One Free Lesson in Media Relations
When I wrote about wine for the Boston Globe I was frequently asked what wine I would have with me if I were shipwrecked on a deserted island and could only have one. (Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-pape if anyone's interested in sending me a case).
I was thinking about that the other day - while at a wine dinner. But now that I'm in PR and media relations I wondered what I would say if someone asked: "If you could give one tip to someone about how to handle a media interview, what would it be?"
Good question. I impulsively thought: "Don't use the phrase 'binders of women.'" But that was too flip. There's a more elegant and practical tip that I give to all my clients and I'm going to offer it here for free. Mostly because it's frequently violated no matter how many times I drill it into someone's head.
The tip is this: DON'T REPEAT NEGATIVE QUESTIONS.
That's it. Sounds easy but it isn't. We have this human propensity to repeat questions whenever we're asked. Most of the time it's benign: "Hey, how's the weather?"
"The weather? It's sunny."
"How are you feeling today?"
"How am I feeling? Terrific."
You see what I mean. This habit, if that's what it is, doesn't matter much in most situations. Though it's kind of annoying. In an interview with a reporter, however, it could be fatal.
I'll give you a couple of examples. Once I interviewed the CFO of a financial firm and he was explaining some arcane feature the company had initiated that was supposed to be beneficial to its customers and shareholders. I understood very little of it but had heard some whispering in the business community that it was somewhat suspicious. After nearly dozing off during this guy's lengthy technical diatribe I finally said: "I don't know. It sounds like a scam to me."
Here's what the fellow should have said: "We have experimented with this program for some time and it has shown great results and the regulators have approved it and even encouraged companies like ours to introduce consumer-friendly programs like this."
Actually, that's what he did say. Only he preceded that sentence by essentially repeating my question: "I can understand why some would say this is a scam." he said. "But it's not."
My job was done. I had my quote. No one had previously mentioned the word "scam" to me. I wouldn't have been able to use the word in the article I was planning to write had he not echoed the phrase. And sure enough, when the story appeared the editors broke out the quote and blew it up in italics next to his head shot and there it was: "I can understand why some would say this is a scam." It was a Nixonian "I am not a crook" moment.
Unfair? Maybe. (The guy was later indicted for accounting irregularities so I don't feel too bad).
Maybe that seems like an obvious boneheaded mistake by someone who didn't know better. He definitely could have benefited from some media training. But I've seen it played out in more situations by more sophisticated people. The head of a professional sports club was once interviewed about his team's disappointing year and a reporter asked the executive if the fans were owed an apology.
Here's what he should have said: "Our fans are sophisticated and knowledgable and realize that championship seasons are rare and depend on a combination of great skill and plain luck. As long as they know we're committed to excellence on the field and assembling the best team we can, they'll stick with us and understand that injuries and other unforseen factors can sink even the best teams in some years."
Actually, that's what he did say. Except that - you know what - he repeated the question first. "We don't owe anyone an apology. Our fans realize...."
And you know how the story was framed the next day "Team President XYZ said yesterday he owes no one an apology for the dismal performance of his team this year."
You get the idea. The whole notion of apologies and scams would never have been mentioned had the subject not repeated the reporter's words.
Take notice during the day how many times someone repeats someone else's question or uses words from the question in a response and you'll realize how much of a natrual reflexive action it is. It takes serious discipline to ignore the words given to you in the question and respond without using them. Like I said, most of the time it doesn't matter. Until you read it in the paper.
UPDATE: Obama Ignores My Advice and Pays the Price.
Just hours after posting the above blog entry, the President appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and was asked about his administration's handling of the consulate attack in Benghazi, Lybia: "Because I would say, even you would admit," Stewart said, "it was not the optimal response, at least to the American people, as far as all of us being on the same page"
Obama should have just said "We're going to fix it." But, as in the above examples, he preceded his response using a word from the question: "If four Americans get killed, it's not optimal."
And Republicans have pounced, charging that the president's use of the word "optimal" betrays a level of cold insensitivity on his part when, of course, he was just echoing the questioner. Not good.
Here's the video.