Media Interviews: Recognize and Handle Unfair Questions

Three unfair questions and how to handle them

As company spokesperson or senior leader, you may be asked unfair questions, whether by the media or others, that contain incorrect assumptions or biases. Here are a few examples:

  1. Why does your company care more about profits than customers?
  2. Why won’t you respond to the allegations made in the lawsuit? What are you hiding?
  3. Your retail locations don’t recycle. Why doesn’t your organization care about the environment?

Saying “no comment” leaves doubt and confusion in the minds of your followers but saying more could mire you down in complicated denials and debates. What should you do?

Why Reporters Ask Unfair Questions

There are various reasons why reporters may ask you questions containing incorrect assumptions. First, they may not be as familiar with the subject as you or those in your industry are. Twenty years ago, reporters had the luxury of writing about only one or two beats or subject areas. With the advent of the Internet, advertising revenues for traditional media like newspapers, TV and radio shrank dramatically causing media outlets to cut staff. The reporters who remained were forced to cover many more beats than one or two. Now, they simply don’t have the time to gain the subject matter expertise in any one area that their predecessors once had. Much of what they learn about the topics they cover comes from a quick Internet search of previous media coverage of you, your organization and the industry.

Another possible reason reporters ask presumptuous questions may be their ambition to create a story that drives clicks, views and commentary.  The news industry has always been a competitive one with reporters constantly looking to scoop each other and capture more subscribers or followers. Adding to the equation is the fact that more and more consumers get their news stories in a social media environment which places a premium on clickbait headlines. A reporter’s interview questions may be designed to elicit responses for the headline they already have in mind – one that will help them drive clicks and views. Whatever the reason, the questions can create serious reputational challenges for an inexperienced spokesperson.

Reformulating

To handle such questions, I recommend using a technique that some call “reformulating” to help you tell your story without getting trapped by a reporter’s preconceived notions. Step one is to listen carefully to each question you are asked and be on the lookout for inaccurate assumptions.

Example 1

In the first example above, “Why does your company care more about profits than customers?” the interviewer assumes you value profits over customers.  First, listen carefully and identify the incorrection assumption. Second, strip out the incorrect assumption and any negative language associated with the question. You may not end up with much of a question after that, but you should still touch upon the original topic in your response. Third is to reformulate and ask yourself the question in a way that is fair and open-ended. The fourth step is to answer your own question using pre-defined key messages that tell your organizational story.

To answer the first example question, you might respond: “You asked about our feelings towards our customers…”

Here you have removed the incorrect assumption, but you still touch upon the topic.  You could continue and then finish your answer with the following lines that include your key messages and story:

“We always put our customers first, which is why we work so hard to deliver more value with our products and services than any other retailer in the industry. In fact, our customers have given us an industry-leading 97% or better satisfaction rating for three years in a row.” 

The second example is, “Why won’t you respond to the allegations made in the lawsuit? What are you hiding?”

Before answering any questions regarding litigation, be sure to consult with your organization’s legal counsel. Many companies have policies about answering questions regarding ongoing litigation.

Example 2

To continue with our second example, if we follow the same reformulation pattern, we recognize right away the interviewer assumes your silence in the face of legal allegations means you are hiding something. The question also assumes you are refusing to answer the allegations. To answer, first, strip out the presumptive language about not answering and hiding something. This leaves you with only the lawsuit topic.  Second, reformulate the question in a more favorable way, but be sure to stay on topic. Your newly formed question or statement might look like this: “I understand that many have questions about the litigation we are involved in.”

Then, answer your own question with a statement like the following: “And, even though organizational policy won’t allow me to comment directly on current litigation, I can tell you that we have secured the best legal counsel available to us and are vigorously answering each and every one of the allegations in a court of law.”

Finally, wrap up by adding some key messages:

“In the end, it’s important to know that we care deeply about our customers and will fight to honor their trust in us.”   

As the spokesperson, you may not be able to talk about the litigation itself, but you should never pass up the opportunity to insert a few good messages about your organization.

Example 3

In the third example, “Your retail locations don’t recycle. Why doesn’t your organization care about the environment?” the interviewer assumes your organization is indifferent to the environment.

Before answering, be careful.  Make sure your answer cannot be edited to make your organization seem opposed to environmentally sustainable business practices. Your answer to this question may look something like this:

“I’m glad you asked about the environment. Our organization cares deeply about the environment and has been recognized for shrinking the carbon footprint of our manufacturing facilities and the waste reduction associated with our product packaging. It’s also important to note that many of our retail locations do recycle waste, and we are working with local governments to increase that number with each passing year.” 

By constructing your response this way, first and foremost you reaffirm your concern for the environment and share concrete ways in which you are acting on that concern. You then debunk the myth that your retail locations don’t recycle while indicating that due to organizational efforts, the number of locations that do recycle is increasing. 

Take Control of the Interview

In the end, the key to handling any unfair question containing preformed assumptions is to understand that you do not have to answer a question exactly as it is put to you. You do not have to allow the interviewer to control you by the questions that he or she asks. Instead, take control of the interview by using the reformulation technique and make sure that each answer serves as a platform for telling your story to your audience, no matter how loaded the question may be.

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