Friend of the blog and crisis pro Melissa Agnes recently wrote me with an interesting question:
“When a reporter seeks you out for a quote on an article they’re writing, it’s always a great opportunity and I always do my best to be able to provide them with what they’re looking for within their time restraints. However, what if the subject is a little bit beyond your scope of knowledge?
In my case, it was about foreign affairs, about which I don’t have a very big grasp; even though the question is related to my niche, it was still a little out of my realm of expertise. My question is: Should you, and if so how, tell the reporter that you unfortunately don’t feel comfortable answering their question/providing them with a quote, rather than researching your heart out, learning about the topic as best you can, and meeting their request?
I hate to miss out on opportunities, and I wouldn’t want this to refrain them from asking me for a quote in the future!”
Melissa, you’ve asked a question that I’ve wrestled with before as well. On one hand, you hate to turn down a media opportunity that can help you enhance your brand. On the other, you don’t want to stretch so far that you’ve bent yourself into rhetorical pretzel!
Since there’s no single right or wrong answer to this one, I’m going to answer your question by presenting both sides of the argument. My guess is that one of these two responses will resonate with you more than the other.
Yes, Do The Interview!
Tom Bettag, my old boss and the former executive producer of Nightline, used to say that he liked to give people a job that was 10 percent beyond their abilities. That challenge, he maintained, would make them try harder — and most of his employees met the challenge.
So ask yourself how much of a stretch this really is. If it’s a 10 percent stretch—or even a 20 or 30 percent stretch—there’s a reasonable case to be made that you should go for it, particularly if you can get yourself up to speed on the topic without having to invest days’ worth of research. I’ve found that doing that additional research builds my capacity to speak on other issues in other contexts. And by building a new competency, you may find that your marketability, in addition to your name recognition, is enhanced by your presence in the news story.
Remember that in many news stories, all you’ll get is a single quote anyway — regardless of whether you’re the world’s best spokesperson on a given topic or the world’s worst. I’m not suggesting that it’s a good idea to stumble your way through the interview giving unthoughtful answers, but rather that you might consider proceeding if you have a few smart — and maybe even original — points to make.
Finally, if you turn down the interview, there’s a chance the reporter will find another source and use them in the future instead of you, even for topics about which you are an expert. The bottom line is this: Do a gut check. If you feel you can deliver an interview while making a few solid points and without compromising your brand, go for it.
No, Don’t Do The Interview!
If you’re being asked to stretch too far — say you’re an accountant being asked to comment on engineering issues — turn down the interview. Or, using the numerical guide above, it’s probably best to turn down the interview if you’d have to stretch, say, 80 or 90 percent beyond your abilities. There’s simply no need to risk your brand by commenting on topics that fall too far outside your realm of expertise.
And don’t worry about alienating the journalist. Most reporters respect spokespersons who admit that a topic is outside their realm of expertise, especially when the spokesperson assists them in finding a qualified alternative guest.
Your goal should be to build your long-term reputation as an expert, not to chase every short-term opportunity regardless of the potential risks. If it feels uncomfortable, it probably is an important red flag to you that you should stay in your lane.
Okay, readers. How have you made this decision when you’ve faced a similar dilemma? Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.