When a journalist asks a question should you answer?

Warm and fuzzy doesn’t sell papers or drive traffic to online news sites.

Warm and fuzzy is reserved for the ‘colour piece’ at the end of the news or for travelling weather reporters who like to serve up the temperature with some local flavour or those Facebook status updates that share the love of the universe wrapped up in a kitten.

Yet on two occasions this past week I have experienced disbelief, even outrage, that a journalist in traditional media would dare to ask “inappropriate questions” and to print “only a minor part of my entire forty minute interview.”

The first referred to a profile piece in a Saturday paper supplement on a high profile person. The piece in question was, from what I understand, a feature for readers to understand more about the person in question. But if they wanted a piece with no colour or shade then they could have just run the person’s bio provided by the PR firm, but then that would be advertising.

Instead, the journalist does their job. Asking questions to find the person behind the public face, to give their readers the conflicts and flaws and juxtaposition that creates both a rounded piece and reveals more depth to the individual than what the PR team wants you to see.

What sparked my interest was the reference to ‘inappropriate questions’. But that’s what they are, questions, and the interviewee doesn’t have to answer them with what the journalist wants to hear (be warned, saying ‘no comment’ is like feeding tuna blood to sharks).

The trouble is the average person doesn’t understand this. Even in a supposedly media savvy world where those same people are devouring media driven by inappropriate questions we still act surprised when bitten by the media bug.

I get it, I learned my own lesson with the media the hard way. But what is inappropriate to a lay person is not inappropriate to a journalist trying to write a story of interest. The inappropriate questions in this instance turned out to be any question that didn’t refer to the person’s career. Perhaps they should have just published the piece on the person on LinkedIn instead.

The second experience this week was the uproar from the blogging community about a feature piece in a Sunday supplement. You can read both the piece and what I wrote about it, here. But what amazed me was that many of these bloggers were up in arms at the interviewer who dared to run only a portion of their interview.

Yet there are four people in the one piece and a set word limit. A forty minute interview of quotes would have doubled that word count and, that’s assuming that those quotes were even interesting.

The bloggers had hoped it would be a warm and fuzzy piece about how great the world of blogging is. But I can read that on any blog promoting blogs. This was a magazine which means the readers want a story not a promotion.

The other thing that amazed me was how the bloggers were shocked that they shared so much with the interviewer and that the interviewer then published what they shared. But that’s what it was, a media interview, not a cup of tea with your aunty’s best friend on a Sunday.

I do feel for them and I understand they were upset at the tone of the article but it is a valuable lesson for anyone wanting to get promoted in editorial. How do you manage a media interview once you’ve been burned? You can choose what you do and don’t reveal to a journalist, this is how you manage your key messages.

KNOW what it is you want to say, what you want to communicate, what you want the readers of the media to know before you commence an interview. When you find yourself off track come back to those messages. A good interviewer will want you to be candid, want you to reveal more than you had intended, will make you think you are having a ‘conversation’ not a recorded interview. A good interviewee will be very clear with themselves about that they are going to reveal and what they are not BEFORE they are interviewed.

But be warned, reveal nothing and you’re likely to end up on the cutting room floor so be prepared to offer some exclusives that no one else may know. It doesn’t have to be your father shot your pet dog in front of you at your fifth birthday party, it may simply be that you volunteer at an orphanage on Tuesdays or you’ve never been in love or that your left leg is shorter than the right and you have to be shot from a unique angle to hide it.

You can also ask the media for a list of sample questions they are going to ask so you can prepare but remember, they are sample questions and the journalist is not obliged to stick to them (unless you’re Kim Kardashian and YOU send the questions to them!).

Yes, you can take a PR person with you to an interview but most journalists, myself included, will just ask the PR person to leave while the interview is in progress. Plus it seems odd to have a PR person in the room unless you’re Jack Nicholson or Robert de Niro.

Key messages are ‘key’ for a reason. Stick to them and you should be able to make it alive through the battlefield of the media without a fatal wound. If in doubt get some media training or don’t do the interview.

Have you ever been interviewed by the media and shocked to see how much or little of your interview was published? How do you manage media interviews?

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One Comment

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  1. I have done probably more than 5000 media interviews in my time as a corporate spokesperson. To me, the question was never the main game. I needed to get my message across to be successful. The media was a conduit to my audience.
    Sounds cynical but that is how it works on the other side.
    BTW I only got caught out once. On Today Tonight. Surprise, surprise. This was because I researched and prepared for most interviews. This is essential.

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