This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
Some politicians and top managers have mastered the art of avoiding answers to difficult media interview questions. Others haven’t. Some forethought can turn any interview into a more positive result.
I cringe every time an interviewee increases the impact of an awkward question by repeating it with a denial that only reinforces the accusation in the minds of the audience. For instance, “No, we haven’t used the funds improperly” or “No, our company isn’t heading towards bankruptcy.” They should not requote the question but should use positive language, instead saying something like “The funds have been used for a proper purpose – for …” and “Our financial position is quite viable.”
The spokesperson should be briefed to never say “As I said before…” when the interviewer persists in asking questions around a particular aspect of a topic on radio or television news. The program producer is likely to not use this piece of the interview because they intend to use the earlier quote. Therefore saying “As I said before…” only seems to double up unnecessarily on their earlier response. Where the listener or viewer may not have seen or heard the previous quote, then saying “As I said before..” spoils the flow of the audience’s understanding of the spokesperson’s responses.
The traditional news media still dominate the news sector ahead of social media, and so being aware of ways to prevent being ambushed in news interviews remains a valuable skill.
Dodging nasty questions can be achieved with some reasonable preparation and practice. Here are some smart ways you can deal with tough questions:
1. Acknowledge the question without answering it.
(“That’s a good question, and I think we should consider the implications by looking at…” [avoiding an answer].)
2. Ignore the question completely.
However, this is a high-risk approach because the interviewer may repeat the question or reword it slightly to return to the subject. This tends to make the interviewee look evasive.
3. Question the question.
(a) Request clarification or further information about the question. This works as a delaying tactic in a short interview.
(b) Reflect the question back to the interviewer (“Why do you ask me that?”)
4. Attack the question,
on the basis of:
(a) The question fails to tackle the important issue.
(b) The question is based on a false assumption.
(c) The question is factually inaccurate.
(d) The question is too personal or objectionable.
5. Decline to answer.
Refuse to answer on the basis that it is not your area of responsibility. (“You will have to ask [name, or ‘someone else’] about that because I’m not involved at all in that part of the situation.”)
6. Give an incomplete answer.
(a) Partial answer.
(b) Start to answer but change the subject.
(c) Negative answer. You state what won’t happen instead of what will happen.
7. State or imply the question has already been answered.
(“I’m not going to go over old ground.”)
8. Defer to the will of others.
Refer to the will of constituents or shareholders etc and imply you are doing your duty by complying with their will. (“Shareholders have asked me to take a firm line on this issue.”)
This article updated in 2020.
By Silvia Arto, Vice President of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, Chair of the European Regional
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