Mike Wallace And The Art Of The Ambush Interview

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 10, 2012 – 6:10 am

Legendary CBS News reporter Mike Wallace died on Sunday at the age of 93.

Mr. Wallace interviewed dozens of the world’s most important figures, but he will likely be remembered most for pioneering the “ambush interview.”

Looking back on his career, Wallace told CNN’s Howard Kurtz that he and the late 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt “came to the conclusion that there was more heat than light that came out of that. We weren’t getting a lot of information from those so-called ambushes. So we quit … I have no doubt that what we started has become a plague.”

Although Mr. Wallace and Mr. Hewitt came to the right conclusion regarding ambush interviews, many other television personalities (some of whom I hesitate to call journalists) have continued his tradition. They imitate Wallace’s legacy by following a public figure down the street, racing them through a parking lot, or showing up to their office without warning.

Little scares media spokespersons more than the prospect of being ambushed. I recently wrote two posts about how spokespersons can survive ambush interviews (here and here), in which I wrote that:

“The single best way to ‘win’ an ambush is by denying the reporter a great visual.”


This excellent obit piece from CBS News highlights Mr. Wallace’s aggressive interviewing style:

If you’re ever ambushed, remember the advice offered in that old deodorant ad: Never let ‘em see you sweat. By remaining calm, you can prevent reporters from getting the compelling “money” shot they desire.

If a Mike Wallace-type ever shows up without warning, try saying 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 in a few minutes that I’m already running late for. Please contact my office so we can set up a time to talk.”


Mr. Wallace left one other important legacy behind. As a result of his interrogative interviewing style, politicians and top executives began to live in greater fear of media interviews than they ever had before. They reacted by hiring media coaches. Therefore, it’s probably not hyperbolic to suggest that we media trainers owe our very profession to Mr. Wallace.

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How To Survive An Ambush Interview (Part Two)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 10, 2012 – 6:12 am

In part one of “How to Survive an Ambush Interview,” I discussed how to react to an ambush when a reporter shows up without warning.

Today’s post will look at a different type of ambush: What should you do if you’re being interviewed and the reporter blindsides you with a completely unexpected topic?

These types of ambushes are tricky. If you refuse to answer, you look guilty. If you answer badly, the results could be even worse. You have two choices:

  1. 1. 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.
  2. 2. Deflect: Tell the reporter that this interview was supposed to be about a specific topic, but that you’d be happy to schedule a future interview to discuss other issues. This might be your best approach if the question is about a topic the audience wouldn’t expect you to know. But be careful – your refusal to answer may come across as a defensive dodge.

One of my favorite examples of an anchor blindsiding his guest comes from the BBC. In early 2010, host Andrew Neil interviewed John Hirst, the head of the U.K. Met Office (The U.K.’s National Weather Service).

Let’s just say the interview started on the wrong foot – and only got worse as it went along:

I’m fond of quoting an expression by ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson, who advised that, “The questions don’t do the damage. Only the answers do.” But there’s an exception to every rule, and Mr. Neil’s first question inflicted severe damage:

Host Andrew Neil: “You predicted a barbeque summer for 2009, we don’t remember that, and a mild winter for this winter, which hasn’t happened. Why did you receive a massive performance-related bonus?”


At first, Mr. Hirst deflected the salary question by saying, “Let’s put my bonus to one side for the moment.” I like that approach, since it allowed him to focus on the question of meteorological accuracy first. By saying, “for the moment,” he indicated a willingness to discuss his bonus, but as a separate issue unrelated to the accuracy of his office’s forecasts.

But Mr. Neil didn’t relent. He continued to undermine Mr. Hirst’s claims for the next five minutes by citing one inaccurate forecast after another.

Mr. Hirst made some good points during this interview, but they were buried in a lack of passion and lack of control. I would have liked for him to have “zoomed out” by pre-empting any further questions about blown forecasts from the start by saying something such as:

“The question isn’t whether our forecasts are perfect, but whether they are among the most sophisticated and accurate in the world. They are. For every example you can cite of an incorrect forecast, I could cite many more that we got right. My bonus isn’t tied to any specific forecast, but rather our overall accuracy. You don’t have to take my word for it – virtually every international meteorological group cites our office as among the best in the world.”


Using that preemptive approach, Mr. Hirst could have responded to any additional questions about blown forecasts by saying:

“Again, Mr. Neil, you can keep citing examples of imperfect forecasts, but for every one you cite, I can cite many more that we got right. Taxpayers should be very proud that our weather office is widely regarded as one of the best in the world. And although we’re proud of that, our professional meteorologists are working hard to continue improving our accuracy – we feel we owe that to the taxpayers.”


