Executive Interviews: Easy Questions the Hardest

When it comes to learning how to handle media interviews, a great many executives—and their PR handlers—live in a dream world. Often in preparing for a media training session, I have heard these comments:

“Our CEO wants to get ready for all the tough questions.”

“Let’s put the execs in the hot seat.”

“Teach her how to get our story across.”

However, over the long haul, the media relations game will be won less by how well a spokesperson answers the hard questions, and more by his or her ability to powerfully connect with the easy ones.


The hard questions are challenging but workable. During a crisis, when an organization is coming under scrutiny and the white lights of media are bearing down, significant time is spent crafting proper messages and responses, with every word often vetted by attorneys, financial executives and others. Suck it up, face the heat, stick with the script and move on. In these situations, the seat can indeed be hot.

But for the 25 years I’ve worked in communications, the rallying cry has been to decry defense and champion offense. Those who succeed in communications are those who create aggressive programs and initiate efforts to connect with audiences, including the media.

And so, in a world where PR professionals are seeking to generate publicity, awareness and credibility, often the biggest challenge when talking to reporters is not the probing inquiry. The foe is the bane of every campaigner’s existence— media disinterest, borne of dozens of company-centered story pitches that have narrative legs as sustainable as a Larry King wedding vow.


Let’s further deconstruct disinterest. When prepping a senior executive to talk with the media, it might be useful to address what’s in the mind of both the executive and the journalist:


“We’ve worked very hard to build a great company.”

“Our customers like what we do, so the world should know this story.”


“What’s happening in the world I cover?”

“I sure hope this executive can fit into it.”

And so the disconnect occurs. The executive thinks his organization is compelling strictly because it exists. That notion may hold true on the company’s Web site and in its marketing materials, but the media milieu is quite different. We read publications for fast-paced, short-hand engagement—not to read corporate profiles, but to learn about interesting ideas, trends and occurrences.

The trick is to work the easy questions to your advantage. Here are a couple of examples:

â–¶ Easy Question #1: What Do You Do?

When a journalist asks what you do, he is not necessarily seeking a concise explanation of your company’s products, services and value proposition. What he really wants to know is this: What broader trends in the world are you engaged in that are of genuine interest to my specific readers?

And by broader trends, I don’t mean a tidbit from an analyst firm saying that the market for your widget is expected to be $780 billion by the year 2017. The underused weapon here: secondary research. A food company executive spouting the benefits of its new healthy soup is a snooze. But a food company executive who can provide data about how everything from the iPhone to Facebook to the rough economy is affecting family eating habits becomes a go-to spokesperson.

â–¶ Easy Question #2: What’s the Story?

What the executive thinks:

At last I can talk about our company.

What the executive often says:

We think we’ve got a compelling story here with our new soup.

What the journalist thinks:

There’s no way I want to write about soup.

What the executive should be trained to say:

The big story here is how families approach eating and how time-strapped they are. In 1980, the average family meal lasted 38 minutes. Now it’s done in 22 minutes. This is why we’ve created a new soup that can be cooked twice as fast.

What the journalist will now think:

There’s something going on here with dining habits, and this guy’s helping me understand it. I want to know more.

And isn’t that the real mission— to build a sustainable dialogue with journalists? So the next time you prepare an executive to talk to the media, focus on hitting the easy questions over the fence. PRN


Joel Drucker is a media trainer based in San Francisco. He also works as a print and broadcast writer. He can be reached at [email protected].