When most people think of ambush interviews, they think of a television interviewer chasing after a scandal-tarred executive with camera and microphone in tow.
Those types of ambushes do occur occasionally, but they’re rare. More typically, an ambush occurs in one of two ways:
- When a reporter shows up without notice.
- When a reporter deviates from the agreed-upon topic to blindside a source with something totally unexpected.
In both cases, the reporter is after one thing: a great visual that makes you look guilty. If you respond with defensiveness, anger, or shock, the news outlet will run the tape of your bad reaction repeatedly, perhaps for days. You win an ambush by denying the reporter a great visual. If you’re ever ambushed, remember the advice offered in that old deodorant ad: never let ‘em see you sweat. By remaining calm, you prevent reporters from getting the compelling “money shot” they desire.
1. When a Reporter Shows Up Without Notice
What should you say when a reporter shows up without warning? Try something like this:
“Thank you for coming. I’d be happy to speak with you. I wish I knew you were coming—I have a meeting scheduled that I’m already running late for. Please contact my office so we can set up a time to talk.”
Then walk to your destination. If you only have a short distance to walk, continue facing the reporter and restate your message as you walk backward to avoid the “back to camera” shot. And whatever you do, don’t block the camera by placing your hand over the lens! Deny them the defensive-looking visual.
2. When a Reporter Blindsides You During an Interview
What do you do when you’ve agreed to an interview about your organization’s work to save endangered tigers but the reporter suddenly asks about your lavish compensation package? If you refuse to answer, you look guilty. If you answer badly, the results could be even worse.
You have two choices:
- Answer the question. Doing so usually plays better to the audience, and good media training should prepare you in advance to anticipate the “unexpected” questions.
- Deflect the question. Tell the reporter that this interview was supposed to be about your work to save tigers, but that you’d be happy to schedule a future interview to discuss other issues. This might be your best option if the question is about a topic the audience wouldn’t expect you to know much about, and may be your best approach if answering the question badly would do even more harm than not answering it at all.
CASE STUDY: PRESIDENT REAGAN: “WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU.”
President Reagan, a master of good visuals, was subject to an ambush of sorts every time he exited the White House to board Marine One.
Sam Donaldson, ABC News’ aggressive White House Correspondent, would shout tough questions at him as he walked across the lawn.
As the blades of the helicopter whirred, Reagan pretended he couldn’t hear Donaldson’s questions by cupping a hand to his ear, shrugging, and offering a mile-wide smile.