If you are contacted by a journalist unexpectedly, your first task is finding out what your role is in the story they plan to write. Therefore, is it fair that you ask questions before giving actual interview quotes. Also, you may need to alert your press department to ensure that you follow company guidelines.
Ask to find out: Which media is calling and why? Are you contacted to be a subject matter expert?
Provide one part of an argument (pro/con)? Are you just there to provide background information?
Are you’re the only interviewee or one of several? If so, who else?
You may find out from this pre-interview reversal of roles that you suspect you are sought out to be the villain of the story. Of course, do not ask this outright!
If the journalist seems to have information you did not think was in the public realm or is not very forthcoming about why they want to talk to you ahead of the appointment, you need time to prepare for a critical line of questioning. Here’s what to do.
- Buy yourself time. Do not agree to answer questions immediately, unless you are completely sure what you are in for and how to handle it. Ask to be able to call back sometime later – do not dodge this promise! If you do, you may see the storyline printed regardless, with a comment that you were not available for comment.
- Find out if you are indeed the right spokesperson. If so, find someone with whom to discuss your storyline and prepared answers, preferably with a communications background.
- Create a brief statement which will be your holding statement. You do not want to give long interviews with a critical slant. Most likely, the journalist already has a lot of information (true or alleged) and is looking for you to confirm or deny it.
- Keep your calm as you get back to the journalist. Do not seem defensive or annoyed – they are doing their job as a critical guard dog for the public. Answer briefly and truthfully; avoid run-on explanations. Never use sarcasm or irony. Do not raise your voice or threaten to end the interview.
- Most times, journalists with a critical storyline will ask the same questions in many guises. Stick to your holding statement but vary its delivery to avoid sounding like a robot (politicians excel at this art). Invariably, the journalist will tire if no openings are created. Avoid agreeing to false premises; using the so-called bridging technology to loop back to your holding statement, fx: “No, we have not cheated our customers. At company X we take customer concerns very seriously”:
- Empathy is key. If there are people involved, show sympathy – this is not an admission of any guilt or wrongdoing. Coming off too cold and business-like may win you the argument but it won’t win any hearts.
“I am sorry they had a poor experience. I assure you that company X takes customer concerns very seriously. I will look into what we can do further.”
- Do not promise or guarantee certain outcomes – only your dedication to solving a problem.
“I cannot guarantee that anyone is owed money, but I can guarantee that we will work hard to ensure that all claims are handled as soon as possible.”
For a great example of how to tackle a critical line of questions, rebutting built-in false premises and managing to add a lot of context and expert information at the same time, take a look at this video of Zoo director Bengt Holst defending the killing of Marius the Giraffe on Channel 4 News.