The Weekly Media Trainer: Part 5

By George Merlis Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Fundamentals: Bridging and Flagging

The last two installments of media mastery fundamentals dealt with your interview agenda:  how to create one and how to make it compelling to the journalist.  First you have your ideas -- the message points -- and then you craft Grabbers that turn the ideas into soundbites or pull quotes.

But how do you get to that agenda point and your brilliant Grabber if the reporter doesn’t ask you the right questions, questions that provide easy paths to your agenda?  You use a four-step process called bridging.

Here are the steps:
1.    Acknowledge the question with a short-form answer.
2.    Build a bridge.
3.    Deploy your message, illustrated with a grabber.
4.    Shut up.  Don’t go back and revisit the original question.

Let’s go over those steps, using a hypothetical scenario.  Let’s say you are the president of the United States and you are sitting down with Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes.”   You’ve come into the interview with four agenda points.  One of them is: The recession is no excuse for postponing action on global climate change; quite the contrary, confronting the issue head-on will stimulate innovation, enhance America’s technology lead and supply 150,000 new jobs.   A grabber for this might be: “There is a silver lining to the carbon dioxide cloud.”

(Note: I made up a number for the jobs to illustrate a point: a specific, accurate number will be more effective than saying “many” or “a lot of” new jobs.  To some readers and listeners, “many” might be 15,000, to others, it might be a million. When dealing with the media, using the specific is always preferable to using a general term).

Now back to your “60 Minutes” interview, Mr. President.  Steve Kroft doesn’t do you the favor of asking about climate change.  Instead he asks questions about other matters.  You, as president, have gone through extensive media training and know how to use one of Kroft’s other questions to get the interview on track to your agenda.  So you bridge after he says: “Mr. President, there seems to be growing populist resentment against the automobile company bailouts.”

Okay, Mr. President, you have to get from car companies to global warming.  Here’s how you do it:

Step One, Acknowledge: “Yes, Steve, there is.  And it’s understandable.  People see these rescue plans as rewarding bad behavior: following the poor business model of incurring a lot of debt and building fuel-inefficient and polluting cars and SUVs.”

Step Two, Bridge: “But when the car companies emerge from this, they are going to be leaner, more efficient and their cars will become part of the solution, not part of the problem. The new cars they build will pollute less, contribute less to global climate change.”

Step Three, Message Point and Grabber: “This is another example of an opportunity wrapped in a challenge and why we should not -- indeed -- must not delay tackling climate change.  The silver lining to the carbon dioxide cloud is that overcoming the problem now will stimulate innovation, enhance America’s technology lead and create 150,000 new jobs.”

Step Four, Shut Up: You stop there.  You don’t go back and revisit the car companies.  To do so invites a follow-up on automobiles.  To stop at “150,000 new jobs,” invites a follow-up on global climate change or on those jobs.  In fact, if I were Kroft, my follow up would be: “Can you undertake something so challenging in time of recession?” Which, of course, plays right into your presidential agenda.

Shorter forms of acknowledging and bridging can be even more effective.  For instance, a question you can’t answer is a perfect springboard for diving quickly into an agenda point.

Acknowledge: “I don’t know.  I can find out for you.”

Bridge: “But what I do know is....”

Message Point: Deliver your message, illustrated with a compelling Grabber.

Shut up: Don’t go back and say, “As I say, I don’t know about the first, so I’ll find out for you....” Just end it with your Grabber.

When you’re bridging, you want to avoid segue whiplash -- that is, a transition that takes you so far from the original question that it is painfully obvious that you’ve just bridged. Also bridge judiciously; if you bridge every single question you’ll appear evasive to the reporter.  If you do it during a live TV or radio interview, the audience comes away thinking you are evasive.

Flagging is another get-the-interview-back-on-track tactic.  Let’s say you’ve acknowledged, bridged and gotten lost.  Or let’s say you find yourself giving an excruciatingly long and meandering answer.  The solution is to raise a flag.  What’s a flag?  It’s an expression like, “The real point is....” or “The most important thing to take away from this is...” or even, “The bottom line here is...” What you are saying, in effect, is, “Ignore everything I’ve said up to now, here comes the good stuff.”  (A flag MUST be followed by the good stuff, not more meandering. If you meander after you’ve flagged, you’ve tossed away your life vest and you are completely adrift.)  Flagging is an inelegant ladder and should be used only if you’ve dug yourself into a deep hole.  But it’s a lot more elegant that blathering on endlessly or dribbling off hesitatingly into an inconclusive silence.

Next week:  The ideal answers.  Keeping them short, simple, focused and making them media-friendly.

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