One final note: Mr. Neil’s body language was dreadful. Instead of leaning forward and projecting his energy toward the camera (and thus the viewers), he sat with one armed draped over the couch and projected almost no energy whatsoever. In an ambush, visuals matter more than usual – so he should have been more careful not to convey a hint of defensiveness.

Click here is you missed part one of this series

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How To Survive An Ambush Interview (Part One)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 9, 2012 – 6:12 am

When most people think of ambush interviews, they think of a television interviewer chasing after a scandal-tarred executive in an empty parking lot with camera and microphone in tow. Those types of ambushes do occur occasionally, but they’re somewhat rare.

More typically, an ambush occurs in one of two ways:

  1. 1. When a reporter shows up without notice (the topic of this post)
  2. 2. When a reporter deviates from the agreed-upon topic to blindside a source with something totally unexpected (the topic of part two)

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, often 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 can prevent reporters from getting the compelling “money” shot they desire.

What Not To Do In an Ambush

Dick Fleming, the President and CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association (RCGA), didn’t adhere to those rules when he was ambushed last April, going so far as to hide behind milk crates in the back of a hotel conference room (full story here).

What You Should Do In an Ambush

So 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 in a few minutes 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. To avoid the devastating “walking away with back to camera” shot, consider continuing to face the reporter as you walk backwards, delivering the same message a second time. Deny them the defensive-looking visual!

Below is one of my favorite examples of an ambushee turning the tables on the ambusher. When one of Bill O’Reilly’s producers ambushed liberal television host Bill Moyers, Mr. Moyers didn’t show a hint of defensiveness. Even better, he used the audience against the ambusher, invited Mr. O’Reilly on his show, and formed a personal bond with the ambusher.

The perfect ending of this video? The tables were turned on Mr. O’Reilly’s producer after the ambush ended. He defensively walked away, his back to the camera the entire time. 

Click here to read part two of this series.

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Hiding Behind Milk Crates: New Media Strategy

Written by Brad Phillips on April 19, 2011 – 6:42 am

Dick Fleming is President and CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association (RCGA), a local Chamber of Commerce.

A local television reporter wanted to know why Mr. Fleming earned $1.8 million in salary and bonuses over a two-year period – despite the fact that job growth in the region has remained flat during his tenure. So the reporter followed Mr. Fleming to a speech at a local hotel and tried to talk to him before and after his talk.

Mr. Fleming tried to avoid the interview with a toxic mix of belligerence, anger, and defensiveness. But it was Fleming’s creative method of dodging a reporter – hiding in a hotel’s back hallway near a stack of milk crates – that will help this story jump the local fire line and turn it into national news. 

By taking extreme measures to avoid the reporter, this “powerful” business leader left viewers with the unmistakable impression of a guilty executive with something to hide. Mr. Fleming failed to remember that in an ambush interview, reporters are looking for good "visuals.” He provided them in spades.

My favorite part of this video is when he tells the reporter he’s not “hiding” in the hotel service hallway, but rather that he’s “waiting for lunch.” I doubt too many viewers will believe that lame excuse, since none of them have likely ever waited for a lunch date in the back hallway of a hotel.

Instead, imagine if Mr. Fleming had warmly greeted the reporter by saying something such as:

“You know, over the past few months, you’ve asked me many questions, including what the Chamber has achieved during my tenure. I want you to know that during my leadership, the Chamber has (list accomplishments). Now, if you’d like to do a more serious interview, you’re going to have to give me more notice. Please contact my office, and we’ll arrange a time to talk.”


If the reporter persisted (and he probably would have), Mr. Fleming could have just repeated that last line (“Again, I’d be happy to speak with you. But I have a full schedule today, and I’m afraid I cannot accommodate your request without notice. Please contact my office and we’ll set up a time. I look forward to speaking with you soon.”)

Then, Mr. Fleming should have arranged a brief phone call with the reporter – even five minutes would have fulfilled his on-camera pledge. Mr. Fleming surely could have prepared thoughtful answers to tough questions in the days between the ambush and the scheduled interview.

Instead, Mr. Fleming reduced his local profile to that of an executive who cowers in back hallways. And that is never an image that plays well with colleagues, partners, or the public.

A big thank you to reader @Lisa_in_Denver for alerting me to this story – and to the Denver Post’s Penny Parker for alerting her to the story! If you see a good story for this blog, please send it to Contact-at-MrMediaTraining.com.

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Related: March 2011: Five Worst Video Media Disasters

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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.

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    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.

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    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.

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