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.

 


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A Surprise For People Who Think They Hate Reporters

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 6, 2014 – 12:07 am

I’ve worked with many people who don’t trust or like the media. But one recent group of trainees from a public entity was more emphatic in their hatred of the press than I’d ever encountered before. 

This group constantly felt besieged by a rapacious press corps that couldn’t be satiated, and they believed that reporters were far too busy pursuing their own predetermined agendas to give them a fair shot.

Given the hostility of this group toward the press, I decided to try something different. The result was striking, if not outright shocking.  

Press Conference

Instead of playing the role of reporter (as I usually do in media training sessions), I decided to divide the group in half.

The first group played their usual role of serving as corporate spokespersons. I gave them a scenario to work with, asked them to develop their messages and media strategy, and told them to assign a person who would deliver a press conference.

The second group was tasked with playing the role of reporters during a press conference. I told them that their job was to do everything they could to get the facts the spokesperson was reluctant to offer. I instructed them to get past the spin, challenge evasive responses, and do whatever they could to get to the truth.

The second group took their job seriously. When the press conference began, they were unforgiving of anything that remotely bordered spin. They asked tough follow-up questions, used evidence to contradict some of the spokesperson’s claims, and adopted an almost hostile tone. Frankly, they were tougher than most of the reporters I’ve ever seen at press conferences.

Microphones Over White Background

 

The “Aha!” Moment

When the press conference ended, I asked both groups what they were feeling. The group representing the company said they felt exhausted and beaten up. But the group of reporters was pissed. They felt that the company was being evasive, and they resented the company’s lack of candor.

I didn’t have to say anything. My takeaway message seemed to wash over everyone simultaneously: Reporters aren’t always being jerks just to be jerks; sometimes, they just resent that you’re not being straight with them.

That profound realization, which reminded me of the old adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, changed their perspective. Suddenly, they understood how they were complicit in the media’s reaction to their attempts at media management—and they recognized the need to begin doing things differently.

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.


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Classic Post: Seven Times To Turn Down A Media Interview

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 26, 2014 – 2:04 pm

Editor’s Note: Since August 2010, I’ve written more than 1,000 posts. Some of the most popular posts have gotten buried over time, so I occasionally unbury especially useful older posts to share with readers who missed them the first time. This article was originally published on December 27, 2010.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve seen my regular advice to do almost every media interview you’re offered. But there are times when turning down an interview makes the most sense, and this article will discuss the times when saying “no” is your best move.

Below, you’ll find a list of seven times to turn down an interview.

The original list comes from the IABC (The International Association of Business Communicators). Although it’s a solid list, the tips are overly-generalized, so I’ve added my own commentary to each of the seven suggestions to help make them more complete.

Hand No

1. Employees Have Not Yet Been Notified About a Specific Issue

As a general piece of advice, this is fine. But if a reporter is about to run a story with or without your input – and if you lack the logistical ability to inform your employees directly before it runs – it might make sense to participate in the story to ensure you provide the necessary context. Plus, what is the “specific issue” at play here? Announcing a new product before all employees have been notified (e.g. the iPad) might be strategically sound, while announcing employee layoffs through the press would not be.

2. Employee, Client or Patient Privacy Is Never Breached For Any Reason

Client confidentiality might be waived, for example, if you’re subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit or before Congress, especially if no confidentiality agreement was signed between the parties.

3. An Emergency Has Occurred; Next-of-Kin Have Not Been Notified

I agree you should not be the first party to announce any deaths before next-of-kin has been notified, but what happens if the media has already announced the names? Do you confirm them then, or continue to wait hours – or days – before next-of-kin has been notified? These cases aren’t always cut and dried, and sometimes confirming the names is the more humane choice.

4. Sensitive Competitive Information Would Be Divulged

In a reputational crisis, there are times you might lose more by NOT divulging a proprietary piece of information. As with any crisis, you have to analyze all possibilities, including divulging competitive information.

No Thank You

5. Security Legislation Would Be Breached

Whistleblowers aside, this is probably good advice. I assume this refers to laws already passed, not pending legislation.

6. Union Negotiations are Underway; An Information Blackout is in Effect

If both sides are honoring the agreement, this is good advice. But what about when one party breaks the agreement and is killing you in the press? You should talk to the media – if not to offer specifics, at least to remind the public that you’ve agreed to an information blackout, that you’re not going to talk for that reason, but that there’s more to the story than they’re hearing from the other side.

