How To Handle A Hostile Interview

The "news" media isn't required to play fair.
It's OK to play by their rules.

You know the media plays "gotcha" journalism, lies about their intent,
twists things to reach their pre-made conclusions, uses deception,
distortion and downright unethical techniques, drives it all with an agenda.
When they're coming after you, prepare to win.

by Alan Korwin, Publisher
Bloomfield Press
April 10, 2010, January 24, 2011, July 26, 2012

Face-to-Face for Print

Click here for TV appearances

A good friend in a high government position faced this problem -- two reporters were coming to get him -- he had no budget for a PIO on staff (public information officer, an official mouthpiece, who handles PR), and was facing a set-up instigated by a political rival. Ugly situation actually, and my friend is a good guy on the right side of freedom issues, managing a multi-billion-dollar budget. He asked me for help. I cut out the frills and gave him the straight dope, knowing how underhanded, deceptive, unfair and biased reporters can be -- especially if two of them just took their marching orders from a politico with an axe to grind. Don't be naive -- it happens all the time. Sometimes the axe grinder is just... the editor.

If you're ever in a similar pickle, remember these things:

Have at least one other staffer in the room with you. Two would be better.
This will push back against the intimidation of two against one, and gives you witnesses.
The other people should sit quietly and observe only, not interact.
Even if pressed by the inquisitors, er, I mean interviewers.

Be sure to get the reporters' business cards before you begin.
If they pull the old "I don't have any" nonsense, hand them a pad,
and wait till you have correct spelling, email and phone.
Even if you already know it. Just doing it helps level the playing field.
Say it's for your assistant if you must. And the handwriting tells you things.

Record the interview yourself so they can't misquote you.
Let them know you're doing it.
You can get a digital recorder at any electronics shop for cheap if needed.

If you're recording you can "take back" a slip of the tongue.
Tell them, "That's not correct, I misspoke, let me put that more accurately."
Then carefully rephrase the problematic line, and say, "OK?"
If they use the wrong statement instead of the right one,
you can prove their malfeasance to their boss.

Do everything politely and with a big smile.
Hostility will make it into print. Especially the photo.

Don't be afraid to ask them questions. In fact, make sure you do.
They hate that. It puts them on the spot, and gives you breathing room.
Whoever is asking the questions has the power, and controls the situation.

Prepare for their likely questions in advance. Write some out.
Think about good answers ahead of time, it's only reasonable.
Include some questions you will not answer, and ways to duck them --
change the subject tactfully, claim confidentiality, even say you don't know.
Ask them a question about their question, and let the subject change itself.

And don't forget a list of things that absolutely will not leave your lips.

Remember that nothing is off the record no matter what anyone says.
Things may not get used, but only by chance. Juicy stuff gets used.
Hey, juicy stuff gets made up -- and attributed. That's how this game is played.
You can try to get an ethics complaint acted upon later. Won't happen.

Prepare some questions in advance that you'd like them to ask you.
This helps think things through. After all, you're putting up your time,
use the interview to your own advantage to the degree possible.

Plus, then you can use this cool old trick most reporters won't spot:
When they ask you a biased, bad or dumb question, you say, "You know,
the question you really should ask me is..." and you give them your question.
Then you just answer that! Talk about taking control of the process!
That's particularly valuable for live broadcasts. Cuts them off at the knees.

Anything they bring up that strikes you as suspicious probably is, question it.
Interview them about the subject. Ask if they know about X, or Y, and why not .
Be sure to ask why they decided to do this story now, and get answers.
Have they spoken to anyone else about the topic. Watch 'em squirm.
Press them, as if you were interviewing an employee.

Interviewing the interviewer. It's a beautiful thing. Most folks won't. You should.
I've even challenged them directly when they wear their bias on their sleeve.
You've got to be delicate and careful, but it has led to some good things.
Some new awareness. They often don't realize how prejudiced they come at subjects.
And while you're questioning them, they're getting nothing but giving something.

Don't ramble. Answer questions concisely. Silence is your friend.

Decide ahead of time what points you want to get across.
You should think about and write out your sound bites,
but don't read them and don't sound like you're reading or reciting.

No matter what they ask, remember you can say whatever you want to say.
Don't feel obligated to reply to them. Remain in control of the interview.

Prepare and make valid statements from your perspective.

Watch out for what's on your desk, they will try to eyeball it.
A good camera operator is like a photocopy machine.

On trap questions or perilous questions, say, "I'll get back to you on that."
They'll press. Let them. Repeat, "I'll have to get back to you on that."
Do it nicely -- you're really not sure -- "Let me find out for you."
Getting back to them is at your option.

Limit the time.
Tell them up front you have a commitment in ten minutes.
You can have a staffer ring your phone or knock to remind you.

