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Posted: April 28, 2010

An insider’s guide to managing your message

How do you get comfortable with uncomfortable questions?

Esty Atlas

(Editor's note: this is the first of three parts)

With fear of public speaking the number one phobia over death, fear of a press interview or facing angry consumers runs a close second for many managers and business executives. What to say, what not to say when asked a particular question? How do you get your point across without being misquoted, misunderstood, and avoid being taken out of context completely? Even worse, you say something that you believe is going to be well received, only to be perceived as "arrogant" or (insert expletive here).

How do you get comfortable with uncomfortable questions? In most interview situations, the majority of the questions will be straightforward attempts to understand your issue, organization, or story. That can happen, right? It can, if you're being interviewed by Charlie Rose on PBS (in my opinion, one of the few remaining journalistic interviewers who do not focus on the sensational). For the rest of you, however, safe to say a few strategic media training techniques can go a long way toward leveling the interview playing field.

If you are genuinely interested in using the news media (or any public forum) to help your company or organization improve its image, sell products, survive a crisis, or any of a number of other goals, then making the effort to understand reporters (as well as your public's psyche) is time, effort, and a little money well spent.

Insider Tip #1: No matter what the reporter's intention or level of knowledge of the subject at hand, the real content of the story lies in your answers. Know that any information you provide is fair game...on or off the record from the moment the interviewer or audience arrives. So, if you simply follow a reporter's lead during an interview, you will likely be unhappy with the results!
A story will be shaped more by how you answer a particular question than by how the reporter phrases the question.

Insider Tip #2: Negative questions. This is an aggressive questioning technique sometimes used to ‘rattle one's cage' with the clear intent to elicit an answer that is poorly thought out. The problem is the human tendency to respond or react using the same phrasing as the person asking the question, almost by reflex. That's the problem. Train your ear to hear that train coming. Phrases like, "Isn't it true that...?" "Aren't you concerned that..." Every contradiction used in these introductions is a negative statement. (Is it not true? Are you not concerned?) That's what the public hears and you wind up defending yourself. Instead, recognize these red flags in advance. Then, DO NOT feed into the trapping question with a "Yes" or a "No." Here is an example of a negative question with a dangerous response:

Q: Isn't it true that you're eliminating as many as 500 positions this year?
A: Yes, we are sadly forced to eliminate as many as 500 positions this year.
Say what? How did that happen? "It just slipped out," said our new client who had enough of being lambasted in the press. People tend to treat reporters as authority figures and unpracticed interviewees almost subconsciously repeat the phrasing they just heard. This keeps you locked into their agenda, unflattering to your position. Don't be baited. Instead, recognize the content of the question, and make a positive statement built on a commendable (instead of contentious) talking point. Consider the value of positive vs. negative public relations for the following (recommended) response to the same question above:

A: Our customer base has now experienced five consecutive quarters of unsustainable losses which, unfortunately, forces us to reduce our greatest overhead, but unlike many other companies, our workforce reduction will come from the top down, not the bottom up.

Hmm...not canning the little guy first? That puts things in a whole different perspective, and proper perspective is exactly what you need to provide if you want to get a positive point across. Hence: YOU alter the dialogue. What was learned in the second response? That this company did not make a rash decision, and, that it places a higher burden on those who have the greater level of responsibility and pay scale. How refreshing! Obviously, if this is not the case, it's essential to find an alternate, but truthful, positive statement to make. Perhaps the company would be willing to offer free cross-training, resume writing, and interview skills coaching.

Create opportunities to position yourself as a thoughtful company, especially during economic challenges by being proactive, not reactive. You've all seen how the greedy companies are treated by the press and the public after the beans are spilled.

Always support your position without condemning someone else. Your goal is to find those words which clearly convey the beneficial message you WANT to give.

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Esty Atlas is a four-time Emmy award-winning writer, specializing in leadership communications, media and public relations. 303-919-2425; email: estycreative@yahoo.com or www.estycreative.com

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