7. Legal Counsel Has Advised Against Communications

If there’s one thing on this list that makes me bristle, it’s this one. First, even if counsel has advised against “communications,” you can still communicate. You can almost always offer a generic statement such as, “We can’t offer specifics in this case since it’s in litigation, but I would like to remind everyone that there are two sides to this story, and we’re confident that our side will come out in court.”

Second, legal counsel often advises against communications as a kneejerk reaction, even when communicating makes the most sense. Executives would be wise to consult their attorneys and their communications professionals prior to making such decisions. Sometimes the reputational damage caused by your silence is greater than the financial damage of future lawsuits.

Editor’s Note: A grateful hat tip to a good marketing blog called IMC Intuition by Beth Ryan, on which I originally saw this list.

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Should You Use A Reporter’s Name During An Interview?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 28, 2014 – 4:02 am

I recently received this email from the communications director for a major league sports team:

“What is your opinion on a speaker (in our case it’s usually the head coach after games) addressing questions by naming each reporter before the answer or finding a spot within the answer to name the questioner? I hear writers talk about it, how it shows the speaker cares about the media or is making an effort to connect with them more than just spewing a quick answer. Do you think a speaker receives better coverage when naming the reporter in his answer than just to answer the question? I’m torn on it because:

1. My head coach will have to learn each reporter’s name (meaning the non-beat writers), and the reporters who cover us change quite often.

2. It distracts from the answer sometimes. Fans might think, “As a viewer, do I really care that Joe from the local newspaper asked the question? I’m a fan of the team, he should address me too.”

 

I’ve always been conflicted about this topic for the reasons the emailer stated. In The Media Training Bible, I wrote that:

“Many media trainers teach their trainees to call reporters by their names, arguing that doing so helps forge a warm connection with the interviewer. Perhaps that’s true. But it comes at too high of a price. When you call reporters by name, it makes it clear to the audience that you’re speaking to the reporter, not with them.”

Although I believe that advice is generally sound, does it always apply?

It definitely applies to taped sound bite interviews, in which the person conducting the interview may be a behind-the-scenes producer. If you say that person’s name during the interview, the news station will probably be forced to edit it out—or drop that quote altogether.

But does it apply to a live press conference?

Press Conference Microphones

On one hand, naming reporters might help make the reporter feel valued. Reporters may even want to edit their name into the piece to show that they’re the one who asked the question (and let’s face it—hearing their name may also satisfy their ego).

But on the other hand, if the head coach doesn’t know a few people, it will become abundantly clear to everyone watching that they don’t know the reporter. In addition, reporters from competitive outlets may not want to use otherwise great quotes that name their competitors. Plus, as the emailer suggested, it may interfere with the connection the coach should be making with the viewers and fans outside of the room.

Should This Head Coach Call Reporters By Name?

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The emailer and I would both like to learn from you on this one. Please select an option from the poll above—and leave your more complete thoughts in the comments section below.  

 


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As Seen On TV: What Would You Do In This Situation?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 17, 2014 – 3:42 am

The season finale of HBO’s Veep, which aired earlier this month, featured a hilarious moment that made me wonder what I would do in the same situation.

If you’re not familiar with the program, Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, the nation’s first female vice president. The show revolves around Ms. Meyer and her rather colorful staff.

The moment occurred just after the vice president concludes an in-person interview with an obnoxious Boston newspaper reporter. After the reporter walks away, Meyer and her staff begin discussing a couple of their small-money campaign donors and insulting their thriftiness. They even give their low-money donors a derogatory name—GUMMIs—an acronym for “Give us more money, idiots.”

Just as they finish their conversation, they realize that the Boston reporter accidentally left his phone behind, on which he had been recording his interview with the vice president (it was still recording). The reporter, who realizes his mistake, is on his way back to the office to collect his phone.

Veep

The staff quickly realizes how much trouble the campaign will be in if the recording of their conversation gets out—small-money donors will pull their contributions, and the campaign will be seen as elitist. They weigh their options: We should destroy the phone with a lamp! We should say it accidentally fell into the toilet!

The reporter enters the office and collects his phone before they can execute their plan (and, spoiler alert, the “GUMMIs” conversation does cause unflattering headlines).

That made me wonder: What would I do in that situation? The choices boil down to these three:

1. Do nothing and hope the reporter doesn’t use that material

This is the option Meyer’s staff took—and it didn’t pay off.

2. Destroy the evidence

This would kill the negative story about the GUMMIs—but it might lead to even more damaging headlines about destroying a reporter’s phone and speculation about what Ms. Meyer said on the destroyed tape. (The phone was password protected, so simply deleting the file wasn’t an option.)

