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The Media Mentor

When Bad Things Happen to Good Spokespeople:
Handling Tough Interviews

By Steve Bennett

As you prepare for your next interview, remember that the vast majority of people in the media are not out to get you. They’re out to get a good story.

Nonetheless, as [a spokesperson], you might find yourself in the hot seat if questions revolve around delayed or flawed product launches, quality problems, flagging financial performance, loss of market share or failure to increase market share, vocally dissatisfied customers or vendors, culture clashes following an acquisition or merger, and the like. And in discussing issues like these, the interview can get dicey - even hostile, if you let it.

Some causes of friction are beyond your control. For example, the journalist or editor might have:

  • Had a bad day.
  • Exhibited an aggressive or combative interviewing style.
  • Walked in with a negative opinion of your company or its products.
  • Had a very bad day.

If this happens, take a deep breath and relax. Then engage in what I call "inverse agitation." The more riled the interviewer becomes, the calmer you get. This technique works; it’s hard to have a verbal skirmish if one party refuses to fight.

Other situations are self-inflicted, such as you’ve:

  • Had a bad day.
  • Become overly defensive, evasive, or impatient with the interviewer.
  • Engaged in an argument.
  • Shown a lack of respect for the journalist’s or editor’s questions, technical knowledge or understanding of the marketplace.
  • Had a very bad day.

You will inevitably have bad or very bad days - that’s life. But you can’t afford to take them out on journalists or editors, even ones who seem unimportant or technologically unsophisticated. Every interview should be treated as an opportunity to build your brand.

So what should you do if, despite your best efforts you find yourself in a verbal duel? First, disengage. You shouldn’t be arguing in the first place; even if you win the battle, you’ll likely lose the war, because you don’t control the ink. Also, don’t assume that the interviewer is enjoying a fun and mutually fulfilling jousting match; chances are, he or she will conclude that you’re difficult or worse and award you the coverage you deserve.

Second, listen intently. Wait for a good opportunity to put the issue in context or bridge back to your key message points. ("Yes we did post lower earnings in Q3. And that was largely anticipated, because we took a one-time charge. In Q4, we’re actually ahead of plan. And our success is due to three strategies. First …")

Finally, keep it all in perspective. Never feel that your company’s honour is at stake, or that a particular interview is worth an increase in your blood pressure. Simply focus on getting across your messages and demonstrating for the interviewer what it’s like to take the high road.

Steve Bennett is a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based media trainer who specializes in helping spokespeople of high-technology companies deliver effective strategic messages to: the trade, business, and consumer media; analysts; stakeholders; and the public. An active journalist in the computer field, Steve is also a sought-after freelance spokesperson by major corporations. You can reach him at or by calling 617-492-0442, or via

See also:

Getting the Most from Interviews
Guidelines for successful interviews
Off the Record
After the interview
Backing it Up
Involve Your Audience During TV Interviews
Oh, the Mistakes Spokespeople Make: Ten Sure-Fire Ways to Blow an Interview
Meeting the Media Face-to-Face
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