Have a glass of water handy for yourself.

Excuse yourself and leave the room briefly, to gather your thoughts.
Helps establish who's in control, let's you review notes.
Only do this if you have an ally in the room to watch them.
It's pretty routine for them to pry if you're not watching.

Be sure to inject some positive things you'd like to see in the story.
Doesn't matter if they don't use it, or if it's off topic, put it out there.

In fact, to the extent you can handle it, you should ONLY present
your material, pretty much regardless of what they ask. Every chance
they give you to speak, present your pro-rights arguments. Spend
as little time as possible arguing against theirs -- that puts you on
the defensive and gives them an automatic upper hand.

You do that using redirects. Short lines that change the focus.
"I'm not sure that's the right question, Joe," and then you frame one
which can be on any topic you think relevant. There are many such:
"What you really ought to ask me is..." "I'm not sure I understand,
are you saying that...?" and then answer your own question.

Review the recording afterwards and see how you did.
That's always very revealing. You also get to see their strategies.
It also leads to vast improvements in your performance next time.

If you spot any errors on your part, call them and make corrections.
Be firm that they should adjust their notes and story,
because what you're giving on the phone is accurate, and you misspoke earlier.

Take a deep breath. Relax. You'll do fine.
Maybe they are no where near as bad as you figured they'd be. It happens.
Whatever you expect the story to be, it won't be, when you get to read it.

Grin and bear it. Next time, maybe you sic the dogs.


Doing live TV from a remote studio
(Still under construction)

Do I really have to say dress the part?
Watch TV and look at what the commentators wear.
Don't be clever and wear anything approaching a costume.
Want to be credible? Follow the leader. Simple.

Everything about a live TV interview is staged and phony.
You sit in a dark room staring at a piece of glass with a cross on it.
The host says hello to you, and you reply it's nice to see you.
You can't see the host. The host can't see you. Just a piece of glass.
You lie to each other. Tastefully.

The audience sees your faces head on, and it looks like you're looking each other in the eye.
It gives the sense of a face-to-face conversation. It's not. It's a hoax. Just part of the game.

The backdrop behind you is a staged set, or these days, a large-screen TV.
It's set to be out of focus, because that's how it would look if there really was a scene behind you.
You're in a darkened room, not in front of Pittsburgh or anywhere else.
Your only connection to the host is a discrete earpiece, so you can hear the words.

While you're talking the producer is running some B roll.
That's the footage of anything imaginable, on screen while you're talking.
You may be talking about peace, they're showing battle scenes.
You won't know that until you see a recording later.
It completely colors what you're saying to the audience.
You can't control it, you can't even see it, they have you by the short hairs.

While you're talking the producer is running the Chyron.
That's the static and scrolling text at the bottom of the screen.
Whatever it says is what they want to say, not what you want to say.
Half the times they get it wrong -- your title, job description, even your name.
If you're smart, you told them ahead of time to include your website.
They scour your bio, which they got ahead of time, and selectively,
and usually inaccurately, cherry pick a few items that make you look like they want you to look.

A lot of the advice for print interviews above applies here.
Know the subject, prepare for obvious questions and dodges, have sound bites ready.
But a live interview is like an oral exam, no margin for error,
once words leave your lips they are forever immortalized out there in the ether.
The only way to get good at that is to mess up the first 100 interviews or so,
then you're a veteran, an old hand at this, and it's easier to do better.
Recriminations after your virgin run, or your first dozen, are standard fare,
and lead to better performances later. Get recordings and study them.
Always ask for a recording before you begin. Bring blank discs.

The hardest part, which eventually becomes the easiest and most fun,
requires you to change your mindset from what you were taught in school.
Don't follow, stand in line, do as you're told, follow instructions, behave.
It doesn't matter what they ask or where they want the conversation to go,
you must control the dialog to accomplish your goal. You must do this respectfully,
and tactfully, so they don't know you're in charge, leaving them thinking they are.

They get to start the dialog, so they have the advantage of the first chess move.
Their opening move helps set the stage, and their agenda, biases and pre-conceived
scope are bursting forth from that opening salvo.
Absorb it. Don't respond to it, question it.

The issues under the issue they select is what's important.
Read that line again. Think about it. It's key.
Why do they want to know that, instead of what really matters.
How does their question expose their bias, their prejudice.
Look at what the world looks like stripped of that pernicious predilection.
This makes fror a fascinating interview, instead of a lead-you-around-by-the-nose
dog-and-pony show.

With TV the way it is these days, it's important to interview the interviewer.
Questions invariably take them aback, get them to respond to you, and set a different tone.

More coming soon.
Stay tuned.



Alan Korwin
"We publish the gun laws."
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