3. Negotiate with the reporter

This is the strategy I would have chosen. When the reporter came back for his phone, I would have asked him to consider all of the material included on the tape after he left the room “off the record.” The reporter would have had no obligation to honor my request—such requests are typically made prior to the interview and agreed upon in advance by both parties—but in this case, the material was gathered without the consent of the taped party (which might even constitute an illegal recording in some states).  His leaving the tape recorder behind might have even been an intentional trick, although the show didn’t address that question.

If the conversation with the reporter doesn’t go well, there could be an either implicit or explicit threat regarding future access—publish that material, and you’ll never speak with the vice president again.  (That’s the “stick” approach; the “carrot” approach of offering increased access could also work.)

What Would You Do?

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If you have any additional thoughts, please leave them in the comments section below.


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How To Change A Reporter’s Description Of You

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 13, 2014 – 6:02 am

A reader recently wrote in seeking advice about how to change a reporter’s description of her as an “opponent” of a proposed new middle school. “The label is convenient,” she writes, but “it sounds negative and oppositional.” More importantly, she says, it’s inaccurate.

“Our town is currently locked in an ongoing school bond debate revolving primarily around the construction of a new middle school. The bond has failed three times, but the school board and supporters plan to float it yet again.

A number of us in the “no, not in that current iteration” camp are consistently referred to in the media as “opponents” of the bond…it doesn’t accurately convey our position. We are in fact for the bond in that we support a new middle school. But we disagree with proponents on a number of key issues and want the board to back-pedal and revisit prior assumptions…we aren’t opponents of the bond as much as we are “yes, but let’s do this thing right” voters.

Is there a word, or handy phrase, we can use to better identify ourselves, both as we speak with people individually and as presented collectively, via the media?”

Agree Disagree

1. Speak to the reporter

Reporters might use the term “opponent” for a few reasons. First, it may be an accurate descriptor—you are in opposition to the current plan, if not the entire project. Second, reporters working under a strict word count don’t want to burn up words on your descriptor. “Opponent” takes up one word; “who opposes the current plan” takes up five. Finally, “supporter vs. opponent” plays to the media’s tendency to eliminate nuance and reduce characters to simple archetypes.

In this reader’s case, she did contact the reporter—and got positive results. “I contacted the reporter, thanking him for a well-done, objective piece,” she wrote. “I added that I’m not, strictly-speaking, an opponent as I don’t oppose a new school/alternative bond. He asked how he might better describe me in future articles.” Her non-accusatory tone was perfect.

2. Create an irresistible media sound bite

I’d develop an irresistible sound bite, such as this one:

“The supporters of this bill have consistently misrepresented our position. We are for the construction of a new middle school; we’re against irresponsible construction (or reckless growth, etc.)”

Or, if you want to be more positive:

“The supporters of this bill have consistently misrepresented our position. We are for the construction of a new middle school—but we insist on smart development that serves the community well for many years.”

These sound bites work for three reasons:

1. They oppose something most people would also be against—irresponsible construction or reckless growth—or support something people would be for—smart development.

2. The lead sentence places the blame for misrepresenting your position on the supporters of the bill, not on the media (which might bristle at the accusation).

3. The “for-against” construct of the first sound bite plays to the media’s preference for two-sided conflict, increasing the odds they would choose to use it.

Finally, if you don’t want to come across quite so aggressively (or, if you don’t want to use the term ‘supporters’ in your sound bite), you might choose more neutral language instead:

“Our position has been consistently misrepresented. We are for the construction of a new middle school; we’re against irresponsible construction.”

Thank you for your email, and good luck!

Do you have a question about public speaking or dealing with the media that you’d like answered on the blog? Please send it to Contact@MrMediaTraining.com.


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Your Responses: Is This Smart or Dangerous PR Strategy?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 26, 2014 – 6:02 am

Last week, I asked whether it is ever a smart media relations strategy to wait to return a reporter’s call until just before the deadline. By doing so in specific circumstances, I wrote, you might be able to minimize your role in the story while preventing the reporter from writing that you refused to comment.

You had a lot to say on this topic—thank you for all of your thoughtful comments!—and as I suspected, you had a wide range of opinions. Below are some highlights; you can also read the complete comments in the comment section of this post.

Many of you said that waiting until just before the deadline was bad form, as expressed in the following tweets:

Feb 2014 Tweets Question of the Week

Reader Adam Myrick agrees that waiting is bad form:

”I’ve always gone with a customer service-flavored model of media relations. I look at the reporters and editors I work with as customers. I strive to provide them with a level of access and information that is befitting of a customer receiving any other service. Providing them with information right before ‘closing time’ strikes me as bad customer service.”

