The Three Questions Reporters Always Ask

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 20, 2010 – 2:27 pm

In 1999, upon reporting for my first Sunday shift at CNN, I was invited into a “question” meeting with Wolf Blitzer and his executive producer.

The three of us sat around for 15 minutes, coming up with questions for former Vice President Dan Quayle, who was mounting a bid for the 2000 GOP nomination.

We developed a seemingly impressive list of questions, but I noticed that the questions all fit inside certain categories. Some questions were intended to be “stumpers,” for example, while others called for speculation.

That taught me an important lesson. Spokespersons don’t need to prepare for every possible question. They just need to prepare for every type of question. Below, you’ll find three types of questions reporters always seem to ask – and how to answer them with ease.

1. Questions You Don’t Know the Answer To

Many of our trainees get stumped during a live interview when they’re asked a question to which they don’t know the answer.

For example, a physician might be asked, “How many people are diagnosed with stage four liver cancer each year?” If she doesn’t know the answer, she might stumble before finally saying, “I don’t know.”

There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know” – but there’s a better way to handle that question during friendly interviews. Click here to see the “Peter Jennings Rule.”

2. Questions That Call for Speculation

Imagine you’re an advocate trying to pass a piece of legislation. You’re being interviewed when the reporter suddenly asks, “So, what’s the bottom line? Is this law going to pass?”

Don’t take the bait! If you guess wrong, reporters will be able to use your quote against you forever, and your credibility with the public may take a hit.

Stick with the facts. Answer by saying something like, “Well, we have more support for the bill than we’ve ever had before, and we are more hopeful than ever that we can get this passed.”

If pressed again, you can follow up with, “Well, although I can’t speculate, I can tell you that….”

3. Questions That Ask For Your Personal Opinion

Whole Foods Chairman and CEO John Mackey sparked a customer rebellion last year when he wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal opposing President Obama’s health care reform proposal.

He defended himself days later, by writing, “I was asked to write an op-ed piece and I gave my personal opinions…Whole Foods as a company has no official position on the issue.”

Nonsense.

When you are identified as a spokesperson for a company, group, or organization, there’s no such thing as a personal opinion. The media will identify you as a representative of your organization. Period.

Therefore, do not offer a personal opinion. Instead, say, “Well, I’m speaking for the organization, not myself, and what we believe is….”

Just how important is that? Ask Mr. Mackey. He has some free time now that he’s out as Chairman.

Related: Three (More) Questions Reporters Always Ask

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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