Fighting Back Against False Media Stories: Two Examples

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 8, 2015 – 5:02 am

In The Media Training Bible, I included a lesson called “Three Things To Do When You’re Falsely Accused.” One of my recommendations was to consider offering your own proof to rebut a reporter’s incorrect claims:

In some cases, there is a place for harder-edged tactics…That means you might hire a private investigator to look into the background of any accusers or conduct a “parallel” investigation to uncover facts that your critics aren’t finding—or are purposely ignoring.

I’ve seen two memorable examples of this recently—one conventional, the other more inventive.

Example One: North Carolina Governor Attacks The Press

Last month, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory accused The Associated Press of “malice” for its reporting about a stock payout he received from a company on whose board he once sat. (The AP stands by its reporting.)

That type of rhetoric isn’t particularly unusual—many politicians attack the press as often as they brush their teeth. But as reported, what made this attack stand out was “an eight-point refutation of the story and a 34-page critique of the reporter’s prior work.”

Pat McCrory

Among other points in his eight-point critique were these:

AP CLAIM: “However, more than a dozen securities lawyers and ethics experts told The Associated Press that such stock payouts are uncommon for elected officials, and raise significant concerns. These experts gave differing opinions about whether laws were broken.”

WHAT THE AP LEFT OUT: What “securities lawyers” and what “ethics experts?” Name them. Not one “expert” was named.

AP CLAIM: “AP reported that McCrory, a Duke retiree, held stock in the company as his administration made key regulatory decisions involving his former employer. Those decisions are now the subject of a federal criminal investigation.”

WHAT THE AP LEFT OUT: This is an outrageous accusation and this is absolutely incorrect – it is a false statement and was printed and published with malice. The AP is saying that the governor is under federal investigation and that is 100% false. Neither the governor nor anyone he hired has been subpoenaed as part of this investigation.

I don’t know the facts of this case well enough to form an educated opinion about who’s right—and I suspect the same is true for most readers. But this gets to another of the three recommendations I made in my book about defending against (what you believe to be) false charges: “Be ‘super’ open: The media tend to perceive those who talk as innocent and those who don’t as guilty.”

Sure, being this aggressive can be perceived by some as a form of defensiveness. But when compared to other potential responses—such as a “no comment” and a refusal to engage with the press—this is a far superior approach. 


Example Two: Walmart Responds to The New York Times

Walmart used a cheekier response last summer to rebut a New York Times column with which it disagreed. The response itself—an annotated version of the original column—was admired by some and loathed by others. Personally, I thought its originality put a more creative and attention-grabbing spin on rebutting false narratives.

Walmart Response

These aggressive responses can be a high-wire act, so they’re to be used judiciously and by PR professionals who can determine and manage the risks associated with them. But they can also be incredibly effective at muddying the waters by neutralizing a news article and leaving readers with the impression that there’s more to the story.

Don’t miss a thing! Click here to instantly join our mailing list and receive the best of the blog twice each month.


Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted in Media Training Tips | 1 Comment »

Can You Say “I’m Not Here To Talk About That Topic?”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 13, 2014 – 3:02 am

Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, made some controversial comments about Muslims during one of his recent programs, during which he had a well-publicized debate with one of his guests, actor Ben Affleck.

A few days later, Maher was scheduled to give an interview to a reporter from Salon about a different topic—his “Flip a District” campaign—but the writer understandably wanted to ask Maher about his “spat” with Affleck. Maher made clear he didn’t want to talk about that; here are three excerpts from the interview:

“Yeah, let’s leave that for a while. I’ve said enough about that.”

“You know, I don’t want to talk about this. You just said we’re not going to talk about this and now we’re talking about it.”

“I’ll tell you something interesting — and then I am going to get off the subject because we’re here to talk about “Flip a District,” was my understanding.”

Ben Affleck

Maher’s responses made me think about a question we hear a lot during our media training sessions: What should I do if I’m asked a question about a topic I wasn’t originally booked to speak about? Do I have to answer it, or can I insist on speaking only about the topic we agreed to discuss in advance? 


In that situation, you have a few options:

1. Answer The Question

This is often the best option, particularly if the question is one that the audience would expect you to be able to answer. Deflecting a straightforward question that deserves a straightforward response often plays like this infamous 2008 interview, in which Sarah Palin refused to name the newspapers she reads.


