Learning From Tim Russert

Perhaps too often we learn from others’ mistakes rather from their examples. In this vein, one of the positives that has come from Tim Russert’s unexpected passing is the reminder to learn from his expertise and approach to journalism. Now NBC faces the daunting task of finding a successor for the best political reporter-commentator in the business. It won’t be easy to find a Meet the Press host with his unique combination of amicable panache and searing political insight.
However, astute observers will look to Russert’s singular qualities as teaching tools—not only for journalists, but for interviewees. Here are some lessons:

â–¶ Prepare, prepare, prepare. This was the first lesson Russert learned from former Meet the Press host Lawrence Spivak. Russert had a superb research staff and made sure he was thoroughly informed. Unfortunately, some interviewees fail to heed Russert’s example and walk into interviews underestimating the reporter’s knowledge and acumen. We’ve seen this time and again—most recently in a TV interview in which the CEO of a company was ill-prepared, faltered on a realistic C-level business question and lost credibility. It’s incumbent on any politician, corporate executive or public figure to prepare as thoroughly as a reporter.

â–¶ Know the reporter. One of the primary lessons we emphasize in media training is: Know the reporter. Before walking into any interview, you should be familiar with the journalist’s work. This is true for any type of interview—TV, radio or print. For print, Google, Nexis and Factiva are all good sources to learn a reporters style.

â–¶ Watch for a trend of “gotcha” type interviewers. One of Russert’s approaches would be to look for inconsistencies. A favorite approach was to put contradictory quotes on the TV monitor and then push for an explanation. A guest then would have 30 to 60 seconds to answer—a very long time for TV. When preparing for an interview, it’s important to examine your record and be able to account for apparent contradictions. If you’re cut off on the gotcha question, demand time for a full answer.

â–¶ Don’t change answers on different versions of the same question. Tim Russert would follow up several times when he wanted to pursue an issue. Recall when he asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice 13 times whether she would consider running for president. She stayed consistent in her answers.
Every reporter has his or her own method for getting the answer they’re looking for. In any interview, the coaching point is to anticipate the hot-button question as well as all of the different ways it can be asked. Stick to your position and, if the reporter asks more than three times, politely respond that you’ve already answered that question and then bridge to a different point.

â–¶ Don’t take pointed questions personally. Even though it felt like he was out to get an interview subject, he was known to respect guests for their service to either public life or business. The point is not to take the questions personally; many journalists’ agendas include getting information, not getting the gotcha.
Part of the process that many interviewees forget, however, is that you can have your own agenda as well. Though it may feel as if you’re getting pummeled with questions, if you’re prepared with your own key messages, you provide information and still maintain control in the interview.

â–¶ Practice, practice, practice. In preparing a spokesperson for Meet the Press, it’s not hard to guess the topics and 90% of the information loaded into a question. Russert’s genius was his unique way of phrasing a question, or coming up with a slightly different twist on a question that was anticipated.
His David Duke interview was the most cited example, but there were scores of others. The advice we provide to spokespersons: Make the prep sessions for Meet the Press (or any other venue) rigorous. If you’re thinking, “Nah, I don’t think he’d ever ask it that way,” then include that question in your training session.

Though Russert’s chair is empty, we continue to learn from the immense talent he brought to the journalistic profession. Understanding how he mastered an interview in a fair but thorough way will inform even the most experienced speakers. After all, if reporters will now be studying the Russert approach, so will the best spokespersons. PRN

This article was written by Andy Gilman, president and CEO of CommCore Consulting Group. He can be reached at agilman@commcoreconsulting.com.