Posted: May 11, 2010
An insider’s guide to managing your message: part 3
Steer clear of speculationEsty Atlas
Insider Tip #4: Speculative questions are the most slippery in all of news reporting. They are not necessarily intended to trap you, however; curiosity runs deep in a good reporter. Speculative questions often ask you to provide information that you cannot speak to first-hand. Listen closely. Anything that asks you to make a prediction or guess is speculative.
One of my clients was repeatedly asked the same speculative question related to the highly contentious healthcare reform issue. Each time, the interviewer rephrased the same question during a live television newscast. The medical spokesperson stayed the course and repeated his key talking point three times until it became painfully obvious the reporter was not going to steer him toward making a speculative statement.
The best way to handle these questions is to stick with a statement of fact relevant to the reporter's question. Also, keep this in mind. Most untrained people forget that unless it is a LIVE broadcast interview, your audience will most likely never hear the reporter's speculative question, only your answer. This is where you absolutely must control the message!
Finally, the personal opinion question.
Some people still believe that all news is all fact-based. It's only gotten worse since social media and blogging have given rise to millions of unprofessional ‘reporters'. But, the perception exists, more than ever before, that news is a simple process of collecting information about a situation and putting it into a public forum. The fine line between news and opinion is hardly distinguishable anymore. This growing debate leaves many people confused and/or misinformed.
Insider Tip #5: If you are the spokesperson for a company or organization, your personal opinion should not be part of the story, but you might be asked something like, "How do you feel about these new policies and procedures?" Or you may be further probed to take a stand that would seem impossible to avoid. How would you respond to a question that targets your own level of concern. Something like, "Aren't you worried about your organization's apparent lack of concern for (fill in the topic here)." This is a potential wildfire!
Why would someone ask this type of question? Any number of reasons. Generally, with the hope of building a more interesting story or that your opinion will sincerely add human interest. Even if your opinion matches the exact position of the organization you are representing, it can take you off course precluding the more important information you are there to convey. Time counts. If it's a choice between an opinion and one good quote being included in the story, stick with the solid quote. Because, if your personal opinion differs, bam, you become the new story!
Bottom line: Whether you have the opportunity to talk in-depth or just make one good statement, the most important comment needs to stand on its own. Why? Make it easy for the interviewer or often-times, a separate off-site editor who did not conduct the interview at all but is the one under deadline to find a quick soundbite to the story. Your statement must be clear and concise in case that's the only response selected.
Final thoughts: there are learnable techniques to avoid making a comment or being pushed into a statement you'll regret later. Carefully crafted "lead" statements stand out to an editor or reporter over a non-lead statement. Also, understand that while you may sincerely be trying to explain an issue, saying too much can be more easily misinterpreted than sticking with a succinct statement of fact delivered in a calm and believable tone.