Perfecting the Paradox

Journalists, at heart, are confrontational.  They choose that line of work because they enjoy the tug of war that ensues during media interviews when they want certain information that you don’t want to disclose.  The more obvious you are about withholding that information from reporters, the deeper they want to dig and the more committed they become in bumping you off message.  The more transparent you are in pushing back, the more emboldened they become to get aggressive and accusatory in their line of questioning. So, “to cooperate with journalists or not to cooperate,” that is the question.  The most effective answer sounds confusing but it’s not: Do both.

Herein lies the great paradox in participating in a successful media interview.  Everything about your outward demeanor should exude an air of helpfulness toward the reporter, a complete willingness to participate and an eagerness to cooperate.  Inwardly, however, you are tenaciously and stubbornly sticking to your pre-determined game plan of what you want to say.  You’re creating the illusion that you are merely there to help journalists write or tell their story. In truth, they are there to help you tell yours. 

Kill ‘Em With Kindness
Creating the vibe of cooperation begins from the moment you meet your interviewer.  Genuine warmth and friendliness, accompanied by meaningful eye contact during your handshake can help send a message that you are looking forward to the upcoming exchange instead of dreading it. Show an authentic interest in your interviewer by commenting on some of their previous work such as “I liked that profile you did last month on the new COO at Disney,” or “good interview last week with Warren Buffett.”  Be complimentary without being overly ingratiating. That means not using the reporter’s name incessantly during your answers, especially if you’ve never met them before.  “Well Becky, our results are really outperforming the market,” sounds phony. So does commenting on the question. “That’s an excellent question Carl,” which comes across as condescending. 

We all would like a sneak preview of the questions that are coming, but asking a reporter, “so what are you going to ask me?” can make you seem suspicious and nervous.  If you frame the question differently by saying, “So ultimately what would you like me to shed some light on for you in this piece?”—you accomplish the same thing but the reporter is more willing to share information because they think you’re interested in helping them accomplish their task.

Deflect Deftly
Always find alternative ways of saying “no comment,”  “we don’t disclose that information” or “we’re not at liberty to discuss that.”  Shining the spotlight of attention on what reporters cannot have access to, only makes them want it all the more.  Try to emphasize what you are able to tell them, “For competitive reasons that information is only distributed internally, but what I can tell you is that we are outperforming the market...”

Always avoid engaging on a topic that’s outside your area of expertise.  In declining to comment do not say, “That’s not my area of expertise so I wouldn’t be able to comment on that.”  Try instead, “My specialty is marketing, but perhaps we can put you in touch with our head of supply chain.  He would have the most accurate and up-to-date information on this.”  Remember, you’re always creating the impression of being helpful. 

Another classic “no comment” scenario is when a controversy is being played out in the courts.  Rather than the predictable “On advice of our attorneys I’m not allowed to discuss the case,” try, “Believe me, I would love to discuss the merits of the case in great detail, and I hope to be able to do that when the trial is over, but I wouldn’t want to do anything to jeopardize what we think is a strong position we have in this case.”

Going Beyond the Press Release
Reporters don’t want to feel as though your answers are regurgitations of your corporate key messages. There’s nothing authentic about providing answers that could have been repeated verbatim by another company executive. Come to the interview armed with anecdotes that illustrate the points you’re trying to make.  Real storytelling is what reporters want. Anecdotes also help you to avoid specific questions you may not want to handle without sounding like you’re being evasive.

Far too many corporate executives sit in the interview chair looking as if their corporate communications chief held a gun to their temple and made them participate.  To create the right dynamic, you must appear as though you’ve been looking forward to this interview all week—that you have a great story you can’t wait to share.  The day after the interview, drop the journalist a very short handwritten note thanking them for their time and letting them know that you enjoyed the chat. Never say anything to give the impression that you’re anxious about how the piece is going to turn out.  Perhaps indicate in the note that you would be happy to be a resource for them on future stories that deal with your industry. Sources are a journalist’s lifeblood and if they think they can add you to their list, they’ll be much less likely to treat you harshly for fear of burning a bridge.

Fostering an atmosphere of cooperation is possible—if and when—you feel as though you are under attack.  In the face of aggressive questioning, remain quiet and calm with a pleasant expression on your face, as if to say, “I’ve been expecting that question and I am so ready to tackle it.” 

To dismiss the notion that your interpersonal skills and a helpful demeanor can favorably impact how a journalist portrays you in the media is to deny the fact that they are human.  Simply put, if journalists gets the sense that you’re trying to make it easier for them to do their job they’ll give you more of a fair shake.  Create the opposite impression, however, and you may not like the outcome.

This article was excerpted from the forthcoming PR News' 2009 Media Training Guidebook. It was written by Bill McGowan, founder of Clarity Media Group. To order this or any PR News guidebook, visit