Stu Opperman, APR takes a similar take:

“In my experience, reporters will often claim a deadline time that is often earlier than the actual deadline. This happens for a variety of reasons, one of which is to thwart the ’4:58 crowd’ from working the system. Since you never really know if the deadline stated is the true deadline, it has always been my recommendation to position the appropriate message(s) as you feel is best, regardless of timing. If your goal is to keep your client’s connection to the story to a minimum, keep your comments short and to the point and don’t have further conversation/correspondence about the situation.”

But other readers disagreed, arguing that waiting until just before a reporter’s deadline has its benefits. Bill Zucker writes:

“There is at least one situation in which there is little advantage in answering early. If, because of legal complications or the facts in the story, your company will not be in a position to go beyond a short statement — then there is little reason to answer early. Giving time for follow up doesn’t help you.”

But Bill smartly points out that:

“Deadlines are not what they used to be…waiting until deadline hoping to avoid a follow up question will not generally be effective for stories that are posted and updated online.”

Deadline Ahead

Kent agrees:

“I would agree with Bill that you only do it when there’s not much you can say, and would add that you only do it with a reporter you know or suspect to be hostile.”

But he shares this anecdote about a time when that strategy backfired:

“When I first started doing PR at a college, I didn’t have the information to provide a news director who called about a controversy. I pledged to get back to her when I had somebody for her to talk to, but rather than wait she sent a reporter out to talk to anybody she could find…it could…have spun out of control at that point.”

John Barnett sees both sides:

”There is a risk of being left out anyway after waiting so long, or the reporter decides you are hiding something, feels played and then adjusts his or her story toward that angle…So I call it a risk — but argue that risks are strategies.”

And he also points out that reporters use a similar tactic in reverse:

“I would also suggest it works both ways, since reporters working a juicy gotcha story can wait until the last minute to call you for a quote or information in order to put you off-message and limit your options for a reply that meets their deadline.”

Deadline Stopwatch

Finally, one reader who requested anonymity shared an interesting story about his company’s crisis communications regarding the new healthcare marketplace:

“I handle PR [for] a large health insurer, and with the marketplace enrollment issues everyone is having, local TV stations have been finding members who need coverage and using their stories as a way to attack insurance companies…

A couple of weeks ago we were contacted by a member of the local TV media — a reporter who has a history of going aggressively against us whenever possible…

First off, we solved the member’s issue, but as we all know, that was just to crack to door open for the reporter, she was filing the story regardless of the members’ outcome.

I had no intention of putting our executive on air…I had previously witnessed how other local TV stations cut and sliced a seemingly innocent interview with this executive and turned it negative…So I put together a statement from the company, but made it appear as if it was crafted specifically and only for this one reporter, and sent it to her an hour before her deadline.

I did not take her follow up calls, as she also had a tendency to use phone conversations with the PR staff as official comments from the company, and I did not want our off-hand comments to defuse the message of the statement…

The story ran, and not only did she show the statement on air (on our letterhead with logo), she actually read part of the statement in her story…To me, this was a win.”

Thank you for your great comments! If you would like to add any additional thoughts, please use the comments section below.

 


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Question Of The Week: Is This A Smart Or Risky Strategy?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 17, 2014 – 6:02 am

If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you know that I generally advise spokespersons to return a call well before a reporter’s deadline.

Returning calls from reporters on the early side—before they begin writing their stories—can give you influence over the way they view your topic. Your early conversations may lead them to examine angles they hadn’t previously considered and speak with other sources you mentioned. All of that, in turn, may lead to more favorable coverage.

If, on the other hand, you wait to return a reporter’s call until just before his or her deadline, you may reduce your ability to shape the story. By that late point, the journalist has probably already completed 95 percent of the story and will just plug your quote into a small hole left open for you.

But here’s a question: Are there times when you might want to reduce your role in the story—and strategically return a call for a 5:00 p.m. deadline at 4:58 p.m.?

Deadline Ahead

Waiting to return a journalist’s call until just before the deadline could help you in at least two ways: Depending on the circumstance, it could minimize your role in an unfavorable story; and it prevents reporters from being able to write or say that you had “no comment,” a damning phrase that makes you look guilty.

Here are my questions for you: 

Have you ever used this tactic? If so, what were the circumstances? Did it work? If you haven’t, would you consider doing so?

I’ll compile a few of your responses for an upcoming article—so if you’d like some free publicity, please leave a web address along with your comment.

Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

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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.

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