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Media Interviews: Five Tricky Question Types and How to Handle Them

When you’re being interviewed by a journalist or blogger, failing to answer questions can sink the interview and your chance of some great coverage. However, certain types of questions can sink you even faster if you answer them without thinking.

You need to know what these tough questions look like, and be prepared to answer them without falling into any traps. They may be difficult to answer on the spot if you have not already thought them through, so it always pays to identify potential trouble spots ahead of time, and prepare strategies to work out of and around them.

In my years as a PR and communications professional, I’ve found the best way to do this is to think like a reporter. If you were on the other side of the interview, what questions would you ask? What tricky or sensitive topics might you want a comment on – and how might you go about getting it?

Here are five of the trickiest types I’ve encountered, and how to handle them.

The question that implies the answer
Problem: Sometimes a reporter will ask a question that seems to be more of an accusation or assumption. Unfortunately, as much as you’d love to yell: “Your honor, I object! Leading the witness”! you’re not a lawyer in a courtroom.

Solution: Be careful to answer the question WITHOUT being defensive. Politely negate the statement or implication, then follow up with a positive statement that ties into your overall story and message.

The question that you already answered
Problem: Sometimes you will get a reporter who will repeat the same question in several different ways, to try and trip you up and get you off-message.

Solution: Stick to your message points. As irritating as it can be to answer the same question several times over, don’t get flustered or frustrated. Remain level-headed and treat this as an opportunity to refer back to your story.

The question about your competitors
Problem: Commenting on your competitors’ flaws can be very tempting – and, for the journalist, controversy and conflict makes excellent copy. However, you don’t want to be seen bashing another company or person.

Solution: This is your interview! Don’t let it be about your competitor. Instead of commenting on other companies or parties, answer the question with reference to your own strengths and qualities.

The question asking you about something that hasn’t happened.
Problem: The good old hypothetical question: it’s as wild and sensational as the reporter wants it to be.

Solution: Remember that hypothetical questions are just that. Don’t allow yourself to be taken down that path: responding to speculation or to a hypothetical question is a lose-lose situation. What you can do instead is stick to the facts. For example: “While we don’t comment on rumors or industry speculation, I can tell you that…”

The question you just don’t have the answer to.
Problem: The bomb drops – an unexpected question that you have no idea how to answer. Silence or denial may come off as an admittance of guilt to the public and the media – so dodging the issue is never an option.

Solution: Preparing message points before speaking with the media is a good way to minimize the chances of this happening. However, sometimes you will get a question that you didn’t anticipate – or you might not have the right data in front of you to be able to answer. The worst thing you can do is make up an answer. The good news is that you don’t have to answer a question the moment it is asked. Take a moment. Collect your thoughts. Tell them you will find the information, and call them back as soon as you have it.

Image: Nicolas Esposito, Creative Commons

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