2. Give a Short Response, Then Transition Away From It

Maher used this approach, reminding the reporter that he had agreed to speak about a specific topic and insisting that they keep to the ground rules. He provided a short answer to the questions about his controversial comments, then moved away from them.

This approach can work for more experienced spokespersons—Maher used it well—but it requires a deft touch to avoid being portrayed as evasive. But there’s one problem with this approach: By giving even a short response about his controversial comments, Maher allowed Salon to run the exact headline he didn’t want: “EXCLUSIVE: Bill Maher on Islam spat with Ben Affleck: ‘We’re liberals! We’re not crazy tea-baggers.’”


3. Confront The Reporter

In a 2012 Republican primary debate, Newt Gingrich was asked about accusations that he had asked his second wife for an open marriage. He deemed the question out of bounds—we’re here to talk about serious issues, and you’re asking me about a personal relationship—and went on the offensive.

Gingrich used this approach brilliantly, but he also deployed it in front of a supportive audience that shared his dislike of the media. Generally speaking, this is a high-wire act that few people pull off well. 



4. Refuse to Answer The Question

Here’s where things get really tricky: Let’s say you agreed with a reporter in advance that the interview would be limited to a specific topic. When the interview begins, the journalist breaks his or her promise. Cameras are roiling. Do you refuse to answer it, perhaps reminding the reporter of your agreement, even if doing so risks making you look evasive to the audience? 

The answer is “it depends”—on the context, the topic, the format, and the spokesperson. This option is risky, and in my experience, only a small percentage of spokespersons have the media savvy and personal qualities to pull this off well. But assuming you do refuse to accept the question, keep these two things in mind:

First, make sure your tone doesn’t convey even a whiff of defensiveness.

Second, you can refuse to answer the question with a response like one of these:

“I’m not here to discuss that topic today. I want the focus to be squarely on our new product, and I’m aware that if I comment on anything but that, the headlines won’t be about the product. So let’s get back to that…”

“You know, Janet, I’m surprised you would ask me that. Before we began this interview, we agreed that you would ask me only about this project, and now you’ve broken that promise. I’m happy to do this interview with you if we focus it on this project, which is so important to so many people. But if you insist on breaking your commitment, you’ll leave me little choice but to end this interview.”

The second option is similar to “confront the reporter” approach, but with one key difference—whereas Gingrich still proceeded to answer the question, the spokesperson in this example didn’t.


Final Thought

This post focused on what you can do during the interview itself. But you can also help reduce the need for saying “I’m not here to talk about that topic” by negotiating the ground rules before the interview, and you can register a complaint after the interview (and disclose that breach to your audiences through your blog and social media feeds) if the reporter breaks them.


Like the blog? Read the book! The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview is available in paperback, for Kindle, and iPad.


Tags: , , ,
Posted in Media Training Tips | 1 Comment »

Advanced Media Training Tip: Push Back In Both Directions

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 16, 2014 – 5:02 am

You’ve probably heard this advice before: When a journalist asks you a question containing a flawed premise, you should challenge the question.

That’s smart advice—but it’s also incomplete. That’s because the advice is almost always intended to apply to unfair questions. As an example, a reporter might ask:

“Since your company is suffering from unusually high turnover, how will you remain competitive this year?”

If that premise is incorrect, you might push back politely but directly by saying:

“Actually, that’s not quite right. Our turnover is close to the industry average—and there’s been no turnover at all on our executive team for the past three years.”

But there’s another type of “incorrect premise” question that can be equally—or even more—damaging.

While most “incorrect premise” questions are negative in tone, some are overly charitable. And if you bite on the reporter’s overly charitable bait, your response can make you appear self-indulgent, self-pitying, or both.

For example, let’s say your company made a product—a poorly designed auto part—that is likely responsible for four deaths. The reporter might ask the company’s CEO, Bob Miller, this question:

“You make more than ten million auto parts each year, and only four have been linked to deaths. Do you ever feel that it’s a bit unfair for your company to be viewed as irresponsible when you have such an impressive safety record?”


You might agree with that premise, but agreeing with the question won’t do you any favors. If you say anything remotely close to  “yes,” here’s how that devastating two-minute news segment might play out:

:00 – :20  Reporter sets up the piece

:20 – 1:20  Interviews with the grieving mother of one victim and the sister of another. Both of them cry throughout the segment; both blame the auto parts manufacturer for the deaths.

1:20 – 1:40  A government official says he plans to call for an investigation of the company which, he says, appears to have a negligent manufacturing process.

