out for a walk and having “it” come to you. Bouncing your idea off of a colleague. Getting it to the compelling stage.

The chase – Knowing “that outlet” is the right one to reach the real audience and doing whatever it takes to get a hold off the reporter/producer and making it happen. Finding answers to possible hurdles.

Seeing the fruition of my efforts – The day I don’t find myself getting up early to get a copy of USA Today, looking on with anticipation at the local 5pm news or waiting – not so patiently – for the story to load on my laptop is the day I’ll be hanging it up.

What are your “loves” with public relations? Whatever they are, hold onto and embrace them – – they will help you manage and deal with those pesky pet peeves.

Five Must-Do’s Before Talking to the Media about a Crisis/Negative Story

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Last week I blogged about the questions I ask myself and the reporter when confronted with an unexpected “crisis” call (or email). Truth is, the real work comes into play before you ever enter into a conversion with the media.

This includes:

  • Getting the lay of the land – What is your industry and what are the potential issues? Are you in sales? Professional services?  Environmental? Engineering? Understand who your real audience is and what is important to them. Based on this, determine the main issues that may arise and those internal touchpoints responsible for those areas.

For example, if you are in a sales organization, get together with the sales leadership and discuss the types of issues – – poor sales experiences of customers; bad product – – and the reasons why they occur. Understanding every situation is different, start thinking about some broad stroke responses.

Ideally, you want to get to the point where key people are reaching out to you before something happens. For example, Legal and HR telling you before a large layoff is going to occur.

  • “You Talking To Me” – Develop a process in which all media roads start and end with you. Make it clear that if someone gets a call from/is approached by the media that the media should reach out to you. Identify all of the realistic groups within the company that may get approached.

A few years back I received a call on my cell from the head of our security. Our office was closed because of a health scare and the media were at our front door (apparently an employee leaked the internal memo to the media). Security told the reporter he wasn’t authorized to talk, but gave the reporter my name and number. He called me before the reporter did and gave me a heads-up. When the reporter called, I was prepared and was able to provide information ensuring “outbreak” would not be used in her segment.

  • The buck stops… – Be clear as to who needs to see and approve responses. Less is more. Explain to Legal and HR the deadline nature of the media and the negatives of not responding in a timely fashion.

Get on the same page on the way to answer questions or situations surrounding security, competition, court cases, etc. – – “we aren’t going to talk specifics because our competition would love to know that.” The more you can agree on the better.

  • Talk to third-party groups – This can be helpful when the story in question really isn’t a company story but more of an industry issue. Reach out to trade associations, industry analysts and see what topics they are comfortable in answering.

If the story is about how nobody is using your product anymore, tell the media it is one thing for me to say it’s not true, but here’s an analyst (or trade association or customer) who covers the industry and will tell you the facts.

  • Don’t answer calls from people you don’t know – Paranoid? Yes, maybe a little – – what do you mean by that? Fact is, the media will leave you a message and may provide some insight as to why they are calling. This allows you to quickly get the facts from the appropriate parties.

Try to manage the expectations of all the appropriate people by providing an email overview of what the story is going to be, with our response and reasoning behind the response. Be the first to see/read the story and provide the same group a recap (we want to be the one to frame the message/tell the story).

Arguably, the most important part of this occurs after the story runs and the recap email is sent – – whenever possible/appropriate,  making sure whatever the issue was, is addressed and fixed to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Keep notes. Show reoccurring trends. Hold people accountable. The best response to the media means nothing if the problem(s) persist. It will hurt the company and it will hurt your reputation.

Six Questions to Determine Whether You Give an Interview, Provide a Statement or Send the Media to Someone Else

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Last week I talked about media misperceptions some people have and how to go about conducting a positive interview, free of “I was taken out of context” and other concerns.

But what do you do when you receive a call from the media regarding a less than spectacular topic?

Perhaps your client/company has an unhappy customer and the dreaded “consumer advocate” reporter reaches out to you. Or, an email asking for an interview regarding your recent office closing in which XXX employees (fill in your own amount; whatever it is, it is too many) were laid off. Can I interest you in “nobody is using your wasteful product” or maybe “we are outside of your office right now because we heard…” for your viewing pleasure?

Good times, I know.

First, the bad news. We need to respond to the inquiry and “no comment” does not count. Think about it. These days “no comment” or not responding is French for “I’m guilty” and immediately hurts our reputation.

Now, the better news. There are ways to respond that will allow us to best tell our side of the story. To get to that point where we can best tell our side of the story, let’s take a step back.

I get an email or phone call from the media. Couple of things I want to know and some things I’m asking myself:

  1. Who is the reporter (what beat/type of reporter) and what is the story?
  2. Deadline?
  3. Am I/is my company a direct part of the story or are we a piece/part of a different story?
  4. Who else has the reporter spoken to/is part of the story
  5. How is the story going to impact my different real audiences? How are they going to feel about us?
  6. Are there any relevant positive messaging?

Answering these questions will help me determine:

  • Am I or my appropriate company spokesperson conducting an interview?
  • Will I provide them with a statement?
  • Is there, legitimately, a better entity/person/company than is more suited to comment on the story to make it better?

Interview versus Statement versus Someone Else

No matter the vehicle we use for the response, the response itself is going to be the truth. That is – as they say – non-negotiable. Anything other than the truth is going to bite you in the long run. If we have done something wrong, own up to it, be contrite and move on.

Reality is, in most instances the reporter already knows what he/she wants us to say. This premise is reinforced if you learn that the deadline is very tight and you are the last piece of the story (meaning the reporter has already spoken with X and Y).

If we have something positive to say and have the time to prep a spokesperson, use a spokesperson or do the interview yourself. Like any interview, what are the things we want to get across; what are the questions that are going to be asked; and can I answer those questions and bridge to the messages.

If you don’t have the time or we don’t have anything positive to say, use a statement. Short and to the point. “That shouldn’t have happened. We are working directly with our customer to make this right. We are also taking the necessary steps to make sure this never happens again.” Remember, you don’t have to get into every detail and certain topics involving security, competitiveness, etc. don’t have to be addressed.

In certain instances, there may be a chance to have someone else answer the question for you. A couple of years ago, a reporter called saying she was doing a story that afternoon on how nobody uses or benefits from my wasteful product. Do I care to comment?

She was wanting the corporate suit to defensively respond. Instead I offered an alternative. “What if I get you a business owner who relies on my product to feed his family,” I asked. Sold! A segment that started out as a negative turned into a neutral or, dare I say (I dare, I dare) a somewhat positive.

The overall moral of this story (or blog) is to always be prepared. Know the questions you want to ask and be attune as to how the media presents the situation to you. Be clear on how your company is impacted and what your real audience will think. Doing so will prevent massive cases of flop sweat (and you were wondering how I would tie that picture together).