The direct approach

How ‘direct’ should you be when talking to the media? Some interviewees clearly think a combative approach is the best way to engage with the Fourth Estate. I don’t advise it. It seldom does anyone any good and merely encourages a journalist to come back at you. In my experience, ‘Bare-knuckle’ interviews, especially on radio, tend to generate more heat than light, leaving the audience frustrated and, more importantly, none-the-wiser.

Still, there are times when you need to tell your inquisitor “You’re wrong”. But how to do it without things kicking-off? If you disagree with a journalist say calmly-but-firmly: “I disagree” or “No, that’s not right” (it doesn’t hurt to smile when you say it!) before supporting your challenge with solid facts that prove your version of events is correct. That’s why preparing well in advance for difficult or awkward questions is vital if you hope to have an acceptable outcome to any media encounter.

Journalists often have ‘Bees in their Bonnets’ (I’ve known some to have the occasional hive) and all that buzzing can become very noisy. Therefore, it’s important to question their agenda if you don’t think it’s the right one. Remember, at times they can be ‘hidden’, so you need to flush them out into the open in-order to address or dispute them. Just remember, ‘firm’ is OK ‘blunt’ isn’t, and yes there is a difference, especially in the delivery.

I once witnessed a senior manager at a press event who, when asked a question involving a possible change of direction for his company, politely asked the journalist: “Why would I do that?” It was an interesting move. No journalist likes to think they may have asked a daft question in front of their peers. Keen to avoid that impression the reporter in question promptly explained, and in some detail too, what they were getting at. In doing so, they all-but provided the answer to their own question―which left the aforementioned-manager with the choice of either agreeing or disagreeing with their proposition. As it happened, he didn’t agree with it, and promptly went on to explain why, based on a clearer understanding of the original question. The tactic also bought him some valuable thinking time in-order to properly formulate his reply…

Not long afterwards I experienced a similar occurrence at a conference in the US. Only this time the executive in question adopted a more forthright approach to a particular question. Looking the journalist square in the eye he demanded: “What are you shooting at!” The tone may have been different, possibly even adversarial, but the motive was the same―to find out exactly what was behind their question. It worked too.

In any encounter with the media don’t be afraid to challenge your interrogator if you think they’ve got things wrong. What’s more, it’s perfectly legitimate to respond to an enquiry which is anything but straightforward with: “I don’t understand your question” ―especially if you don’t! Either way, the sooner you know exactly what’s behind a question, the sooner you can hope to answer it, and well.