1:40 – 1:45  Reporter voice over:  “But Bob Miller of Giant Manufacturing said it’s unfair that his company is being labeled as reckless.”

1:45 – 1:55  Bob Miller sound bite: “We have a long safety record, and it’s a bit unfair for everyone to be piling on right now.”

1:55 – 2:00  Reporter close


When you recognize a reporter’s question as being overly charitable, flag it as a potential trap and disagree with the premise. For this example, you might say:

“I wouldn’t say that. Look, any time a loss of life is involved, it’s a very serious matter and we have a responsibility to investigate whether anything could have been done differently. We’re doing that. And while it’s true that our company has an impressive long-term safety record, we also are well aware that one preventable accident is one too many. If there’s a way can do our work better, we will—and we must.”

Come join us for one of our fun, fast-moving and content-rich media and presentation training workshops! Click here to see our upcoming sessions.

Tags: ,
Posted in Media Training Tips | Please Comment »

Advanced Media Training Tip: Tee Up The Next Question

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 18, 2013 – 1:33 pm

What if there was an almost foolproof way to ensure that reporters ask you the exact question you want them to ask

There is. Often times, you can “tee up” the next question a reporter will ask you simply by placing it right in front of them.

As an example, imagine that the question you’re asked is slightly off topic. You answer the question, followed by this phrase: “But that’s not even the most fascinating thing we’ve seen.” Any reporter worth his or her paycheck will immediately ask: “Oh? What is?”

Think of this technique as analogous to golf, where players “tee up” their next shot by placing the ball carefully onto a small stand (the “tee”) before striking it.

Other phrases that might help you tee up the next question include:

  • “But that’s not even the most interesting discovery we’ve made.”
  • “And I heard something more surprising than that along the way.”
  • “That’s only the second most frequently asked question we hear from visitors.”
  • “There’s an even greater risk to tourists that most people aren’t aware of.”
  • “What most people don’t realize is that there’s a more effective way to treat this ailment.”

Now, go back to those five phrases and play the role of a journalist. What would the follow-up questions be? The answer is pretty obvious, right? Each of those phrases should elicit an obvious follow-up question.

When should you use these phrases? You can use them at any time, but I find them of particular use during a live radio or television interview. Let’s say you’ve been booked for a five-minute radio segment. You have limited time in which to make your key points. The host’s first few questions are a bit off topic, so you want to gently and subtly steer her back to the more important parts of the story. These “tee up” phrases help you do that—and allow the host to look good by asking you the “smart” question.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may be wondering why you shouldn’t simply use those phrases to transition to your message instead of depending on the reporter to ask the follow-up question (e.g. “But that’s not even the most interesting discovery we’ve made. The most interesting discovery was when we found…”).

That approach is certainly sound and is usually preferable. But let’s say you feel like your answer has already gone on too long and you need to hand the ball back to the reporter. This is a perfect way to accomplish that — the host will be able to jump back in to ask the next question, but will probably ask you the one you want.

As usual, a little goes a long way here. Using this technique once or twice in an interview is probably sufficient. But it’s worth adding this technique to your media arsenal and deploying it when the reporter is just a little off in the questioning and you want to gently nudge them back to a relevant topic.

Come join us for one of our fun, fast-moving and content-rich media and presentation training workshops! Click here to see our upcoming sessions.

Tags: , ,
Posted in Media Training Tips | Please Comment »

Why It’s Okay To Drown Your Audience In Statistics

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 9, 2013 – 6:02 am

Most communications experts advise that you should never drown your audience in data. They maintain that audiences are unable to remember raw numbers unless you wrap them in context and meaning first.

They’re right—mostly. But there’s one important exception to the rule I’ve never addressed on this blog.

Before sharing that exception to the rule, it’s worth reviewing the usual best practices advice for conveying statistical information. As a brilliant example, Brian Williams opened the NBC Nightly News with this attention-grabbing statement last month: “The last time the leaders of Iran and the United States spoke to each other directly, half the current population of this country had not yet been born.”

Instead of relying on raw population growth numbers, he synthesized his point into a much more memorable sound bite.

Person under crumpled pile of papers with hand holding a help sign / isolated on white

In The Media Training Bible, I offered another example: “If your car company is introducing an updated model, you’d be proud to announce that the improved version gets four miles more per gallon. But you’d get even more traction if you said, ‘That’s enough to get from Maine to Miami once per year—without spending an extra penny on gas.’”

