Some of the most toe-curling questions any professional could be asked in a media interview usually involve salary and remuneration: “How much do you earn?”, “Do you think you deserve a bonus this year”, or “Is your CEO really worth $20 million?”
They’re the types of left-field issues that catch investment bankers and other finance professionals off-guard in a media interview as they struggle to understand why they’re being grilled about their seven-figure salary, and indeed how they’re going to respond to such confronting questions.
In all honesty, how much you are paid or how you are compensated is between you and your employer. It’s simply none of the reporter’s business.
But given salary surveys are the bread and butter of many business publications, including The Australian Financial Review, you can bet some hard-nosed business reporters will always ask the million dollar question.
In the past week alone, many US and European bankers, including JP Morgan Chase's Jamie Dimon and Citigroup's Vikram Pandit, have reportedly pocketed double-digit annual pay rises of around 12 per cent while profits and share prices have sunk.
Add to that the highly-damaging claims of interest rate rigging at some of Europe's biggest banks - including Barclays, HSBC and Bank of Scotland - and you can see why investment bankers are once again in the firing line, not just in mainstream media but on Twitter and Facebook as well.
To be fair, it is a reporter's job to scrutinise and shine a light in dark places and to ask the hard questions investors, customers or the wider public sometimes don't always get the chance to ask.
They would be neglect in their duty if they did not tap into the public mood and hold companies to account on issues like remuneration, performance and the trappings of success.
If you're a well-paid banker, trader, analyst or economist and you're struggling to understand that, consider that most journalists don’t live in your world.
They are often lowly-paid for much of their career (unless they climb the ranks to become a columnist or senior writer) and the only bonus they get is seeing their name in print each day. They cannot comprehend someone being paid a multi-million dollar salary with other incentives thrown in.
So when a reporter hears that your CEO has received a massive pay rise, has splashed out on a lavish waterfront mansion or even slashed bonuses, they'll have no shame in asking you about it.
That’s why JP Morgan Chase’s chief executive Jamie Dimon, who pockets $US23 million a year, did Wall Street no favours when he claimed journalists were outrageously over-paid. By rattling their cage, all he did was give reporters more ammunition to fire at him and other high-flying bankers.
And when things turn pear-shaped - as they have recently for many investment banks - you can guess who reporters will have firmly in their sights, as this story shows.
So how should you deal with awkward questions about salary, bonuses, the company share price or even your CEO's performance?
Well, before you get your back up, it's important to understand that reporters really can ask you whatever they like; you have no control over that. What you can control is how you respond to those probing and personal questions that make you squirm in your seat.
In these sorts of situations silence can be deadly, but saying too much can also get you in hot water, create damaging headlines and potentially cost you your job.
So for any left-field or off-topic question that is outside your immediate area of responsibility you need to explain to the reporter why you can’t help them and move the discussion elsewhere.
It’s never wise to say "no comment" because it’s pure avoidance and suggests you have something to hide. Any reporter worth their salt will continue to fire questions at you because they'll smell blood in the water. They'll want to know why you won't comment.
So you need to address the issue in an understanding manner without saying too much. You might explain that you’re not authorised to talk about high-level corporate issues and refer them to your media or corporate communications team.
Sometimes you need to provide an authentic response to direct questions.
You might need to acknowledge that you understand why they're asking about an issue – particularly if your organisation has been in the news of late for all the wrong reasons - but be very insistent that it’s not something you are going to talk about.
Depending on the mood of the interview, humour can sometimes be a great way to disarm a reporter who’s asking predictable questions over and over. You might joke that the reporter is certainly persistent and a bit of a terrier, but remind them why you can't help them.
Once a reporter realises you are not going to budge, it's more than likely they will move on.
So if you plan to sit down with a reporter in coming months, take the time to plan for any possible left-field or off-the-wall questions that might be thrown at you.
But remember, just because a reporter asks the million dollar question, it doesn't mean you have to answer it.