Mastering Tough Questions From the Media

By George Merlis Friday, October 9, 2009

Back in the early 1980s, when I was producing the “CBS Morning News” (now renamed “The Early Show”) Diane Sawyer, the co-anchor, booked an interview with former President Richard M. Nixon.

This was a considerable time after Mr. Nixon had undergone the grilling by David Frost depicted in the play and movie, “Frost/Nixon,” and through his books, articles and speeches, the former president had recast himself as an elder statesman. Moreover, Ms. Sawyer had been an aide in Nixon’s White House and when he left Washington in disgrace, she was one of a tiny handful of staffers who accompanied him into his temporary exile in San Clemente, CA, where she helped him organize his papers.

So you can understand how the former president, now living on an estate in New Jersey, might expect a benign interview from Ms. Sawyer. What he got was an on-camera third degree that made the Frost interview look like a tea party in Mayfair.

My point is apolitical; it is simply that every reporter, even one you know well,  is capable of doing a tough interview. Perhaps, because he anticipated gentle handling, Mr. Nixon was atypically ill-prepared for the onslaught.

I tell this story to all my media-training clients because I want them to prepare for tough questions, even when they assume the interview occasion is unlikely to prompt them. In fact, I have formulated a law of interviews:  “Anyone unprepared for tough questions will be asked tough questions.”

Here's a case history:  I was preparing a financial services company for a news conference announcing the California test rollout of a new credit card product. When I asked them what tough questions reporters might ask. The lead spokesperson said, “Oh, we won't get any tough questions. This product is so great.”

“O.K.,” I said. “Pretend Ralph Nader is coming to the news conference. What will he ask?”

“Well,” said the lead spokesperson, “he'd probably ask where he could sign up for our product.” That brought laughter from his fellow panelists.

Do I  need to tell you what happened at the news conference? The first question was worthy of a criminal prosecutor in its tone, severity, and insight.  The spokespersons just sat at their table with their mouths open. What happened next was the journalistic equivalent of a shark feeding frenzy; the reporters tore them to shreds.

Interestingly, a year later there was a national rollout at a New York news conference and this time the clients drilled extensively, developing persuasive answers to tough questions. They were ready for combat, but this time there was no reportorial onslaught. Perhaps lulled by the huge buffet breakfast the client laid out, the New York and national reporters didn't ask a single tough question.

But it's better to prepare for the tough questions and not get them than to be unprepared and and suffer a barrage of them. What’s the best way to do this? Write down your nightmare questions and then formulate answers. But don’t stop there; you want to use those tough questions to transition to your own message points.

The way you do this is my four-step process: Acknowledge, Bridge, Message Point, Shut Up.

What do I mean?

Acknowledge: Here’s the shortest acknowledgement I know of: “No,”

Bridge: Here’s the shortest bridge I know of, “As a matter of fact.”

Message Point: Here you insert your own agenda point.

Shut Up: Don’t go back and reference the original question.

But what if the reporter asks the question again? Well, he’s just opened the door for you to bridge to a second of your agenda points.

Of course none of this works unless you HAVE an agenda. I always recommend coming up with a five point agenda for every interview. Then, come up with tough questions and cut-and-paste agenda points under each tough question. What you now have is a visual road map you’ll drive down if you get any of your nightmare questions.

And if you don’t get the tough questions, you’ll still have an agenda to deploy. The corollary to the law: “Anyone unprepared for tough questions will get them” is “Anyone prepared for tough questions may get them but it won’t matter.”

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