Both of those examples avoid the problem of drowning your audience with the types of numbers that are likely to be forgotten before your interview or presentation even ends.

The Exception To The Rule

Sometimes, drowning your audience with a rapid-fire series of statistics is exactly the right thing to do. Your goal in those moments isn’t to help the audience remember each specific number—you know they won’t—but to create a larger and maybe even dramatic impression.

Imagine a speaker delivering the following information while building to a powerful crescendo—until the very end, when the speaker finishes the last phrase in a virtual whisper:

“Almost one in every 100 adults between the ages of 15 and 49 worldwide has HIV. In Sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 1 in every 20 adults is living with the disease. The numbers of people living with HIV in Southern Africa alone are stunning. Namibia, 190,000 people. Swaziland, 190,000. Botswana, 300,000. Lesotho, 320,000. South Africa, 5.6 million.”

Few members of an audience will remember those specific numbers. But if the speaker’s main goal is to leave the audience with an unmistakable impression of the severity of the HIV crisis, the rapid succession of numbers will succeed in conveying it.

Use this approach no more than once per presentation (unless you bookend your speech in the open and close with it.). If you’d like to use additional statistics during your talk, use the “best practice” version described at the beginning of this article.  

Don’t miss a thing! Instantly join our mailing list and receive free media training and public speaking tips once per week.

*Source: World Health Organization

Tags: , , , , ,
Posted in Presentation Training | 1 Comment »

Advanced Media Training Tip: Lean Into Accusations

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 24, 2013 – 6:02 am

I’ve trained thousands of media spokespersons over the past decade, and there’s one thing that unites almost all of them: when they’re accused of something, they become defensive.

Their defensive reactions may be subtle, indicated by a slight shift in body language, or more severe, conveyed through a frozen “deer-in-headlights” expression. Either way, the audience can spot the defensive reactions and interpret meaning from them, undermining the impressions the spokespersons had hoped to make.

It’s perfectly understandable to become defensive when challenged. It’s a natural tendency for most of us. But in many cases, there’s a better way to handle accusations.

Stop defending yourself against them. Start running toward them. Embrace them. Lean into them.


Defensive Man

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re a local politician who is confronted by an angry constituent at a town hall meeting.

Angry Question: “Why did you spend $52 million to rebuild this park? Our community has so many other needs!”

Your “Lean Into” Response: “Our community does have a lot of other needs—and that’s exactly why we spent what we did on this park. We spent only as much as necessary to build a park that was done the right way, right from the start. That way, we knew we wouldn’t have to waste taxpayer dollars a few years from now on repairs that shouldn’t be necessary. As a result of doing this project right, we will have more taxpayer dollars available for all of those other important needs you alluded to.”

For another example of leaning into a charge, watch this clip from a 2012 Republican debate. Rick Santorum accused Newt Gingrich of being too “grandiose” in his thinking (he had recently proposed a moon colony). But instead of ducking the charge, Gingrich went with it.

Obviously, you can’t lean into every accusation that’s ever made of you (this strategy would work badly if you were accused of a crime, for example). But deployed at the right times, this technique can help you eliminate defensiveness and communicate a sense of utter confidence to your audiences.

Enjoy this post? You’ll learn a lot more in my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview, available in paperback, for the Kindle, and the iPad.

Tags: ,
Posted in Media Training Tips | 1 Comment »

The 11 Best Advanced Media Training Tips

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 15, 2013 – 6:02 am

Since starting this blog in August 2010, we’ve published dozens of advanced media training tips. Many of them have gotten buried over time, so I’ve gone back and selected the 11 posts that remain as useful today as they were when they were published.

I hope you enjoy this collection of advanced media training tips. If you do, I’d be grateful if you’d consider sharing it through your social media networks.

Without further ado, here are 11 of our best advanced media training tips!

Woman Interviews Man

1. One is One Too Many

Many companies, nonprofits, and government agencies encounter moments when they think it might be a good idea to place a specific tragedy into a larger context. Here’s a better idea.

2. Before You Can Convince, You Have To Connect

Many people representing a cause or political party are so intent on explaining their ideology that they fail to align their messages to their audience. They’d do better if they started with areas of agreement.

3. The Filibuster

Can you survive a tough interview by running out the clock?

4. Answering All or Nothing Questions

When a reporter asks you if you can guarantee that something will happen “every time” or “never again,” you may have a tough time answering the question. Here’s an approach that works.

