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Mistakes happen in media interviews.
In fact, in 35 years of media training I’m not sure anyone at Media First would claim they have witnessed a perfect interview.
And we think it is vital spokespeople know this.
What is also crucial though, is how spokespeople handle the interview once things have gone awry.
They certainly don’t want to copy the example of Jay Sekulow, a member of Donald Trump’s legal team who completely lost his composure in an interview after managing to both confirm and deny the President was under investigation for obstruction of justice.
Instead of being honest and admitting he had made a mistake or hadn’t been clear enough, Mr Sekulow adopted a combative stance and accused the reporter, Chris Wallace, of putting words in his mouth.
The fiery exchange started when Mr Sekulow said: “He’s being investigated for taking the action that the attorney general and deputy attorney general recommended him to take by the agency who recommended the terminations.”
Mr Wallace replied by saying “You’ve now said he is being investigated after saying he isn’t.”
This triggered the interview to descend into a shouting match. Mr Sekulow flatly denied he had said the President was being investigated, and accused the reporter of trying to ‘rephrase’ his answer.
Mr Wallace replied by saying ‘the tape will speak for itself, you said he was being investigated.’
You may have felt that Mr Sekulow would cut his losses and try to move the subject on, but instead he went on to tell the reporter he ‘knew what he was trying to do’.
And, of course, that didn’t end well as Mr Wallace retorted: “Don’t tell me what I’m trying to do because you don’t know what I’m trying to do. What I’m trying to get is a straight answer out of you.”
It is a memorable exchange, but only for the wrong reasons, and it certainly got a reaction on social media.
Trump's Lawyer Just Said The President Is Under Investigation — While Trying To Argue He Isn't https://t.co/6qbQxMMeNi— David Mack (@davidmackau) June 18, 2017
As Chris Wallace @ FOX News says, "the tape will speak for itself." Important, as POTUS lawyer throws around term, "fake reports" on shows. https://t.co/6wDaSoZ8NE— Jason Kint (@jason_kint) June 18, 2017
So what should Mr Sekulow have done differently?
Well, to begin with he needed to be much clearer on the message he wanted to get across to reduce his chances of tripping himself up.
But having made a mistake, or at least realised there was some confusion around his response, he should have been honest and admitted he had not been clear.
He could have said something along the lines of, ‘If I did say that, then I misspoke, so let me clarify…’ This would be a much better approach than claiming he 'couldn't be any clearer' or accusing the journalist of twisting his words. Saying to a reporter ‘I know what you are trying to do’ is right up there on the list of things you shouldn’t say to a journalist and it sounds defensive and evasive.
If a spokesperson makes a mistake, or the interview goes awry, it can be overwhelming and it can be a struggle to remain composed. On our media training courses we stress to our delegates the importance of not showing their anger and frustration at the questions they are asked in an interview or at the responses they have given if they have made a mistake.
The audience is much more likely to be sympathetic if they remain composed and getting into an argument with a journalist will not help them fight their corner.
What else should spokespeople do when an interview become hostile like this one?
Avoid short answers
Responding to questions in an interview with short answers sounds defensive and invites the reporter to ask more questions and cover more ground, which only increases the pressure.
But the warning here is that long, rambling answers could lead to your message being misconstrued or misunderstood.
Don’t get drawn into speculation
This is something you typically see in a crisis media management situation. Journalists want to know what went wrong, why it happened and who is to blame and if the interviewee does not know the answer they will invite them to speculate. It is vital spokespeople avoid this trap and stick to the facts that they know at the time.
Don’t repeat the journalist’s negative words
For example you might be asked: “This is very disappointing isn’t it? Aren’t you disappointed?” You answer: “I wouldn’t say it’s disappointing…” But you just have. The journalist’s negative language can now be attributed to you. Whether it’s broadcast or press, they have a neat sound bite with you using their negative phrase.
This is vital for any media interview and that prep work should involve making sure you know what to expect from the journalist you are going to be interviewed by and the outlet they work for. Some journalists have reputations for being much more hard hitting than others while some outlets are known to look for certain angles in stories.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
Click here to find out more about our journalist-led media training courses.
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