5. It’s Not This, It’s That

By reframing an issue and refusing to acknowledge the narrow frame the reporter drew around it, you might be able to get your key quote in the story.

6. Surviving a Tough Press Conference

Here’s a technique that will allow you to look open and transparent while limiting your exposure to the press.

7. Why The “Real” Answer Is Often The Best One

Some questions don’t have a great answer. But a lot of the time, the perfect answer has been sitting in front of you the entire time.

8. Redefine Negative Words

Adopting the language of your opponent’s most loaded charge can neutralize their strongest argument.

9. The Friendly Opponent Quote

Most people quote someone who supports their position. Sometimes, it’s even more powerful to quote a source the audience wouldn’t expect you to embrace.

10. Comment Without Commenting

Just because you shouldn’t ever use the words “no comment” doesn’t mean you have to reveal everything you know to every reporter who asks.

11. Be Boring

Should you ever “be boring” on purpose? Can “nice and dull” be a winning media relations strategy?


Want more tips? You’ll find 101 tips to better media interviewing in The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.

Tags: ,
Posted in Media Training Tips | Please Comment »

Advanced Media Training Technique: Be Boring

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 13, 2013 – 6:02 am

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is no stranger to challenging media situations.

In recent years, he’s had to address his team’s notorious participation in the 2007 “Spygate” scandal, welcome the potentially distracting Tim Tebow to his roster, and, most recently, deal with player Aaron Hernandez, who was charged with first-degree murder earlier this summer.

Central to his media success is an underlying media strategy that goes beyond mere message discipline. As Patrick Coffee of PR Newser put it, “the man’s secret: keep things nice and dull.”

Belichick’s “be boring” approach is evident in his press conference about the Aaron Hernandez murder charges. (Questions begin at the 7:15 mark.)

Since you’re probably not a football coach, here’s a question of greater relevance for you: Should you ever “be boring” on purpose? Is “nice and dull” a winning media relations strategy?

If you’ve read The Media Training Bible, you know that I generally propose being an engaging media spokesperson who delivers sound bites reporters love and the public remembers. Doing so not only helps to build your brand, but keeps you high on a reporter’s list of sources to call; if you can deliver a great interview, reporters know they’ll get what they need from you and keep calling.

But as Belichick’s press conference points out, there are times you want your presence in a story to be minimized. (Here are four ways to minimize or kill a news story.)

For the purposes of this article, I’m referring to message discipline and “being boring” as two different things. (After all, you can still deliver a memorable media sound bite while being on message.)

Below are three examples of when “being boring” might work.

Boring Seminar

1. You agree to an interview about a topic you’d prefer not receive a lot of attention.

If you deliver a great media sound bite, that very well may become the headline—which would only serve to magnify the story and make it more memorable. Using purposefully uninteresting language would serve up little to make the story bigger.

2. You’re a politician who is a part of a negative story along with three other politicians of equal rank.

You know that the other three politicians are also speaking to the reporter. If you’re purposefully boring, odds are the reporter will give more ink to one of your other three political peers, one of whom will presumably say something more interesting. The same principle applies if you’re talking about business competitors or a controversy involving three other not-for-profit groups.

3. You work in an unpopular industry.

Some of our clients work in controversial industries. They prefer to do their work under the radar—not because they’re engaged in a nefarious effort, but because the media and/or the public too often misunderstand or mischaracterize the nature of their work. Still, there are times they must speak on the record, and being boring is a great way to help keep the story less dramatic.

In closing, though, I’d advise most clients in most situations not to engage in the “be boring” strategy. For most of us, our goal is to build our brands and reinforce our reputations. And developing positive long-term relationships with reporters and delivering media-friendly responses is usually the best way to accomplish that. 

A grateful hat tip to @PatrickCoffee of PRNewser.

Can you think of other situations when the “be boring” strategy might be helpful? Have you ever used it? Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Tags: , , ,
Posted in Media Training Tips | Please Comment »

Join our email list to get our 21 most essential media training tips

An Amazon #1 PR Bestseller: The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need To Know Before Your Next Interview. Learn more.

  • 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.

  • Comments or Tips?

  • Media Requests

    To book Brad Phillips for a media interview, please e-mail
  • In The News

    Click here to see media coverage of Brad Phillips and the Mr. Media Training Blog.
  • Media Training

    Click here for more information about our customized media training workshops. To book a media training workshop, e-mail